Passive Income and 3D Printing with Nancy Liang from Mixee Me

Generating passive income has been the perennial daydream for developers, hobbyists, and Honeymooners alike. After all, who doesn’t want to lean back and watch their coffers grow? The promise of autonomous cash flows helped to propel Tim Ferris’s Four-Hour Work Week to cult-like status, and there is a whole spectrum of proponents ranging from those who use it to make some extra scratch to those who subsist on it entirely. If the dearth of pop business books is any indication, trying to nail down the mercurial recipe of low effort to high reward is anything but easy. 3D Printing services like Shapeways extend that promise to product designers by providing a marketplace and made-to-order fulfillment, but it begs the question: what are the implications of passive income in the design sphere? To help us navigate the changing landscape, I reached out to Mixee Labs Co-Founder and Shapeways Alum Nancy Liang. Mixee Labs is a web platform that allows developers to create their own applications that generate customizable 3D models using Javascript. Liang’s work includes a full stack of products starting from generating models (like the death-proof Sad Keanu), making creators to generate those models (Mixee Me), and now creating creator creators.  French cuff enthusiasts have reason to rejoice: Mixee Labs’ newest product allows the user to generate their own cufflinks directly from images. 

Before Mixee
Labs, you had a creator called Mixee Me that helped people to create their own
personalized action figures in Full Color Sandstone. Does traffic spike after
an onslaught of users and then level off? How do you buoy your creator’s
popularity by driving traffic and generating revenue over time?

Traffic definitely went up during launch, and sustained pretty
well throughout Holiday season and afterwards. We’re starting to see repeat
customers and referrals as well, which is good for sustained source of traffic.

One of the
greatest advantages to using Shapeways is that a designer no longer has to hold
inventory, but the downside of that the designer has to rely on Shapeways’
internal Quality Assurance standards. What are options for designers who want a
little more control over their brand?

Brand control is one of the most popular requests from
designers, and it is totally understandable. Right now, Mixee Labs is just two
people–and as a small team starting up, we need to pick and choose what we focus:
software, business development, production, marketing, and so on. Our strategy
is that we focus on product first–building an awesome platform that will make
things like business [development] and marketing much easier when the time
comes. Having Shapeways take control of production, to us, is a good trade off
at this stage since we can put more focus on building our core product. That
said, not everybody has the same strategy. Some designers might want to put
focus on building a brand, or maybe their core product and their brand is the
same thing. For us, it works out though.

Also remember, I used to
run production and the shipping (which includes QA) team at Shapeways. It’s not
an easy job! Taking on production
ourselves is a lot more complex than most people think.

For Mixee Labs, you allow
any developer to create their own browser based application and adjust parameters with Three.js. How do you envision the adoption of this technology?

We plan on working very
closely with our designers to make apps. We don’t want to just allow any apps
on our site, but we want to make sure the apps we do enable have an interesting
point of view, and will produce quality (and printable) products. We are also
working on a platform for modelers who do not know how to code (stay tuned!).

If the
customer has that much control of the final product, does is still qualify as
design? How can you keep all the output consistent and brand-positive to the

I think we are really
inventing a new type of design. Designing a 3D printing app is really designing
a product template–not only do you have to think about what the product look
like, but you have to be able to play in your head all the different variations
you want to allow for. If by chance, a customer creates something that does not
work and is not printable, we will step in and help fix the design.

Do you
consider Mixee Labs a source of passive income? What level of maintenance do
you need to keep the operation running, or is the brunt of the work done at the

Mixee Labs as a company
is very much in development, but the creators we host–I suppose–could be seen
as passive income for our designers. A lot of time is spent designing the
customizable product, but that is all cost up front. We do like to check in
with our customers and answer their questions, maybe help them with their
designs so it prints better. So we don’t just launch and then forget about the
product. That said, especially because Shapeways right now handles most of the
production and shipping, the cost per order is low enough that we can launch
more products at a quicker speed than a lot of product design firms. That is
strong advantage to our business model.

traditional timeline for design firms involve a carefully choreographed
calendar with dovetailed development and production stages. How can platforms
like Mixee Labs disrupt the cyclicality of the consumer goods marketplace?

Two ways. One, 3D printing enables us
to speed up the product development cycle. I’ve gotten prints in a week at the
quickest, or in minutes with my desktop Solidoodle. You can mock something up
on the computer, print it for fit, and then iterate very quickly. I remember
talking to hardware designers about software product cycles, and they keep saying,
“hardware speed is much slower than software speed.” With 3D
printing, hardware speed can start to approach software speed. That is very

Two, 3D printing enables us
to improve a product, once it is launched much more quickly. When I got my iPhone
4, there was an issue with the reception–reception strength would plummet if I
held my phone a certain. I was told that it was a hardware design flaw. This
sucked, because I had to wait a year before I could get the next iPhone with
better hardware. With 3D printing, if we discover a something in the design
that could be improved, we upload a new file and start printing better designs
the very next day. That’s much better than my iPhone experience! It’s better
for the user, and enables the designers to be more adaptable to feedback.

Are there any suggestions you have for Mixee
developers to keep their app relevant over time? Or is there a natural
half-life to a creator? How do you mitigate it?

Well, the platform is
barely a month old, so we don’t have enough data yet on the lifecycle of a
product. Um… TBD?

are some new features on the horizon for Mixee Labs?

A lot of designers are
talented but don’t know (or want to learn) how to code. We are building
something that enables people to upload their 3d files and turn them into
creators. We think this will enable a lot more designers, and that’s what we
are all about!


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