Real world 3D print design sales numbers are hard to come by, and we are glad that Austin Robey of Make Mode has generously offered to share his Shapeways shop stats for his line of 3D printed emoticons or emojis. Through our discussion there are many take-aways to gain about what to design, how to market your products, types of consumers are in the different 3D print “store fronts”, and even what platform is already set up for sales success and how others are lacking.
We have a really good interview today with some real world 3D print sales information on 3D print designs. You guys have been asking for it, and a listener provided it. It is so great that you guys are such a giving community with each other, and we are happy to be a facilitator in that.
Austin Robey of Make Mode, a company in New York, was a listener who heard the question about, “Is anybody selling anything?” which came from Eduardo Martini. He has graciously offered up his information. He has some real world numbers over an 18-month period of selling designs on Shapeways and was very open about sharing that with us, as well as some other interesting things regarding his business and in the news in 3D printing lately.
Listen to the podcast here:
Mixed Emotions (or Emojis) about 3D Print Sales with Austin Robey of Make Mode
Austin, thank you so much for joining us today on WTFFF?! We have been looking forward to speaking with you for a while about 3D print sales, ever since you commented on a past episode.
You guys have had some pretty interesting conversations, and I am a listener to the podcast.
Thank you. You also have this business called Make Mode in Brooklyn, New York. Can you tell us a little bit of your background and how Make Mode came to be and what it’s all about?
My name is Austin Robey. I studied architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. That is where I learned 3D modeling and 3D modeling software. One of my teachers was Francis Bitonti, who is pretty well known in the 3D printing world. That is where I 3D printed my first design. From there, about three years ago, I started a company called Make Mode with my friend. We are a creative 3D printing studio. We are more or less a local high-touch Shapeways that can also design.
Very interesting. You mentioned when we were talking beforehand that 3D printing was only one component of your business, and sort of a test. what is the rest of it?
3D printing is our business. That is what we do. We also offer laser cutting. We are broadly more of a digital fabrication studio. However, what was a test for us was the idea of developing a product that can be 3D printed and posting that on Shapeways. That was more or less a test to see how well it could do.
You normally have a service and design business, and doing digital fabrication, but predominantly 3D printing. Then you did a product sales test on Shapeways. Let’s talk about that because you really have been gracious to share some numbers with our listeners. How did it go? What happened?
I heard the podcast you guys had before about anyone making money from selling 3D printed products. I thought it was interesting because there is so little information available on this. I think it’s worth sharing to continue what you guys have done in the podcast of setting realistic expectations about the 3D printing market. None of this information is online.
We designed some 3D printed color emojis about a year and a half ago. We designed 24 of them, and then we threw them on Shapeways to see what would happen. We thought it was a fun test. We wanted to see if people would buy them. More than anything, it was an excuse to make something that we could use as a portfolio example. It was an interesting thing to do as a 3D printed product, to do 3D printed emojis, because it really represents taking something super digital that is only in pixels and making it three dimensional. That’s what we did. We threw it on Shapeways. We had no marketing for it. We didn’t design any packaging. We put the files for free on our website. We wanted to see how many people would find it through Shapeways and if we could make any money from that.
The emojis are really cute. I like the concept. It’s an interesting idea to turn them into three dimensions. It should have been attractive on Shapeways. Could you share with us what you found as part of this experiment to sell some of your 3D designs?
The first immediate challenge was how are we able to price this low enough where someone will purchase it? That is definitely a challenge for anyone making a 3D printed product: how to hyper-optimize the design that it uses as little material as possible to cost as little as possible. Immediately, we noticed a trade-off in do we set a good price for this, or do we try to get a reasonable margin for this? In the end, we decided to charge $20 a piece, which only left us a margin of $5 per piece. We decided that we would rather have something that was more affordable than a higher margin.
One thing that we also noticed is that after designing 18 of these emojis, we definitely saw an 80/20 role come into play. 80% of our sales came from just four of our models, which is interesting.
That’s not surprising. That is pretty typical across any retail product line for the most part.
