Five Things We Learned from Building a Global 3D Printing Network

3D Hubs
3D Hubs
Sep 14, 2015 · 11 min read

…and how we built a community-powered brand.

The backstory

In the Winter of 2013, my good friend Brian and I quit our jobs at a major 3D printer manufacturer and began an adventure together centered around connecting a new generation of creators to a thriving worldwide network of 3D printers.

Since we had worked in the 3D printing industry together for four years, we knew many 3D printer owners and how they used their machines to create a variety of incredible parts, prototypes, and larger projects. As much as they seemed to be printing, though, we also noticed that they were leaving their machines idle for more than 90% of the time.

After further discussions with these and other 3D printer owners, we determined that many would love to be able to use their 3D printer’s idle time as an opportunity to create 3D printed objects for others. Among other reasons, doing so would both allow them to earn some extra money as well as to connect with other Makers in their community.

We set out to build the “Airbnb of 3D Printing”.

Soon after, Brian and I set out to build an online marketplace that brought together these 3D printer owners and those that needed 3D prints — a very simple concept that surprisingly didn’t exist yet in 2013.

Within days of sketching out our initial vision for a community-powered 3D printing platform, we had ten 3D printers connected in our hometown of Amsterdam.

Last month — nearly two and a half years later — we successfully connected the 20,000th 3D printer to our global 3D Hubs network and now have users in more countries than McDonalds.

In honor of our recent celebration of connecting the 20,000th 3D printer to our network, we’d like to share five things that we’ve learned along the way about bootstrapping our startup to where it stands today. These particular strategies have been instrumental in our scalability and success along the way, and all of them can be applied to most any other marketplace today.

1. Create a roll-out strategy

Today, the 3D Hubs team consists of 35 employees, however when we first started, it was just Brian and myself.

Since we initially wanted to keep our overhead low while testing the viability of the platform, our website functionality was extremely limited and involved little more than a simple Launchrock landing page. To monitor transactions, we used Google Sheets.

As you might expect, the first transactions between our earliest Hubs (3D printer owners) and our customers were a bit rough around the edges.

Partly, this had to do with processing all of our transactions by hand while also ensuring that delivery times were on schedule. More often than not, this involved Brian or myself biking around Amsterdam day and night to deliver some of the first 3D prints created on our new network.

Although it may not have been as seamless as we might have hoped, the experience of operating our platform by hand without automated systems proved to be vital for gaining a better understanding of the user experience. Additionally, it also directed us towards identifying our weaknesses and directing us where we needed to focus our attention on accelerating overall growth.

“More often than not, this involved Brian or myself biking around Amsterdam day and night to deliver some of the first 3D prints”

During this time, we were able to meet many other like-minded individuals, and it became apparent that there were many tightly-knit and passionate 3D printing communities in our area who also shared common views about democratizing manufacturing.

To bring all of these like-minded individuals together under one roof, Brian and I hosted our very first meetup at our brand new Amsterdam office soon after. The result of our first ‘meet-up’ was a truly memorable event where guests shared their latest 3D printed creations betweens swigs of beer and bites of hors d’oeuvres. Needless to say, the enthusiasm and energy that came from bringing these creators together was enough to make us realize that we were onto something much, much bigger than we had previously thought.

It was at this point when we asked ourselves, “how can we prioritize our efforts, based on the 3D printing growth in a certain city”?

Our answer — which needed to be based on organic growth— came in the form of our “Unlock Your City” campaign.

Ultimately, if a particular location had a minimum of ten 3D printers listed on our platform and could accept orders from local customers, then we would organize the meetup as a location-specific launch party. Our goal was to encourage users to “unlock” their particular city on the 3D Hubs platform as a first step towards bringing truly-democratized manufacturing to their community.

The results from our “Unlock Your City” campaign are still among our favorite highlights of the 3D Hubs journey to this day. Not only did it prove that there was a demand for our network, but it also proved that the 3D printing community was alive and thriving beyond what anybody had previously measured.

Deepak Mehta @Deeeep early 2013 pushing the community to join 3D Hubs

An exceptional example of our humble campaign came from Antwerp, Belgium resident Deepak Mehta, who called upon his friends using various social media platforms after seeing our earlier presentation at Singularity University. In less than fourteen days, twenty 3D printers in the Antwerp community had signed up, and Deepak himself even organized the local Antwerp launch event.

Soon after Deepak proved what was possible, many other 3D printing communities around the world started “unlocking” their cities on the platform, too. Before long, it even got to the point where it became difficult for Brian and myself to attend all of the launch parties for each of the unlocked cities.

Most importantly though, the roll-out strategy worked — and it did so organically.

2. Set up an ambassador program

Impressed by the results of what Deepak was able to achieve in Antwerp on his own, we soon learned that there were others like him in our newly-established communities all around the world. As a way of recognizing these community-building efforts from our most loyal users, we established the 3D Hubs Mayor ambassador program.

Today, we have over 70 3D Hubs Mayors across 23 countries around the world promoted as our most active and influential members on the 3D Hubs platform. To date, the scalable program has been one of the most successful elements of our community growth and helps drive activities in local communities including meet-up events, community support and visibility.

the 3 main activities of Mayors on 3D Hubs

Ultimately, the core of our ambassador program is built around benefitting not just our brand, but also motivated individuals of the greater 3D printing community who are looking to amplify their passion and lead their local community.

