Today, MakerBot might be leading the 3D printing revolution, from creating life-changing prosthetics for children to working with the White House on a mission to bring 3D printers to public schools. But co-founder Bre Pettis' path to becoming a 3D printing innovator wasn't always clear-cut.
In fact, his childhood dream was to be a car mechanic—a desire that was half out of interest and half out of necessity. As a teenager living in Seattle during the '80s, Pettis alternated between driving a 1963 Volvo and a 1964 Dodge. “I just needed to get around and my cars were usually broken,” he says. “And I liked fixing things.”
Pettis' love of tinkering found a new outlet when he became an art teacher in Seattle public schools. Frustrated with his pay ("I was making $31,000 per year," he says), in 2005 he purchased equipment to become a video artist, a profession he heard could pay up to $15,000 per DVD. But things didn't exactly pan out. "I made a piece of video art that didn't sell," he says, "so I decided to do something else with all the equipment I had."
That "something else" was creating video tutorials for his art students. Pettis would make videos on how to draw, paint and create models to show them in class. His students loved them—paying more attention to the videos than to his actual lectures, he says. He put the videos online for the public to see and caught the attention of MAKE, a magazine for DIY hobbyists and professionals. "They asked me to be a videographer at their first Maker Faire in 2006," Pettis says. "I shot a lot of videos and afterward they offered me a part-time job making more than I was full time as a school teacher."
He took the job, which turned into a full-time gig a few months later when he quit teaching. He relocated to New York City from Seattle in 2007, and a year later launched a hacker collective called NYCResistor “for geeks and hardware nerds to make things,” Pettis explains. When he and his friends Adam Mayer and Zach Smith wanted to purchase a 3D printer for their clubhouse, they were shocked at the $100,000 price tag and refrigerator size of the printers already on the market. So they decided to make one on their own.
The friends launched MakerBot, an affordable desktop 3D printer and software solution, in 2009. The early road was rough, but by 2011 funding was coming in to the tune of $10 million and, in June 2013, printer manufacturer Stratasys purchased the startup for a reported $403 million in stock. MakerBot has reportedly grown to 400 employees from 100 in less than 12 months and now has three retail locations: New York City, Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut. Pettis still sits at the helm of MakerBot and says he’s more excited than ever to bring 3D printers to the masses. "The acquisition is helping us move faster and deliver on our dreams with more resources," he says. "We are still an independent company."
How did you get the money to launch a 3D printer company?
We started out by raising $75,000 from friends and family, which was hardly enough for us to live on. That first year was very lean. We would eat ramen. I couldn’t take my girlfriend out to dinner. I sold my collection of musical instruments for money. I skipped rent for a month and my landlord didn’t notice. We needed robot parts more than I need to pay rent, but I wanted to keep trying and saying yes. I feel like that is my approach to life—to try things and fail and keep going. It is really powerful.
How were you able to cheaply create a 3D printer? Did you look at the more expensive ones as a template?
We didn't see anyone else's 3D printers because we couldn't get access. That lack of access was actually a good thing for us because it gave us the freedom to use inexpensive materials and tinker around until we came up with something that worked. Basically we just iterated and iterated. We would try things out, they wouldn't work and we would try again. We were using a laser cutter and we finally built a prototype of a 3D printer prototype machine. We worked hard and built the first MakerBot in just a few months.
When did you start gaining traction?
I’d say it was around late 2011/early 2012. We’d received $1 million in funding in 2010 and raised another $10 million in 2011, but in late 2011 we finally realized that we should be charging more for the product than it cost to make. We got better at our pricing strategy and finally hit a threshold where we could pay ourselves and afford to hire professionals with experience.
The MakerBot Replicator 2, released in 2012, has made headlines for being so innovative and affordable. What new things are you doing with it now?
I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to offer the Replicator at $2,200; it just opens up 3D printing to so many people. Right now I’m most excited about our MakerBot Academy, which is our initiative with The White House to put a MakerBot in every public school in the U.S. Tons of schools are using sites like DonorsChoose.org to raise money for their own MakerBot and we’ve helped to fund more than 500 classrooms so far. There is just so much that you can do with a MakerBot, from math to science lessons. You can even make history lessons more valuable with products made on a MakerBot.
I imagine you get tons of feedback from your customers. In your opinion, what is the coolest thing that has been made on a MakerBot?
Without a doubt it is the Robohand. This is a project where people collaborated around the world to create a prosthetic hand for children. Normally kids aren’t able to get prosthetic hands because they cost tens of thousands of dollars, but using a MakerBot, a Robohand costs just $5 for materials. I recently met a kid who saw the Robohand project online, went to his school where they have a MakerBot and printed it out. For the first time he was able to catch a touchdown and hold a pen.
Every MakerBot provides hope for a great future. There is so much potential energy in a MakerBot and people who use them have a wonderful opportunity to do things that will change the world. That is what gets me excited to come to work every day.
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Photos: Getty Images, MakerBot