Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Are You Ready To Be A Rock Star?

Today's guest blog is by Scott Harmon,  Z Corporation's VP of Business Development.

We had a big announcement with Shapeways last week. They have improved the quality of their Z Corp. output. It looks really great. I’ve spoken with them a few times, and it appears that they were using a 3rd party solution that was causing problems for them. They’re now using standard Z Corporation processes, and getting great results.

From the beginning, many Z Corp. types (myself included) were pretty skeptical about Shapeways. That has traditionally been a very challenging business in which to build scale. In general, there’s a lot of complexity to go with a relatively small scale. That’s a tough combination. Still, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I’ll admit it, I was wrong. Shapeways has done a really impressive job creating a whole new market for 3D printed goods.

So what are they doing right and what does it mean to you?

First of all, I think they’re doing a really great job of building communities. They are very open in their communications. They take their beatings and their compliments with equal seriousness. This has clearly led to faster rate of improvement than many companies. Their feedback loop from order, to production, to customer, to community is just days. When all your customers can see any customers’ feedback (in nearly real time), it provides an added incentive to get things right.

Second, they’ve created very smart incentives to attract designers to make cool products. The challenge with 3D printing has always been that so few people know how to really draw in 3D. Shapeways wisely turned that liability into an advantage by incenting designers to post their work and make money on it. I have no idea what their mix is between placed by the designers themselves vs. orders placed by other customers, but that mix is the key to scalability in this business, and I suspect it is moving in the right direction.

So what does that mean to you, designers and engineers of the world? I’d look to the world of media for answers. Ten years ago, star musicians and actors/actresses, controlled and promoted by a small stable of media conglomerates, made an enormous amount of money, and the rest were largely out in the cold. Today, there are still serious stars that make serious money, but the playing field has leveled, and a much broader range of talent has far more access to ‘success’ than a decade ago.

In the world of design/engineering, the record companies and movie studios have been replaced by multinational product development companies. They are generally the arbiters of good design and employers of the bulk of engineers and designers in the world. Shapeways, and companies like Shapeways, could level that playing field. If you’re outstanding in design, animation, or engineering, your path to consumers just got a lot smoother. There are people sitting at home in their pajamas making tens of thousands of dollars selling their work on sites like this. OK, that’s probably not the life of David Lee Roth, but it beats being Dilbert.

So, are you ready to be a rock star?