INNOVATE

The Future of Manufacturing

A New Zealand company called Ponoko has reinvented the factory for the 21st century.

Courtesy company

Other examples from Ponoko's 20,000-item collection, Bloom Lamp by Alienology ($160).


Courtesy company

Wine Rack by Dan Emery ($260).

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It's easy to mistake the laser cutter that sits in the Ponoko headquarters for an ordinary office appliance.

The machine stands roughly 3 feet tall -- about the size and shape of a copy machine -- and is encased by that dun-colored plastic that is so familiar in the modern workplace.

"It's basically a big-ass printer," says Ponoko's CEO, David ten Have. "But it gives you an idea of where things are headed."

The laser cutter looks sort of like a printer because it is, in fact, a sort of printer. Instead of arranging ink on paper, the machine carves materials using a highly concentrated beam of light that is controlled by a computer. Lift the lid, insert a flat piece of wood or plastic, and in 15 minutes or so, you have the parts for a tabletop, a lampshade, or a toy car.

For ten Have -- a small, serious man of 34 with close-cropped dark hair that is flecked with silver -- this is only the beginning. One day, he believes, perhaps 50 years from now, machines like this will be inexpensive enough to be in every home and will be capable of making almost anything. Buying a physical product -- a cell phone, for instance -- will be as easy as buying an MP3 on iTunes. Products won't be shipped in containers; they will be downloaded as digital design files and then printed on our desks while we sip our morning coffee. Not only will this be exceedingly convenient, but ten Have says that it will reorder the global economy, green the planet, and unleash an unprecedented wave of creativity as regular people design their own stuff.

This is the wild, abstract future -- fodder, perhaps, for keynote speeches and think tank prognostications but not the sort of thing you would expect to quickly turn into a profitable business. Yet ten Have is building such a business. Ponoko is piecing together an infrastructure for this new kind of supply chain, beginning with the laser cutter that sits a few feet from his office in Wellington, New Zealand. It's July; the weather is sweltering in the United States, but in New Zealand, where the seasons are backward and buildings aren't equipped with insulation, you feel the winter wind indoors. Ten Have is standing over a space heater in a small, damp room attempting to explain what this machine has to do with the future of manufacturing. "We're trying to take Made in China and smear it across the globe," he says. "We're designing a factory for the 21st century."

Ponoko did not invent the laser cutter. The machine has been around for a couple of decades -- aerospace companies use it to manufacture some parts, and engraving shops use it to personalize paperweights. But Ponoko is the first company to hook a laser cutter up to the Internet and let anyone, anywhere, take control of it.

If you log on to Ponoko's website, you can find some 20,000 items -- housewares, toys, and furniture -- available for purchase. But Ponoko doesn't really sell products, not in the traditional sense. The items for sale are not held in inventory; they exist digitally as design files on the company's servers. What Ponoko really sells is access to rapid fabrication machines -- laser cutters in New Zealand and Oakland, California, and, soon, all sorts of machines all over the world -- allowing people to make stuff for themselves or buy stuff that other people have designed.

Customers use the site to make things they can't find in stores, like extra-narrow hangers to fit in an extra-narrow closet or business cards made out of wood. I paid $10 to etch my cats' names and my phone number on a couple of custom-made bamboo pet tags. Ponoko has also become a destination for undiscovered designers and inventors who use it to make and market their stuff. There is, for instance, the Bloom Lamp, which was created by a Los Angeles designer named Igor Knezevic and which you can buy for $160 on Ponoko. It's a bedside lamp that resembles a delicate flower and is made out of 18 precisely cut pieces of plywood encircling a light bulb. Like something you might pick up at a big-box store, the lamp comes in a flat box and must be snapped together by the buyer.

But unlike a store-bought lamp, this one costs Knezevic's start-up design company, Alienology, exactly nothing until someone pays for it. The lamps are stocked digitally and manufactured on demand. Ponoko cuts the parts and ships them to Knezevic; he inspects them, drops some instructions and a light fixture into the box, and ships the box to the customer. "Right now I'm making a couple hundred dollars here, a couple hundred there," he says. "But five years from now, people will still be paying a couple hundred bucks, and I won't have to do anything. That's revolutionary."

