How I Started A $330K/Month Ecommerce Specialized In 3D Printing
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Roy Kirchner, an entrepreneur from Odessa, Florida. After years spent in the automobile and marketing and advertising industries, I decided in 2014 to form a new company solely focused on emerging new technology, 3D printing.
When we officially opened the business in 2015, we primarily sold 3D printers, accessories, and printing filament and provided technical support to assist local manufacturers, schools, and 3D printing enthusiasts. Now, five years later, we have expanded our footprint significantly to include partnerships with all of the major international 3D printing manufacturers.
We are an authorized reseller, we create reseller channels with individuals all across the country and, in some cases, we serve as the U.S. master distributor for certain manufacturers and their products. Also, we now are working closely with certain manufacturers to create new retail sales channels in specific subset markets such as 3D dental printing applications. We also are moving beyond 3D printing, per se, in creating startup innovation labs that include 3D printing but also incorporate other technologies such as laser cutting, desktop waterjet, and CNC routers.
I started my company with an initial, out-of-pocket investment of $65,000, and today we are averaging monthly gross sales of $330,000.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2014, I was one-half of a partnership working primarily in advertising and marketing. At that time, my partner and I were successful and wanted to explore other verticals. We began working with a client who had a product that we believed was singular and unique throughout the world, and we put forward a significant amount of capital out of our own pockets to try and develop that product, only to reach a point where the deal went south and litigation ensued.
Make plans to do things as a family, and do your best not to let work interfere with those moments, but know that there are going to be times when you will have to sacrifice an outing, a dinner date, a holiday weekend.
In trying to think outside the box and figure out a way to create a similar product, I found myself for the first time in an innovation lab in Tampa, Florida, where I saw a 3D printer in operation for the first time. I couldn’t look away. I realized immediately that 3D printing had the potential to change the world as it became more integrated into daily business activities such as manufacturing. That’s when I decided to leap of faith.
I went from making six figures as a 19-year-old salesman in the auto industry, transitioned myself into a highly successful advertising executive, and then nearly depleted my savings fighting in court over a failed product partnership before I found my true calling, which I sincerely believe to be the 3D printing industry.
I came into 3D printing with zero experience and had to self-educate myself as there still are no formal training opportunities in this industry, which makes it very challenging to grow as a business because we had to build everything from the ground up.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When I first started my company, Ultimate 3D Printing Store, there were not a lot of similar businesses operating in Florida. Therefore, I had no template to work from in figuring out what I wanted my company to be. However, I knew that I wanted to promote 3D printing and educate as many people as possible to the opportunities that this industry offered.
To that end, I found myself early on working closely with local individuals who were seeking a new way to create new products that they could sell and/or use themselves.
I will never forget the experience of being referred to a woman, a single, stay-at-home mom, whose life I truly believe we changed for the better. This woman was on a fixed income and spent the majority of her time caring for a disabled child. We donated a 3D printer to her and had one of our technicians provide a tutorial on how to use the equipment to 3D print personalized cookie cutters. We also worked for her on creating an Etsy store where she could then sell the cookie cutters that she printed. In the end, this incredibly shy woman found herself with social media followers and customers who wanted to purchase her unique creations. She was able to start making money that she otherwise would not have and still stay home to care for her child.
Today, we still try to do the same even though we now work with large, international manufacturers and local business owners to show them how to use the latest 3D printing technology to create new revenue streams with new product designs and cultivate new customers in both the U.S. and other countries.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When Ultimate 3D Printing Store first opened, we had one major brand that we represented. Today, for context, we represent products from as many as 30 companies around the world.
In 2015, we built the business around that initial brand. First, I purchased machines from the company, which was based in China. I played around with the machines to familiarize myself with how they worked. I broke them, fixed them, took them apart, and put them back together. Next, I created a website that prominently featured this brand of 3D printers. Then, I contacted the company and showed them what I had done and asked if I could become an authorized reseller for their products.
This is highly unorthodox and probably not the way I would advise most people to go with a startup. I had to hire a translator, for example, because I couldn’t communicate with the company executives otherwise.
If you take care of your customers, word of mouth, even with an eCommerce store, is the most valuable thing you can receive.
One of the most challenging aspects that I found in dealing with a foreign entity was that international companies often don’t have the same tools that you may be used in the U.S. For example, this entity didn’t have professional marketing materials such as stock photos and professional descriptions of their products.
To do what I wanted, I had to hire a professional writer to help me craft descriptions and I took photos of the products that I had purchased to use on the website. To take professional photos, I removed all of the furniture from one room of my house, but that in the garage and created a photo studio, all on my own.
To say this was a chaotic way to start a company would be an understatement, but it worked.
I used the same professional writer to draft a press release about my company and the brand that I was representing. I created social media channels to promote the company. I went to local innovation labs, including the one where I first saw a working 3D printer and talked up my business. At this time, the company was still located in my residence, in the room, I had emptied to take photos, which my wife probably wasn’t thrilled about.
I did this because I needed to know whether this was a viable business venture before I took the next step of opening a stand-alone showroom and started hiring employees.
Within a month, I sold $40,000 worth of product, most of that to customers in Australia, which I wasn’t expecting, but it provided me with enough capital to open a small brick-and-mortar location.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The most valuable thing that you can do is take care of your customers before, during, and after the sale. I would say as an eCommerce store, one of the most important things is to ship fast and to provide a tracking number to your customers as fast as possible.
We do live in an Amazon era, which means people in the U.S. want to receive what they purchase as fast as humanly possible. Even if it takes time to get to the customer, getting them the tracking number puts their mind at ease and allows them to consider the transaction as valid.
