(Founder Stories) MakerBot’s Bre Pettis: “We Started With 3 Guys, A Laser Cutter, And A Dream”

So let’s talk a little bit about running this business.


This is your first startup.


You know, what I guess. Just generally what kind of what have you found to be the key challenges? Is it edging? You’re one of the few companies we talked to here that is a hardware start-up. I think the particular challenge is there like don’t like you to do stuff in China. That kind of things.


So first, what surprise you the most? Has it been difficult? Has it been easy?

I mean, the thing that surprised me the most in the beginning was that everything isn’t online especially in manufacturing. Like most of the manufacturing is still a catalogue and phone call and fax machine infrastructure.
So in order to get things, we place a purchase order. But that doesn’t mean they’re coming when they say they’re coming.

You have to call them, and check up on them, and the whole like when we ran out of motors, we bought all of them in the world, we went to buy more and you like get them all. And so you have to figure out how do I get motors manufactured and custom made for us. In terms of hardware that’s kind of been, a bunch the challenges.

That’s just sort of when you’re used to the internet world and everything that is accessible and everything you just endlessly create new stuff and just surprisingly, you know, old fashioned in that way.

It’s nice when, you know, I mean we have a website startup with Thingiverse as well. And if we need more room, we just roll out more servers, that’s great.

When you scale in hardware, you cannot just roll out more.

Ya Its a different game.


My friend who, i think you know Eric Palin, who did, he wasmy partner, kind of collected. He started with the dental technology company. I remember when it was like, nerve wracking for him because it with software you do a build, and your next day you try it out, and if it’s broken, you fix it.


And the next day it’s fixed. Whereas, he would send off these cameras to be built and would have to wait six months. And if there was a mistake, you know, meanwhile you’re spending money, and paying employees, and all the pressures of a start up. But, to have a six-month turnaround time, and then one little thing is off, you know, it’s just a whole different game, is what I understand.


And, I think its sometimes hard for us software people to fully grok how different it is.

It’s like, one of the things we’re facing right now is we have a four week lead time on make. If you order it will take up to four weeks to ship. And it kind of vacillates between being same day shipping and four week shipping depending on the supply chain, and how the stars are aligned, getting all the parts at the same time.

Because you need every single part and so if just one part is missing then it takes four weeks and OK, so.

Yeah, so this, it’s in the world of atoms and things. obstacles, like shipping, and like right now Canada, the postal service shut down. You cannot ship anything in Canada right now.

You didn’t ship anything. They’re on strike.

They’re on strike, yeah. And so like, okay, nothing we can do about that. But we have boxes in the air going there, and there’s people who can’t order from us.

And what about dealing with like DC who has everything you source from Asia and things, right?

So we have a bunch right now in laser part actually are done in Philly with American plywood and then we have all the dry system components, the rods, and the pullies, and the belts are all of the Long Island, STPSI. And then electronics in the motor are of China because that’s where we get those things today in the world.

I see and do you have to go over and have someone over there like, sourcing these things or or do you just look up in a catalog, and.

We didn’t. And I wish we had done that earlier.

You’d go over, and just go over to sort things out. ‘Cause in dealing with the electronics, it’s all about, in dealing with Asia in general, it’s about relationship. And so, going over there and getting to know folks and, you know, I send my co-founder Zach over there and he goes over there. He can get so much more done in just a day of being there than like six weeks of back and forth over e-mail and phone, you know.

Yeah, interesting.

And he can solve problems just by going out and drinking with somebody and try that for an evening that we can’t do here.

I see. Interesting. So what else they can in terms of, you know. How many people do you have now?

We are 33 now.

So, have you found like, just you know, growing and managing 33 people to be a challenge. I mean, this is all you know coming from being a puppeteer and a teacher, I guess you’re managing.

There’s actually just as many students as I have in the classroom and we’re, it’s interesting I think at about 20 people, we started really needing more infrastructure to kind of like organize. It wasn’t, not everybody could interface with everybody and now.


Now at 33 we need to.

You talk to middle management that essentially like…

I mean yeah.

…you need layers.

We need layers so that we can make things happen. And, it’s a, it’s a shift what kind of start you go through.

Has that been…. so has that been interesting for you or…?

Yeah, I mean part of this is also just like space, like getting space for people because we’re like… a productionist, we have a, we have a 5,000 square foot space in Brooklyn and it’s production and people. And then like production keeps growing and people keep growing and so. Actually just got a space around the corner which I thought was just going to be like a workshop space for us to have, like a showroom.

But, now it’s like, everybody’s asking, “Can I have a desk over there?”


As Bre Pettis continues his conversation with Founder Stories host, Chris Dixon, the two discuss the challenges of running a business that literally requires nuts and bolts assembly. In this situation, scaling brings a whole new set of challenges unfamiliar to many software start-ups.

Hardware is just a different game.  For example, as Pettis tells it, “we ran out of motors, we bought all of them in the world, we went to buy more and they were like you’ve got them all. And so we had to figure out how to like get motors manufactured and custom made for us. So in terms of hardware that’s kind of been a bunch of the challenges.”

Dixon admits, sometimes it is “hard for us software people to grok how different it is.”  (Disclosure: Dixon is an investor in Makerbot through Founder Collective).

And when the times get tough, the tough go to China.  Make sure to listen to the entire exchange as Pettis also talks about the importance of face-to-face interaction as a greaser for getting stuff done.

Below, Pettis talks about how Makerbot got off the ground.  ”We started with 3 guys, a laser cutter, and a dream,” he says.

Dixon inquires about copycats who might take on the MakerBot concept and in doing so turn MakerBot into a shadow of its former self.  Pettis seems anything but concerned and partially responds by saying, “we’ve got a brand, I don’t know exactly how to quantify that, but you know, when you think about 3D printing, you’re makerbotting, and that’s powerful.”

