A lifelong tinkerer, Bre Pettis, 42, taught middle school art and produced video tutorials for Make magazine before teaming with Zach Smith and Adam Mayer to create a 3-D printer for the masses. Founded in 2009, MakerBot now has more than 500 employees, and its 3-D printers go for about $1,400 to $6,500. Though Pettis sold the Brooklyn, New York-based company to Stratasys for $403 million in 2013, he continues to lead MakerBot to exponential growth as its CEO. Sales hit $54.2 million in the first half of 2014.
As told to Liz Welch.
My personal mission has always been to empower people to be creative. But the Holy Grail of a tinkerer is to make something that makes something.
I started thinking about this when I moved to New York City in 2007. I'd play Frisbee every weekend with the entire tech scene of NYC, which was, like, 20 people. That's how I met Zach. We needed a workshop, but people don't have garages in New York. Some friends and I created a hacker space, NYC Resistor. We shared tools and collectively bought a laser cutter for $25,000.
We started talking about making a 3-D printer. We'd heard about them but had never seen one, because they were only in high-end design firms. We got involved with the RepRap Project, a community focused on making 3-D printers that could make copies of themselves and help create a world without money. We started making prototypes.
Two years later, we still did not have a printer that worked. So, in January 2009, we locked ourselves in our hacker space, ate two cases of ramen--don't do that--drank a massive amount of caffeine, and, in a few months, popped out an actual product for South by Southwest.
I didn't buy a ticket. I just set up our MakerBot at bars in Austin and started printing shot glasses. That's how we launched. Each kit came with a bare circuit board, a bag of electrical components, a pair of tweezers, and magnifying glasses. It took 40 to 80 hours to assemble. We made 20 of them, priced at $750 each. We thought that would last us for a couple of months. We sold out instantly.
We spent the next year figuring out how to build a company. There were so many challenges. We needed more motors, but there were none to order. We also had no idea how to price things. The cost of goods for each machine was about $650. I was skipping rent to buy parts and learned quickly that wasn't going to work. That year, we made 600 printers. Today, we do more than that in a week.
The magic of MakerBot is all the ways it can be used. We knew it would give people this superpower to make almost anything--but we had no idea what they would make. We built a site, Thingiverse, where they could share their designs. You just go there, download a design, and make it. The jump to designer is easy.
Next, we made the Thing-O-Matic, a 3-D printer with an optional attachment so that when you were done making something, it would make another one. The community really helped us with those first two machines. By the third machine, the Replicator, most of the development was in-house. It came fully assembled, so you didn't have to be a supergeek to use it.
It dawned on us that we were a company when we started doing payroll and paying taxes. And then people started using MakerBot as a verb, like, "I'm going to MakerBot this." We hit a huge emotional milestone when we announced that everyone was getting health insurance. We had about 80 people at that point. I remember telling everyone, and people started to cry. Now they could get sick and have babies. For me, that was an important day.
We started the company with a very experimental business model. We were super open source, which in many cases is like a religious phenomenon. People believe in sharing and in a world without money--and that worked for us in the beginning. But once the Replicator launched, clones started popping up. Somebody ran a Kickstarter that was like, "MakerBot makes the best printers, and they're open source, so I'm going to make them in China, and I'll sell them to you for half!"
We love our community, and we love sharing, but we had taken this utopian business model all the way to the edge. If we hadn't changed course, it would have destroyed the company. So we stopped sharing our designs. Everybody who had a business in the open-source community was like, "Of course, you have to do this," but to the super-open-source folks, we were cast out of heaven. That was a stressful, painful decision, but, in the end, it allowed us to continue to innovate. For me, the big mission has always been to make 3-D printing accessible to everyone. That's the important thing.
We raised $10 million in 2011. Our rule was, we wouldn't accept money from anybody we didn't want to have dinner with. One of our investors introduced me to Jenny Lawton, an entrepreneur who had run several companies. She put HR infrastructure into place and helped us hire a lot more people. She's now president.
I was out raising money to go public a year ago when Stratasys suggested joining forces. It made sense: Stratasys makes the industrial printers we lusted after when we started the company, and our desktop solution would make Stratasys very full spectrum. The merger allowed us to focus on innovating and growing instead of the distraction of going public.
Before we merged with Stratasys, I gathered the team together to create the MakerBot Way, which is a document that sums up who we are. Stuff like "We do what we say we're going to do" and "We have a greater purpose here." We've done a great job at maintaining our culture as we have scaled up. Even with more than 500 employees, we still have a scrappy feel.
One of my psychoses is that I feel like I can do anything. Actually, I believe anybody can do and make anything, even things that don't exist. The making isn't the hard part; it's having faith. If you do only reasonable things, you'll never start your own business. It takes vision--a belief that you'll be able to do the things you have no idea how to do.