The second most important thing is after-sales support. Have a phone number and answer the phone when a customer calls.
Finally, if there is a problem, fix the issue. If you have a customer that gets upset and they post a bad review online, it’s no longer just about that one customer, that can affect all of your customers, both existing and future. No matter what, the customer is always right. Just fix the problem.
If you take care of your customers, word of mouth, even with an eCommerce store, is the most valuable thing you can receive. If they buy something from you, more than likely they’re going to post about it online and name the retailer and share the experience they had.
Speaking about Amazon, I think that platform can be very useful when used in the right way. First of all, Amazon as a conglomerate is not concerned with how it impacts small businesses, and that impact is almost always negative when people think they can simply get a better deal by going with the biggest player in the room.
However, if a customer buys something on Amazon, they don’t have the same communication channels available that we, as a small business, provide. There’s no direct line to get support or ask basic questions. We provide that free of charge to all of our customers, and we’re always available.
The way we use Amazon is twofold. One, I will post a product on Amazon to give more customers than just the people that seek us out directly an opportunity to see the amazing 3D printers we have available. However, if I list the same product on Amazon that is on my website, I’m going to mark the price up on Amazon by $10 or more dollars so that a savvy shopper will see that I have the best deal available and place the order with my company instead of through Amazon.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
With Covid-19, the pandemic allowed people to better understand what additive manufacturing is. The ability to get products that might otherwise be sold out, or to get products, such as personal protective equipment, that are so critical during a global health crisis, really gave us an advantage at a time when I wasn’t sure if our business model would survive. I believe people finally realized during this time that U.S. manufacturing is alive and well, and while it may not look like your grandfather’s vision of manufacturing, 3D printing, in particular, is leading a resurgence in American made products that aren’t just novelty items.
What we have seen, and what we consistently try to explain to every new business that we come into contact with, is that 3D printing can be used to make not just new items, but to recreate items that have otherwise long been unavailable, and to mass-produce those items at a rapid rate with less overhead and more potential for profit.
As I stated earlier, since the pandemic hit the country, we have seen an incredible surge in sales. As of May 2019, we averaged gross sales of $145,000. This year, despite the pandemic, we made $345,000 in May 2020 alone.
Having a line of products that you can’t find on most retail store shelves, and targeting niche markets, have helped us and contributed to our astronomical growth.
We’ve also been very successful in recognizing early on that this industry had incredible growth potential, and we have worked tirelessly to develop relationships not only with the people buying our products, but also the people making our products.
A lot of what we do involves staying flexible and constantly evolving. We spend an inordinate amount of time keeping up with the latest advancements and most cutting-edge technologies so that we can bring our customers something they’ve never seen before and otherwise would not have the opportunity to purchase.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I would say that keeping your overhead low is critical. You never know when something unexpected might happen, such as a global pandemic, that forces you to completely rethink how you do business. As you grow, you’re going to take risks. Some of them will be rewarding, and some of them will result in a loss, but you always need to make sure you’re in a position to absorb that loss.
To be the best, you have to surround yourself with the best people possible. No one person can do it all alone. The team you create is your most valuable asset. You have to make sure that the people working for you care about the company and its growth.
To that end, treat your staff the right way. Find people who will help you grow. Longevity is key. By building institutional knowledge, and surrounding yourself with people who are as excited about learning as they are helping customers get the right product, you never have to worry that an employee is simply cashing a check to make ends meet.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our eCommerce platform is Shopify. I truly believe it’s one of the best eCommerce platforms out there.
For an inventory, we use a system called SkuVault, which is an eCommerce inventory management software. This has helped us immensely in organizing our inventory.
We also use software from ShipStation to assist with getting products to our customers.
We use VenDesk, a customer support ticket system, to help us manage customer support issues.
And then there’s Asana, an online work management software that truly works.
We also use RingCentral as our cloud-based phone system and QuickBooks as our accounting software.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Honestly, life and work have been so busy the past few years that I have not had time to read and I have yet to dive into listening to podcasts.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The number one rule for any aspiring entrepreneur is this: Be ready to work hard.
If you’re wanting to clock in and clock out, go work for somebody else. If you want to be an entrepreneur and own your own business, you never really clock out. It’s your business, and no one is ever going to care about it as much as you.
When I first started as a new business, we received a lot of criticism online related to one of our brand manufacturers. You mustn’t take a negative review or a bad social media post and let that inform how you work. There’s always going to be someone who can find fault, but a key measure of success is how you respond in those moments, how you tackle adversity head-on, and how genuine and sincere you appear to customers. Don’t be afraid to admit you made a mistake. But, always make sure you learn from that mistake so that you never make it again.
As an entrepreneur, have an open and honest talk with your spouse and your family about whether they understand the time requirement that comes with owning a successful business. Make plans to do things as a family, and do your best not to let work interfere with those moments, but know that there are going to be times when you will have to sacrifice an outing, a dinner date, a holiday weekend because you have customers and/or clients depending on you to make a situation right.
Finally, make sure you police yourself accordingly, especially when making posts and comments online in social media and especially when dealing with writing with customers or clients. Keep politics out of your workplace. It doesn’t belong there.
Just be smart about you represent yourself and your brand because as we have all seen, both locally and nationally, all it takes is one tweet, one Facebook post, one Instagram video, and your reputation is sullied forever and your customer base is immediately looking for a new home.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always looking for enthusiasts and social media influencers to assist in getting our brand out to a wider audience.
We’ve recently become a 3D Systems NextDent distributor and we are currently looking for a dental expert that is familiar with additive manufacturing to assist in sales, service, and support. This would be a full-time, paid position.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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