The two go on and discuss Makerbot’s open source platform, hacking on the site and the flow of cash coming into the company.

Make sure to watch Part I here and past Founder Stories episodes here.

So, like one of the things that, if you talk to like, venture capitalists about hardware companies like yours, is one, they worry that if you’re successful that people in Asia, for example, will just copy you and make it a lot cheaper and that will, you know, obviously hurt your business. Do you worry about that?

You know, it’s one of those things where, that will actually happens in every business. If you’re doing something awesome people will try and copy it and make it happen. And…

But in some businesses, you know like Facebook has network effects, right? So like, you know, there’s you know, the fact that their social graph is so hard to replicate gives them protection from people copying. And like…


There’s different things that give companies defensibility, right? And in hardware, what we’ve got is, we’ve got an awesome support team that’s…We’ve got like, we just made that 4 people who are just dedicated to helping people print, and make their machines work, and make them happy. And then we’ve got an awesome community of 5000 people who are just awesome and actually get together, like locally to do stuff.

And then, we’ve got a brand, I don’t know exactly how to quantify that, but you know, when you think about 3D printing, you’re makerbotting, and that’s powerful. So somebody could come out with – we’re actually open source so you could actually come out with an exact replica. Not without our name.

Our name is trademarked.

So the hardware is open source?

The hardware is open source too, so. And the way you stay ahead of that is by innovating.

Does that mean you actually just publish all of the hardware specs?

Yep. All the design files, the board schematics.

Interesting, OK.

And that makes it easy. That gives our users this amazing power to know what they’ve got.

Do people hack on it?

Absolutely. It’s like, somebody just this week made a whole contraption that has a robotic arm and he like runs – the whole machine is automatic. Like normally you have to reach in and take the part out. This thing like, he literally can remotely go into his computer, choose something that print the robotic arm, takes the SD card out of the makerbot, sticks in the computer Then when it’s done putting on the SD card, it takes it out, sticks it back in the maker bot, clicks Go – and, like, you can only do that because it’s open.

I see, and if you actually had people do things, hack things on the open thing that you’ve then incorporated that into the main product?

Yes, our software is probably the best place where that happens. There’s like eight people right now who are hacking on the software, making it do what they want. And when they improve something, it improves it for everybody.

Do you have to supervise or you just let them do whatever they want? In other words, you need to make sure what they’re doing is improving the core product, right? Or do you just know them well enough to trust them. Anybody can branch it and do whatever they want. Actually, Adam, my co-founder, who’s in charge of the software, one of the things he shifted mainly most from is like he used to be the one writing all the software.

A lot of what he does now is, like, incorporating all these new parts to the software including community support. And so what…? And like these people hacking on the software, like, what kind of stuff are they hacking on? Like these, the algorithm we were talking before, about the…


…what’s it called skining? Which is how the path, the tool path, is that right, or…?

Yes. Somebody made it so that the bot would Twitter when its done, and would say like, “I just finished making this.”

I see.

It’s funny, when they started that they had actually Twittered it every single layer, so it actually spammed the hashtag for like 500 layers.


But, you know.

That’s funny. Is this thing, so this thing’s internet-connected? But you have to use SD cards?

It’s not connected to the internet. You can…Well, that’s one of the things we’re looking forward to do, is networking, that’ll be fun.

What do you think about, I mean, are guys, can you…? I don’t if you think you can talk about it, do you like, make money, is it a good business?

Yes. I mean, we started with, yes, it was three guys, a laser cutter and a dream when we started. And we went to Jake Ladwick, who started Connect Ventures, Busted T’s and Vimeo and all that. And we were like we’re going to do this thing, and we need a little bit of money. And he gave us fifty k and actually Andrian Boyer of the rap rap project gave us twenty five k and we took that seventy five k and we like bought.

And bought enough for twenty maker bots and stuff that we can get and then its just been like selling that and flipping that over, flipping at over and making them go. So it’s kind of unfair to call us profitable but we’re basically profitable from day 42 and we keep trying to make more money than we spend and we make that line up pretty close so that if we make a little bit more money one month, the next month we’ll hire another person because we just want to keep growing.

Yes, this hardware you have to have inventory cost, something like, that’s capital intensive.

Yes, that’s, it’s interesting, like, you know we have to buy like, now we buy bolts by million. And it’s not as much as you would think, it’s only like this many bolts, to buy a million bolts, but.


Then we have that many million bolts, until we get down to, a few hundred, and then we order another million.


So that’s one of the tricks of the hardware startup is scaling and getting things going. A lot of hardware companies started like in three years in warranty and development and we just did that all in three months and then just released what we had.

So it got a minimum viable product for hardware or something like that? The lean startup for hardware or something?


<div><div><script src=”http://www.crunchbase.com/javascripts/widget.js” type=”text/javascript”></script><div><a href=”http://www.crunchbase.com/” rel=”nofollow”>CrunchBase Information</a></div></div><div><div><a href=”http://www.crunchbase.com/company/makerbot”>MakerBot</a></div><div><script src=”http://www.crunchbase.com/cbw/company/makerbot.js” type=”text/javascript”></script></div><div><a href=”http://www.crunchbase.com/person/bre-pettis”>Bre Pettis</a></div><div><script src=”http://www.crunchbase.com/cbw/person/bre-pettis.js” type=”text/javascript”></script></div><div><a href=”http://www.crunchbase.com/person/chris-dixon”>Chris Dixon</a></div><div><script src=”http://www.crunchbase.com/cbw/person/chris-dixon.js” type=”text/javascript”></script></div><div>Information provided by <a href=”http://www.crunchbase.com/” rel=”nofollow”>CrunchBase</a></div></div></div>

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