It was one of those odd circumstances that just happens when you put together lots of open-minded young people who are slightly terrified of the future but excited about what can happen.
When Dan Shapiro was in college studying engineering, Pink Floyd changed his life.
He’d never heard the band’s music. But one day, as one of their psychedelic songs drifted out of a nearby dorm room, Dan walked over and peeked in. There he saw a contraption bouncing lasers off a mirror taped to a speaker cone. He was fascinated.
That chance encounter marked what would become a lifelong passion to harness the power of lasers. As the co-founder of Glowforge, Dan is mainstreaming the use of what the company describes as a 3D laser printer.
Laser cutters have been used for decades in industrial manufacturing. But the machines have been bulky, hard to use, and expensive — costing more than $10,000. Glowforge set out to change that, using the cloud and software to replace expensive hardware components, cutting prices by more than half. The company’s laser cutter and engraver lets users etch designs into hundreds of materials (including plastic, fabric, leather, wood, metal, glass, and more) and then cut out and assemble the shapes into 3D objects.
A year after its founding, Glowforge set a crowdfunding record, raising nearly $28 million in 30 days. Starting from a base of enthusiasts and early adopters, it has expanded into education, where more than 3,600 schools have now bought Glowforge printers.
Most recently, Glowforge launched Glowforge Aura, the first-ever craft laser. Priced at just $1,199, Glowforge Aura is set to revolutionize the stagnant craft machine industry by replacing disposable razor blades with a beam of light the width of a human hair. Glowforge Aura launched on July 25 and sold out on Home Shopping Network (HSN) in under ten minutes.
Shapiro, who also created Robot Turtles — a board game to teach programming fundamentals to preschoolers, has a clear mission: push technology a little closer to Star Trek’s replicator and bring us all a little closer to a future in which if you can dream it, you can make it.
Q: Your company’s based in Seattle. Is that your hometown?
I grew up in Portland, Oregon, but lived in Fargo, North Dakota, until I was 12.
Q: How did your family wind up there?
So, Fargo is the answer to the question, “Where can two newly minted professors get teaching jobs at the same time?” That’s why my parents moved my brothers and me to Fargo when I was two.
Q: What subjects did they teach?
My mom is a professor of speech and communications. Her research focus was organizational communications, so I was talking about situational leadership over the dinner table in high school. My dad taught computer science and did joint research with my mom on computer-mediated communications. I’m essentially the punchline to the joke, “What do you get if you cross a computer scientist with a communications professor.”
Q: What was it like growing up in Fargo?
Fargo was a great place to be a kid. It was a safe, warm, welcoming, and tight-knit community. But lots of the people I knew who grew up there also got bored out of their minds and started doing drugs or alcohol because there was just nothing to do. So, 12 was the perfect age to leave.
Q: What about your brothers? What did they wind up doing?
Ari is the host of All Things Considered on NPR. Joseph is an award-winning environmental economist at UC Berkeley. Everybody turned out okay.
Q: You had your father’s example of being in computer science. Did technology have a particular pull?
I was set on being a patent attorney.
Q: That’s a surprise, given how your career unfolded.
I loved to argue and debate, and when I asked grown-ups what jobs involved arguing, the answer was an attorney. I also loved technology and science and would geek out in the science lab. So, when I asked what sort of lawyers dealt with science, I was told a patent attorney. I said, great, I’ll become a patent attorney.
Q: Then you went off to Harvey Mudd to study engineering.
The typical path for a patent attorney was to get an engineering degree and work as an engineer for a couple of years before going to law school. I thought that was a great idea, but then I found that I really enjoyed the engineering part after I went to work at Microsoft as a program manager.
Q: Any projects of note that you worked on?
Windows 98, Windows XP, and Windows 2000. I got to have a real impact on some huge products, and it was really fun. When I was a program manager, I remember working with a patent attorney. But after going through the whole process, I realized that I was having more fun with the technology and inventing aspect of this job.
Q: Was that when you decided on tech?
Yeah. I started to think that maybe entrepreneurship offered a more exciting path.
Q: We’ll get there in a moment, but I wanted to note that Glowforge is your fourth startup. How far back did that drive manifest itself?
I didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur or a businessperson. Back in high school, I did get interested in business, but it was around the margins. Like how do stocks work? And how do companies buy and sell things, and how do the economics of that work? It was one of those odd circumstances that just happens in college when you put together lots of open-minded young people who are slightly terrified of the future but excited about what can happen.
Q: What were the circumstances you’re referring to?
One day I was walking past a dorm room where they were playing Pink Floyd, and they had this laser pulsing on the wall. This was the first I’d ever heard of Pink Floyd. And a student named Jeremy Plunkett, who I became close friends with, showed me the simplest thing in the world. He was bouncing a laser off a mirror that was taped to a speaker cone. Imagine a speaker that moves back and forth, with a little tiny mirror taped to it. Jeremy and I started building somewhat more complicated laser shows, mostly just riffing off of the stuff he was already doing. Then one day, somebody came up to us and said, “Oh, that’s cool. I’ll pay you fifty bucks to bring your laser show to my party.” And I was like, all right, we’re onto something.
Q: A business opportunity for the taking?
We started charging fifty to a hundred bucks a party, depending on size and scale. And then, at one of the parties, somebody asked whether we could DJ parties as well. We figured out we could buy the smallest number of CDs that would include all those songs to cover the two and a half hours we were going to get paid for. The money from that DJ gig would pay for the CDs; we’ll break even there, and then anything else was profit. And Jeremy was like, OK, that’s the plan.
Q: That was an early harbinger. Fast forward a few years. You left Microsoft. Then what?
I went to work for a startup called Wildseed, which made a Linux-based cell phone for the kid’s market. I oversaw product management and got to see the rise of a venture-backed startup. It was fascinating. But my heart was in the world of startups, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. All my spare time was spent thinking about startup ideas and who I could found a company with, and what the idea would be. Eventually, I got together with a longtime friend, and we came up with the idea for cloud services for camera phones. The company was called Ontela. I then spent nine months pitching. My full-time job was raising money, but I didn’t clear a single penny for nine months. And I mean, I raised nothing until well into month nine. Finally, I convinced an angel investor to get in. That brought together an angel round and then helped catalyze a venture round, and the company later merged with Photobucket, which I ran for about four years.
Q: Back then, you were also a skeptic about crowdfunding. But you eventually wound up setting a record with the Robot Turtles board game. What was it that tickled the fancy of so many people on Kickstarter?
I had a friend, Elan Lee, who was very excited about Kickstarter. At the time, I thought he was insane. But he convinced me to give it a try, and so I backed a few things on Kickstarter. It turned out to be kind of fun. He was working in television at the time and pitched a TV show that I helped him with. In the process of doing that, I thought I should learn about crowdfunding from the inside and put something on Kickstarter.
In the meantime, I invented a board game for my kids. I really launched it just to learn how Kickstarter worked. That’s when crowdfunding reached its magic. Before the launch of Robot Turtles, there weren’t any board games that taught programming principles to preschoolers. Elan helped me polish up my crowdfunding campaign, and later, I helped him with his crowdfunding campaign for Exploding Kittens, which was the biggest crowdfunding campaign for anything ever at the time. He launched the Exploding Kittens Company, which is now one of the biggest game companies in the world.
Q: And Robot Turtles is still available for sale. I checked on Amazon before our conversation.
Not only is it on Amazon, but it was recently available at the Target in Fargo.
Q: Good segue to talk about your idea of a 3D-printing startup. How did that come about?
I was still working on Robot Turtles sometime around 2013, and some people suggested that I make a deluxe version with 3D parts. A friend of mine named Bre Pettis founded a company called MakerBot. All the world was excited about what he came up with, which was 3D printing in the home. I was excited, too. But when I went to the local makerspace, I couldn’t make turtles that I wanted to share. It was like plastic spaghetti. Then the guy at the makerspace suggested that what I really wanted was a laser cutter. I had to pay $3 a minute for somebody to run the laser cutter for me, which was untenable. But the results were beautiful, and I thought it was amazing. I promptly imported a giant industrial carbon dioxide cutting laser from China, which I had installed in my garage.
Q: Not the usual thing you find in a garage but OK. Where did that lead?
