Periodically, Dave Evans, Nate Evans, and their team gather around a tall wooden table to painstakingly dismantle mechanical devices such as smartwatches, air-quality monitors, GoPro cameras, and more. Under a bright studio lamp, they snap photos of each and every part.
This gadget surgery team's operation is a critical part of the marketing for Fictiv, the Evans's three-year-old startup, which gives entrepreneurs access to a network of hundreds of 3-D printing and manufacturing machines that can be used to create parts for product prototypes.
The 25-person San Francisco-based company puts together blog posts of these teardowns to show others how products are made. The strategy is simple: Teach creative types how to make hardware products and inspire them to build their own, preferably by ordering the parts from Fictiv.
"What I care about and what I find so inspiring is the creative potential of humans, and if you can enable those people to seek their own ambitions or their own goals through tools--that's what drives me every day," says Nate.
Fictiv aims to enable more entrepreneurs to launch hardware startups by lowering the costs of product development. The founders say the company has demonstrated enough traction to secure $10 million in investments. Its chief investor is Accel Partners, which led the company's seed financing and its Series A round late last year.
While software companies have access to a variety of tools that make their development cycles quick, hardware companies are stuck in the stone age, says Accel's Sameer Gandhi.
There "was clearly an opportunity," says Gandhi, who has worked with hardware companies in the past. "The value of that efficiency, of making companies more innovative, it's tremendous."
The founders declined to comment on how many orders the company has processed, but its approach has brought in customers including enterprises like Mercedes-Benz's Silicon Valley research wing, which uses Fictiv whenever its own machines are over capacity.
"What interested me in Fictiv is the fact that they're not using their own prototype machine but a network of prototype machines," says Rasheq Zarif, senior manager of business innovation at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America. "And that opens a whole slew of opportunities."
A machinery network
In a sense, Fictiv is the Airbnb of manufacturing. Just as property owners rent their spare rooms on Airbnb, shop owners lend their idle machinery to Fictiv. Entrepreneurs submit a digital file of the part they need on Fictiv's website and receive a quote based on the company's algorithm, which analyzes factors such as the amount of material and time required. Because of the volume of orders across its network, the company says, it can offer lower prices than if customers went to machine operators directly.
The part arrives a few days later in a cardboard package branded with big, bold letters that spell "Fictiv." (The name is a play on the word "fictive," meaning "creating or created by imagination.") By quickly identifying the shops and machines best suited for each job and intelligently routing orders, Fictiv can offer a far shorter turnaround time than that of traditional manufacturers. The service is designed for low-volume prototype manufacturing but it is capable of handling large orders for thousands of parts. For techies like Will Rehlich, Fictiv's quick approach is critical to the innovative process.
"It's reduced our design cycle times from months to a couple weeks, if not a week," says Rehlich, who uses Fictiv to order parts for prototypes he makes at Nexkey, a Silicon Valley startup that makes a smart electronic key lock.
Fictiv's cut of each project varies depending on its complexity, the chosen material, and the machine that is used, but the bulk of each sale goes to the startup's manufacturing partners, just as Airbnb gives most of its sales to its hosts. Couriers are paid a flat fee to deliver the parts around the Bay Area, while nationwide shipments are made via FedEx or UPS.
And just as Airbnb vets its hosts, Fictiv ensures its partners meet its standards. "We go to extreme lengths," says Nate, explaining that Fictiv has a team that is constantly asking partners questions and ordering test parts to ensure consistent quality.
Fictiv has primarily used 3-D printers to create parts from a variety of plastics. In June, though, the company introduced a computer numerical control (CNC) option that lets customers order parts made from more types of materials, including aluminum and stainless steel.
"It allows people to produce really complex parts in a very seamless fashion in three days, which is just unheard of," Nate says.
Democratizing hardware development
The idea for Fictiv came to the Evans brothers after they graduated from Stanford earlier this decade. Nate was working as a startup adviser for a boutique investment banking firm, which he says gave him a macro-level perspective of Silicon Valley. He was able to study specific markets like advertising, where he observed that ad-tech companies use automated networks of websites and advertisers to ensure all ad space is sold.
Dave, meanwhile, was working as a hardware engineer at Ford's Silicon Valley Lab and frustratingly waiting weeks for parts. He also saw that many of his peers owned machines that went largely unused. He took these frustrations to his older brother. The two began to see an opportunity.
"Nate recognized the patterns that were happening in the ad-tech world with what we were seeing with machine capacity and availability," says Dave, Fictiv's CEO. "If we could just leverage these idle machines, it'd be better."
The brothers, who grew up playing basketball together, teamed up. They spent $3,000 on a MakerBot Replicator 2 and made a promise to each other: If they could get the 3-D printer to pay for itself in one month by completing orders, they would quit their jobs.
After handing out business cards at Maker Faire (an event for DIY-ers), tapping into their network of hardware engineers, filling orders in Dave's kitchen, and driving around town on Dave's bright red scooter delivering parts, the pair met their goal. They held each other to the promise and put in their notice.
The brothers each anted up $5,000 to start Fictiv. The plan was to do the printing themselves for Fictiv's first three months in an effort to stress test their idea before raising any capital. Over the next few months, they began partnering with vendors and working out Fictiv's kinks. Dave focused on the tech and engineering while Nate focused on design and business.
As they went along, they found there were three pillars to manufacturing: quality, speed, and price. To stand out, they needed to excel in two of them. Both brothers wanted quality, and after a year, it became clear that Fictiv's customers were willing to pay up for rapid turnarounds. Nate and Dave placed their focus on speed, doing everything they could to cut out inefficiencies. On their website, they made it possible for customers to quickly place orders. On the manufacturing side, they kept adding more partners to increase capacity. The effort paid off, and they began seeing some customers order up to three times per week.
"We had real companies building real products saying that Fictiv was their unfair competitive advantage," Dave says. "That was when the light bulb really went off."
To grow, the Evans brothers have built a community of hardware engineers, holding meetups and producing blog posts like their teardowns. In July, the company released a vast Hardware Guide for free. It is intended to essentially open-source prototyping strategies so that anyone who is interested in creating gadgets has a trove of information at his or her disposal. In software, this type of knowledge has long been readily available. Not so for hardware.
"When you're giving a platform for all those innovators to really have conversations to learn from each other, that creates more value than we can capture," Dave says.
While Fictiv is off to a great start, many challenges await. Over the next few months, the team will have to build out its CNC offering and bring it to the level of quality customers have grown to expect from its 3-D printing option. It also must continue to expand geographically. Although the company has built a strong network of vendors in the Bay Area that can deliver parts within day or hours, it has yet to bring that kind of immediacy to other parts of the country. That leaves the young tech startup exposed to the threat of copycats in other markets.
For now though, the startup plans to continue its focus on Silicon Valley, the home of thousands of hardware entrepreneurs and the tech capital of the world, and slowly build out from there.
"The vision is to democratize hardware development," Dave says.