Sometimes, inspiration comes in the form of a misprinted dinosaur.
In 2011, WobbleWorks was developing Troody, a robotic dino toy. At the time, the company’s business model was to develop toy ideas to sell to other companies. Maxwell Bogue and Peter Dilworth, founded the company together in 2010. They were using 3D printing to rapidly develop prototype toys. Unfortunately, the technology had some serious limitations.
A minor error caused the printer to leave part of Troody’s leg “blank.” Filling in gaps left by the printer should have been a minor problem, but at the time there was no easy solution. It was up to Bogue and Dilworth to come up with one.
“’Hey, it’s too bad you can’t just take the nozzle off [the printer] and use it to fill in the missing gap,’” Bogue remembered Dilworth saying. “And then we realized that you could totally do that.”
" ’Hey, it’s too bad you can’t just take the nozzle off [the printer] and use it to fill in the missing gap "
The pair quickly confirmed they were the first to have this idea, and then in only a few days put together a “quick and dirty” prototype of what would ultimately become the 3Doodler. Those prototypes grew more refined and in a short time, WobbleWorks transformed itself from a small toy company into the force behind the world’s first 3D printing pen.
Bogue and Dilworth knew they had a winner, but needed help launching the product via Kickstarter to enter fullscale production. As luck would have it, a willing partner materialized at the perfect time: Daniel Cowen, a lawyer turned entrepreneur Bogue had met years earlier in Hong Kong. Cowen happened to be in town, crashing on Bogue’s air mattress.
"‘Yeah. This is the next Crayola,’” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to help launch that? "
Cowen and Bogue had met in Hong Kong while Bogue was working for an established toy company and Cowen was a young lawyer completing his legal training at an international firm. Both had varied careers in the intervening years, but Cowen had caught the entrepreneurial bug, which took him to North America to launch a software company. Frequently in and out of New York, Cowen had become a frequent houseguest of Bogue’s.
For Cowen, switching gears to help launch the 3Doodler via Kickstarter was a no brainer. “I was like, ‘Yeah. This is the next Crayola,’” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to help launch that?”
A million 3D printing pens later,spoke with Cowen and Bogue about creating the 3Doodler, and the secret to their success. The most important ingredient to creating a new artistic medium? Building a community.
Where do you think the company will be when the billionth pen is sold?
Bogue: It’ll be as ubiquitous as the glue gun, envisioning a time when upcycling and self-repair is the norm. Actually, even more common, because you’re able to do more with it than what you’re able to do with a glue gun.
Cowen: What do we want people to think when they pick up the 3Doodler? “Nothing” is the ultimate answer. Ubiquity and invisibility go hand in hand. What do you think about when you pick up a pencil or a crayon? You don’t think much at all; you just reach for the perfect tool to do what you need.
What was it like in the earliest days of the company? Tell us an anecdote.
Bogue: I did all of the repairs of all the pens out of my New York office, which was also my apartment. For example, Rachel Goldsmith [one of the most prominent early 3Doodler artists], the first time we met, she said she lived in Brooklyn and I said, “Oh, well I’m over in the East Village. If you want to meet me in a coffee shop, I’ll come and fix your pen.”
I’ve done that with a lot of people who happened to be in the city. I was like, “If you want an instant fix, you can meet me at The Bean on 1st Avenue between 10th Street and I’ll come and I’ll fix your pen right there.”
You were really in the trenches and built a powerful community and committed team. How have you adapted and grown over time?
Bogue: Being in the trenches wasn’t exactly optional. But I don’t think any of us begrudged or minded doing it at any point. That has more to do with our personalities in general, that we like to be involved and understand what’s going on. Then it makes us better at helping everybody else in the company figure out what needs to get done and how it happens and how to help make it happen.
Cowen: A quarter of the company is now in some way devoted to either customer service or community building. We touch base once a week with everyone involved. It makes us a better team and a better company. If we’re not producing a product that’s great for our users, then something’s going a bit wrong. We’ve seen people come into the market trying to copy us and one of their biggest failings is a lack of quality and their attention to that.
Today, many startups you see tend to be software focused, and you both have some background in that field. But the 3Doodler is a physical product. Is that significant?
Cowen: I was never doing the coding of the software. I don’t have that skill set. I knew what the product was meant to look like, how it was meant to feel and work, but I wasn’t the one getting it there, which was often frustrating. Law is similar in some ways, you’re just the one doing the paperwork in the middle, not making things happen, which was one of the reasons I left.
Moving into physical product in many ways was a huge relief because we knew what it was meant to do. Max had a prototype and we knew how we wanted to improve it, and you can understand the physical a lot more quickly and easily. I had the benefit of coming from a family that did a lot of manufacturing. Both my parents and my stepdad had come from manufacturing backgrounds, so even though I hadn’t actually been in physical product creation before, in many ways it felt more familiar and it felt a lot more tangible and satisfying.
That said, you lose a lot of the huge benefits you have with software. You can’t just push an update and fix a problem that goes wrong. Once you’ve shipped tens of thousands of products, you’re stuck with the results of that no matter what, because recalls are expensive, and which thankfully we’ve never had to do.
How important is building a community of creators to the success of the 3Doodler?
Bogue: We work very closely with a lot of artists and support them as much as we can, because they’re the ones that are making truly amazing things with our product. We want to see how much further they can push this stuff using our tool. This is… a new industry, it’s a new concept. 3D pens didn’t exist until we brought them into the world in 2013.
Cowen: That last comment from Max really hit it on the head. Always front of mind from the very first days of Kickstarter all the way through to now was that this is a product and a market in its infancy, and if we don’t get it right, we would not only be ruining it for our own company but we’d be ruining for the whole medium.
Our best advocates are going to be our own users having a good experience with this the 3Doodler pen. So, we pay very carefully attention. That helps the product get better and helps the community grow, and in turn justifies the efforts.
Looking for more?
You can listen to Max & Daniel’s full interview here: