In 2012, a young Czech DJ hobbyist was frustrated with the knobs and faders on his music controllers, so went looking for ways to improve them. That’s when he came across 3D printing, and one of the fastest-growing 3D printing companies in the world was born.
Today, I’m going to show you exactly how Prusa3D became one of the fastest-growing hardware manufacturers in Europe. Then you can take inspiration from their exact strategy to grow a hardware company and create a community of contributors who will help you develop and promote your project with close to no resources.
Josef Prusa, Prusa Research’s founder, is a superstar in the 3D printers industry.
You might have already heard about him but if you haven’t…
Josef Prusa was lucky, but also did a lot of things well that we can all learn from.
How? Let’s dive in.
Before the roller coaster started, Josef enrolled in an economics degree to make his parents proud. This resulted in a lot of spare time, so he and his brother began DJing and building their music controllers.
He was looking to make his own knobs and faders, but found the search into it too long and challenging. He then found the RepRap project and Mendel 3D printer.
As you may know, RepRap is a community project started by Doctor Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath and it kickstarted the desktop 3D printing craze.
The basic idea is that a 3D printer can print as many parts as possible for another 3D printer and as a result, decreases its cost.
But when Josef was building his Mendel Printer, he was finding it too complex. It required many different screw sizes, there were no slots for nuts, and very few parts were push-to-fit.
So he improved the Mendel by making a simpler version; the Simplified Mendel [sic], and shared the designs on GitHub with the rest of the RepRap community.
The community caught up with his simplified model and started using it over the original, and that’s when people started noticing him.
When Josef was trying to solve his problem, printers were still missing one key component to have the ABS plastic print successful: a heated bed. Without it, prints warped and deformed away from the bed.
To tackle this problem, he came up with a rudimentary prototype (shown above) which consisted of a resistance wire stuck between two sheets of acrylic. It didn’t last very long.
Without letting the setbacks defeat him, he went on to create a second version. This one used a tile instead of acrylics, which was an improvement. But still, it only reached about 90 degrees Celsius, which wasn’t enough either.
After nearly six months of persistent work, the PCB Heatbed MK1 (above) was complete. It was the first real product he created.
This new heatbed could reach 110ºC, more than enough for ABS and other high-temperature plastics.
But many parts of the heatbed were either too expensive or difficult to get, so he redid many on his own.
He soon started receiving requests to print his Prusa Mendel’s parts. He also organized a few local build events, where everybody could build their own parts.
There was so much demand that it was time for Josef to officially start Prusa 3D with his brother Michal.
What’s interesting is that he didn’t start with the company name, the logo, and so on – rather, he started with a problem he had himself, and then he shared publicly, both his problem and his solutions, with others.
By sharing what he was doing with others, people who had the same problem could order his solution. And there were many people who shared his problem, which translated into many orders.
It’s also important to appreciate the persistence and patience it takes to continue iterating for six months in order to create a product that works and one that people want to use.
Josef and his brother began selling their first parts without an e-shop and instead sold them through email and a phone number on a webpage. They also hadn’t perfectly optimized their packaging yet. In the beginning, they packed their heatbeds in a pizza box and shipped them off to their clients.
Josef and Michal didn’t let the lack of a perfect tech solution get in their way. They simply found a way that was good enough to get their idea out the door and then made it better as they went along.
They were also proactive in creating awareness and trust with their audience. In the early days, they kickstarted the community by organizing presentations and going to events to educate people about the possibilities of this new 3D printing idea.
Josef also embodied honesty in his sales. If people came to him but were looking for something he didn’t sell or was a poor fit, he just told them which technology they should use instead.
This earned him a community of loyal users who trusted him and regularly came back to share prints and hacks on the new Prusa Printer's online hub. Whenever Prusa was criticized in their Youtube comment section, a flock of fans spoke up in their defense.
When we start something and it gets some traction, or even if we just anticipate the traction it can get, thinking about everything that we have to deal with can become overwhelming.
There might be barcode visualization, trademark registration, label design, building walls, building websites, accounting, invoicing, digging drains, dealing with bankers, installing equipment, video-editing, dealing with customer support, and more.
Most of the time we’re not even remotely competent at more than one or two of those things.
