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Bringing a Business Model from Prototype to Scale: Makelab CEO Christina Perla Discusses the Company’s Innovative Growth Strategy

“Being industrial designers, Manny and I, at first, planned to start a design firm. As we were building it out and taking on various client projects, there was an opportunity to acquire the vendor that we were using for 3D printing. We thought this acquisition was going to be in support of the design firm, but we ended up finding success and scalability much faster than the other business,Makelab’s CEO, Christina Perla, told me concerning what she referred to as the company’s “semi-unintentional” origins. It may not be the route for everyone, but it turns out that “by accident” is, in, at least one case, a viable way to start a business.  

The viability of that option could depend on the team you have around you: ‘Manny’ is Manny Mota, the COO and co-founder of Makelab, and Perla’s husband. Perla and Mota both studied industrial design at Brooklyn’s prestigious Pratt Institute, which is more or less the whole rationale behind why the duo started an additive manufacturing (AM) service bureau in the unlikely location of one of Manhattan’s five boroughs.

In retrospect, they made a smart decision: Makelab’s foothold in a concentrated urban environment gives the company a unique advantage in its ability to interface with clients close to their home turf, while also allowing the service bureau to draw upon the area’s vast amount of design creativity. Of course, the Brooklyn factor alone wouldn’t have mattered if Makelab hadn’t learned some other key lessons throughout its early stages:

“We haven’t raised money from VCs, and I think that’s been a big part of our success so far,” said Perla. “We are able to really guide Makelab in a way that is client- and product-focused. We listen to what is needed and solve for that—all without the unrealistic growth timeline pressure from VCs. One of our super powers is that we know how to talk to product/hardware people, we come from that world. And we’ve been around for seven years with steady growth, it helps with trust and credibility with our clients. The client experience that we have tailored is one of the big reasons why clients come to us and keep coming back: it’s reliability in a sea of product development chaos and pressure. Our entire history at Makelab has been a little bit of luck, reacting strategically and thoughtfully to opportunities, and a bit of happenstance.” 

2024 is an especially good year for Makelab thus far, going from one to two locations, with Perla noting that, as of the beginning of April, the company’s year-to-date performance has improved almost fourfold compared to the same metric at that time in 2023.

“It’s likely that by the end of the year we will hit 2-3x growth from the previous year,” Perla told me.

Speaking to Perla’s comment about “a little bit of luck, reacting strategically and thoughtfully to opportunities, and a bit of happenstance,” the company could be in quite an alternative position right now, had certain events simply transpired somewhat differently 

“I feel like the universe has this funny way of having your back in the right moments and pointing you in the right direction,” Perla said. “We got left at the altar by a VC fund: they were writing checks ahead of actually having money in the bank, and it basically imploded on them. Makelab and a bunch of other female-founded companies all were in advanced stages of our deals when this imploded. But we took it as a sign that we needed to just bet on ourselves — ‘let’s just keep building.’ We had a business model that was working and growing way before we started pitching, so let’s grow the business on that foundation that is already created. It was not the planned accelerated growth that we anticipated, but in retrospect I think it was one of the best decisions we could’ve made.” 

On the one hand, the decision not to go the VC route was to a large extent made for Makelab, which is the luck and happenstance part. But I think the company’s strategic response to that outcome demonstrates precisely why success is never just about luck and happenstance: many other companies would’ve likely responded to the disappearance of the initial deal as a sign that they should take whatever deal fell in their lap next. Makelab, instead, rolled with the punches, and is now likely in a far better place to bring on investors, should they choose to do so, than it was years ago.  

Meanwhile, the company is now growing organically entirely on its own terms: Makelab is about to open its second location, in the very fitting locale of San Francisco. This decision has also been the combination of fortuitous circumstances and deliberate maneuvering, with the move resulting from Makelab’s networking with Nate Padgett, co-founder of prototyping space/consultancy Studio 45, among other ventures. The new Makelab location will be co-located with Studio 45’s second location:  

“We knew San Francisco would be a hotspot just by the amount of hardware companies that are there and by how many of our current clients are from the Bay Area. We look for different markers that might signify a hot spot- professional networks, education, city history. We conduct high-level market research and then dive deep to back it up. Secondly, an opportunity to co-locate is super strategic in many ways. Although, the cultural and community fit has to be there — it has to still feel like Makelab.” 

If you’re wondering what Makelab feels like, it’s an environment where the best way to fit in is to be a holistic thinker:

“I’ve seen and observed way too many unbalanced, hypertechnical, engineering-heavy additive teams that end up getting siloed within the companies they’re a part of,” Perla explained. “And when that happens, that’s when things tend to go wrong. Communication goes right out the door. So if you’re in AM and only paying attention to AM rather than broader trends, it’s inevitable that blind spots will arise. If there’s one thing I learned in my industrial design experience, it’s to always approach a problem in terms of, here’s my focus, but here, also, is my radius — and how do those things bridge? I’d say that’s a core strength that both Manny and I have.” 

As much love as Perla has for AM, seeking out individuals with little AM experience is clearly a big theme behind Makelab’s operational effectiveness:

“I love bringing in people who may have light experience with AM, but are from outside the industry that are really curious to learn, that have general skills like project management and client relationship management skills. Being able to get things in and out the door is a core function of what we do, it’s surprising how few people really do have that attentiveness and accountability skill. And since we’re a startup and we’re still very much in the process of growing, one thing I look for in prospective employees is, are you able to handle a little bit of chaos? I think it’s a genuine skill for someone who not only can navigate through that, but is actually able to grow from that and is motivated by it. Manny and I are prime examples of that — we’re designers, so how did we end up in this engineering industry, right? We’re proof that if you’re really motivated to learn about something, you’ll figure it out.”  

“Learning by doing” is an important principle for manufacturing these days, and its importance is only going to increase, the faster the global industrial landscape changes, and the more that legacy brands turn to companies like Makelab to help them adapt to the new normal. In terms of what Makelab can bring to the table based on its journey thus far, Perla summed it up best: “I wish people would focus less on selling their business model and more on the quality of their product/service.” By doing just that, Makelab has stumbled across quite a promising business model.    

Images courtesy of Makelab

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