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the release of Netscape's Web browser and the beginning of the Internet as a commercial phenomenon. The Web has created hundreds of big companies -- Netscape went public in 1995, followed by Amazon, Yahoo, and eBay -- but perhaps more important, it made things easier for millions of small ones. These days, nearly every business uses the Web to advertise cheaply, to source products from far-off locations, or to stay in constant contact with customers and employees. Ambitious start-ups like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr have taken advantage of the dramatically falling costs of servers, bandwidth, and computing power to offer powerful free services that have changed the way we communicate with one another.

But what if all these changes were just the beginning? What if the same basic technologies that allow anyone to publish a rant, a tweet, or a digital photo suddenly were to allow anybody with a computer and an Internet connection to open his or her own factory? What if starting a company that makes stuff were as easy as starting a company that makes information?

This is already beginning to happen, albeit in small ways. Contests operated by Threadless, the online T-shirt seller, and 19 Entertainment, which produces American Idol, give regular people a chance to become creators of mass products. Companies like Zazzle and CafePress let anyone make and sell personalized T-shirts and coffee mugs. There are websites selling kits that allow customers to create their own electronic gadgets, Lego toys, and even breakfast cereal. "We're seeing options outside of mass manufacturing," says Eric von Hippel, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "These companies let you create your own stuff and then share those ideas with others. It's great for both consumers and innovators."

For all the wonderful things that mass production has given us -- inexpensive clothes, reliable transportation, giant TVs -- it hasn't done much for people who want to make things. An idea for, say, a piece of furniture, is useless without access to machines, boats, trucks, and retail buyers. "If you think about it, there are two functions to a product: You need to design the thing, and you need to somehow fabricate it," von Hippel says. These functions have long been tied together, but companies like Ponoko, which allow designers to create products without owning any expensive equipment, are changing that. "We're no longer trapped by mass production," von Hippel says.

In many respects, Ponoko looks like your average 21st-century tech start-up. It has a small staff (five employees and a handful of part-timers), scant revenue ($250,000 a year), and a slick website that lets users displaced all over the world communicate with one another. But although Ponoko has the trappings of a hundred tiny Web start-ups, the end product isn't one-sentence messages or a weird news item.

On Ponoko you can buy a Bloom Lamp or any other product that has been uploaded by a community of thousands of designers, of both the professional and part-time variety. And because nothing is made until it's ordered, you can modify designs according to your taste. Materials are flexible, too. Ponoko offers dozens of choices, including leather, brass, wood, and felt. Want your item in pink acrylic with your name etched into the side? No problem: Just upload the text and tick a few boxes on Ponoko's website, and you will have it by the end of next week. Ponoko gets paid based on the cost of the materials plus $2 for every minute the laser cutter is on. (The standard Bloom Lamp, for instance, uses a $15 sheet of plywood and 13.2 minutes of laser cutter time.) Designers who sell their products on the site set their own retail prices.

But an online factory is only half of ten Have's vision. Digital manufacturing, because it replicates objects exactly and because it requires only that someone put the right material into the machine, can be done by anyone, anywhere. In August, ten Have struck a deal with a company called ShopBot, which sells computer-controlled routers that woodworkers use to make doors, signs, and cabinets. So far, woodworking shops in places like Buffalo; Rogers, Arkansas; and Olympia, Washington, have signed on to serve as manufacturers for Ponoko products. And ten Have also has a pending deal with TechShop, a chain of machine shops in Menlo Park, California; Portland, Oregon; and Durham, North Carolina, to do the same. The goal: Instead of buying a mass-market table from Ikea, you can have your own personal design -- or a design that you pick out -- manufactured by somebody in your own town, using local materials.

Innovation experts have used a variety of buzzwords to describe this business model -- there's distributed manufacturing, mass customization, and mass individualization -- but there's an easier way to describe the phenomenon: New Stuff. "Right now, we're in an intermediate stage where what you can customize is well defined," says Frank Piller, a professor at Germany's RWTH Aachen University who specializes in new business models around customization. "What sets Ponoko apart is that there are no rules about what you can customize."

There's another way Ponoko is different from your average Web start-up: It pays for itself. Indeed, as much as Ponoko is an example of New Age economics, it's also a case in point in how to succeed when your idea is so futuristic as to sound unreasonable. Ten Have's original plan involved raising millions of dollars from venture capitalists before the company got up and running. But venture capitalists don't generally welcome a discussion of macroeconomics in an elevator pitch, and they are not so keen on 50-year plans. So ten Have had to go back to basics, focusing on profits instead of predictions and on turning his community of enthusiasts, onlookers, and would-be makers into one of paying customers.

