The 3D Printing Ebusiness Revolution

by M.G.

From Eleanor: In honor of National Small Business Week we have been featuring stories from Shapeways shop owners. This latest entry comes from MG, a Shapeways Crew member who is an an oil painter and designer who is currently based in Thailand. She sells her artistic life accessories in her Sloris Shapeways shop and on her website

I opened my first business at 19 years old and my most recent 19 years later.  The former focused on corporate design packages and custom printed promotional products and the latter on creating new and unique items.  I love to travel and live abroad and I’ve been residing in Thailand for the last four years.  About a year ago, I realized that the time for a change was approaching.  I opened my Shapeways shop at that point in order to build a business that could easily move with me. After running my Shapeways shop for a year, I thought it would be informative to compare my past business experiences to my current.  Evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of a brick and mortar with that of a virtual business seems like a good place to start.

My first small business experience was right out of college.  With a partner, I began with a shoe string budget, an overabundance of enthusiasm and endless hours of dedication.  Our office and store front was very small, just ourselves, a couple of sales reps, a receptionist and various independent contractors.  The core of our business was servicing other small to medium sized businesses, but we were also lucky enough to land contracts from major corporations such as Sam’s Club, MCI, Land o’ Lakes, etc.  I began with a hope of merging my artistic inclinations and commerce.  I learned owners get paid last, do all the jobs no one else will and are never off the clock.  I finished vowing that I would never run another brick and mortar.  I offer this summary of past experience as a disclosure of my partialities.
The 3D printing community is challenging the traditional small business real world model.  It’s structured on the idea of streamlined print on demand manufacturing, an individualized customer experience and greater environmental responsibility.

A lot of excitement is being stirred up by 3D printing as it quickly changes the manufacturing landscape.  Is it a positive force in the small business community or one that undermines the average Mom and Pop?  Let’s compare real world and digitally hosted shops. The basic needs of the former include:

– A store front
– A stock of inventory on location
– Support staff 

      This greatly abridged list is still a tall order for a startup.  Commercial rents in a good location are high.  Early on, it’s difficult to accurately stock inventory since a history of demand doesn’t exist.  Managing staff can be tricky.  Who do you trust with the keys, bank deposits, accounting?  I am certainly pro-small business, I have all the respect in the world for anyone who makes a go of it. However, in these challenging economic times, it’s getting harder and harder to do so.

      Using services like Shapeways can dramatically reduce the cost and effort of founding a business.  Shapeways supplies a space for people to display their wares and an organizational structure.  One of the biggest drawbacks of a small web based business is trying to earn customer trust.  Shapeways can offer assurances that are backed by a large corporation, such as secure online ordering, reliable customer service and an easy return and refund policy. I love that there’s nothing physically tangible present, just digital models and photos.  It’s all a promise for the future.  No inventory to worry about, no running out of stock, no surplus to discard.   It’s an environmentally friendly business.  The shop looks cool and offers the customer so many options, it’s way beyond what’s usually possible for a small business.

      Furthermore, I dislike being a salesperson and has been amazing to be able to do all my marketing and promotion online in a no pressure way and see results.  Initially, I was nervous about the customer’s response.  I’d been very impressed with Shapeways printing quality, but was unsure of what someone outside of the industry would think of it.  However, I got feedback from my first customer that he loved the piece he bought, and so did his new wife (the pendant was a gift for her).  He posted a thank you on my Facebook page and recommended my designs to others.  I couldn’t have been happier
      One disadvantage over a brick and mortar store in this world of instant gratification is the longer lead time from purchase to receipt of the product. However, it is not an insurmountable one.  As technology advances, production times will decrease.  Ensuring that the customer is aware of how 3D printing works and that each piece is specifically made for them increases the value and their understanding of the reason for the wait. 

      Another downside is the catalog of thousands of products that compete for potential customers.  Countering this difficulty is possible by:

      – Designing a professional and digitally well stocked store
      – Building a proprietary website to promote independently 
      – Blogging, posting, tweeting and using any and all social media to draw people to your website and Shapeways shop

          The aspect I miss most about running a real world business is the opportunity to present my products and services in person and shake my client’s hand.  However, I’m willing to pay that price in order to reap the benefits of a virtual business.  Overall, this new small business model positively improves the current business climate.  For minimum startup cost individuals and small groups of people can foray into entrepreneurship.  Without risking exorbitant amounts of money, they can test a product’s appeal.  Demand no longer has to be in the thousands to be economically viable.
          Additionally, Shapeways offers a global community.  I reached out to a fellow Shapie living in Madrid because I am leaving Thailand soon to travel the world. He graciously offered to meet up when I arrived.  Plus, he’s been nice enough to correspond with me in order to improve my Spanish.  It’s costly, both financially and emotionally, to start over again in a new country with just a couple suitcases and a resume.  Shapeways gives me support and confidence on both fronts.
          How else will 3D printing small e-business change how we define commerce?  Please share how this paradigm shift has affected you or what you think will develop in the future.
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