We didn’t market any of these, but we got a good amount of support from Shapeways on these. We were included in a few holiday gift guides and email newsletters. I was a featured designer. We were on the front page for a time. We did benefit from Shapeways actively pushing these. They saw that this would be a product that people might want to purchase, so we definitely benefited from them marketing us.
And they should have because they are fun and colorful. They have editorial value, which is a key criterion in making your designs salable. You also had a good price. That is a problem on Shapeways in general. It is difficult to price. If it is difficult to price, it’s not as highly downloadable. You had the opportunity to be more highly downloadable.
Exactly. Numbers-wise, in a year and a half, we ended up selling just under 400 through Shapeways, which would peak in the holiday months. It averages to about 22 models a month, which ended up being $110 of net margin per month. No one is quitting their job for $110 a month.
But you didn’t spend a lot of money, so that’s on the plus side.
We also sold another 400 directly through us. We also have a Projet 660 printer, which is the same full-color printer used for their full-color sandstone material. When we sold it directly from us, our margin was bumped up to $15 each, which was much better. In the end, from a week and a half to two weeks of designing and iterating, it ended up being about $8,000 that we made in a year and a half from this product. Our conclusion was that it was totally worth it to do it, and we had a lot of fun. But our focus as Make Mode is not necessarily a product company; we are more of a service. It wasn’t necessarily a road that we wanted to focus on. I definitely don’t regret it, and I feel like we learned a lot from the process of doing it.
I can see that for sure. That is a really good-sized real world test for anyone that is considering creating designs and putting them up on Shapeways. One of our long-time listeners from Brazil, his name is Eduardo Martini, he is the one who asked us this question specifically. He will be thrilled, and a lot of other listeners will be hopefully, hearing about the results you were able to get. I think we probably need to say that these results are probably an example of doing pretty well on Shapeways, especially because they gave you some boost, being a featured artist and getting some promotion within how they are communicating with their community.
I think it’s an example of doing relatively well without being one of the top ten most purchased designs. We had some help from Shapeways through pushing this out. I would assume this was on the more successful end without being the most successful.
I think it’s an organic traffic example of doing really well, and that is what you hope to have when you are on one of these sites. They are driving buyers into it. That is what I think the biggest mistake for a lot of these designers who join the sites is. It’s very obvious that buyers are not being driven; it’s not their marketing focus. They really are drawing in only designers. If you’re not drawing in buyers, then your organic traffic is relatively low. It’s a good sign that Shapeways actually has some organic buying traffic and you benefited from that without doing your own marketing. Marketing is expensive. You had to think about how you were going to drive traffic toward it, who you were going to target. There is a lot of cost there. And you didn’t have to do that for this.
Again, I think we could have pushed this much farther. But when you have limited resources as a small company, you have to decide what you are going to focus on, and I don’t think that we wanted to turn ourselves into an emoji factory. It really was more of a test, and we were fine to leave it at that. We basically didn’t want to be a company that was just making emojis.
That makes a lot of sense. I’m glad you didn’t because it made it a clearer test. If you had done some weak marketing, we would have to analyze that in the scope of things could you have done a better job at marketing? But the fact is that you didn’t do anything makes it a cleaner test of organic traffic.
Not only that, but I think if Shapeways were—as they may in the future, or some other site—an actual destination for general consumers shopping for 3D printable, somewhat customizable gift items, I think the sales numbers in the future for these types of products might be a lot bigger. I don’t think Shapeways is really understood by normal mass consumers today as a destination for this. You have to be in the know of the 3D printing industry a bit in order to know where to go and look for these things. Or you have to be specifically looking for them.
I think it provides some extra value to a lot of people knowing that it is 3D printed because I think a lot of people are interested in holding something that is 3D printed. It is part of the story of the product in a lot of ways.
Absolutely. I agree with that. I am saying there is a bigger consumer market for products like this. It is just that the market doesn’t even know these products are there, and that it is even possible to purchase 3D printed products. As that awareness increases and as there become more venues that people understand they can get them, I think the sales potential gets larger.
I had a question, Austin. You mentioned something to me previously where you said that you had also created a bunch of cell phone cases, and you had some results from those. Can you share that with our audience?
