3D Hubs in in a bit of a pickle. Their crowdsourced model enables consumers to choose from a big list of suppliers, but all that choice leads to friction. As a result, many simply do nothing. Conversion suffers. To combat that, 3D Hubs began testing (in the US at least) what it calls “automated selection.” This simplifies the process for consumers, by automatically choosing a hub for them. But, it’s also changed the rules for how hubs compete…and now many are dissatisfied.
One of the big problems with a crowdsourced model is that you end up spinning a lot of plates. In a straight-up eCommerce model (think Shapeways) you’ve got customers, vendors, employees and investors to worry about. In a crowdsourced environment, you’ve also got hubs – and they’re the people who actually produce the work.
Keeping all of them happy is incredibly difficult. It gets even more so as your business model evolves.
When 3D Hubs started, the idea was to become the Uber or AirBnB of 3D printing. They built a network of people who owned 3D printers by giving them access to customers who wanted their services. They allowed them to compete based on price, proximity, ratings, capabilities and a host of other variables. This allowed individual hubs to carve out a niche. Some chose to be the low cost provider. Others focused on quality of service. Still others focused on unique materials and finishing capabilities. Some simply won by being in the right place at the right time.
For early adopters, it wasn’t a big deal. They were knowledgable and patient enough to slog through all the options. As the platform has grown though, lots of new users have entered the funnel. Fewer of them are as patient. They’re looking for an Amazon “one click” experience. 3D Hubs had to notice that as their traffic has gone up, the conversion rate has gone down. It’s inevitable when you’re faced with too much choice.
So, a decision was made to test automated selection. Based on some combination of variables, the system automatically selects a hub. While it does offer customers an option to manually select a hub, that option is subdued and isn’t offered until much later in the purchase process.
For consumers it might be easier, but in a lot of cases it’s also much more expensive. I have no idea what business rules they’re using, but the decision certainly isn’t driven solely by price.
For hubs it creates a real problem. The playing field is no longer level. An algorithm of some kind is determining which hub is automatically selected. If it’s weighted towards proximity, then those who chose to compete on price, quality, or capabilities no longer have their competitive advantage.
So now 3D Hubs has created a self-inflicted wound. In my experience there is only one good way to resolve it. Start with an apology and end with a commitment to fix the problem…and then follow through on it.
What does that mean? First, I think 3D Hubs will have to decide if they want to continue with their old business model of truly crowdsourcing production, or if they want to pivot to a smaller network of bigger players.
Whichever they decide, they need to be upfront in their communication with their current producers and give them the time and access they need to go elsewhere. Simply suspending or deleting their accounts isn’t an answer.
Second, they need to put the user experience front and center. You can’t knee-jerk a significant change like this and you certainly don’t want to test on a large scale (like the entire US market). Let consumers know you’re testing a new option and give them the choice upfront on which path to take. Help them understand the benefits of each.
Finally, be prepared for the implications of your decision. If you choose a more direct eCommerce play, you have to assume a competitor will fill the crowdsource void. There’s a lot of people who want to monetize their purchase of 3D printers. There’s also a group of customers who want to buy local, from individual suppliers. It’s no different than the market for Uber or AirBnB.
You’re better off helping those hubs migrate to a new solution than trying to block them from becoming your competition. It will happen anyway and all you’ll do is piss them off, making them even more committed to seeing you burn.
If you choose to remain a crowdsource provider, you’ve got some fences to mend. You need to think about how to use every tool at your disposal. You get a lot farther with a teaspoon full of sugar than you will a gallon of vinegar.
Right now, 3D Hubs is at a crossroads. It will be interesting to see which path they take.
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John Hauer is the Founder and CEO of Get3DSmart, a consulting practice which helps large companies understand and capitalize on opportunities with 3D printing. Prior to that, John co-Founded and served as the CEO of 3DLT. The company worked with retailers and their suppliers, helping them sell 3D printable products, online and in-store.
John’s original content has been featured on TechCrunch, Futurism, QZ.com, Techfaster.com, 3DPrint.com and Inside3DP.com, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Get3DJohn.