Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to start 3Doodler.
I grew up in the Boston area. I went to college at Purdue. After Purdue, I went out to LA and I worked on a terrible TV show using technology to update the shows. After that I went off to Hong Kong and I worked as an R & D product developer for four years, making and developing concepts as well as taking the concepts through the factory process and bringing them to market for larger companies. Then I went on to be CTO at a robotics company in Boston that was an MIT spin-off. After that, I hooked up with Peter Dilworth who I met when I was in Asia doing product development. I suggested he and I start a company since we were both teeming full of ideas and concepts and I had outlets to sell the concepts to. In 2010, we founded Wobbleworks. We spent the first two years pretty much focused on the toy industry, creating toy concepts and selling them to larger toy companies through an inventor royalty style deal. We have about six products that have been sold in that model. To date, I have brought around 15 products to market.
The 3Doodler started about a year ago. We use 3D printers quite often for our prototyping and Peter Dilworth was sitting there one day as we were working at the lab, watching the 3D printer chug along when it made a small mistake. It left a gap in its prints. Peter was like, “that’s annoying. I wish I could just take the printer head, fill in that one spot and then put it back. Why can’t you do that?” Then he went “Oh.” One of those moments. The next day we took apart one of the 3D printers and we made what we called The Teacup which was a giant stepper motor and the extrusion head of the 3D printer controlled by Arduino. It was horrendous and hideous and it barely worked. I mean it really barely worked, but it worked. The seed of the idea was planted there. We then went through five iterations before the Kickstarter as we updated it, improved it, added the cooling system, got it ready for productization and manufacturing. Then we finished up with the fifth version, which is the one you mainly see featured in the Kickstarter video. The version that is being manufactured is a further revision which has been even more happily developed for mass production. We went through six iterations to get it to a finalized product and that took.
How important do you think that your experience with all of your previous products and working with manufacturers in China was for 3Doodler?
There are always challenges with manufacturing and mass production and productization. It’s always a lot easier to learn on somebody else’s dime. If someone seriously wants to get into making things for mass production and as consumer products, then I highly, highly recommend getting a job with someone first who will kind of teach you how to do it.
It will take longer but it means that it’s not your money on the line. You keep back your ideas on some level until you feel ready to go out on your own. If you do it properly, everyone leaves happy. My old company is more than welcoming to me and very happy for our success. I am still in contact with them all the time. They are ecstatic and I’m ecstatic. I think learning this stuff beforehand is invaluable. There are a lot of assumptions that people make that are just wildly wrong. When you actually get into manufacturing, it’s not easy. I mean if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?
What are some of the incorrect assumptions people make about the manufacturing process?
That it’s cheap and easy to manufacture things anywhere, be it Asia, be it the United States, be it Western or Eastern Europe. It takes a lot of time and a lot of complexity. Just having a prototype isn’t the end. You need to take the prototype that you’ve built and then you need to go through the processes. Tooling for example changes a lot of what you originally had in the prototype. There are things like overhangs and undercuts and different little things on physical items that you can’t have if you’re going to have two giant pieces of steel slammed together and inject plastic on the inside. What other common assumptions? That components cost nothing. That labor costs nothing. These things all cost quite a lot actually.
The average cost, for example, a Chinese worker today is almost the same as the average cost of an American worker, labor wise as was recently noted on the Economist. The real issue is we in the United States we don’t have the logistics set up in the same manner, as easily, as quickly. We don’t have the personnel either. You try to find a line manager in the United States, it can take a long time. You try to find a line manager in Asia and it takes you days. The real advantage Asia has is logistically speaking. You can do a mid-size project. If you’re trying to do luxury goods, you go to the United States or Western Europe. If you’re trying to do a mass consumption, you tend to go to Asia or Eastern Europe because they are willing to do lower cost items.
“There are always challenges with manufacturing and mass production and productization. It's always a lot easier to learn on somebody else's dime.”
When you started working on this, had you always imagined that you would be launching this on Kickstarter?
We originally were going to use our old model of selling the product to a toy company. We have another product that’s been bouncing around. It will be called Wigglerz now. But it’s been through several companies. It’s ready to go but it’s been ready to go for two years now. We just got very frustrated with the process of these items hitting market, how long it takes. We did actually end up optioning the 3Doodler to a toy company but the product just sat there for months. We indicated beforehand that we very much wanted to Kickstart this project because we thought it would increase its viability and that you could prove it was actually a product that people wanted. They liked the idea of us Kickstarting it and wanted to be support it in some way, but at the end of the day, things took too long and we wanted to get the product out there, so we said “Screw it, we’re just going to Kickstart it. Go for it”.
Having said that, we did spend three months planning the Kickstarter alone. So it was not a rush decision. It was a very conscious, very long process to develop that. We also decided that the Kickstarter was the best route because of the community that we wanted to build. We have always envisioned there would be this open community for a 3Doodler where people could share stencils and ideas and discoveries and concepts and it would go beyond our original intentions with the 3Doodler, which is what Kickstarter has provided to us already.
What were some of the key aspects you knew you needed to plan out?
I know quite a number of Kickstarters, successful Kickstarters as well as several failed Kickstarters. I spoke to them a lot and teased out what some of their issues were and other things like that. Shipping always costs more than you think, for example. Also, prepping. A lot of people don’t realize if you spend time trying to target members of the press, it is hugely helpful. Not organizations but specific people that have written the stories about specific industries.
