I loved Printrbot. The company made value engineered, tough, hackable, well designed and well made 3D printers. Where everyone else was just a clone army, Printrbot made inexpensive 3D printers that worked. It was a company with a lot of integrity and honesty. Printrbot was also one of the most successful 3D printing companies ever selling over 50,000 systems. The Printrbot Metal and Simple designs were widely copied and the open source 3D printer company never really took in much per printer. Average sales prices were low and printers were sold for around $500. There were machines that I could heartily recommend though and with some tweaking they worked really well. There was real quality and integrity present in how the company operated and in the product itself. Brook was also inspiring in the quixotic path he took and the great 3D printer designs that he created. He just wanted to make a good cheap printer that anyone could use, a noble cause. Sub $300 3D printer competition cost the company dearly however and in a sudden shock, it went under. The clone army had claimed a victim. Brook took some time to regroup and now he’s back. In this open-hearted interview 3DPrint.com talks to Brook about what happened with Printrbot and what is next for a personal 3D printing hero of mine. He’s now on Patreon and looking to educate and make content for the 3D printing community. You can support him here.
How are you doing?
“Ha! For a CEO that had to shut down his once wildly successful company and file for bankruptcy… I’m good! I know that will sound harsh to many, but few of your readers will be able to personally relate to the situation I am living. I’m glad that is the case! All things considered, though, I have a lot to be thankful for! So, yeah, I’m good.”
What’s it like to go out of business? Did you feel it emotionally also?
“It has been an incredibly lonely time. Brutal. Just agonizingly brutal.
Sadly, this last year, I walked alongside one of my best friends, Dan, as he slowly lost his fight with pancreatic cancer. We saw signs, had time to prepare, were so happy to savor every moment… but in the end, it was awful. Awful. Just a few weeks before I closed Printrbot, I performed Dan’s funeral and graveside service and put my friend in the ground. I miss him, dearly.
Printrbot’s death was NOTHING like that… but it was kinda like that. It hurt. It broke my heart. It was very, very painful. But I was so blessed to even have it! I so enjoyed my time with Printrbot. I am a better man because of it, no question. I now have the clearest picture I have ever had of myself — who I am as a person and what is important in life. My faith in God, my family, & my friends. Losing a business is hard, but people are way more important. Period.”
I interviewed Scott Crump once and he said that the best advice is to stand up one more time than you fall down?
“Good advice. I like to say: “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.” 🙂 If any wisdom can really come from a band called “Chumbawamba“.
Your reference to Scott Crump’s quote is really addressing the human condition, not business. No matter what, just dust yourself off and get back on that horse. Try again. And by the way, stop whining about it! That’s life.”
Did low-cost Printers kill your business?
“One of my chief mantras in life is “OWN IT”. That means, if you screwed up, just say so. Admit fault and move on. There are always other factors in the environment but own your decisions and consequences. That said, Printrbot failed as a direct result of my decisions along the way. Anything beyond that description is not the main cause. But, yes, cheap Chinese-made printers, AND Amazon.com selling them, AND Americans choosing to buy them – it all contributed significantly to Printrbot’s demise.”
Why didn’t you turn to the community for aid? You’ve done so much for them?
“750 thousand reasons. Er, dollars. Yeah, it wasn’t something the community could or even should help with. It was math. The desktop 3D printing community votes with their dollars. In 2011, they voted BIG for me and Printrbot. But things changed. The market became crowded. The hype resulted in disappointment for many. Even being a “Maker” has changed somewhat. In some respects, the promise of a printer in every home rings hollow. Whatever the case, buyers went elsewhere. But the way I ran my company resulted in financial failure – and thats on me, not them.
I actually did try to find a buyer for the company. I would have taken 1 million for it and paid off the debt just to avoid losing everything. But right now is just a really bad time to sell a 3D printer company.
I have asked myself if not telling the public was a pride thing. But I don’t really think so. I was optimistic, right up to the end, that I could cut costs to the bone and survive. It actually took me by surprise. I never watched Printrbot’s bank account. I checked it maybe once a year. Weird, huh. Next thing I know, I am in my lawyers office with my wife and my CFO talking about bankruptcy. It was very sudden.”
Why are you continuing with supporting Printrbot customers?
“I am a people person. I treated my customers as family. Sometimes, I had to deal with my crazy uncle, but you still love the guy. Most of the time, dealing with the Printrbot family was all hugs and warm fuzzies. I truly loved my customers. I owe then so much.
But, let me be clear. I don’t feel obligated to do anything for anyone. I have lost more, financially, than any customer… so even if I wanted to offer a refund or send a free this or that… its just not possible. There is no money to give. We went bankrupt. But I am a helpful guy and love 3d printing, so if I can help someone with information, I will! I don’t feel I have to, I want to.”