So this is the time when we hit a fork in the road. Do we hire or outsource to delegate, or do we do it ourselves?
Prusa’s beginnings are an interesting example of how to go through this period and build for the long term. Below, Josef explains how they went about preparing to scale:
“We never had resellers so we were always in direct contact with the customers in the community and this proved very important for us because you have instant feedback from the people.
If you are just a manufacturer and somebody else is doing the selling for you, you don’t always get all the information back.
In the beginning, it was much tougher for us to do it this way because we not only needed to learn how to make the printers at scale but we also needed to learn how to run a big webshop and how to do the customer support for all these people. It was more difficult but now it’s paying off that we have this direct contact and know how to run every part of the business on our own.”
It wasn’t until October 2013, three years after finishing the initial prototype, that they hired their first employee, Hanka.
How do you get the cash flow to hire people? Well, you sell in advance and produce after. In the beginning, Prusa always had a two week lead time for customers to get a printer.
As they continued to grow, they also hired a Foxconn engineer to deal with quality and a couple more software engineers to lead the engineering team.
They could have spent months or years trying to raise funding through VC or Kickstarter in order to hire people, outsource production and grow much faster.
But they decided instead to invest in the slower and more demanding path of figuring it out on their own, and keeping contact with the customers and their needs. This path has proven to be a much better strategy in the long run.
In 2014, Prusa Research had a revenue of 149.000€, which then grew to 70 million €, employing over 250 employees in 2019 just by bootstrapping the business.
If you aim to change the system, you need to be able to exist independently of it.
Prusa has exploded because it does a few things very well by always putting their customers' needs first without compromising their values or their price. This in turn helps them build a strong virtuous cycle for their development.
Josef knows what he wants Prusa to become. He wants his printers to be able to print any object with any material and through guided steps, much like a Thermomix for 3D printing. And he wants the least tech-savvy person to be able to operate it.
Having this clarity helps him and everyone in the company align their efforts towards a common goal.
The company also keeps investing in the way it cares for its customers.
They go to great lengths to test every single part of their printers to ensure quality but even that isn’t enough to cover everything – so that’s why they have support.
Almost 20% of their employees work in customer support. They have 12,000 live chats per month in nine languages and deal with over 11,000 emails each month.
Investing in making the designs of their 3D printers more functional, simple, and of high quality allows them to avoid competing with the nicer-looking but more expensive 3D printers.
This means that they are not too expensive for everyday consumers, and not too cheap for companies.
They’ve also made their 3D printer upgradable because it saves money for their customers and it builds their clients’ autonomy by helping them learn about the construction of the printer’s hardware.
Prusa’s clients are “normal Joes” as Josef describes them, and most don’t care much about open source. But the company does.
Those who care about open source provide valuable contributions that can be added back into the products. Some people will make improvements, some will fill in new code, and all of it helps make the printers better.
The open-source approach is also good for users. Those who want to do modifications find it much simpler because they have the original sources for the printer parts, the firmware, and the electronics.
Josef even has a tattoo of the OHSWA logo to keep himself accountable and honest to the open source vision.
Open source makes it easy for the idea to spread and upskill people who can find new use cases to increase the company’s pace of innovation, and it makes it more affordable to its clients.
Another counterintuitive thing Prusa does for its clients is that it supports the customers serviced by other distributors.
Many companies would forfeit this channel because it demands high margins and the distributors don’t do support. But they do these distribution partnerships anyway to make it easier for the people they serve to discover and access their printers.
And even if they make no extra money through these channels, they still give them the same level of support as those who buy from their website.
Why? Because caring for their customers is what makes it safe for them to then recommend Prusa to their friends and family, driving more business by word of mouth.
We’ve already spoken a lot about how much they invest in customer support, but Prusa also invests heavily in their community.
This does two things: it builds proof of what their product does in the world, and it helps scale even further what their customer support service can do.
To gather their community they do a few things.
The first thing Prusa does is offer two options to customers: They can either buy printers as kits or assembled. 80% of clients buy the printers in kits. Besides saving time in production, this allows the clients to learn how to build their printers and understand how they work.