We read through our favorite tech blogs that wrote about 3D printers and 3D printers that were on Kickstarter and then sent them an email two months beforehand, asking if they would be interested in this concept of the 3D pen. Then, we whittled it down to about 15. We expected 5 to actually pick up the story maybe, but 13 or 14 picked it up within 24 hours so that was quite fortunate and helped significantly in promoting and boosting the whole thing. Not to mention that it’s a pretty cool product.
You ended up being one of the most successful Kickstarter projects ever. Is it anything like what you expected?
We come from a very unique perspective because we’ve actually developed product before. I feel like a lot of Kickstarters have not been through the manufacturing process, generally speaking, so they are not as prepared for a lot of the kinks and the intricacies of mass product. What we were not as prepared for was the mass response. We responded to every single email that we received. We wanted to establish on day one that it was very important for us to deal well with customer service. We realized that we built a community and we wanted to uphold our beliefs of what that means and how best to respond to our community. The sheer volume of people was really the surprising factor and the speed at which it happened. We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. We got the best.
The scariest point you can be in is if you’re only making a 1000 of something. It is just too much to make by hand. It’s just too little to make in a factory. So, that was the really scary point for me. Before we started the project I was like, “What if we only get 1000 or 2000, we’re really going to be in hot water then.” We wouldn’t have actually made money if we hit our minimum goal. So, we were prepared to spend more money in order to do that. But mainly because of that, only getting 1000 or 2000 number. But we didn’t have to worry about that, thankfully.
“A lot of people don't realize if you spend time trying to target members of the press, it is hugely helpful. I mean not organizations but specific people that have written the stories about specific industries.”
Now that you’ve done the Kickstarter, going through production, how are you looking to take this to the next level in terms of distribution? What are some of the next steps for you?
We’re choosing our launch partner. We’re moving forward and looking at the Q1 2014 launch of the product into retail space. Once again, because of our unique position, I had actually dealt with a lot of buyers from the major retailers in the past. But, because of the popularity, we’re getting a lot of response that we didn’t even have to go looking for. This is a very unique situation. We’re flattered and completely awed by the response from the public.
Where do you see 3D printing going in five years?
3Doodler is really a companion piece to 3D printing. I see it as an entry level system. If you want to make prototyping and you want to do very specific stuff, you need a 3D printer and you need to learn how to do 3D software. You need to learn how to make shapes. If you want to doodle and you want to make simple objects, that’s what the 3Doodler is for, as well as joining 3D prints together, repairing things that are made out of plastic, writing on glass, writing on walls, decoration, architecture, maps. It’s really a tool. What I see the 3Doodler doing in the future is really expanding on the materials, expanding on the capabilities, offering a series of accessories that can make it easier and more fun to use. We have in the next three to four years, the product planned out.
We’re pretty set on how and where we think we’re going to be taking this. For 3D printers, I think they are obviously going to continue to get cheaper in cost and they are going to increase in quality. But I really don’t think they are going to hit mass market until the software issue is solved. It needs to be simple enough in software to make a three dimensional object otherwise you are really reliant on what other people have made. You can go on things like Thingiverse or Shapeways. You can use pre-existing products that people have made to download a file and print it out.
But the whole point of the 3D printer is to come up with something in your own head and to make it. I think the next stage for 3D printers is really a software stage of developing a piece of software that is easy enough for a 6 year old to use to make something in three dimensions. 20 years down the line, I see Wal-Mart having quick Wal-Mart if you will where you go in and flip through a digital catalog of dishware or something like that. They come back in 45 minutes and you get a whole bunch of plastic plates and cups and dishes and then maybe you take your old plates, and cups, and dishes to the same place and they shred them then use the shredded material to extrude new cups and plates.
There are still a lot of issues. The carbon footprint of 3D printing is still quite high. It takes a lot more energy to 3D print something than it does to actually injection mold it. It is still cheaper in the long run to mass produce something with injection molding than it is to 3D print it. Over time obviously, these costs will come down, but those are really the limiting factors right now. There are quite a number of very smart people working on this problem and trying to solve it.
What is your idea of misery?
Having a great product but no way of telling people about it.
When and where were you happiest?
Day two of the Kickstarter, when I was sure that this was not a dream.
What’s your current state of mind?
Very much focused on the tasks ahead and looking at the things I wish to accomplish with this opportunity.
What is your favourite book?
The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Starting the wild ride of 3Doodler
What is your greatest extravagance?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Aiya! (a Cantonese phrase used in frustration, or outrage, or whenever you feel like it)
What is your greatest fear?
People not having as much fun with the 3Doodler as I do, people not seeing all the different possibilities and ways that you can use it.
Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to learn a new language instantly
What’s your favourite quote?
"A rising tide lifts all boats"
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given as an entrepreneur?
Get a good accountant. Check them regardless. Being able to control your money flow as it flies is one of the most important things. Obviously you need a good idea and obviously you need a good team and what not. I feel like those are obvious points and a lot of people skip over the accounting.
David Merril from Sifteo asked – In what key ways have you grown as an entrepreneur in your current company?
I’ve become a lot more patient, and my 3D skills have increased since then.