Over the following year, while I was working on Robot Turtles, I would mess around with the machine to cut parts and even used it to create a deluxe edition of Robot Turtles. Then I started inviting over different entrepreneurs who I knew from the Seattle area to come to my garage. Every one of them said, “What are you doing with this monstrosity, Dan? This thing is ridiculous.” And then I’d push the button, something beautiful would come out, I’d hand it to them, and they’d say, “Okay, maybe that’s not quite so crazy.”
Q: How did you cross paths with Mark Gosselin, who eventually became your co-founder at Glowforge?
One of the people who visited me at my garage was Rick Hennessy. We met years earlier when we were both pitching angel investors. He raised money, I did not. But we had stayed friends through the years. After coming over, Rick said, “You should meet my CTO from the company we just sold. His name is Mark Gosselin.”
We set up a meeting where I explained laser cutters. At the end of my monologue, Mark turned to Rick and said, “I didn’t tell you what I’ve been doing over the past year, did I?” Rick said, “No, you’re a vault. I have no idea what you’re up to.” And Mark said, “That’s because I’ve been building a combination milling machine/3D printer/plasma torch/laser cutter in my garage.” I asked whether he had built it from a kit. And he said he had built it from scratch. Then after a long pause, he looked at me and said, “We could do this.” And that’s when I knew that I had met a kindred spirit. Kismet.
Q: At the time, printing with 3D lasers wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t affordable. What did you see that made you believe you could do it differently?
We had to start by asking, how do we take this industrial technology and use it to transform everyday life? How could this impact people in a way that would change their everyday existence? Just like the personal computer and the internet. How can we use this as a key to unlock something? The vision was simple: humanity is a species of tool users. Homo sapiens use tools: that’s what we do. But up until a couple of hundred years ago, if you wanted something, you or someone in your community made it themselves. And we wanted to bring back a world where people could create things on their own. It was technology that took that away. And it is technology that can bring back a world where it is faster, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly to make things when they’re needed by the people who need them and for the purpose that they’re needed. It’s the dream of the Star Trek replicator. You can bring things to life because you dream of them. That’s the business that we’re in, not the laser business. We’re in the business of enabling people to create whatever they imagine. And it’s just the start of that trip.
Q: Keeping the machine simple also offers more flexibility, doesn’t it?
I’ll give you a great example. We recently deployed a new feature that uses generative AI to create designs for users. You can describe something in text, and it will create something that you can print. It’s incredibly powerful, and customers love it. What I love about it is that we’re using a supercomputer cluster that Google uses to support its national labs. So, our customers get that supercomputer cluster for about two and a half seconds. In other words, they have a supercomputer that is working to bring their vision to life, and then it goes on to help somebody else.
Q: You’ve got around 3,500 or 4,000 schools using your products. When do you think these desktop manufacturing tools will become truly mass-market items?
We are close. The ability to put this in people’s hands is just around the corner. We had no educational business two years ago, and as you said, we’re now in well over 3,000 schools. We have some new things coming that are going to bring this technology to an even wider audience.
Q: As an inventor, do moments of self-doubt ever creep in where you wonder that you might not be developing products that people need or care about?
All the time. During the dot-com boom, a friend and I wanted to start a massively multiplayer online game. We thought that we’d pitch venture capitalists who, at the time, seemed willing to fund anything that moved. This was at the height of the bubble. For eight months, we pitched everybody but accomplished nothing. And then the bubble popped, and everything went to heck. For the next ten months, I wound up spending six to seven hours a day playing games on my couch. That was until my then-girlfriend — and now wife — sat me down and said there was a deep problem and that I was spiraling into depression. So, yeah, I’m well aware. And for all businesses that worked out for me, the number of ideas I had which didn’t work out or where I couldn’t get anybody to pay attention — I always feel as if I’m one step away from falling flat. But that’s okay. Things can fall flat.
Q: You’ve picked up different skills working for big companies like Microsoft and startups where you were flying by the seat of your pants. What’s the most valuable learning that’s rubbed off on you from those experiences?
One of the great pieces of praise that I cherish — and I’ve heard this from several people — is that I listen. I may have a terrible, hare-brained idea. I may be way off on the wrong side. I may be completely misguided, but I listen, and eventually, I usually get the right answer.