Back to basics also meant that earlier this year, I found this 34-year-old CEO -- a man who had already started and sold one company -- 7,000 miles from home, sleeping on an air mattress in a rented bedroom and commuting to a rough part of West Oakland, California.

Ponoko's U.S. office, where I met ten Have for the first time early last summer, is a modest affair. Actually, "office" is probably stretching the truth. Ten Have was working in a windowless closet inside a large warehouse. Most of the space was taken up by a laser cutter. The rest of the tiny room was occupied by sheets of plastic and plywood in every imaginable color and thickness and a 7-foot-tall stack of cardboard boxes. The room smelled like burnt plastic from the fumes that are produced when the machine cuts acrylic. "We won't stay in here too long, 'cause it's not terribly healthy for you," ten Have says, ushering me outside the warehouse.

Ten Have had been working there for three months. It was the longest he had been away from his girlfriend of 14 years, and he was clearly ready to go home. There were dark circles under his eyes and his face was pale. He had been putting in 12-hour days cutting and packaging Ponoko orders and had dropped nearly 15 pounds since his arrival. I asked him what the CEO was doing here playing printer technician. He sighed and said, "The question has crossed my mind many times on this trip, but that's the downside of doing something new. You have to prove it yourself. And that means you have to do these grubby jobs."

A week later, when I meet up with him in New Zealand, he seems a changed man -- showered, smiling, and refreshed. "I've got this stranger-in-a-strange-land feeling," he says, with a grin. "Three months is a bloody long time to be away." Ten Have says he feels free when he is in New Zealand, and it's easy to see why. This is a young, wide-open country that takes up slightly more land than the U.K. but has just one-fifteenth its population. The place may be culturally close to the rest of the English-speaking world, but geographically it isn't close to anything at all. A flight to Sydney takes three and a half hours; the three flights I took to get back home to New York took a total of 25.

New Zealand was settled by Europeans at about the same time Americans were moving into the Wild West, and the country maintains a certain pioneer spirit. New Zealand, in addition to being a nation that loves guns, sports, and camping, is one of the least regulated places in the world -- it ranks second only to Singapore on the World Bank's ease-of-doing-business list -- and the rate of entrepreneurship is higher here than in the U.S. While talking with Kiwis, you will sometimes hear the phrase "No. 8 wire," which roughly means, "It's not pretty, but it works." The expression comes from the idea that a New Zealander can make anything with a bit of standard fencing wire.

Ten Have's childhood seems to have epitomized this spirit. His father, John, an aeronautical engineer with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, was always making something -- including an airplane and an electric car -- and David would spend hours flipping through the do-it-yourself aviation catalogs lying around the house. "I just had an insatiable desire to make things," says John. He did his work in a 40-foot shipping container that was packed with a lathe, a drill press, and a band saw. When the family was transferred to a new base, the container would show up on the front lawn a month later.

Ten Have inherited his father's desire to make things but not his father's ability to make them. He stands just 5 feet 6, is slight of frame, and walks with a pronounced limp. As a boy, his ineptitude with a soccer ball made it hard for him to make friends, and his clumsiness led to squabbles with his dad in the workshop. "Our fights were always around quality issues," he says. "I just wasn't good with the machines."

So David became a geek, turning his creative energy to computers, which were more forgiving physically and, at least to him, just as satisfying as the biggest, baddest machine. He majored in computer science in Wellington's Victoria University, paying his tuition by doing freelance software development. It was the beginning of the dot-com boom, and he became enthralled with the idea of starting his own company. He devoured copies of the latest American tech magazines. "I totally bought into the Silicon Valley story," he says. "It was the first time I knew what I wanted to be." With dreams of becoming a player, he dropped out of his technology-management master's program and, after a short stint at a local software developer, struck out on his own.

Provoke Solutions was the sort of software consultancy that would be familiar to most American entrepreneurs. Founded by ten Have and four friends in 2001, it sold and customized Microsoft products, mostly to government agencies and financial services companies. Provoke grew rapidly, and by 2005 it had 30 employees and revenue of about $2 million. But ten Have grew increasingly bored with software consulting. He found himself lashing out at the Microsoft salespeople, who were pushing products that he considered inadequate and uninteresting. "The rep would come with a new product and I'd say, 'That's not great; that's crap,' " he recalls. In an act of silent protest, he bought an Apple iMac for $2,000, a large sum of money to spend on a computer in New Zealand and an odd move for the CTO of a Microsoft consultancy.

