What I've learned from starting and managing a 3dp service for 10 years, and how I sold it remotely
🗣 Stepan Medvedev 🗓 03-18-2024 🕮 20 minutes read

What I've learned from starting and managing a 3dp service for 10 years, and how I sold it remotely. 3DPBOSS origin story

🗣 Stepan Medvedev 🕮 25-minute read

🗓 03-18-2024

Being a young man with an artistic/design background, I mostly wanted to draw things and party.

But I also needed money and quickly realized that I didn't want to get it with art and that all manager-sales-type jobs I did were boring, and nothing meaningful was created. Then, after one side gig I discovered my “entrepreneurial abilities”: I saw something that could be leveraged, presumed how, and acted on it. Then I tried a couple of other not-very-thought-through things, which failed but validated those abilities nevertheless (some “KPIs” were reached).

How I started a 3DP business

In 2012, while working on my last sales-manager-type job, I found out about desktop 3d printing (I heard about technology long before, but back then it sounded magical and very expensive). I still remember in detail the first time I saw a MakerBot (RIP) Replicator 2 live. This whole discovery literally gave me goosebumps, and from there, I knew I must do something with 3d printers. There was no plan, market research, or anything like that, I just felt it strongly.

Then I started (while still working on the job), on about a $180 budget: I did a website, with a so-called “no-code” solution, and launched an ad campaign. I learned both on the go (much later I realized those were my strong suits from the beginning), and started to sell desktop printers, by taking customers’ money and placing orders with local suppliers (I didn't have enough money to become one myself).
I knew close to nothing about business, bookkeeping, etc., and I think now if I did I might have not started.

But demand was high, supply short (I was early), the website and ads were working, and I was having a lot of fun. I didn't even have an office for the first 1.5 years.
Then the competition started to build up, and I approximated, that sooner rather than later experienced sales teams would come and that I don't stand much chance against them. And I didn't want to just sell things, I wanted to create them.

It was the first time I pivoted. I had a couple of printers that I bought to showcase during a business event, and I started to take printing orders, to diversify. I couldn't figure out the math of this being worthwhile on its own at first. It was chaos, both mesmerizing and agonizing (repair especially). But despite having no tech-engineering abilities, I found my way around printers. Then I realized I needed an office, and I moved to the smallest room anyone could rent accompanied by 4 printers. I remember a client saying, while he was standing there, barely able to turn around:

"From the look of your site, I thought you were a big company"

The business was growing and I moved to a bigger place. And then came the order, which proved to me that printing on demand can be a real thing on its own: a big model (complicated spiral-shaped 1+meter-long), with a strict deadline. I took it, without fully estimating my abilities, since I had no experience like that. But I felt it to be a great opportunity.
Shortly after the start, I realized that there was no way I was going to make it in time. I called a client, but he calmly and politely asked me to find a way and offered to pay more. I declined the additional payment and agreed to try. I recruited my friend who was luckily unemployed at the time (now a big business guy) and we did everything we could: we printed parts in 2 other shops, tried and improvised assembly techniques, slept in the car near the office, and somehow made something that looked like a model and delivered it literally in the last moment.

It was 1 A.M, and the client was waiting in the hotel (he flew in from abroad for the event, this model was a part of), we put the model in a giant box on a street (we couldn't get an assembled box through doors), placed it on top of my friend's car (basic sedan with no rack), and had to fix it with the tape around the box and through opened windows to hold.
Fortunately, we don't have to go far, unfortunately, we didn't take a photo, but the image is still alive in my mind.
We delivered a model, and later I learned, that the client was a physicist arranging a series of experiments, to prove his assumptions, so they could be used commercially. Despite the poor quality, the client acknowledged that I kept my promise and declined the proposed additional payment + the model did manage to show something during this test experiment (wasn't entirely useless). He gave me a second chance and we worked with him for a long time.
As we stepped out of the hotel at around 2 A.M, I took a taxi home, took luggage packed by a family member on my request, and barely made it in time to catch a flight to Barcelona, where I was heading to join my then-girlfriend and now wife at the music fest.
Good times.

