MakerBot CEO: no new hardware at CES
Jenny Lawton took a somewhat circuitous route to the helm of 3D printing leader MakerBot.
Before joining the company as “Head of People” in 2011, Lawton spent ten years in retail, running her own bookstore in Greenwich, Connecticut. And though physical book selling might appear the polar opposite of 3D printing, which takes digital ideas and makes them physical, Lawton told me she learned a lot in the “down and dirty” retail business. “Retail is tough, tough work,” said Lawton and her bookstore taught her valuable lessons about small business, inventory management and the critical nature of customer relations.
Lawton was able to layer that knowledge on top of a rather rich and impressive background in startups and technology. The 51 year old Quantico, Virginia, native studied applied math at Union College before going to work at the MIT in the late 1980s. In 1991, Lawton (along with Christopher Caldwell) launched the Web consulting firm Net Daemon Associates and rode the Internet wave (they created Monster.com) and subsequent bubble right up to the 1999 burst when Lawton sold the company to Interliant. After that, Lawton spent a couple of years in venture capital.
Then 9/11 happened.
It was, for Lawton, a pivotal experience. She been living what she called a “a go-go” lifestyle. After the terrorists attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, Lawton took stock and thought, “Hey, there’s a different way to do this.” Her love of reading led her to buy the bookstore and build it into a community based service. “I can’t tell you how cool it is to turn a kid onto reading.”
A different passion
Now, however, Lawton is turned on by the sound of 3D printers and whenever she gets to bring kids into her home to show them any of her five 3D printers in action. She’s also excited about the future of MakerBot, even if the short term does not include new 3D printing hardware.
“I am happy to say that we’re not going to be launching new hardware products at CES,” said Lawton sounding gleeful. She told me that MakerBot introduced five new products at CES 2014, including a giant $7,000 3D printer capable of printing 10 objects at once.
All that hardware leaves MakerBot with lots of work to do on many fronts, including solidifying the ecosystem and polishing the projects that are still just rolling out to customers (the mini started shipping in May.)
“We really feel like they need time in the market. Next year is not the year of hardware: Focus on ecosystem and material space,” said Lawton. In other words, MakerBot’s new smart extruder will likely take the company well beyond printing with tradition 3D printing materials like the biodegradable PLC.
A little more than a year ago, MakerBot was acquired by another 3D printing company, Stratasys. Little has changed since then, with the notable exception of the company leadership. Over the summer, MakerBot Co-Founder and CEO Bre Pettis shifted to a new role within Stratasys.
Lawton characterized the change as part of a plan. She was, after all, already MakerBot’s president. “We didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘Hey Bre, why don’t you do this.’” said Lawton. MakerBot and Stratasys wanted, explained Lawton, to “give Bre a platform to innovate and to be a spokesperson for larger world of 3D printers.”
Looking at MakerBot’s financial performance, there’s little indication a change was needed at the top. In its Q2 financial statement, Stratasys reported that MakerBot’s sales had grown 100% year-over-year and, at $33.6M, the company accounted for nearly 20% of Stratasys’s sales.
Still, it’s worth noting that MarkerBot is a considerably different company than it was three years ago when Bre hired Lawton to be, essentially, “HR Plus-Plus.” Back then there were just 40 employees. Today there are 600 and identifiable departments like R&D and Quality Control. It’s no longer “about being [in] that highly moving, fast moving entrepreneurial phase,” said Lawton.
As part of the transition, Lawton put a new management team in place that should help guide MakerBot and its customers into the next phase of the industrial revolution. “We’re not focused on the DIY marketplace,” said Lawton. Instead MarkerBot wants to transform the design process and help move real-time 3D prototyping into the mainstream.
It won’t be alone.
MakerBot already has competition, but will soon face a small army of more affordable desktop 3D printers. When I asked Pettis in August how he felt about this, he was evasive and essentially dismissed the idea that anyone could be happy with a $200 3D printer.
Lawton’s more sanguine. “I gave a keynote a few weeks ago…and stood up in front of everyone and said, ‘We need more competition.’”
“We’re in such early adopter stages with the world we’re in and there’s so much room to grow,” she added.
As Lawton sees it, there’s a lot of untapped potential in the market. She also noted that soon-to-expire patents should spark even more 3D printing innovation, which could mean better 3D printers from MakerBot – and everybody else. Lawton remains unconcerned. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a knife fight yet. I like coopetition instead of competition.”
Lawton hasn’t completely left the book world behind. She made a lot of publisher contacts and, when we spoke, was preparing for a fireside chat with author Walter Isaacson. She also doesn’t appear to miss the book business and is clearly enjoying running MakerBot… and 3D printing bowls. She has them all over her house and “I give them as birthday and wedding presents.”