I’m the CEO of Printrbot and I am living the dream. But not for the reasons you might think. You may think that the joy in my day-to- day job is executing our vision of bringing accessible 3D printers and tools to the world, and I guess you would be partly right – that is true. But the surprise of my four years building this company is actually being inspired by the people I work with here at Printrbot. As CEO, I have come to learn that the most important job I have at Printrbot is creating and maintaining the culture of our company. That culture, in all its glory and warts, comes directly from my values and me.
Building that culture happened naturally, but when I hired my CFO, Byrren, a guy with deep experience in startups, my undisciplined habits became endorsed values that were vital to our survival. Let me say it plainly: I hire people I identify with… people I like. And, as it turns out, that’s more than OK, it’s essential.
I say all this to introduce a couple of high school students I hired. I have a heart for curious, young makers that show a track record of actually completing ambitious projects on their own. I have always employed high school students here at Printrbot. I love education. I have three kids. I used to teach 400+ middle school kids at a local church. I fully understand how important it is for a young person to identify their passions and to enable them to pursue those passions.
So my high school student interview process goes like this: “What have you done?” Tucker and Alex responded, “We made our own Proton Packs.” I hired them. It was a little more involved than that, but that’s all I heard in my head when they walked out and I told them, “I’ll be in touch.” It was a done deal.
Tucker and Alex are a couple of rare birds – They have a ridiculously high grade point average AND they own and operate a 3D printer. Maybe I should lead with those two questions… but I don’t know if that’s legal 🙂 Anyway, I let them build sub-assemblies for our production printers, troubleshoot printers we were refurbishing, even use my shop to refurb a printer I had donated to their school some time ago. Over time, they earned my trust and I asked them what skills with which would they would like to walk away from Printrbot. Their answer included, “We want to learn how to operate the Water Jet!”
That water jet I bought is a beast. I bought it used for $65K, upgraded it multiple times (long story), and have around $160K invested in it. It’s my precious. It is the life-blood of Printrbot’s R&D. After thinking about it, I decided my value of exposing young people to what they are capable of doing was more important than my fear of them screwing it up. I made a deal that they could use it after not only learning how to operate it (a skill that I, myself, have forgotten a few times already), but they would have to be able to do the pathing (software stuff) for it themselves, and use it after hours on their own time. They quickly complied.
Not long ago, I was working on my motorcycle (another story) in the metal shop after hours and they fired up the water jet. My heart rate quickened and I asked them, “What are you doing?!” They replied that they were cutting parts for the latest version of their Ghostbusters proton pack. Hiding my internal grin, I said, “Oh, OK.” Seeing them learn a new skill and be so excited about pursuing a passion was extremely gratifying. But, in “Brook” fashion, I didn’t want them to see me enjoying it too much. I left them to their fun to run to the store to get some motorcycle parts. When I returned, Alex met me at the door, sullen. He had tried to call me on my way home, so I knew something was up. “I broke the water jet,” he said. You would think that I would come unglued, knowing my investment in that machine-that- is-our- super-power. But I am good in a crisis and calmly asked him to show me what happened.
When you prepare parts to cut, you put tabs in the drawing so parts don’t wall into the four feet of water in the tank. The tabs they used failed, and a part got lodged up in the air. The cutting head ran into it, and broke the tip off. I’ve never broken a tip, myself, but I think everyone who has operated the machine at any length has broken a tip. They are around $130 to replace. After digging around in our parts bin, I was able to find a tip and replace it easily. Disaster overcome. I wanted to share this story for a couple of reasons. First, these guys are cool and they are the real deal. They not only did something cool, they completed a complicated project and went on to learn new skills and iterate on their designs to improve them. THIS is the culture of our company. One thing I have always been honest about in our growth as a company is: I have made tons of mistakes… and I have learned incredible lessons from my failures. Granted, the lesson that these teenagers learned, specifically, was a small one. But the value of that lesson is huge… Don’t let failures stop you!
Happily, Alex and Tucker completed the latest version of their project and have shown them off in this video. But the best news, to me, is that they have picked up some killer maker-skills, and are already on to dreaming up their next version of their proton pack. It’s people like these two dudes that I get the privilege to work with every day. And I gotta tell ya…. it rocks.