That concludes the“fun” part of the story. Main LESSONS:
  1. Do what you are passionate about;
  2. listen to your instincts;
  3. Take risks, to move ahead;
  4. Within the limits of sanity exclude failure as a possibility, accept inevitably achieving the goal, and actively seek ways to do it. Ask yourself: “I must do it, so how am I going to do it?”;
  5. Keep your promises;
  6. Don't forget to Have fun.

How I ran it for 10 years

A bit later I got to move again: the printing and post-processing part of the business was picking up and I started to receive complaints about the mess and smells.

At about that time, I attempted to partner up with a guy who helped me with repairs for a while and created an impression of being capable and resourceful. I thought it was easier and better to give away a part of the business than to hire. But I was smart enough to create a separate LLC (apart from my main) to offer a stake there. We moved to a new place, which wasn't glamorous but provided what we needed at the time and a space for future growth.
After a while, it became obvious that the partnership wouldn't work: he turned out neither capable, nor interested in projects that we started, and we split ways with no harm done, except for the wasted time and opportunities.

The number of printers grew (about 10-12 by then), revenue grew, and although I started to acquire some business knowledge and skills, I still didn’t know where I wanted to be, and what I needed to get there.
I’ve made a second site, specifically for 3dp services. Now I went with the “traditional” way, and since I can’t code (except for some basic HTML) I hired contractors to make it and for occasional maintenance.
I’ve also hired contractors to do SEO. Long story short - it is worth it if you understand at least the basics of it (I’ve educated myself on the subject), and will be able to find a “decent” contractor.
One tip here: texts are a big part of SEO. Back then many contractors produced at best mediocre, and at worst terrible texts. But texts also present your offer and should work as a sales rep.
I ended up rewriting all the texts since no contractor knew business-specific words and phrases better than I did. I also had a “feeling” (my first site did well on search, without me knowing what SEO is), that it is important to compose the message so people (and not just search robots) find it compelling. User behavior is now a known thing and an important SEO factor, but it wasn't so obvious back then.

I’ve hired my first full-time employee (post-processor) and invested profits in equipping the shop with professional ventilation, and other things, necessary for the path I was half-knowingly pursuing.
I've still been taking different kinds of jobs, but started to shift focus to business customers: higher checks, and fewer complaints.
Then, after 4 years into it, I understood that I needed to systemize what I was doing and properly collect data. It was partially a feeling and partially a tribute to bits of theoretical knowledge I've acquired. It was more of “they say it's what I need” than “I need it”.

With the help of my girlfriend, I've composed a complex Exсel file (interconnected tables, pivot tables, more formulas than you can count, etc.), which captured many things and was torture for me to fill in. But I did, and after about 6-12 months I started to see interesting things and corrected the way I spent money on ads and prioritized certain types of offers.
It was a postmortem type of “system”, I wasn't using it as an actionable CRM or ERP. I knew I probably needed a CRM, but I couldn't force myself to choose one, they all seemed so unfit and I didn't have someone to clearly state the benefits of using one. So I continued to operate a “sticky note CRM”.

Time flew by, and by chance, I hired a second employee: a smart guy with an engineering background and personal issues. It was a lot different than with the first partner, but similar in a way, that neither I nor he knew exactly in which direction our working relationship would go. We haven’t set our terms and expectations clearly.
With the new employee, we were able to do in-house 3d modeling (it was 99% contractor-based before), and we bought a simple 3d scanner.

We also decided to buy a big laser cutter (with a 1x1.3 m.- table), to diversify our services. Retrospectively, I give 6.5/10 to that decision. I was still trying new things, but was also non-straightforwardly going for “my niche”, and I thought that laser cutter would assist me in that (and it kinda did).
I’ve created a new website and optimized an old one for a new service type.
Later I started a small side-brand of super-niche products (laser cutting + 3D printing + hand metal and woodworking) and was having a lot of fun with it.
The problem was, that all that dispersed my focus and resources when I should have concentrated on things that brought the most outcome.

The number of orders and printers grew (to about 16-20), and everything was going ok. But then the engineer decided to quit, because his desires, which he withheld, and I failed to discover weren’t met. Surprisingly I felt relieved. We parted on somewhat good terms, and later he agreed to do repair contractor work.

Here I would like to end the “normal” part. Main LESSONS:
  1. You don't necessarily have to be an engineer, or know 3d modeling to start a 3dp service;
  2. Hire people when you need them, and set expectations and terms straight. Don’t partner when you should hire;
  3. Get familiar with SEO, and hire specialists if you can. Listen to their advice (especially for the technical part), but form your offer for your target audience continuously. Use your copy as a restless sales rep.
  4. Collect your data, there is no other way to see what is going on (on a large scale), and what can be done about it;
  5. Don’t, try to do “everything”, when you know, what you should be concentrating on. If you don't know - try to find that out more deliberately. Small businesses do not have a lot of resources, and the only way to leverage them effectively is by focus.

Almost like in any story, you may feel, something is coming.
The further I proceeded, the more thoughts I had about building a custom management system since I still couldn’t find what I needed, and my Excel file wasn't covering those needs. It had to include:
  • CRM - it became too many orders for steaky notes to bear;
  • ERP - I had to control and analyze how I used a growing number of items. Plus if you have even one teammate - the question of effective resource usage will arise immediately;
  • Plus everything else, so the whole thing with all processes inside could be managed.
I exercised those thoughts in the form of sketches and concepts, but knew, that it would cost a fortune to develop, so I tabled those.

And then in December of 2021, I discovered No-code.
I was listening to an introductory webinar (or something) about it on the way home, and I had the same goosebumps that I had 9 years ago, upon discovery of desktop 3d printing. I started learning it right away.
I invested a big part of my profits into upgrading my production facility (a new big space just for printers, fully equipped) and bought a portion of new printers (to reach a total of 30+), to increase an overall capacity level. I also started to think about how to systemize my business, so it could be delegated, and I could allocate more of my time to the no-code.
Everything was going fine, 2 months into Bubble I was having a blast, and was smiling inside, imagining what I soon would be able to do.

And then an event happened, that changed mine, and many other lives.

I do not consider myself an emotional person, but on that tragic day, I strongly felt, that I had to wrap it all up somehow, sell it (if I could, what I could), and move out of the country as soon as possible.
I finally comprehended my mistake of going for everything at once, instead of concentrating resources to work one niche and systemizing the business.
Now I had to rush for it.

First thing I dropped a small niche product side gig. Stopped all activity, and later sold all remaining stocks.
I dropped Bubble training. No matter how interesting it was, it didn't correlate directly with what I had to do then.
I dropped active laser-cutting ad campaigns, allocating all resources to 3d printing, with an emphasis on big objects.
Partially as part of the ”wrap it all up” initiative, partially because I needed it, I made a management system on Airtable. It wasn't all I wanted, but it was an actionable system, unlike that Excel file. Results came along quickly (mainly from the CRM - follow-up component).
Then I wrapped all finances and statistics up (and the new system helped me with that too), contacted business brokers, and posted a “business for sale” ad.

One broker declared websites set as an irrelevant thing, saying I could probably get X for a 3dp manufacturing part, and one prospect suggested that my manufacturing part was worthless, and offered the same X for a website bundle.
But all realized, that all processes were tied up to me, and I was, in fact, a main asset:
I wore all the hats during the 9 years of doing it and still can answer almost any process-related question (or do any task myself) if you wake me up at night.
Those interactions provided me with valuable information and gave me a glance at my "business" from different angles.

NOTE HERE: it was rather important to me, to, ensure the other side and my employees didn’t feel dissatisfied, and allow the endeavor to continue in good hands without me.

Eventually, I went with a prospect from a “business for sale” ad.
He as an experienced businessman saw on-demand 3dp manufacturing as an uprising and promising business. I presumed, he also knew how the “base” that I had could be leveraged, to kickstart the structure he had in mind.
He offered a 50% stake buyout, with different further options, and the process of negotiations has begun, with a mutual realization, that time was not on my side.
We agreed that I would be present in the flesh for 2-4 months and then do it remotely for about a year in total, with my involvement minimal after that.
Documents were drafted and I was ready for the transition period to start.

