Is anybody making money selling 3D printing products? In this episode, Austin Robey of Make Mode talks about his company, a creative 3D printing studio based in Brooklyn, New York, and testing the waters of the 3D printing market through 3D printing mixed emotions emojis. Austin shares how they got the idea of printing 3D emojis to test the market through Shapeways and if it would be profitable for them. Together with Tracy and Tom Hazzard, Austin discusses the organic buying traffic and driving in buyers as it relates to your capacity for marketing.
Listen to the podcast here:
Mixed Emotions (Or Emojis) With Austin Robey Of Make Mode
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.
We’ve got a good interview with some real-world sales information on 3D print designs.
You guys have been asking for it and also a follower provided it. It is great that you are such a giving community with each other and we are happy to be a facilitator in that. Austin Robey of Make Mode is the name of this company in New York. He was a follower who heard the question about, “Is anybody selling anything?” which came from Eduardo Martini. He has graciously offered up his information.
He’s got some real-world numbers over eighteen months of selling designs on Shapeways and was open about sharing that with us and some other interesting things we talked about regarding his business and some other things going on in the news in 3D printing.
Austin, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Thanks for having me.
We’ve been looking forward to speaking to you for a while since you’ve commented on a past episode.
You guys have had some interesting conversations. I am a follower of the show.
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 then how Make Mode came to be and a little bit about 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 was well-known in the 3D printing world. That’s where I 3D printed my first design. From there, I started a company called Make Mode with my friend. We are a creative 3D printing studio. We are more or less of local high touch Shapeways that also can design.
You mentioned when we were talking beforehand that 3D printing was only one component of your business and a test. What is the rest of it?
I would say 3D printing is our business, that’s 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 then posting that on Shapeways. That was more or less a test to see how well it could do, more or less.
You normally have a service business and a design business and doing any kinds of digital fabrication but predominantly 3D printing and then you did a product sale test on Shapeways. Let’s talk about that because you’ve been gracious to share some numbers with our followers. How did it go and what happened?
I heard the episode you had before about, “Is anyone making any money selling 3D printed products?” I thought it was interesting because there’s little information available on this. It’s worth sharing because to continue what you guys have done to the podcast of setting realistic expectations about the 3D printing market. None of this information is online. We design some 3D printed color emojis. 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. We use it as a portfolio example. We thought it was an interesting thing to do as a 3D printed product, doing 3D printed emojis. It represents taking something digital that would be only in pixels and making it a three-dimensional object. That’s what we did. We threw it on Shapeways and we had no marketing for it. We didn’t design any packaging and we put the files for free on our website. We wanted to see how people would find it through Shapeways and if we could make any money whatsoever from that.
The emojis are cute. They’re cute. I like the concept. It’s an interesting idea to take them and turn them into three-dimension. That’s fun. It should have been attractive on Shapeways. Can you share with us what you found as a part of this experiment trying 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’s a challenge with anyone making a 3D printed product. How to hyper optimize the design so that it uses as little material as possible and therefore costs as little as possible? Immediately we noticed a trade-off. 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 per piece, which only left us a margin of $5 per piece. We decided that we’d rather have something more affordable than a higher margin. One thing that we also notice is that after designing eighteen of these emojis, we saw that 80/20 rule comes into play. 80% of our sales came from four of our models, which is interesting.
That’s not surprising. That’s 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 had the heart emoji as part of a Valentine’s Day gift guide. We did benefit from Shapeways actively pushing these. They saw that this would be a product that people might want to purchase. We benefited from them doing a part of marketing this.
They should have because they’re fun and colorful so they have editorial value, which is a key criterion in making your designs saleable and you also had a good price. That’s a problem on Shapeways, in general, is that you’re right, it’s difficult to price. If it’s difficult to price, then it’s not as highly downloadable. You had the opportunity to be more highly downloadable.
Numbers-wise, in a year and a half, we ended up selling under 400 through Shapeways, which would peak in the holiday months. It averages to about twenty. We would sell 22 models a month, which ended up being about $110, our net margin per month. No one’s quitting a job for $110 a month.
You didn’t also spend a lot of money, that’s on the plus side.
Also, we 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’ worth of designing and iterating, it ended up being about $8,000 that we made in one and a half years from this product. We conclude that it was worth it to do it and we had a lot of fun. Our focus as Make Mode as a company is not necessarily a product company, we’re more of a service. It wasn’t necessarily a road that we want to focus on, but we don’t regret it. I feel like we learned a lot from the process of doing it.
I can see that for sure. That’s a good-sized real-world test for anyone that’s considering creating designs and putting it up on Shapeways. One of our longtime followers, we’ve heard from several times from Brazil, his name is Eduardo Martini. He’s the one who asked us specifically, “Do you have any numbers? I can’t find any anywhere.” He’s going to be thrilled and hopefully, a lot of other followers are as well as to hearing about the results that you were able to get. We probably need to say that these results are an example of doing well on Shapeways, especially because they gave you some boost. Being a featured artist and getting some promotion within how they’re communicating with their community.
I would say that we’re probably an example of doing relatively well on Shapeways, but we weren’t even on the top ten most downloaded or bought purchase designs. When we visited the Shapeways factory, we would see the emojis on people’s desk and we would see it at the booth at the Shapeways booth at the 3D printing expo. I think that it’s an example of doing relatively well without being one of the top ten most purchased designs. We had some help from Shapeways from pushing this out. I would assume this is on the more successful end without being the most successful.
It’s an organic traffic example of doing well and that’s what you hope to have when you’re on one of these sites that they’re driving buyers into it. That’s the biggest mistake for a lot of these designers who join sites like Pinshape or other things. It’s obvious that buyers aren’t being driven. It’s not their marketing focus. They’re only drawing in designers. If you’re not driving in buyers, then your organic traffic is relatively low. It’s a good sign that Shapeways has some organic buying traffic and you benefited from that without doing your own marketing. Marketing is expensive. You had to think about, how are you going to drive traffic to it? Who were you going to target? There are a lot of costs there and you didn’t have to do that for this.
We could have pushed this much farther. In the end, you have to decide what you want to focus on when you have limited resources as a small company. I don’t think that we wanted to turn ourselves into an emoji factory. It was more of a test and we were fine to leave it at that. We 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 did a little bit of marketing, but maybe it was a little weak, we’d have to analyze that and say, in the scope of things, “Could you have done a better job of marketing?” The fact that you didn’t do any makes it a cleaner test of organic traffic. Not only that, I think that if Shapeways were, as they may be in the future or some other portal or site on the internet may be in the future, an actual destination for people, but general consumers shopping for 3D printable may also be somewhat customizable gift items. These sales numbers in the future for these types of products might be a lot bigger. It’s tough. I don’t think Shapeways is understood by normal mass consumers as a destination for this. You have to be in the know of the 3D printing industry a bit to know where to go and look for these things or you have to be specifically looking for them.
It provides some extra value to a lot of people knowing that it is 3D printed because a lot of people are interested in holding something as 3D printed. That’s part of the story of the product in a lot of ways.
I agree with that. I’m saying that there is a bigger consumer market for products like this, it’s just that that market doesn’t even know these products are there and that it’s even possible to purchase 3D printed products. As that awareness increases and as it becomes more venues that people understand where they can get them. The sales potential gets larger. I had a question, Austin. I remember you mentioned something to me, maybe it was your comment on our past episode or something where you said you had also created a bunch of cell phone cases and you had some results from those. Can you share that with our audience?
That’s also important to know. We designed fifteen different iPhone cases. This was also around the same time. We’re based in Brooklyn. These were different embossed abstracted maps of different New York City neighborhoods, put on different iPhone cases. We didn’t sell any of them. We made fifteen 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’s what we’ve been hearing from a lot of people is that those types of products don’t sell are cell phone cases, things that you think, “Customizable makes sense here, but for some reason, they’re not going.” I’m wondering if it’s the perception that that’s not a material I want to put around my cell phone. This is not as appealing to someone who already knows about 3D printing.
It was hard to get it to a price that was even remotely competitive with what someone could pay for an iPhone case. From the materials, it was $20 for that case.
It still isn’t 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 seem to make sense. It is telling. Creating an iPhone case, design-wise, it takes a little time. You’ve got to make sure you’re either building it off of a known model that you know is going to fit properly or you’ve got to create that and that’s a little reverse engineering that takes some time and then designing the look of it. That’s no small effort. Unfortunately, you got no return from it. It’s ironic because many companies who are making new 3D printers or any company that’s selling 3D print services as a service provider, you would think, “A cell phone case is a good example of something to show and showcase the quality of your work or what you can offer.” Yet, not one person bought one. Maybe people should rethink the examples of designs and products they create.
It felt like an easy thing to start with because it seemed like a great use case, initially. They’re still on our storage. I’ll probably take them off because they’re definitely from obsolete models of iPhones at this point.
The map part was cool. I didn’t realize it was specific neighborhoods in New York, because I didn’t read the description but I thought, “That’s cool. How neat.” Maybe from your architectural background, that seemed like a little more of an inspired idea. The Shapeways community is a little more youthful and emoji-driven.
Part of the reason why I wanted to make that because many people in New York have this micro-neighborhood pride and I feel like people might have wanted to purchase those things but those people that want to purchase those things probably weren’t the same people that were buying things on Shapeways. Maybe it didn’t even matter if it was 3D printed.
