Startup Founder Bram de Zwart
His passion for 3D printing started during his studies. He planned on becoming an industrial designer, but Bram de Zwart became so passionate about 3D printing — or as he rather calls it ‘distributed production’, that it led to cofounding Amsterdam-based startup 3D Hubs in 2013. Together with Brian Garret (his colleague, now cofounder), he quit his job to focus fulltime on the company. We sat down with Bram, at the Next Web Conference in Amsterdam, to talk about growth, barriers, vision and productivity.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
The idea for 3D Hubs was already there before we quit our jobs. About ten years ago, I became very enthusiast about the idea of ‘distributed production’, which means that instead of producing a product for the Dutch market in China the product can also be made in a location closer to the end user. I started to see that with 3D Hubs, creating this platform for 3D printing, I could facilitate connecting these separate hubs existing worldwide in one platform. That could speed up the future.
So, at one moment in time, Brian and I spent every weekend, every evening, and even every morning before going to the office on 3D Hubs. We became so enthusiast about it, that it became weird to not work on it fulltime. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had played safe and stayed working for a company. But, that was also a phase in my life in which I didn’t have kids, or a mortgage to pay. So I could take that risk.
Can you remember what the biggest barriers to enter entrepreneurship were for you?
I didn’t really experience any barriers. We did ask for permission from our employer, because we did something new in an industry in which they were active. But they were okay with, so they wished us good luck, and we left on a good note. That could’ve gone sour, but we were very lucky. We knew a lot about 3D printing already, so that helped, but we didn’t know anything about obtaining funding for example.
Around the same time that we decided to focus fulltime on 3D Hubs, we were accepted into Rockstart’s accelerator’s program. There we learned a lot of things, and at a high pace. They introduced and connected us to investors; otherwise we wouldn’t have had such a lightning start. So, the barriers we could have faced were largely taken away through our participation in that accelerator program.
How did you experience the switch from employee to startup founder?
Very energizing! But it was also a bit scary: at once, you’re asked to continuously step out of your comfort zone. Rockstart for example, set up a pitch event on a huge stage, where you thus have to pitch. I found that a little uncomfortable. But, the more you do things like this, the better you get at it. But continuously stepping out of your comfort zone, that does feel a little annoying, or well, a bit awkward. But it is a means to develop yourself, and your skills. And you’ll discover that you can do a lot more, and are capable of doing things you might not have uncovered otherwise.
What does success look like to you personally?
I’m that kind of person who isn’t easily satisfied. To me, we’re still not as successful as we could be as a company. I’m also not good at celebrating successes. If we’ve achieved something I can enjoy it for a few seconds, but then I start thinking about what we can do better, or what the next step needs to be. On the one hand, I would like to enjoy these successes more, but on the other hand I also think it’s a good characteristic, because I keep pushing myself and the company to new limits.
What does a productive day for you look like?
A productive day to me is when I helped the team to take the next step. So, if I helped the team with thinking along, or contributing to an idea, about which they are enthusiast as well, or end up willing to executing it… That I find productive. Or when I come up with new strategies. In this phase [as CEO], that’s how I can be of value; by enabling the fifty team-members we currently have to become more productive. If I can make them ten percent more productive that has a lot more impact than if I would be thirty percent more productive.
The team has grown from two to fifty. And we also had a little office in New York. That happened gradually. But because of these changes, my role changed as well. In the beginning, Brian and I did everything ourselves, even the simplest of things. At a certain point, you’re able to transfer these things to other team members. That’s nice, because that gives me time to think about the future of the company. And to start new initiatives within the company. And that’s good, because if you don’t succeed in that, you’ll be stuck in operations and you might miss out on important changes in the market.
For example, if I’m responsible for fundraising, I can spend a few months of my time on that, but when it’s done I will focus on how we are going to invest the money: Finding new talent, hire people, or mapping out a more detailed plan of how we will distribute the funds. Now for example, I’ve started the sales team. Because that’s what the company needed. I hired that team, and I’m leading them. That is what founders are good at: Starting something new and transferring that to others later on. They keep starting things up. So, if there’s a need for sales instead of digital marketing, then Brian or I would start that up and pass it on to others later on.
