Today, I’d like to share some big news coming out of Project Shapeoko hq. But, before we get to the big news, I’d like revisit the past and bring everyone up to speed.
When this project started it was no more than a hobby to me. I suppose once the Kickstarter project was launched, and 800% of the goal was raised, some may have immediately excluded it from the hobby category. But I digress. It was still a hobby to me, albeit a successful one.
Then some stuff happened. The kickstarter project ended and I had 20 units to deliver. As noted in the article written about Shapeoko on the MAKE blog, there was a tremendous amount of demand past the inital 20 kits, to which I complied. In order to produce these additional kits I spent my “free time” procuring the pieces, making some of them on my own Shapeoko, packing them into boxes and shipping them all around the world. It was fantastic.
Then it was not fantastic. It was exhausting. I couldn’t justify the time I was spending on the project with what I was receiving in return. Well, I could justify it to myself, but had a tough time justifying the rational to my wife and family. Probably with good reason.
That’s where Inventables came in. They took the burden of fulfillment and delivery out of my hands, and in return paid a royalty for each unit sold. It was like receiving back-pay for all the time I had put into the project prior to them taking over. Again, it was fantastic.
I really thought that once Inventables took over the project’s fulfillment responsibilities, my life would go back to “normal” (whatever that means). My thought being I would regain all of those hours that I was putting into packing/shipping and be able to split them into additional time to spend with my family, sleep!, other projects, and supporting Shapeoko.
But that didn’t really happen. In hindsight, it seems like I should have been able to see this problem coming, but you know what they say about hindsight.
The problem was that although I didn’t have to pack and ship anymore, because Inventables made the project’s availability significantly higher than I could have made it, the userbase (which I was still supporting) effectively tripled overnight. So yes, I wasn’t packing and shipping, instead I was browsing the forum, helping to answer questions. I was also helping to get Inventables up to speed on how I was managing the project. Shapeoko was a far departure from their typical product, as such there were some growing pains and a significant learning curve. Plus, the transfer of knowledge took longer than I had anticipated. Mainly because I hadn’t anticipated it at all. I had the misguided fantasy that I would just hand over the Bill of Materials, and be done with it. I was wrong.
So, there I was in July of this year, working just as many hours (maybe more) on project Shapeoko. With both the userbase explosion, the supply chain support, and trying to improve the design I was putting in close to 35 hours a week. This was in addition to the 40-45 hours I was putting in at my day job. The difference between the two being that my day job was more or less done (save a few hours a week) once I left the office. But, because Shapeoko has users in all corners of the world, the project never slept. There was always a new email, a new post on the forum, or a new phone call relating to the project. It was exhausting. I was burning the candle at both ends and couldn’t see a break in sight.
Nate from Sparkfun talked recently about something he’s calling “The Pit of Despair”:
These products get far more attention than the creator(s) expected. The product was well-designed but may have been designed for kitchen production, where they planned to build tens of units. When demand grows beyond thousands, the creators are often forced to make tough decisions: the income may not be enough to release them from their day job, and the amount of time required to build the product begins to gobble up evenings and entire weekends. If you’ve ever had to count out 150 bags of resistors and LEDs, you know what I’m talking about. It’s really painful.
This is exactly what was wrong with Shapeoko. Yes, it was generating revenue, but not nearly enough to support me and my family. While at the same time requiring giant amounts of my time.
As a side note, I want to add the fact that Shapeoko was never intended to make any sort of profit. I started the project to release a set of plans to build the machine, I didn’t start it to actually build and sell machines. [We can explore the details of what changed that in another blog post.]
The situation was this: here is a project that I started, champion, love, find both satisfying and meaningful, but I did not have nearly enough time to dedicate to supporting it properly. The proverbial rock and a hard place scenario!
By mid July, it was clear that I couldn’t do both. Because my income (read: security) was being generated by my day job, I felt that the lion’s share of my time and effort should go there. Shapeoko was struggling because I couldn’t dedicate myself to the project completely. Design improvements were stagnating, the forum (although thriving with user content) needed additional attention that I was unable to provide, and I was afraid the cost of the project was going to increase if I wasn’t constantly searching for new vendors or more efficient ways of doing things.
In the end it came down to a simple choice: what did I want to do? Continue toiling away at my day job, settling in with the security and relative non-risk of that career, or take a risk and do something that I love?
One thing that I have failed to mention up to this point is open hardware and desktop manufacturing. Both of those subjects are included when I say that I love Project Shapeoko. Yes, I love the little machine, and the community of users that has built up around it. But from a larger picture I love what it represents for both right now, and especially the future. I believe desktop manufacturing is something that is not going away. I see it more than just a fad, more than just a hobby. Desktop manufacturing is to products as the mp3 was to the music industry. Desktop manufacturing has the potential to change the world.
In the end, selling a desktop CNC machine is cool, and it might generate some revenue for the time being, but it’s not a sustainable business. Just like many other pieces of hardware, desktop CNC machines will be a race to the bottom with one company trying to undercut the company that came before it. I may have exacerbated that fact by trying to build/sell a unit for only $300. The real value in the project is what comes out of it. Hopefully better, less expensive machines come out of it. Making it even more realistic to believe that everyone would have something like this at their disposal. But also the software toolchain, and most importantly the end goal is for this and all the projects that come from it, to alter the way people *think* about how they acquire objects.
Like I said, in the end it came down to a simple choice: What did I want to do?
Well, after nearly two months of thinking, I decided that I want to help change the world! So, starting Monday of this week (October 1, 2012), I officially joined the Inventables team as an employee!
Now, instead of doing Project Shapeoko on the side, I’ll be doing it full time. Uninhibited by another job, and with the full resources of the company at my disposal, Inventables is giving me the opportunity to make Project Shapeoko the best that it can be. We have a lot of amazing things planned for the coming months, and I can’t wait to share them with all of you.
I also want to say thank you to everyone who has supported this project. I’m going to do my best to deliver on the promise of a better machine and do my part in moving the desktop manufacturing revolution forward.
Here’s to the beginning of the next chapter in Shapeoko’s history!