Yeah, that is also important to note. We designed 15 different iPhone cases. This was also a year and a half ago, around the same time. We are based in Brooklyn, so these were different embossed abstracted maps of different NYC neighborhoods on iPhone cases. We didn’t sell any of them. We made 15 of them, and not one of them sold. That was a surprise. I thought we would sell at least one. That was a total dud.
That is what we have been hearing from a lot of people. Those types of products don’t really sell: things that you think “customizable” makes sense here. For some reason, they are not going. I’m wondering if that is the perception of this is not a material I want to put around my cell phone, or if it is not appealing to someone who already knows about 3D printing.
It was really hard to get it to a price that was remotely competitive with what someone could pay for an iPhone case. Just for the materials, it was $20 for that case.
Not that bad. It wouldn’t strike me as being outrageous for a cell phone case if it’s the look you want or somehow personal to you. That would make sense. I think it is very telling. Creating an iPhone case design-wise takes some time. You have to make sure you are building it off of a known model that you know will fit properly, or you have to create that. That is some reverse-engineering that takes some time, and then designing the look of it, that is no small effort. Unfortunately, you got no return from it. I think it’s ironic because so many companies who are making new 3D printers or selling 3D print services as a service provider, you would think a cell phone case is a good example of something to showcase the quality of your work or what you can offer. Yet not one person bought one. Maybe people should rethink the examples of products they create.
Yeah. That’s true. It felt like an easy thing to start with. It seemed like a great use case initially. I think they are on the Shapeways store still; I should take them off because they are definitely from obsolete models of iPhones at this point.
The map part of the phone is cool. I did not realize it was specific neighborhoods in New York, but I thought it looked cool. That is disappointing then. Maybe from your architectural background, that seemed more inspired, and the Shapeways community is more youthful and emoji-driven.
Part of the reason why I wanted to make that was because so many people in New York have this micro-neighborhood pride. I feel like people may have wanted to purchase those things, but those people probably weren’t the same people that were buying things on Shapeways. Maybe it didn’t even matter if it was 3D printed.
That’s a good point. For instance, one of our listeners Vicky Somma was selling some of her designs, which were driven for moms with new babies who were nursing. It seemed to fit the audience. She had been selling them really well at local festivals. In your case, those micro-neighborhoods may have been a better place to sell them, but then you would have to have put another marketing arm into your business where you are doing events. That didn’t fit your model.
Exactly. We didn’t want to sell iPhone cases at flea markets. That is not why we got into being a 3D printing service. It was the choice we made to exclusively throw them on Shapeways and see how they did.
I would love to hear your thoughts on Pinshape’s closure and what you think of it for the 3D printing industry in general.
I think there is a broader criticism of start-up culture here, as well as a critique on some bets that people have made on 3D printing. A lot of people and investors have made some pretty foolish bets on consumer 3D printing, retail 3D printing, the idea that people have printers in their home, and this will become an X billion-dollar industry. It doesn’t really seem like it has materialized in the way that a lot of people would like it to.
Make Mode is a very different company in that we are intentionally boot-strapped and not focused on users or hockey stick growth. In the start-up world, you will hear a lot about personas. Who is the person that is going to use our service? It’s a 29-year-old guy who works at Wired, enjoys 3D printing but doesn’t have a 3D printer. For us, our persona is the people that we work with are the people who email us. We know exactly who they are, and what kind of 3D printing services they need. We have a revenue-based foundation that we are doing work that people actually need.
Kudos. Tom and I talk about that all the time. We talk to companies here on the podcast, and some of them have zero revenue focus at all. They have no plans for that.
We definitely wanted to build a 3D printing service that has a value proposition today and not predicated on some bet that we are going to solve some problem that exists tomorrow.
We are in the same boat with you. It may have to do with the fact that we are all designers, so we all have this viewpoint of, “If it doesn’t sell at the end of the day, it’s not a product.” It’s a different world that we come from than that software and tech side of things. We are not in Silicon Valley, so we don’t have that view point. That is why we boot-strapped it, too, and that is why we have a podcast and not a store.
It seemed like at a certain time, if you were involved in 3D printing, which seemed like a high-growth industry, there was pressure to go seek outside funding. We definitely resisted that. We wanted to stay grounded and focused and listen to people in New York and what they needed and build a service around that.