Because ambassador programs are highly scalable and can adapt to different user experiences, it has proven to be an invaluable community-building platform for 3D Hubs. Other companies who have also found success with ambassador programs include AirBnB and Hootsuite, among others.

3. Get the industry leaders on board

Shortly after we started gaining more community traction with our “Unlock Your City” campaign and our resulting 3D Hubs Mayor ambassador program, we began the process of talking directly with the 3D printer manufacturers themselves.

Since Brian and I had already spent time in the industry working with some of these 3D printer manufacturers, we were able to reconnect and convince them to represent their brand on our platform. Among other reasons, satisfied 3D printer owners have been known to talk highly of their machines within their local community — a win/win for everybody.

Unboxing of a Ultimaker 2 with 3D Hubs flyer by the one and only Barnacules Nerdgasm

Soon after, Ultimaker, a Dutch 3D printer manufacturer, added a 3D Hubs promotional flyer into all of their shipped boxes to help encourage their customers to put their new 3D printer on our platform. After a few months, news of the successful promotional strategy quickly spread to other 3D printer manufacturers — who began doing the same.

There were (and still are) two particular benefits for 3D printer manufacturers in doing this.

First of all, many of our customers pick up their 3D print orders locally and often watch a live demonstration of their Hub’s 3D printer. Unsurprisingly, this experience — paired with their growing interest in 3D printing — excites them enough to consider buying the same 3D printer for themselves.

Secondly, we publish data on the popularity and performance of 3D printers on our platform (more on that below). Manufacturers have an incentive to get more 3D printers signed up to 3D Hubs as it increases their chances of appearing higher in our widely published charts.

In the end, the 3D printer manufacturers were able to tap into our growing community while we tapped into theirs; it was a win-win scenario, and it was completely free.

4. Start with offline before going online

It’s hard to believe, but before connecting one billion people to access to a 3D printer within ten miles of their home, all of our communications were happening offline.

As previously mentioned, we started building our greater international community through our “Unlock Your City” campaign and events that were organized by our 3D Hubs Mayor ambassador program. What we didn’t mention, however, was that the majority of this community-building was happening outside of online community management tools and platforms. After all, how do you grow a community that doesn’t exist yet?

Formlabs Talk, a 3D Hubs community centered around the 3D printer brand Formlabs.

At the end of 2014, we launched Talk, our very own online 3D printing community network that allows creators and Hubs to post questions, current projects, events, news, pictures and more. The result is a much more powerful product that helps new users and old become a part of the 3D Hubs community.

Ultimately, after a year of listening to what our community was interested in offline, we were able to execute a better product that brought those existing conversations online into a seamless user experience.

5. Become an industry thought leader

Similar to other online marketplaces, our platform is capable of gathering heaps of data about consumer behavior and our greater industry as a whole. Among other insights, these include what people are 3D printing at any given time, which 3D printers they are using to create these objects, and where they are doing it.

Although we could sell this data to research companies for a healthy profit, we’ve made the conscious decision to share it openly for free in our monthly 3D Hubs Trend Report.

By openly sharing this information, we’re helping our Hubs to stay informed of the behaviors that are happening in the industry as a whole. This information then leads to more educated business decisions on their part such as which customer segments to focus on or which 3D printer materials to stock.

Additionally, since this data is accessible to everybody, it is consistently referenced and covered in a majority of major 3D printing news media outlets and blogs.

While our monthly reports help provide up-to-date insight, we have found equal success with our annual Best 3D Printers Guide.

The online guide, which is based on the feedback from over 2,279 reviewers who spent over 30 minutes sharing what they like and do not like about their 3D printer(s), is the result of more than 335 hours of writing from over 1,623 years of collective 3D printing experience and over 300,000 prints made on the reviewed 3D printers. To date, the annual Guide is the most comprehensive of its kind in the industry and has drawn attention from news outlets in multiple industries with over 150,000 monthly unique visitors.

But while the impressive numbers are one thing, our focus has consistently been on educating our community to make more informed purchasing decisions. Unsurprisingly, this also elevates the quality of 3D prints that are transferred through our platform and to our customers.

One more thing: you'll need a mascot!

It’s hard to imagine that we started without our beloved company mascot, Marvin.

Marvin’s been known to wear many different hats around 3D Hubs.

This friendly looking 3D Printable robot came to life after a few brainstorms with just a handful of people. Our task was simple: come up with a 3D printable mascot — a symbol for our community.

Now, two years later, Marvin has become a symbol of not just our community, but the 3D Printing Revolution as a whole.

On MakerBot’s Thingiverse — the most popular website for sharing printable content — Marvin has proudly held the title of the most 3D printed object and is often printed as ridiculously tiny or excessively large by his obsessive fanbase:

Looking ahead — where do we go from here?

As 3D Hubs continues to connect 3D printers to customers across the globe every day, our goal of delivering high-quality products created by local 3D printers hasn’t changed one bit since Brian and I delivered our earliest 3D prints on bicycle by hand.

Along with our incredible community and our growing 3D Hubs team, we can’t wait to see what the future holds as we continue to change the way that things get made.

What will you create?

Bram de Zwart*
Co-founder 3D Hubs

*Thanks to Brian Garret for help piecing this post together.

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3D Hubs

The world's largest network of manufacturing services.Founded by: @briangarret & @bram_zwart