When BYU sophomore Austin Hillam went home for the summer, he didn't expect to spend dinner with a Georgia Tech student and two missionaries talking about string.
Items like the Rubik’s Cube and the fidget spinner made a lasting impact on the market for fidget toys. BYU Manufacturing Engineer student Austin Hillam and Georgia Tech Electrical Engineer student Stephen Fazio want to make a similar mark with their innovation: ZipString. With their first Kickstarter far exceeding their $75,000 goal, these two young entrepreneurs have already seen great success. However, only a few months ago, it seemed to Fazio that the project may never take-off.
For the 2021 Georgia Tech Printed Circuit Board
(PCB) Competition, Fazio created the first prototype for ZipString, then known as a “string shooter” device. That winter break, Fazio’s prototype won the advanced category and he decided to continue improving his device during the upcoming summer. Summer came. The project sat still for months. The little toy demanded too much in both expenses and time, and Fazio had a “stupor of thought” trying to solve these problems.
No idea came to light.
The summer would soon conclude. Fazio turned to prayer and eventually to fasting. Meanwhile, Hillam left Provo's social life and spent the summer pursuing new opportunities in Georgia, his home-state. While home designing and engineering new technology for the piano industry, Hillam expanded his CAD knowledge and business experience. His bishop had mentioned Fazio to Hillam before, but the two struggled to align their schedules. Then, a day worked: Sunday, the same day Fazio would start fasting.
Prepared for guests, Fazio planned to make a pesto pasta dinner for the missionaries and Hillam, using his homegrown basil. Before Hillam left, reluctance hit him. Sunday was busy. He’d have to drive 50 minutes to get to downtown Atlanta. He almost didn’t go.
“However, I felt that I should go and knew it would be a lot of fun once I got there. So, I went,” Hillam said, “The Lord is in the details.”
That night became a turning point for Hillam’s engineering prospects and Fazio’s innovation plans. After dinner, Fazio gave Hillam a tour of his mini lab. The two inspired different ideas between each other, popping up various proposals. This interaction eventually led to the string shooter’s transformation into ZipString.
Hillam put away everything else he had been working on and dedicated himself to ZipString. Hillam's father, Mark, mentored the two, assisting in several modifications to the device. They set up their lab in Hillam’s family basement. The nights spent awake added up as they improved Fazio’s innovation. The two joked that with the intensity they worked on the project, Hillam lost weight and Fazio found some of that weight for him.
When fall semester approached, Hillam and Fazio committed to continuing their work with ZipString while staying enrolled in classes. Although they suspected it may not be feasible, they would try. But, two weeks later, Hillam called Fazio from Utah. After studying, praying, and thinking about it, he decided to take one semester off from school. “Okay, I’ll do it too,” Fazio replied.
Hillam left his car, half his clothes, and flew over to Georgia. Fazio worked on refunding his tuition. Despite the risk, both of their families supported them. ZipString would take precedence.
Despite the distance and the semester-off, BYU still influenced Hillam. Friends from campus texted and called him, expressing their support and offering their help, showing the true cougar way: to serve others, no matter where they are in the world.
From clunky and undesigned to compact and
sleek, ZipString underwent critical changes to appeal to its audience. The two reduced the size, gave it a rechargeable USB battery, and implemented other improvements in the device. On August 12, ZipString released a TikTok video highlighting a new prototype, which reached over 20 million views in one day. By the beginning of October, ZipString surpassed their Kickstarter goal and became fully funded.
Over this time period, influencers, entrepreneurs, and various companies started discussing the possibility of using or distributing ZipString. An American sports and comedy group, Dude Perfect, reached out to use the device in a video, but they changed their minds. They didn’t want to use ZipString for just a video—they wanted to take it on tour.
All the success and new opportunities have astounded Fazio and Hillam. The two give credit to God for their accomplishments. Without Him, they're sure they would never have met. ZipString would not exist. “You need to be uplifted by the Lord,” Fazio said.
Whether this turns into a stepping stone for other innovations or for a whole ZipString brand, they will figure it out later. “We look forward to what the future has. Meanwhile, we take things one day at a time,” Hillam said.
Regardless, ZipString is spreading into homes as a new, fun device. Hillam and Fazio thank the Lord for that.