MakerBot Industries is a company founded in January 2009 by Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, and Zach Smith, producing an open source 3D printer to democratize manufacturing. You order it, build it, and you have a machine that can make almost anything. I met Bre years ago when he lived in Seattle and was a public school teacher, and I helped get him a job working with MAKE. Since then, he’s worked with Etsy, had his own TV show, founded MakerBot, got $10 million in funding, and just became a dad. After I saw the funding announcement, I asked Bre if I could ask him some really tough questions about what this means for makers and other companies. As usual, Bre answered them with style and grace as only Bre can. The questions I ask range from his time at MAKE to the future of MakerBot. Enjoy!
Bre the Maker
A bit about yourself for folks who want to get to know you, please!
I’m Bre Pettis. My life is dedicated to developing infrastructure for people to be creative. I’ve had a lot of jobs from puppeteering to teaching. I’ve made a lot of tutorial videos about how to make stuff, from a secret compartment book to hovercrafts. A few years ago, Zach Smith and Adam Mayer and I started MakerBot to make 3D printers affordable for everyone.
First up, congrats! You’re a dad now! For someone who creates things all the time, this must be exciting. How many MakerBot things have you, or will you, print for kids now?!
When I announced that I’d be having a kid to the folks at MakerBot, the immediate response from everyone at the Botcave was, “Let’s start making toys now!” So far I printed her some glasses. and I’ve got a lot more to print in the future! My daughter Nika will likely grow up with MakerBots as something that’s absolutely commonplace in her life, in the same way that people born after 1985 find computers as unremarkable as toasters.
What are differences between running a weekly video series (Weekend Projects) and running a startup?
Making something and then making a video tutorial every week was an exercise in getting things done. A startup requires a similar approach. We need to get things done and it can be a puzzle to figure out how to make things happen. I don’t have any formal business training, so growing MakerBot as a business has that same DIY rush of figuring out how to do something and then right away manifesting it. One of the nice things about MakerBot is that it’s been a treat to focus on a project for more than a week!
I miss the very frequent videos with you in them, will you be doing more videos soon?
We’ve just launched MakerBot TV. Annelise is producing, shooting, editing, and starring in the videos and she’s doing a great job. Subscribe and watch the video adventure unfold!
You were recently on The Colbert Report. What has the reaction been? Do people come up to you on the street and say “Hey, 3D printing guy!”?
Colbert was awesome. He geeked out about MakerBot and is a nice person to boot.
One of the things I like about being recognized on the street is that if someone recognizes me, then they’re probably a maker who does something cool. The conversation often goes something like this:
Maker: Hey you’re Bre Pettis!
Me: I am. If you know me, you must make things. What do you make?
Maker: I just spent the weekend melting lead on my stove top to create a ballast for my sailboat. No big deal.
Me: Wow! Tell me more!
What is your current role at MakerBot? How has it changed over the years, and what do you see it evolving to as the company grows?
When we started, it was just Zach, Adam, and I, and we did everything from counting nuts and bolts to packing and shipping. Everyone has more defined jobs now. Zach is taking care of manufacturing, Adam is running the software department, and as CEO, I manage everything else, including marketing and getting the word out. With the recent funding, we’ve added Brad Feld to the board, and together we have a great time scheming the MakerBot future.
How many people work at MakerBot?
51 and growing! We’re hiring!
Do you have an org chart? How are you structured?
Once we hit about 30 people we had to make departments. We’ve got Production, R&D, Software, Support, Marketing, and Operations. This summer we created an educational outreach department to reach out to schools and get MakerBots in the hands of kids. As a former schoolteacher, encouraging young people to be creative is baked into the DNA of MakerBot.
What is the hardest type of job to fill at MakerBot? What are the hiring challenges?
Right now, we are looking for webdevs, programmers, geometry geeks, and someone to do sales experiments. We post jobs to places like Craigslist and the Adafruit job boards, interview people, and check references. We set up criteria before the interviews so we can hire the best person for the job. We have the most luck in hiring interns and folks who are already MakerBot Operators. We love giving paid internships to young people. I think about half of the staff either started as interns or were MakerBot Operators before they worked at MakerBot.
How many MakerBots have been sold so far?
Nearly 6000. I can’t wait until I get to say “Over 9000!”
Do most customers get the assembled or kit version?
The assembled version is growing in popularity. For people who don’t have the time or inclination to assemble the kit, we can just say, “Get the fully assembled MakerBot!” One of the nice things about getting a fully assembled MakerBot is that when you get it, the person who built it will call you and walk you through your first print so you can get the hang of it.
Are you profitable?
We are profitable in the classic sense: we bring in more money than we spend, but we put all the profits back into the business to hire more people and grow more.
What companies/products do you consider as your competition?
A little competition drives us to keep improving MakerBot to make it so that MakerBot Operators continue to have the best 3D printing experience.
What’s the biggest challenge running the company?
The biggest challenge is overcoming obstacles that I haven’t encountered yet, but that’s also my favorite part of it. If I’m not learning, I’m not happy.
How do you handle support for a complex kit like a 3D printer?
We have an awesome support team that knows the machine inside and out and can address any problem. We’ve grown that team as sales have increased.
Are there plans to make fully assembled, lower-cost MakerBots?
We make fully assembled MakerBots now, and they are the easiest way to get into 3D printing. We’ve come out with two versions of the machine, four versions of the electronics, seven extruders, and we’re just about to launch the 26th version of the software, ReplicatorG. We release early and often. We’ll continue to innovate and make it so MakerBots are easier to use. It’s been our goal from the beginning to democratize manufacturing and bring fabrication to the desktops of the world. I want it to be much more accessible for kids. I look back on how the world would have been different if I had access to a MakerBot when I was 11, and it makes me want to find ways to get every 11-year-old access to a MakerBot in school.