For instance, one of our followers, Vicky Somma, we’ve done an episode with her where we talked about this. She was selling some of her designs, which were driven for moms with new babies, who were nursing and things like that. It seemed to fit the audience and she had been selling them well at the local festivals. In your case, those micro-neighborhoods might have been a better place to sell them, but then you would have had to put a whole other marketing arm into your business where you’re doing events. It would be a better place and that didn’t fit your model.
We didn’t want to sell iPhone cases at flea markets. That’s not why we got into being a 3D printing service. It was the choice that we made to exclusively throw them on Shapeways and see how they did.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the Pinshape closure and what you think it means for the 3D print industry in general.
There’s probably a broader criticism of startup culture here as well as a critique on some bets that people have made on 3D printing because a lot of people and investors have made some bullish bets on consumer 3D printing, retail and 3D printing. The idea that people have printers everywhere in their home and this will become an X amount of billions of dollar industry. It doesn’t seem like it’s materialized in the way that a lot of people would like it to. Make Mode is a different company and that we are intentionally bootstrapped and not focused on users or hockey stick growth. In the startup world, you’ll hear a lot about personas, like, “Who was the person that’s going to use our service?” It’s a 29-year-old guy that works at WIRED, and he enjoys 3D printing but doesn’t have a 3D printer. For us, our personas for the people that we work with are the people that 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’re doing work that people need.
Kudos, I’m glad to hear that. Tom and I talked about that all the time. We’ve talked to many companies here on the podcast, and many of them have zero revenue focus at all. They have no plans for that.
We wanted to build a 3D printing service that has a value proposition now and not predicated on some bet that we’re going to solve some problem that exists tomorrow.
We are in the same boat as you. It might have to do with the fact that we’re all designers. 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 little bit different world that we come from than that software and tech side of things. Obviously, we’re not in Silicon Valley, we don’t have that viewpoint and that’s exactly why we bootstrapped it too and that’s 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 such a high growth industry, that there was almost pressure if you were any company to seek outside funding. We resisted that. We wanted to stay grounded and stay focused and listen to people in New York and what they needed and try to build the best service around that.
What is your biggest challenge in growing your business? Maybe some of our followers can help.
There are all sorts of bottlenecks that make smooth growth challenging sometimes. If we’re busy, sometimes that may be the capacity of the machine or XYZ. If possible, I’d like to also tell the followers that we also offer 3D printing classes. If anyone in podcast land is interested in learning about 3D printing, to 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 software like Rhino and ZBrush. We go through the start to completion of an actual 3D printed model. Learning the technical ins and outs and getting into the design software and resulting in making a 3D printed model. We also have a two-hour seminar, which is covering a little bit of everything about the 3D printing industry, which is more so for people that are curious about the technology, they’ve read articles and they are interested in knowing more how they could apply to their design practice.
Do you have to be in New York, or is this something you do via webinar as well?
This is only in New York. We have these workshops at our studio. Eventually, we’d like to have them online. This is April 2016, if someone is reading this later, it might be online. As of now, it’s at our studio.
New York is a big market. I’m sure you have lots of people filling those classes. A thought on growth, if I might suggest for you is that there are a lot of these telework spaces all over the country. These temporary workspaces where you rent a spot among many and you pay a few hundred dollars a month or something like that. You can work in the space periodically. A lot of them are 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.
It’s 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’s a learning curve. We found that a ton of people are interested in learning about 3D printing.
I would say that’s maybe the understatement of the episode. I’m glad to hear you’re addressing it from the design side as an intensive because not a lot is and that’s a big problem. Thank you so much for sharing your information with us, Austin.
Thanks for having me.
I want to thank Austin for being open about sharing that information. He’s got nothing to lose in doing it and he cares about the community and he’s trying to help it. It’s not his day job. It’s not his main mode of business, why not be honest about how many of his 3D designs he’s been able to sell over Shapeways?
It’s great because this reinforces one of the things that I said numerous times to people, especially in the article I wrote for Pinshape and other things, one thing to price it right, which is important. Marketing is more important than anything else. If you’re going to go through the whole effort of putting it up there to expect organic traffic is unrealistic. This proves that he had a good result from zero marketing. He did get a little organic boost, but only because he had a cool looking design that stood out. It was colorful. It looked great. Whenever they put it on the front page, they were able to switch it up and pick a different emoji for the month. He gave them a lot of ammunition by having a great product. It was a great fit for the community. He ended up doing fairly well with no marketing because of that. When you don’t have that great fit, the only thing you have is marketing. The only way you can do it is to drive traffic into it.
There are several things to take away from this. One is, you’ve got to have a unique original design, one that resonates with people 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 market, 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 timeliness and high market value, they’re instagrammable and they look cool, but do they have a lot of lasting power? He’s not made it to the top ten on Shapeways either.