Q: How have your ideas about leadership evolved over the years?
The two leaders who I’ve had the greatest opportunity to observe up close, sometimes in person and sometimes just by being a part of their organization, were Bill Gates when I was at Microsoft and Larry Page when I was at Google. They both had the same pattern that I found fascinating and very much informed my own approach. When Bill was leading Microsoft, he did not lead the sales team, and he did not lead the finance team. He turned those over to experts and would check in periodically, listening to what they had to say. But those were not his thing. He led the product and the engineering from the front. Those were his great strengths, and he made those the strengths of the company by leading those from the front, even as he led finance and sales and stuff from the rear. What you got was this amazing product and engineering company. Larry was the same way, leading product and engineering from the front at Google. The way I think about this is that there are some pieces of the business that I am wretched at and where I need to find the best people possible to take care of that on behalf of all of us. And then I need them to teach me what they’re doing so I can keep track and keep up. And, of course, there are also areas where I need to lead from the front.
Q: Have you had to adjust when it came to trying to lead and mold the values of the company on your people?
Talking about molding values, let me describe my greatest, most humiliating screw up. At our very first company all-hands meeting, which had seven or eight people standing around in a circle, we went around, and everybody said what they did. I told them that I’ve done these before and the one thing that kills them is when everybody spends their whole time thanking each other. It’s a lovely disease where one person says thank you, and then the other person must thank them, and then you must thank the other person. It’s nice for all the people during that moment. They get thanked, but everybody else gets annoyed because they don’t get thanked, and their time is just listening to others saying thank you.
My suggestion was not to do that during our all hands. Fast forward four years; somebody comes to my office to ask me a question. She started by saying, “I know that we have a culture of not saying thank you, and I appreciate that, and I see where that comes from.” I was like, I’m sorry, what? (laughing). I told her to write down the question for later because this was an emergency. When I asked her to explain, she said, “Well, we have a culture of not saying thank you, and I respect it. I understand that we have a lot to do, and it can slow us down.” And I was thinking, what have I wrought? What horrible disaster did I create? Literally, that week I said we’re doing something new at our all hands. It’s called props and pride, and the only purpose is so you can say thank you to all your peers. We’re going to pass around the microphone to anybody who wants, and they can say thank you to each other. Years later, it’s still everybody’s highlight of our meeting. It was such a sea change, and I couldn’t believe how badly I botched the culture. Thank goodness it wasn’t too late to set it right.
Q: You’ve been doing this for quite some time. What is it about the startup life that keeps you going? Do you think you have another one left in you? Or is this it?
I can imagine doing this for decades to come. I’ve never been able to do the same job for more than two or three years at a time. What I’ve seen is that leading a startup in general — and this startup in particular — it’s not the same job all the time. I’m lucky if I can keep up with the same thing at once. I open my calendar, and I’m talking to an investor, and then I’m talking to the engineering team, and then I’m talking to the marketing team, and then a sales candidate. That’s what keeps me doing this. That’s what I love. So that’s the way I’m wired. I love the variety, I love the excitement, and I love the constant change in challenges. I’d be bored if that wasn’t there.
Q: Which brings us to our final questions. What’s your favorite book?
My brother Ari just came out with a New York Times best seller called The Best Strangers in the World. And it is a spectacular read and the bonus is that I have a large cameo in the first chapter.
Q: Favorite movie?
It’s a cliche, but The Princess Bride.
Q: Is there a motto or saying that sums up your approach to leadership in business?
The most powerful thing I’ve learned about doing my job is situational leadership. So often you hear people say this is the way you lead. The truth is the way you lead depends on the person you’re leading, and it depends on you. And understanding the intersection of those helps you figure out how to show up as a leader. It’s taken me many years to learn that. And I have still not perfected it, but understanding which skill set, which toolbox, which piece of myself to bring to every conversation — that’s where real excellence in leadership lies.
Q: Lastly, the one person who’s had the most impact on your professional career?
I’ll go back to my mom and dad. If I look at the things that I love and am good at, there is not a thing on that list that does not directly come from them.