On a different note, we also offer 3D printing classes. If anyone in Podcastland is interested in learning about 3D printing, check out our website.
What kind of classes? Tell us about that.
We have two classes. We have a weekend design workshop, where we go through different commercial design softwares—Rhino, ZBrush—and the start to completion of an actual 3D printed model. It is the technical ins and outs of the design software, resulting in making a 3D printed model.
We also have a two-hour seminar, which is covering a bit of everything about the 3D printing industry. It is more for people who are curious about the technology. They have read articles, and they are interested in knowing more and seeing how they can apply it to their own design practice.
Do you have to be in New York? Is this something you do via webinar as well?
This is only in New York right now. We have these workshops at our studio. Eventually, we would like to have them online. If someone is listening to this later than April 2016, that may change, but right now, it is at our studio.
New York is a big market, so I’m sure you have lots of people filling those classes.
A thought on growth, if I might make a suggestion for you: There are a lot of these telework spaces all over the country, these temporary work spaces where you rent a spot among many and you pay a few hundred dollars a month. You can work in the space periodically. A lot of them are actually doing this cross thing where there are seminars going on in one city, and it’s being broadcast into a telework space in another city. That might be a future growth prospect for you.
That’s interesting. It’s definitely something that could be scalable. You guys have had podcasts about 3D printing education, and it’s interesting because a lot of people want to learn. It’s not that easy to learn the ins and outs of the design software. There is definitely a learning curve. We found that a ton of people are interested in learning about 3D printing.
That is the understatement of the episode. So glad to hear you are addressing it from the design side as an intensive because not a lot are, and that is a big problem. Good job, guys.
Thank you so much for sharing your information on 3D print sales with us, Austin.
Thanks for having me.
Mixed Emotions (or Emojis) about 3D Print Sales with Austin Robey of Make Mode – Final Thoughts
Wow, I really want to thank Austin for being so open about sharing that information on his 3D print sales. He has nothing to lose in doing it, and he cares about the community and trying to help it. It’s not his day job; it’s not his main mode of business, so why not be honest about how many of his 3D designs he has been able to sell over on Shapeways?
This really reinforces one of the things that I have said numerous times to people, especially in the article I wrote for Pinshape and other things. It’s one thing to price it right, which is important, but marketing is more important than anything else. If you are going to go through the effort of putting it up there, to expect organic traffic is unrealistic. This kind of proves that he had a really good result from zero marketing. He did get some organic boost, but only because he had a cool-looking design that stood out. It was colorful, it looked great when they put it on the front page, they were able to switch it up and put a different emoji for the month. He gave them a lot of ammunition by having a great product that was a great fit for the community. He ended up doing fairly well with no marketing because of that. But when you don’t have that great fit, the only thing you have is marketing. The only way you can do it is drive traffic into it.
There are several things to take away from this. One is you have to have a unique, original design that resonates with people in order to get it to sell. It was a good lesson that the cell phone cases didn’t set the world on fire. Wrong fit for the marketing vehicle of going through Shapeways.
Eric Ho is a good example of that with his Corgis and other things that he sells there. They have a timeliness and a high market value. They are Instagrammable, and they look really cool. But do they have a lot of lasting power? He has not made it to the top ten on Shapeways either. I actually asked Eric Ho to see if he would be the person we interviewed for this episode when we had it in mind for Eduardo Martini’s question. He politely declined. He wasn’t willing to share his sales numbers, but it was his day job. It would be educational for the audience if he or someone like him shared more information, but in time.
In his case, he is doing a lot of marketing. That is where his core business is. He is not the designer; he has a partner who is the designer. The difference between putting a lot of marketing in it and how much better you do than just the organic if you had a right fit, I think the big issue is a lot of these sites aren’t driving buyers for you. Even though that is the case, I do think that Austin’s example over 18 months and what they were able to sell with no real marketing, just organic traffic on Shapeways, gives me hope.
It suggests that in the future, as there is a more mainstream marketplace making these designs available where customers are searching for certain types of products, when general consumers realize there are places where they can go or when they see them where they are shopping anyway, there would be a bigger market for products like this. I think while it is a limited success, and maybe right now there is more of an opportunity for a side gig that you’re doing, I think the potential is there for the future.