I asked for a code to see if he would be the person we interview for this episode and we had it in mind trying to answer Eduardo Martini’s question and he politely declined. He wasn’t willing to share his sales numbers. It would be educational for the audience if he or someone like him would share more information, but maybe in time.
In his case, he is doing a lot of marketing. That’s where his core business is. He’s not the designer. He has a partner who’s a designer. The difference between putting a lot of marketing in it and how much better do you do than just the organic if you had the right fit. The big issue is that 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 eighteen months and what they were able to sell with no real marketing, just organic traffic on Shapeways, to me, it gives me hope. It does suggest that in the future, as there is a more mainstream marketplace, making these designs available where customers are searching for certain types of products that they want to buy, whether it’s for a holiday, a themed thing or a gift or whatever. When general consumers realize there are places they can go or when they see them where they’re shopping anyway, that there will be a bigger market for products like this. It wallets a limited success, and maybe even its saying there’s more of an opportunity for a side job, as a side gig that you’re doing. The potential is there in the future.
From my perspective, if I’m a designer who thinks that might be even worth my effort and time on the side, I’d have to already know that it fits 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 understand as the demographics of who’s there and is willing to buy it even though they already have a 3D printer maybe but they’re like, “This is such a cool thing. I’m going to buy it. I want to stick it on my desk.” People put the emojis on their desks. It fits me. It’s fun. It’s cheaper and easier for me to buy this at $20 than it is for me to go and recreate it myself. I might as well do that. That audience is a different thing than if you’re doing it for a day job and building a product line and expecting it to sell. I have to say that I’d think carefully about that. Also, that margin number is not good. From that perspective, it’s not a good thing. What that says to me though, 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 because you’re misleading designers that there’s a market there.
I’m not suggesting that there is a market on Shapeways for more stuff, for more designs and for someone to be more successful than what Austin has done. That’s not at all what I’m suggesting. Shapeways, as it exists, is not a market that is going to grow tremendously. I’m talking about a future market that is more mainstream and that a customer who doesn’t understand what’s available yet and what can be done, would gravitate to and buy 3D printed products if they understood they were there and what some of the benefits were. It’s a future market. It’s a different portal or it’s a different channel.
I think that’s never going to happen from something new coming in. It has to happen within a channel that already exists. You don’t shift millions of buyers and millions of consumers across the country to a whole new portal overnight. It doesn’t happen like that.
I’m saying it’s a new product line, comes into the more mainstream consumer market to where a portal exists or even to brick and mortar retail that we’re getting more relevant.
It comes into a channel that already exists and that’s why I’m saying that Shapeways and those types of Shapeways, Sculpteo, i.materialise all of those shops, even WhiteClouds, they’re not it, unless they’re a part of or a white-labeled portion of another shop and the margins are hard.
They can be a part of the distribution channel but the margins are making that difficult. Their prices are expensive in general. It’s going to be a trick to find the right product where the value proposition is there.
As Austin found out, selling them directly, the margin was good and it was doable. Is that what’s going to happen? These retailers are shrewd. At the end of the day, it’s a technician and a machine. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to run a 3D printer. At the end of the day, are they going to end up doing it themselves and cutting out the middlemen altogether? That is a big risk.
Maybe they should. The bigger companies, the Walmarts, Targets, the superstores of the world, a few examples, maybe even the Michaels Arts and Crafts to the world 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.
Which is why I’m shocked that Amazon has not stepped up enough with their support of 3D printed future. Hopefully, they will get back on it and get their selves organized. They had many problems with getting integrated into their own website issues. They have the best possibility of integrating it.
I think it’s going to be more relevant at brick and mortar retail and keeping them more relevant to compete with the dot-com world. If you can appeal to customers coming into the stores already for other things, and then they can see it and learn. I know it’s a shift, but you need to be there so that when they come in for other things they learn and say, “This is here. You can do that.” They’re not going to go searching for it. If they’re not going to go searching online for it, how are they going to find that on Amazon? You have to know what you want to find.
The idea, it requires a lot of retail education from a 3D print world perspective and no one is championing that. Maybe we need to take that one on.
I like that idea. It is a bit of a paradigm shift and you do need to educate the market, but maybe that can go hand in hand with some right product introductions that do have the right value proposition for the manufacturing suppliers and channel that exists or get a progressive retailer who realizes, “We get vertical and get a couple of machines. It’s a lower investment than carrying so much inventory and we could offer all this unlimited breadth of a product line.” There are lots of good stuff to consider and think about.
We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you have any comments or would like to send a thank you, shout-out to Austin which would be great, please send us a message, a tweet, Instagram, anything at @HazzDesign.
If you have some information about your 3D print sales experience, successes or not so successful either way, and you’re willing to share that, comment at the blog post at 3DStartPoint.com.
Thanks again for following.
- 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
- Make Mode
- Instagram – Hazz Design
- @HazzDesign – Twitter
About Austin Robey
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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