As he picked fights with his company's one and only supplier, he found himself increasingly at odds with Provoke's CEO, Mason Pratt. It wasn't that he thought Pratt was doing a bad job; he just wished the company were a bit more ambitious -- and, on some level, he wished the company were his to run. "What I wanted was a big international company," says ten Have. When Provoke prepared to open an office in Auckland, ten Have argued in vain that instead of tackling Auckland, the company could just as easily go to Sydney, a market that is bigger than the entire country of New Zealand. His partners didn't want to leave home. "It was a matter of walking before we ran," Pratt says. "But Dave had bigger goals and aspirations. It was almost like keeping a bird caged."

Bored and frustrated with his professional life, he turned back to his childhood. He was tired of software, he decided. What he wanted was something real, something physical. "I wanted to make beautiful objects," he says. "I wanted to re-create the indescribable experience of opening that Apple box. I didn't want to run a small bespoke software company in New Zealand." He started thinking about skateboards. He had never been able to ride them, but he had always been fascinated by skateboard culture, and he had noticed that women were taking up the sport. He wondered if there was room for a kind of skateboard with a bit of elegance.

Ten Have spent hours playing with a computer design program and finally settled on a design that called for a carbon fiber deck with mother-of-pearl patterns inlaid on top. Instead of standard skateboard wheels, he imagined custom-made chrome hubs that would evoke a 1950s Cadillac. Though in the back of his mind ten Have thought he might try to sell the boards, more than anything he wanted to get them made. He started calling manufacturers.

Many people have, at one time or another, wanted to make something, but few act on those impulses. The modern supply chain, with its promise to deliver anything and everything cheaply and immediately, has conspired to dull the maker's spirit in many of us. This is partly because our stuff has gotten more complex -- there are now computers in our phones, our cars, and even our toasters -- but also because making something from scratch has become comparatively expensive. With $200 desktop computers at Wal-Mart and $100 wooden tables at Ikea, the very idea of making or repairing something seems futile. Why fix it when you can just throw it away and get a new one for less money? Why spend weeks or months fashioning the perfect dining room table when you can buy a new one whenever you feel like a change?

Ten Have became painfully aware of this reality as he tried to get a few skateboards made. Nobody wanted to produce the boards in the small quantities he wanted. "It was a bit disillusioning," he says. The machine shops he talked to were used to dealing with large clients and big orders, and, because price competition is rampant, they were wary of even quoting prices at all. When ten Have would offer to pay above-market rates, most shops simply told him to get lost. "The experience was an eye opener," he says. "I mean, cripes, how does somebody get something into the marketplace?"

In the end, it took ten Have three months of negotiating with a machine shop in Christchurch, several hundred miles south of his home, to get just two of his skateboard decks made. He spent thousands of dollars and had to fly to Christchurch to close the deal in person. He never figured out how to get his wheels made cheaply and eventually gave up on the idea of going into the skateboard business. He framed the boards and hung them up in the house that he and his girlfriend share. As he shows me his work, which is genuinely striking, he doesn't crack a smile. "The ability to make stuff has been leached out of our society," he says. "It's sad. No, it's worse than sad -- it's almost a criminal act. Because when you think about what has happened -- the rendering down of a population to be consumers -- what you're really doing is rendering people unable to think critically." He decided his next company would address this deficit: It would make it easier to make stuff.

Ten Have pitched the idea to a friend, Derek Elley, a serial entrepreneur who had recently left an Internet marketing company and was looking for something new. Elley, who now serves as Ponoko's chief strategy officer and second in command, is just three years older than ten Have, but the men are almost polar opposites. Elley is a marketing guy, an athlete, and a political centrist who tries his best to steer clear of ten Have's left-wing populism. When ten Have started talking up a brave new world with objects being manufactured by household appliances, Elley reacted skeptically.

He let ten Have finish and then went home, sure that his friend was out of his mind. But that night, as he thought about ways that they could turn ten Have's abstract goal into a profitable business, he started to get excited about the challenge. "To be able to take something on a piece of paper and turn it into a product at the last moment possible as close to you as possible," he says. "I mean -- wow."

Oh, my God.

