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Geneva High grad, business partner get deal on hit ABC show

It was during the holiday season of 2020 that Stephen Fazio began working on a handheld “string launcher” as a possible Christmas present for his father. Fazio, a 2017 Geneva High School graduate who was on the school’s robotics team and later competed with Georgia Tech’s robotics group, was intrigued by the idea after seeing bench-top string launchers on YouTube. He also entered a “hackathon” — a competition to quickly create functioning software or hardware.

“My Dad never did get his Christmas present, but I won the hackathon,” Fazio said with a smile during a recent Zoom interview.

Little did Fazio know that two years later, that prototype would become a toy craze called ZipString. Nor did he and his now business partner, Austin Hillam, imagine they would strike a deal on the longtime TV show “Shark Tank.”


The episode aired Dec. 9. How Fazio and Hillam — the latter grew up in the Atlanta-area community of Johns Creek, Ga., and is a student at Brigham Young University — met is somewhat serendipitous. While both served two-year Mormon missions in Brazil after high school, they did so in different parts of the country and did not meet until the bishop of their Atlanta church suggested they get together. “I came home for the summer (of 2021) … and the leader of our church said, ‘Austin, you should meet Stephen Fazio. You both love engineering and could do something great together,’ “ Hillam said in the Zoom interview. “We talked once in a while but never really got a chance to meet each other until Stephen invited me over for dinner.”

“It’s almost like we were meant to meet each other but hadn’t for some reason,” Fazio added. “I didn’t expect to be chatting with him, enthralled about all this engineering stuff — especially this string launcher invention — until 10:30 at night. We were really excited about it.”

Fazio, the son of Christine and Gennaro Fazio, has been enamored with engineering in some form since he was a child. He is majoring in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.

“Since I was about 12, I wanted to make high-powered lasers. Well, I tried lasers, and trying implies failure — and I failed at lasers,” Fazio said with a laugh. “I only made one good one and the rest was frustration. I just didn’t know enough.

“When I was about 15 or 16 … I thought I should get back to electronics. I figured if I had a good foundation with electronics, the lasers would come easy. That was the means to the end.” Hillam, a mechanical engineering major at BYU, learned from his father, Mark. When he was 15, Hillam restored his grandfather’s 1968 Ford F-250 pickup.

“I grew up around every tool you can imagine. My father would invite me to work on every project he did,” Hillam said. “You can really do anything. All you need is the right tool — and maybe YouTube and some courage too, and not be afraid to make mistakes.” ZipString, as Fazio describes it, is a seemingly normal loop of string that, when propelled, floats in the air. It flies at approximately 35 miles per hour yet is safe to the touch.

“Anything the user does, Zip-String follows … and because it’s moving and under tension, it’s able to make and capture waves,” Fazio said. “The unique thing about this string launcher is you are able to hold it by the source and move it back and forth. Everything else was a benchtop version that would just make a string float in the air.”

While Fazio had ZipString’s internal mechanics pretty much figured out, Hillam created the exterior to make it safe.

“Stephen is an incredible engineer. He’s absolutely brilliant, especially when it comes to electronics. Stuff he is doing at his age is far beyond so many people’s skills,” Hillam said. “I love CAD (computer- aided design) especially. Stephen will engineer all the inside — the motors, the battery and the fancy circuitry … and I will design all the housing, the CAD, the plastic.”

“We are a team,” Fazio added. “You need to know how to do a little bit of everything, and a lot of our strengths complement each other. One of Austin’s strengths is connecting with people. That is one of the traits I admire about him. He uses those connections to get the company where it is today.”

Fazio said he and Hillam, in the summer of 2021, decided to start a business, but wanted to keep it small at first. They started a Kickstarter campaign that took off quickly, largely due to videos that had tens of millions of views on social media, and got a boost when Dude Perfect, a sports and comedy group headquartered in Texas, took ZipString on a nationwide tour.

“I only wanted to make a batch of 100 in my apartment. That would be proof of concept and I could go from there,” Fazio said. “I wanted to be kind of reasonable. Never did I expect to run a Kickstarter with Austin and be on the hook for like 4,000 units. It totally ballooned.”

Fazio and Hillam started thinking about Shark Tank in the fall of 2021. “Everyone wanted a piece of ZipString by then,” Hillam said. “They said, ‘Y’all should apply for Shark Tank.’ I would watch Shark Tank every now and then, so I applied for the show.”

Fast-forward to March 2022. By then, sales of ZipString were approaching 10,000 units, and they were being assembled — by hand — in the basement of Hillam’s home.

“Stephen and I get this call. Shark Tank liked the application and asked us to build this whole video,” Hillam said. “We told them, ‘Hey, that sounds great, but we’re a little busy right now. Would you mind calling us back in a month?’ “ “We weren’t playing hard to get,” Fazio added. “We were just so busy.” “Well, they called back in a month. We said, ‘Would you mind giving us two more weeks?’ “ Hillam continued with a laugh. “Eventually, we made the video to submit for the executive producers and it kept moving forward. They gave us plane tickets to fly out to LA.” The episode was taped in early September, when southern California was scorching. For their pitch Fazio and Hillam had the “Men in Black” look — dark suits and dark glasses. “Right before we go on, we have to use the bathroom again. You are nervous,” Hillam said.

“The bathrooms are just outside the studio.” “I sweat — a lot,” Fazio said with a laugh. “Stephen is sweating buckets and the makeup team is freaking out when we come back in the studio,” Hillam continued. “The funniest thing is, Stephen has his arms straight up and they have hair dryers going all around him to dry him

All things considered, the pitch went perfectly. Fazio and Hillam got laughs from the sharks for their appearance when they first entered, but were soon impressed when they saw ZipString and the tricks Fazio and Hillam were doing.

“It’s so cool,” Robert Herjavec said. “I love it.”

Calling it a generational toy and comparing it to the Yo-yo, Etch A Sketch and Rubik’s Cube, Fazio and Hillam asked for a $100,000 investment in exchange for the investor getting a 10% equity stake. Herjavec offered $100,000 for 20%, but soon got into a bidding war with fellow shark Kevin O’Leary.

At one point, O’Leary offered Fazio and Hillam $100,000 for 9% equity. In the end, they struck a deal with Herjavec and O’Leary for a combined 20% equity stake.

“We didn’t think we were going to get a better deal than we came in for. We told ourselves whatever deal we are offered, we need to talk to each other before we accept it,” Hillam said. “Things were going great. Kevin and Robert are in a whole bidding war. As soon as we said we wanted to talk a bit, they changed up their offer … so we lost the 9% deal.”

“There was actually a lot of negotiating that people didn’t see on TV,” Fazio added. “We ended up getting the two sharks, which was big.”

Not surprisingly, orders for ZipString have been almost non-stop since the episode aired. Hillam said Herjavec’s and O’Leary’s “teams” have been helpful in advancing the product, which is now being made in Asia and sold in 50 countries.

While Fazio and Hillam dropped their classes to get ZipString off the ground, they have resumed their studies and hope to earn their college degrees in a year or two. They also credit their customers with  ZipString’s popularity and said ZipString Lumos, a glow-in-the-dark version, is the next step.

“What’s so fun is we have this community of what we call Zipsters — our fans — and they are creating new tricks and naming them,” Hillam said. “Lumos is like fire at night. We think it’s the next thing for concerts and big shows.”

“Because it emulates your movements, the tricks and possibilities are endless,” Fazio added. “I think the sharks saw the product has the potential to be huge.”

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Reprinted courtesy of the Finger Lakes Times

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