How do you handle delays in manufacturing and supply chain?
Supply chain management is really hard. The world of things is full of delays, shipping challenges, and people who don’t return calls. We handle delays by investing in inventory so that we have extras on hand and keep shortages to a minimum. The supply chain is a pretty hardcore Tetris-style operation to make sure we have enough of everything to ship quickly.
Is Makerbot going to try to become more “vertically integrated” and get into developing (or aiding with) open source 3D modeling tools? While Blender is great for meshes, there is no viable open source solid modeling CAD app. Is MakerBot going to try to do something about that?
We’re not working on design software now. It’s very interesting what in-browser tools like Tinkercad and 3DTin are doing with web-based modeling.
Are there plans to have a retail MakerBot?
We set up the front room at MakerBot as a store last year and it was fun. Maybe we’ll do that again.
What stores would you like to see MakerBots in? Home Depot? Apple store?
Eventually, as awareness grows, MakerBots will be just like any other power tool or appliance, and you’ll find them at all those kinds of stores. RadioShack too!
There was a desktop 3D printer for under $5000. But it failed. Any comments? What did they do wrong?
I’m not convinced they did anything wrong — I think that machine might have just been ahead of its time.
$10 Million in Funding
MakerBot joins Chumby and Bug Labs as an open source company that has VC (venture capital) funding. Usually people associate open source hardware as something that doesn’t get funding since the IP is essentially given away. How did you hook up with these VC folks?
Building your friendship network can help you build a network that can connect to a lot of people, including VCs. If you have a business, have at least one of the co-founders go out and network a lot. Find people who are different than you with different experiences doing different awesome things. Don’t be afraid to ask people you look up to for advice and make sure to thank them for it!
What is the process when pitching for funding an open source 3D printer?
Our pitch was pretty simple. We just told the story of MakerBot! We have a successful business that we bootstrapped to profitability, and the future is bright. With all the website startups out there that don’t have a business plan, many investors were really into the idea that we are already making money and had both a vision and a concrete business plan.
Most investors are people who have done bold and adventurous things that have changed the world. I’m proud that we’ve got a rock star lineup of investors, and we’re excited to be stepping up our game.
Does funding change the commitment to open source hardware?
The funding doesn’t change our commitment to being open source. Why would we change a winning strategy? Being open is the future of manufacturing, and we’re just at the beginning of the age of sharing. In the future, people will remember businesses that refused to share with their customers and wonder how they could be so backwards.
Our commitment to open source stems from our passion for sharing. We know that if we share with our users and the world, there is a natural positive effect.
I think people worry on our behalf that as an open hardware company, we’ll get knocked off and undercut. First of all, that happens all the time to businesses that are not open hardware. In order to be truly competitive, we’ve got to keep rocking it!
What do the investors believe they are investing in? Since open source hardware “gives away” some of the IP usually associated with investments, do they understand that others could make MakerBots too?
The investors are investing in us as innovators and our ability to execute on a vision. Being open source means that our users are our best collaborators. Open source hardware is a viable business model!
The usual goal for VC firms is to have the company they invest in get acquired or go public. Where do they want to see MakerBot go? Where do you want MakerBot to go?
Our plan is to make the world a more innovative place filled with MakerBots. We need a lot more innovation in this world to survive as a species, and having a MakerBot teaches you how to innovate and puts the power of manufacturing into your hands. We’ve got our sights set on empowering creative people everywhere to make the things they need, and we’re putting the pedal to the metal to make the personal manufacturing future a reality for everyone.
What can you do with $10M that you couldn’t do before?
The investment in MakerBot gives us capital to hire people and put more effort on innovative research to make it easier for everyone to make anything they need. Also, it lets us scale. Being a hardware business means that in order to ship quickly, we have to invest in inventory to make sure our customers get what they want quickly.
Is $10M enough to get 3D printers in the hands of everyone?
It’s enough for a great start!
Do you think this round of funding will attract more competitors?
It might — we’ll have to see. We have a lot of fun, but hardware is hard, and starting up a competing business is a non-trivial venture.
Now that you’ve got “real money” at play, are you worried about people coming after you over patents? Is MakerBot mostly patent-free? Or are we going to see a good chunk of that 10 mil go towards lawyers? Before, you likely weren’t worth the trouble, but now?
Recently, we designed a component that we couldn’t bring to market because, even though we developed the idea ourselves, our design was too similar to a patented design. We’ve gotten letters from companies with patents who have let us know that they are watching our every move. If we decide to invest in patents as a defensive measure, we’ll have to figure out how to license them so we protect ourselves but don’t block innovation in the open hardware community. It’s going to be hard to figure out how to be an open hardware company that lives in the open source future while protecting ourselves from the proprietary ways of the contemporary patent system.
Do you see Thingiverse actually playing a larger role (and consuming some of the VC money)?
We’ve got some awesome new features coming out for Thingiverse this fall, stay tuned. It’s been awesome to see it grow so naturally. Checking Thingiverse for new great stuff is my favorite thing to do each day.
Is MakerBot going to get into subtractive fabrication (CNC milling/routing) or manipulative fabrication (pick-n-place, robot arms) anytime soon, now that you’ve got the resources to maybe branch out?
The world needs more robots, but we’ve got to take it one step at a time, and the first step for MakerBot is making 3D printing easy and affordable and available to every creative person in the world.
I would like to thank Bre for answering these questions. I asked him some really tough ones and he rocked them out. Dave from the EEVblog also has a fun video about this topic too — check it out!