As ten Have prepared to take the stage at TechCrunch, an annual tech conference in San Francisco at which entrepreneurs show off their products to venture capitalists, he was gripped by a sudden wave of fear. It was September 2007, and by most measures, Ponoko was off to a smashing start. Designers in New Zealand were already making and selling stuff, and the local press was covering the company's every move breathlessly. There was money in the bank -- he and Elley had pooled half a million dollars of their own money and raised almost as much from friends and local investors -- and they were sure they would lock up millions more in venture funding after the conference. And yet, as he looked around the room at the other entrepreneurs who were launching companies, he started to worry. There was App2You, a company that made creating Web applications easy; Trutap, a mobile social network; and Flock, a software plug-in for the Firefox Web browser. "All of these companies were really just tiny optimizations," he says. "I suddenly had this feeling that our idea was too big and scary."

Ten Have muddled through the presentation, but to his surprise the audience seemed genuinely impressed. The famed angel investor Ron Conway praised Ponoko during a Q&A that followed the presentation. "I think it's a very unique idea," Conway said. "If they can take the creators of something through the creation phase to the marketing phase, that's significant." In the months that followed, tech and design blogs wrote glowingly about Ponoko. Engadget, the widely read consumer electronics blog, observed, "We've seen start-ups galore founded on strokes of brilliance, and Ponoko seems to be well on its way to building a sufficient client base."

Only it wasn't. Despite scads of Web traffic, dozens of mentions in media outlets, and thousands of people signing up to create accounts, only a handful of people were actually paying money to make things. "The laser cutter would be quiet for days at a time," ten Have recalls. At the time, he wasn't particularly worried. The sales would come as word got out. But the most important thing, as far as he was concerned, was raising venture capital funds. He needed money to hire more software developers and to build a network of manufacturing hubs.

During the first half of 2008, ten Have and Elley made five trips between Wellington and the United States. They did dozens of pitch meetings with top VCs in Silicon Valley and New York. They did panels at MIT and South by Southwest. They hired software developers to help ten Have build the site, and they began negotiating to open a laser cutting office in the United States. They were spending like crazy -- and generating precious little revenue. Meanwhile, the global economy was collapsing, making the prospect of VC investment or a huge jump in revenue seem increasingly unlikely. By midyear, Ponoko had only a few months of operating capital left in the bank.

Ten Have never closed the big deal. The closest he came to raising additional funds was a meeting in the Silicon Valley office of Charles River Ventures. "We found Ponoko interesting, but the geography was a deterrent," says Bill Tai, a Charles River partner. Charles River eventually passed, which ten Have found humiliating. "The idea that VCs are just looking for big risky ideas is one of the biggest fictional stories ever told," he says, still obviously wounded by the final rejection. "They wanted another Twitter."

Of course, the investors were right. Ponoko needed to get serious as a business, and it needed to prove that people wanted what it was selling. But ten Have didn't realize this until he met Fred Durham, the co-founder and CEO of CafePress. Durham, whose company has sales of more than $100 million, showed up unannounced at a lunch meeting ten Have had scheduled with a CafePress manager. Durham told ten Have that he liked Ponoko's business model. He saw one problem: Ponoko was not focused on profitability. "A lot of people come to Silicon Valley and they get confused about who they're selling to," says Durham, who invested about $50,000 in the company and now sits on the board. "Is it the press, the VCs, or the customers? And for Ponoko, the customer was third on the list." Durham told ten Have to cut costs and focus on making existing customers happy.

Ten Have accepted the challenge. He laid off his three software developers and closed the company's U.S. laser cutter operation, which had been outsourced to a machine shop in Pleasanton, California. Ponoko would work out of New Zealand until there was enough demand for a second laser cutter.

The layoffs were not enough. Ponoko was booking only a few thousand dollars a month in revenue. "We'd been telling our story, but it was to the wrong kinds of people," ten Have says. He stopped doing interviews with reporters and pitching VCs. "We had this whole list of people" -- customers who had created accounts, most of whom hadn't bought anything -- "and we said, 'Right, hang on.' Let's get them excited. Let's call them up on the phone and say, 'What do you think?" Ten Have started paying attention to mentions of his company on designers' blogs. Whenever someone wrote about Ponoko, he would send an e-mail or give a call. If the blogger wrote about Ponoko again, he would send a coupon. "We'd been talking to The New York Times and venture capitalists -- you know, important people," he says. "But for us they weren't important people. The movers and shakers were the people who were using Ponoko."

