In 2013, a company called gCreate emerged with the large-format gMax 3D printer, which drew in a tremendous amount of support and enthusiasm through Kickstarter. Since then, gCreate’s success and popularity has grown, thanks to the hard work and dedication of co-founders Anna Lee and Gordon LaPlante. An expansion to a larger facility about a year ago marked the continuing growth of the company, which we were able to meet up with briefly at RAPID 2017 earlier this year. This week, we had the opportunity to chat with Lee, who told us more about building gCreate from the ground up and about her own experiences working in the 3D printing industry.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and your current work.
“My career started in fashion public relations, beginning with internships including Yohji Yamamoto and Vogue Magazine, and then accepting a full-time PR/Marketing position at Anne Klein. I gained experience with various brands over the course of several years but eventually left fashion to transition into digital marketing and event operations for an interactive media publishing company. Fast-forward to today, in addition to Co-Founder, my official title is Chief Operations Officer of gCreate. Although as a fast-paced and growing company, we all wear many hats.”
How did you first get involved with 3D printing? What drew you to the field?
“I was first introduced to 3D printing by gCreate’s Co-Founder and CEO Gordon LaPlante back in 2010. He was building his own RepRap with the intent to 3D print his own architectural models. That he was able to design and 3D print on demand was pretty mind blowing to me at the time. It still is. I started looking into all of the different applications for 3D printing and knew this was a game changing technology and that I wanted to be at the forefront of it.”
When and why did you decide to start gCreate? What was your initial vision for the company?
“While the RepRap was an impressive milestone, the tiny build plate was very limiting. I became excited by the potential of 3D printing and the different industries it could disrupt, but how limiting the size restrictions of existing machines were. Gordon and I saw a gap in the market and decided to fill it. Our initial vision for the company was to design and sell high quality, accessible, large format desktop 3D printers at a competitive price point so that we could help facilitate the realization of people’s ideas. This is still our core vision and we are expanding into other realms of 3D printing, which is very exciting.”
What were some of the biggest challenges and rewards of building your own company?
“I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t mention that it was scary to leave a job with a steady paycheck, great benefits, and five weeks paid vacation a year in order to bootstrap a company out of my living room from scratch with just one other person. While this has proven to be the best decision of my professional life, there have been moments when it was hard not to think about certain things that I gave up.
Immediately after our Kickstarter campaign and the following months were challenging because Gordon and I were working 100+ hours a week to build all of the gMax Kickstarter printers and grow a company out of our one bedroom apartment. The hours were long but the implications of our choices pushed us forward. We had a very clear end goal: fulfill all Kickstarter pledges as quickly as possible and start accepting and building pre-sale orders to keep growing the company. Achieving this goal took precedence over everything else and making the decision early on to limit the amount of Kickstarter printers available per reward tier was critical to our campaign success. We fulfilled our campaign in only 7 months and immediately afterwards expanded to a new manufacturing space. Since then, we have been consistently growing year on year but part of the challenge for any small business is learning how to grow. Creating and refining our roadmap continues to be among our biggest challenges but this journey is also the source of many of our greatest rewards.”
What do you think are the biggest challenges to diversity in the 3D printing and general tech field?
“Making a mark in any industry is already a daunting challenge but the fact that 3D printing and the tech industry in general are both known to be heavily male dominated makes it an even steeper uphill climb. I think encouraging girls to participate in STEM subjects from an early age and build their confidence is very important. And while we don’t need to princessify everything to make it girl-friendly, introducing ways that STEM can be combined with existing interests of all kinds will increase interest and engagement. Additionally, I believe challenging existing, old school beliefs held by many of the current industry gatekeepers about women in 3D printing and tech is equally important to help pave the way for future inclusion and collaboration. Initiatives like dedicating spotlights on women in 3D printing are wonderful and important, although I look forward to the day when they are no longer necessary.”
What advice would you give to a woman looking to build a career or business in the 3D printing or tech industry?
“The acronym I often repeat to myself is ABL – Always Be Learning. Make it a priority to expand and refine your skill sets, the best investment you can make is the one in yourself. Put yourself out there and connect with others, which is admittedly difficult for some people. As a natural introvert personally, I enjoy the company of books and sitting at my computer working with headphones on. However, your network is incredibly important and there are a lot of intelligent, rad, and inclusive people of all genders that are a pleasure to connect with. You never know who you will come across and where that introduction can lead.”
Getting a startup off the ground is extremely difficult, especially in this industry. What is the best advice, based on your experience, that you would offer someone trying to start a new tech business?
“Be willing to work a lot, on whatever it takes. To start a company, you need to be humble enough to take on any task necessary but make sure you are working towards carving out a more specialized role as you scale. Be prepared to learn, to accept feedback, to answer questions, and to lead. Choose your co-founder(s) very carefully. Starting and building a company is a crazy rollercoaster but going through it with someone that you wholeheartedly trust and is going to put in the sweat equity alongside you makes all the difference in the world. The growing pains are much more bearable when you are going through them with someone you trust has your back. Learn to embrace failures as learning opportunities and don’t let distractions take you off course. I’m not just talking about people with tempting offers to blow off work to have fun, I also mean tread carefully with well-intentioned proposals that sound like good opportunities but will ultimately take you off track. Keep your mind open to major opportunities but your eyes on the prize.”
What are some of your plans for the future of the company?
“I am thrilled to announce that gCreate recently launched on-demand 3D printing services. It was a natural extension for our business since we design and manufacture all gMax Printers in-house and already have a fleet of production printers with experts to run them. Not to mention that as makers of the gMax, we are able to scale our production capabilities on-demand at a very low cost. We are also able to create custom machines to suit our print job needs, such as the 15,000 cubic inch gMax BIG we’ve just built strictly for in-house purposes. The gMax 2, which we debuted at RAPID 2017, is continuing to be developed and refined with a tentative Fall 2017 release. Expanding our facilities and team is an ongoing conversation, as is the possibility of going out to raise money to assist growing our business globally at pace with our increasing demand. So in a nutshell, plans for the future are responsible and rapid growth.”
It’s not easy to build a company from scratch, especially with only one or two people, but Lee is a passionate, tireless individual whose hard work was instrumental in getting gCreate off the ground, as well as helping it continue to grow and develop into the successful business it is today. The company has achieved a remarkable amount in the few years it has been in existence, and we look forward to continuing to follow it as it expands into a 3D printing service bureau as well as a 3D printer manufacturer. You can learn more about gCreate’s new 3D printing services here.
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If you are interested in sharing your story, or know a woman we should get in touch with for this new series, please reach out any time. Send us an email or connect on Twitter. We’re looking forward to sharing more stories about women in 3D printing. Find all the features in this series here.[Images provided by Anna Lee]