This approach is raising a generation of makers who can create and fix instead of throw away, building a lot of goodwill for the Prusa brand.
To keep in touch with the community, in the early days Josef Prusa tried to go to as many shows as possible so that he could talk to fans face to face and hear about the awesome projects that could come to life with the help of their printers. He went to Maker Faires and to DIY or 3D-printing events.
Now that the company has grown so much, he can’t go to as many events. But before the pandemic started, there was a team of three to ten people traveling around the world two to four times a month. And they were also organizing their Maker Faire in the Czech Republic.
Many people understand the value of giving free stuff away online to attract a crowd. But I feel that many entrepreneurs haven’t embraced the opportunity and the value of connecting the people in their community with each other.
This is a very powerful idea that can go a long way in building trust and reciprocity with your brand and in getting the community members to spread the word and interact with stories of what you do.
One more powerful thing that Prusa is doing is figuring out how to connect the isolated Maker tribe, and at scale.
Once they gather their community by giving away their designs and connecting with them at events, the next challenge is getting these people to engage. And Prusa does a remarkable job at that.
They’ve created a series of resources that make it easy for people to learn the skills and tools they need to become active members of the community.
In their online hub, they share resources for learning and practice, such as a library of 3D printing models with files, and free guides on how to start 3D printing.
Once people are on their website to grab these resources, they can connect with each other locally or online through a map or in the forums to reach out for support or to go for a beer.
As a quick overview, Prusa provides the resources needed to learn the tools and the skills required to set up and hack a 3D printer. There are manuals, such as a free ebook to teach the basics of 3D printing, assembly instructions in video and ebook form, troubleshooting guides, and of course the downloadable drivers and firmware.
Once people have what they need to learn the basics, they can jump into the Forum to talk about their printer model, stay up to date with General Announcements and releases, find those community members in the Hall of Fame, and discuss the software.
Prusa’s approach helped them grow over 17,000% without a sales team, only through word of mouth.
It helps that they serve the fast-growing 3D printing market, but still.
Prusa has become a big player and a beloved brand in their industry, proving that you don’t need a huge marketing team or budget to get similar results. You just need a smart and intentional plan.
Here are the key takeaways you can borrow, modify, and adapt for your own business based on Prusa’s real-life marketing tactics:
What tool are you using that is not working as you wish it did? Learn the skills to fix or simplify what’s not working.
Once you create your first working solution, share it with communities who already use these tools and have the same problem as you do.
This builds trust, reciprocity, and if people want to buy your solution or they have other problems you can build on, they can tell you.
When we first start, we don’t have all the skills we need to find a solution to a problem. Be patient and persistent and embrace failure and rejection. It’s by getting into action that you’ll figure out what’s not working or missing, and what needs adjusting.
Let go of perfectionism or trying to look like an established company. What is good enough at the stage you’re at to satisfy the needs of the people you can serve? What is good enough for now to solve other people's problems, build your product, and ship it?
Don’t delegate too soon. If your goal is to change the system, you’ll have to learn to be autonomous early on and stay in close contact with your customers.
When the time comes to delegate, you’ll know what needs to be done and hire the right people for it.
If there is a competitor who can serve them better, redirect them there. It will build trust as people will remember how you treated them with respect.
What is the long term vision of your project? If money and growth is a means to an end, what is that end meant to achieve? What can you do to accelerate or scale this?
For Prusa, it was investing in outstanding customer support and sharing their work in open source to create both a delightful experience and to involve outside experts in their innovation.
Go meet your community where they hang out to stay in touch with their needs and to connect with them. What forums or groups do they participate in? What events do they go to?
Once you’ve found them, create spaces for them to gather and connect. Josef Prusa started by participating in the RepRap forums and by going to Maker events. Later on, they started organizing their Maker Faire in the Czech Republic.
Give them the resources and tools they need to get started. Then invite them to participate in the development of your product by opening your designs.
For those who contribute, you can showcase their work and skills to show your gratitude, and use these contributions also as proof that your product and community work.
Thanks for reading. Inspiration for this article came from The Road to 100,000 Original Prusa 3D printers. You can watch it here:
Source: The Road to 100,000 Original Prusa 3D printers
Photo Credit: Prusa 3D