Those conversations with customers led to some good ideas. Designers liked the company but were wary of the high laser cutting fees. So Ponoko offered a subscription service designed to give discounts to loyal customers. For as little as $22 a month, designers pay half the standard rates for laser cutting time and shipping. (The cost of making a Bloom Lamp fell from $60 to $39.) The result was that the company developed a reliable revenue stream -- there are now several hundred such subscribers -- and that the laser cutters got busier. From June 2008 to June 2009, revenue increased tenfold, as the average sale increased from $65 to $85, despite the 50 percent discounts.

Meanwhile, ten Have and Elley looked for partners. Last December, they began talking with Ted Hall, the founder of ShopBot, about creating a network of independent woodworkers who would use ShopBot routers to do manufacturing for Ponoko. Around the same time, they started negotiating with TechShop, an upstart chain of machine shops whose management was interested in experimenting with distributed manufacturing. "We realized that there were all these people talking about the things that we'd been thinking about for two years," ten Have says. "It was one of those 'holy shit' moments."

Earlier this year, ten Have created a website designed to recruit owners of ShopBot tools to join his manufacturing network, and he quickly signed up more than 30 woodworking businesses across the U.S. When the system goes live this fall, Ponoko will take a percentage of the transactions, and woodworkers will get access to a pool of new customers. The housing bust has been disastrous for many of ShopBot's customers, and Hall hopes that by offering his customers a way to make some extra cash, he will be able to sell more woodcutting machines.

TechShop, too, sees Ponoko as a means to increase revenue. Right now, the company gets most of its sales from selling memberships (TechShop works on the health-club model, with table saws and press drills instead of weight machines), but CEO Mark Hatch says he expects to make more money eventually by offering à-la-carte digital manufacturing services, both to walk-in customers and to customers executing designs through the Ponoko system. "Ponoko has people designing these wicked things online, and we can make them, box them, and ship them to the customers," he says. "It's a new world."

One of the most prolific Ponoko designers is a 33-year-old Canadian named Jon Cantin. He's not a professional, but over the past year he has uploaded 241 intricate designs to Ponoko's website under the handle WoodMarvels. There are bird feeders, birdhouses, toy dinosaurs, business card holders, and a toy castle that takes up 9 square feet and sells for $250. Cantin lives in South Korea right now, but he tries to go to a new country every three months, paying his bills by teaching English and selling wooden toys on Ponoko.

Cantin started selling the toys after reading a blog post about Ponoko. "I'd always wanted to be in woodworking," he says. "Since I can't bring a wood shop and a bunch of plywood with me around the world, this is the closest thing." (To make sure his designs work, Cantin has Ponoko ship them to his tester -- an 11-year-old nephew back home in Ontario.) His sales have tripled this year, but he admits that he still doesn't sell many items -- "When the economy is in the garbage, people don't want to pay hundreds of dollars for a wooden castle," he says. But Cantin is quick to add that immediate sales are not the point. He's trying to assemble a massive inventory of wooden designs and believes that business will pick up as Ponoko opens additional manufacturing hubs and as shipping costs fall.

To be sure, there are designers making money with the service. In July, a photo frame created on Ponoko by a British designer named Chris Jackson landed on the shelves of some Urban Outfitters stores, and other designs have made it into boutiques in the U.S. and Asia. A start-up called Nervous System pulled in $25,000 in its first year in business selling necklaces and pendants made with Ponoko. "When we started, it was hard to find manufacturers," says co-founder Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, who says that most of the companies that he talked to required a minimum payment for every design. "Ponoko is great to work with. They're flexible, they're easy, and they're cheap."

Back in Wellington, ten Have confesses that he hasn't made anything for himself in a long time. "I remember right when we started the company, I made a circle that said End-to-End Test," he says. "But other than that it's kind of become a blur."

In fact, though ten Have has spent hundreds of hours in front of a laser cutter, he says he rarely has time to think about what people are making. When he runs the machine, he thinks about getting the cutting done, not what's being cut.

As we look at a piece of white acrylic that has been spit off the laser cutter, I ask him what he thinks it is. There are two mysterious trapezoidal shapes waiting to be popped out of a square piece of plastic.

"No idea," he says with quick certainty. "You give people this tool, and it's like, 'Be creative!' Sometimes I know what they're making, and other times it's mystifying."

He thinks for a second, and then adds, "But that's part of the pleasure."

Max Chafkin is Inc.'s senior writer.

Last updated: Oct 1, 2009




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