On the other side, if I am a designer who thinks it might even be worth that effort and my time on the side, I’d have to already know that it fit the Shapeways customers who are there. They already know about 3D printing. They already will buy 3D printed products. They care that it’s cool and fun. I’d have to really understand the demographic of who is there and is willing to buy it even if they already have a 3D printer. If it’s fun and cheaper and easier for me to buy this at $20 than it is for me to recreate it myself, I might as well do that. That audience is a very different thing than if you are doing it for a day job, building it for a product line, and expecting it to sell. I’d really have to think carefully about that.
But also that margin number is not good. 25% margin is not good. So from that perspective, it’s really not a good thing. What that says to me, and the example of Pinshape going under as well, is that those places have to do a better job of attracting buyers and stop attracting designers. They are misleading the designers that there is a market there.
I am not suggesting that there is a market on Shapeways today for more stuff, for more designs, for someone to be more successful. That is not what I am suggesting. I think Shapeways as it exists today is not a market that is going to grow tremendously. I am talking about a future market that is more mainstream, and that a customer that doesn’t really understand what’s available yet and what can be done would really gravitate to and buy 3D printed products if they understood they were there and what the benefits were. It is a future market; it is a different channel.
I think that will never happen from something new coming in. I think it has to happen within a channel that already exists. You don’t shift millions of buyers and consumers across the country to a whole new portal overnight. Not a new portal. I’m saying it’s a new product line that comes into more mainstream consumer market to where a portal exists, or even to brick-and-mortar retail.
I’m saying it comes into retail. It comes to a channel that already exists. That’s why I’m saying to you that Shapeways, and those types of shops, are not it, unless they are a part of or a white-labeled portion of another shop. They can be part of the distribution channel, but the margins right now are making that very difficult. Their prices are very expensive in general. It’s got to be a trick to find the right product where the value proposition is really there.
As Austin found out, selling them direct had a great margin. It was doable. Is that what is going to happen? These retailers are very shrewd. At the end of the day, it is a technician and a machine. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to run a 3D printer. At the end of the day, will they do it themselves and cut out the middlemen altogether? That is a big risk.
Maybe they should. The bigger companies, the Walmarts, Targets, etc., certainly could afford to get vertical with some 3D print machines. It would probably cost them less than it does to import a lot of the SKUs and carry the inventory that they carry. This is why I’m so shocked that Amazon has not really stepped up enough with their support of a 3D printed future. Hopefully they will get back on it and get themselves organized, but they had so many problems getting it integrated into their own website issues. I think that they have the best possibility of integrating it.
I also think it’s going to be more relevant at brick-and-mortar retail to keep them competing with the dot-com world. If you can appeal to customers coming into the stores already for other things, and then they can see them and learn that you can do that. They won’t go searching for it. If they won’t go searching online for it, how are they going to find it on Amazon? You’d have to know what you want to find.
I think that the idea requires a lot of retail education from a 3D print world perspective. No one is championing that right now. Maybe we need to take that on. It is a bit of a paradigm shift, and you do need to educate the market. Maybe that can go hand in hand with some right product introductions that do have the right value proposition for the manufacturing suppliers and channels that exist, or get a progressive retailer who realizes that they should get vertical and get some machines that will be a lower investment than carrying so much inventory. They can offer this unlimited breadth of product lines.
We will see where it goes. Lots of good stuff to consider and think about.
- Make Mode
- Shapeways Shop
- Make Mode 3D Print Classes
- Vicky Somma
- WTFFF 191: Is Anyone Actually Selling Anything?
- WTFFF 218: Has the 3D Print Bubble Burst? Pinshape Proclaims it’s Demise
- WTFFF 124: 3D Printing Memes with Eric Ho
- Pricing 3D Print Designs – Tracy’s Pinshape Article
Austin studied Architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY where he 3D printed his first design in 2009. Since then, Austin has applied his 3D digital design skillset in professional work ranging from jewelry and accessory design, to fashion and product design. He likes talking about the future.
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