Were you tempted to leave 3D Printing behind?
“No. I love it and know it is an incredible tool for so many applications. I have more I want to do and create in this space. But if I can’t find a sustainable niche AND perform well in that market… I may have to turn to another market for business. It’s not that CEOs choose to leave 3D printing behind, its that 3D printing has left many CEOs behind.”
What are your ambitions now?
It may take a while, but I want to grow my audience on YouTube and work to have that content provide enough income to make more. Thus the Patreon thing. People contribute monthly to allow me to do this. I like to think of it as the “Value for Value” model. I’ll produce good stuff that has value and some will choose to give back value. Its a beautiful thing. Some of the content will be 3d printer related, but I have lots of things on the list. Its going to be fun to give a project the time it deserves! I am also starting a long-form audio podcast. I will tell my story on the first episode, but my next two guests are Bre Pettis (of Makerbot fame) and Max Lobovsky (FormLabs). This alone is worth signing up for my Patreon channel!”
Will you make more 3D Printers?
“Yes, of course. It is who I am now.
Right now, I am helping Carl Ubis, of ubishotends.com, carry the torch and provide accessories to serve customers. But I do plan to design and make new printers at a much smaller scale. Printrbot was drifting into building larger and larger printers, so I am having fun exploring that niche. Currently, I am building a few “Model 3” printers for a prosthetic non-profit Niatech.org. This printer design has outperformed the competition in the wild, costs far less and, frankly, I am way easier to work with than some companies. (Me talking, not them) This large format work is inspiring me to keep designing and building. As people have need or desire, Carl and I are happy to accommodate. Its not only fun to solve new problems, but the prices of large format printers on the market make me so mad. They should not cost $10000, $20000. It’s ridiculous.”
I’m a lifer. I mean I’m never going to do anything else other than 3D Printing. You?
“Long term… well, <gulp>, I have been dreaming for years about starting a company that makes open source electric motors and controllers for electric car conversions. So I am going to try and do that. I have already found the team that can make this happen and all have agreed to get on board. The 65kW motor design is almost done – designed by a very talented specialist on the team. But I need to raise funds to finish making the prototype motors and install them in one of my cars to prove it is real. Then we will take it to Kickstarter and see if there is a market for it. One thing is for sure – this company will be debt free. Period. Yes, it all sounds crazy, but thats where I like to live. If people aren’t telling you you’re crazy, you aren’t dreaming big enough. This one is a moonshot thing for me. It may take a while, but its going to be great!”
What advice do you have for people making 3D Printers?
Building your own kit should be about fun, learning, a challenge, exploration, innovation. It is straight forward and achievable. Buy wisely, not cheaply. And consider that this hobby is about leisure, interest or the people with which you do it. In fact, I would challenge everyone to regularly pursue the hobby WITH PEOPLE. Go out and do something meaningful with your cool tools and new found knowledge. It is meant to be shared.
1. Stop making ugly printers. They don’t have to be ugly. But if you do, admit that you simply chose function and threw form out the window. For me, products that people spend hard earned money on should be beautiful. Its way harder to make a functional machine beautiful. Do that and you will stand out.
2. Know WHY you are designing that particular machine. The world doesn’t need more 3D printers. It needs BETTER ones. How is your design better than what already exists? Test the heck out of your designs and if its not better than whats already out there – throw it in the trash. What is the point? Different isn’t better. Better is better. Cheaper is most definitely not better. Better is still better. Aspire to make quality, reliable, indestructible, value packed, easy to use machines.
To companies making crappy printers:
What lessons have you learned?
“So. Many. Lessons.
#1. Work smarter, not harder.
I poured too much of myself into Printrbot. I don’t think it was healthy. Not for me, not for my family, not for anyone. I am not going to make that mistake again. I should have worked smarter, not harder. I should have sought out advice from others who have gone through the hardware startup process before making some of the crazy decisions I made early on. I sometimes tried to do crazy things just because I knew I could. We almost always pulled it off, but it was way too hard. I made it hard.
#2. Seek contentment. Money doesn’t make you happy. Period.
I always wanted to be a CEO of a fast-growing company. I wanted to be a millionaire by 40. Be careful what you ask for. It sounds cliche, but maybe a better way to say it is: if you can’t find contentment right where you are, right now, you won’t find it in that green grass on the other side of the fence.
#3. Do what you love.
I really did love what I got to do at printrbot. Loved it. But guess what.. I can still do it in my garage or in some other small business I start. I love making stuff. I will never stop. And you can’t make me. I wouldn’t stop if you paid me to. I love it.
Now go find something you love and do that thing.”