Where does your motivation to solve the problem 3D Hubs is tackling come from?
It started around the time that people were talking about AirBnB and Uber, very early on, when they had just started. It was just the simple idea: people own 3D printers, and more and more of these printers are sold, but you can’t use them all the time yourself. Wouldn’t it be possible to share or distribute these services through an online platform? Very simple. We had a bit of a eureka moment back then, because it did not exist yet, but it was a very logical idea. Also, that vision I had of distributed production could be made possible with this. So, slowly the pieces of the puzzles started to come together. The vision I had had during my studies, of where the world might be heading towards … 3D Hubs is a platform that might help act out that vision somewhat.
Which one thing would you love to tell your younger self?
I’m 34 now, so I’m still young, but building on my experience: step a few times out of your comfort zone, do something uncomfortable like quitting your job, present on a big stage, because it will allow you to discover a side of yourself you didn’t know you had. I think it’s a shame that people who can do a lot more would rather opt for safety. Still, this doesn’t mean everybody should do this. Not everybody should just quit their jobs now; you also need to commit to perseverance, have a good idea, having faith in that idea, and maybe have a bit of experience in the market.
What has been your biggest failure?
Similar to how I don’t celebrate success that much, I also try not to think too much about failure. Otherwise you’ll go crazy. To be honest, there isn’t one major ****-up. The only thing that has changed since the beginning, is that now, we’re more focused than in the early days. When we started, we often set out doing too much, now we try to take on one thing at the time and really stick with that until it’s right.
It is important, and very lean, to do experiments, but in the beginning we thought we could build one product after another. I think that now, as a company, we’re much more focused. Better at what we do, because of this determination. So it’s not per se a major ****-up, but I’m quite happy with that we’re much more focused now.
Is there anything you’d like to become better at?
So, I’ve taken up learning all about sales organizations, how they function, how they are organized; because that is something I have started to do. I still haven’t learned everything. I’ve reached out to founders, who have created such divisions, to talk about how they did it. And that is interesting to me. But I still need to learn a lot. I don’t have a background in sales. As a founder, I’ve build up experience in such things by continuously diving into something new. I also did that in the past. I’m always thinking about the quickest way to learn about something new, and most of the time that’s through reading or talking to experts and then just doing it yourself. That’s the fastest way to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
What makes you worry?
It’s always a lot of small stuff that makes me worry. But worry is such a loaded term. As a founder, you’re continuously thinking about ‘did I take the right decision’, ‘are we good enough at this’, or ‘why does our competitor have that already and why don’t we too’. If it’s really a concern, I write it down. Every Monday we meet with the management team, and then we’ll discuss these concerns. That’s very nice, that I can talk about it to the team. For me that works well, to discuss such situations, because they will provide me with an outside-view on the matter. Plus, I get advice from people who are better than me at certain things, so they offer angles on these concerns based on their skill-sets.
Who is your favorite super hero?
It’s a bit of a cliché, but that’s Elon Musk. Because of the grandeur of his ideas. I think that we, as 3D Hubs, already have a great vision with decentralizing production and making products in the country of the end user, via an on-demand, digitized and automated process. We’re pioneers in that, because we’ve built the world’s biggest network of digital production locations. So yeah, that’s a pretty grand vision. And Elon, he’s trying to decentralize energy. So I can see similarities in the way he thinks and his vision, but obviously he’s a few miles ahead of us, in many ways.
What I also really admire, I recently was watching a TED interview with him, is his style of communicating: very calm, thoughtful, not trying to be cool. Very humble. I can identify with that. It’s like, sometimes you doubt your vision, isn’t it too far-fetched, or too weird, can we achieve this in the next five to ten years? Or will it take another 50? If you see how fast Musk and his companies operate, then I find that really inspiring. To me that’s an example of that it can indeed happen quickly, and that change doesn’t have to take fifty years.
Challenges expressed are in no way meant to solicit commercial acquisition.
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