Then the second event happened, and I had (let’s say) a strong feeling that I would better move out of the country NOW before I might be summoned against my will to do things I didn’t want to or put in jail for refusing to do them.

I have to clarify here, that I haven’t done anything illegal. Don't break the law - it is stupid, even if the law is stupid.

My family (wife and a 1-year-old son) and I had time to prepare, but It is still not particularly an awesome experience, to leave the country you lived your whole life in, especially a couple of months earlier than you planned.
On top of that - the deal wasn’t finalized.

We agreed with the potential partner that I would do everything remotely after 2.5 weeks of intensive training with the partner’s representative on the premises.
Which I did, and after that I boarded the plane.
Documents still unsigned…

There were a couple of problems, besides “the leap of faith” I took:
  1. I placed myself partially at my potential partner's mercy;
  2. Partially due to the arisen chaos, we hadn’t specified clearly enough all the details and what we expected from one another;
  3. I had to control the whole operation (in the end 40+ printers, 5 people) remotely, without having any such experience.

The following month was as Englishmen would say - a bloody hell.
One little detail to paint the picture: a person I was relying on quit at the most inconvenient moment, without finishing what he had to, and I asked a post-processer (a good specialist and a reliable person, with whom we worked for 5 years) to receive files via email, upload them on the SD cards, and launch several printers, he hadn't launched before.
No biggie you say, but it turned out, that he didn’t know how to use a PC, I mean at all.
There we were, both tired, late evening, me on the phone:

“See that thing on the right-hand side - it is a mouse, it has 2 buttons, move the mouse until the arrow on the screen… Do you see the arrow? until it reaches the string below the blue line on the top. Now click the left button of the mouse…What? - Yes, that thing on your right-hand side…”

About 2 hours of that.
But we’ve made it through, finished this month with a profit, and finally signed the documents.

Somewhere around that time, I got familiar with Notion and quickly composed a basic system to control production remotely. And it practically saved me, I don't think I would pull a “remote” thing without it.
Why Notion? Because it is the most intuitive, customizable, and easy-to-use no-code “environment” I’ve seen.
It also had features we needed even on a Free plan: we could easily share access for up to 10 people, publish any page to the web, work from mobile, etc.

After several months I've substantially upgraded the operational system: added orders, materials, printers, repairs (etc.), as separate, but interconnected entities, and tuned workflows for accountable and controllable teamwork: what was printing, on what printer, who started, who sliced files, who removed the job, who spotted the problem with a printer, repaired it, maintained it, when it all happened, etc.
I was surprised by how capable Notion turned out to be.

I was learning how to work with people, manage them (team of 5 + contractors), what to expect from them, how to plan, create systems, compose and assign tasks, hold meetings, etc.

We faced quality issues, and as I was fully remote it was hard to identify the underlying problem or to control the quality myself. The problem turned out to be our Head of Production. Unfortunately, we gave him a “chance” again and again, instead of replacing him. The next Head of production was much much better.
One of the things I’ve learned from my partner is that quality will drop when you delegate, and there will be incompetence, problems, and losses, but after the system is built it will all be worth it.

The Finale: why and how I sold it

About 3 weeks in, In late November 2022, my partner reminded me who had the leverage, in the middle of the heated discussion he said:

“In case you haven't learned by now: if I want something to be done a certain way — it will be done that way”.

He also threatened to reverse the already-done deal.
I wasn’t looking forward to a long-term partnership of that kind.

7 months later, he proposed the idea of international expansion and asked if I was interested in moving to another country to establish operations there. However tempting it may seem, I realized it to be an opening for my way out. I declined and presented my intentions.
After that things got tough.

A heavy and stressful negotiation process, with my obviously "weak hand", and without my partner’s interest in letting me out easily had begun. 2 months in I found myself in a worse spot than I was before, with even worse prospects.

And then finally I thought: "What can I do, that will make him agree?"
The answer was simple - I have to add value.
I asked myself 2 questions:
  1. What our business needs most?
  2. What can I do most fast and effectively (what am I good at)?
We, as any business, needed more leads, and sales. We previously agreed that we needed to target big objects, and had relevant experience and case studies by then.

I outlined designers (specifically interior designers), event and exhibition organizers, and a small keyword group, "big 3d printing” as target audiences, put my strong suits on, and made 2 new acquisition channels:
  1. A bundle, targeting agencies (design and event): site, a free educational module for partners’ onboarding into technology, for more effective work on both sides, and a cold email campaign (offers, first 1000 high-quality contacts, and a mini-system to implement it all). It was a rather long-term game bet.
  2. Landing page and an ad campaign targetting a “big 3dp” keyword group. It worked instantly, I closed the first big client in the second week. I knew it would also get some search traffic later.
I've made both in 2 months, while "working" extra full-time.

I also added a customized version of the system equipped with knowledge&manuals (for both sales and production), and a know-how bundle, which the system helped to collect and retrieve.
And I added it to my proposition.
And he said ok.

At that moment, in the background of the constant pain pulsating in my head, funk music started playing quietly.

Before my departure, I also booked and supervised (Notion helped immensely in that) the production of the biggest and the most expensive thing we had ever done: a city model, in 2 parts, 5.5 meters long each, and 2.5 and 3.5 meters wide respectively.
I booked this complex job with a short due date because right on the first call I knew how to optimize the time and cost of production (with the help of laser cutting). Because of that, I was able to offer an adequate price and conditions.
The client didn’t care how exactly we would do that, he was interested in the result.
Right after it was complete, in December 2023 my now ex-partner bought out my stake.

I am grateful to him, and to the Universe, for the valuable knowledge and experience I’ve acquired during this face-melting year.

I feel like I've graduated from a middle real-life school of small business. My grades are not perfect, but I've got my “diploma”. I also would like to believe, that I’ve learned my LESSONS.
Here are some of those from the final part:
  1. With knowledge and experience, you can advance further and much faster. They don’t have to be yours;
  2. Be as specific, clear, and honest in your agreements, as possible, from the beginning. And get that in writing;
  3. Realize your strong sides, bank on them, and delegate the rest (don't be afraid, it is the only way to grow);
  4. Surround yourself with people you can trust, and be trustworthy. Listen to them, don't undermine or threaten them, and let them make mistakes - it is the only way to learn. If a certain person is unfit, let them go right away;
  5. Listen to others, but make decisions for yourself, or others will make them for you. Take responsibility, and don't blame others for your troubles;
  6. Use a system to manage your business and collect data. The sooner, the better.

Speaking of systems.
The one I designed and real-life tested for years, that saved a lot of my time, allowed me to control 40+ different 3d printers and 5+ people remotely, embodied my knowledge and experience, and helped me to sell my 3dp business - is finalized, polished, and available in 3 versions.
With it you will be able to see and control:
  • Who is doing what;
  • How many leads and deals are in work, at what stage, and what has been offered;
  • Revenue and margin for each order and for everything;
  • What orders are being produced, at what stage, all their info, and due dates;
  • What is being modeled, printed, and post-processed now and will be done next, by whom or on what printer, from which material;
  • Which printers are working, free, taken, broken, need maintenance, being repaired;
  • What parts and materials have been used and their cost, how much is left, and when and how much is coming (if ordered);
  • What costs are paid, and will need to be paid;
  • Your customers’ feedback and satisfaction,
  • Employee’s onboarding, offboarding, access, and activity;
  • Documents, manuals, inventories, projects, tasks, notes, SOPs, and more.
+Customize and add what you need, without the need to code.
  • P&L, and marketing report-making “App” - for in-depth data analysis;
  • Customizable price Calculator ”App” - for correct pricing calculation of FDM, SLA, and other technologies with infill and support parameters;
  • Guidebook with pro tips for finding your niche, efficient production, higher lead conversion, correct pricing, and more, based on my experience - to make a complete actionable system.
It is designed to be fully functional on a free plan, with no subscription fees (one-time payment).

I wish I could go back in time and have a talk with myself:
“If you want to call this a business - you need a system. Don’t like this one - pick another, but pick now, there is no perfect one. Stop wasting time - you will run out of it!”
Accompanied maybe with a little slap on the head, for being so naive and ignorant.

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