Lessons Learned From Pivoting Our Business

Published: July 17th, 2019

In 2013, more than 26,000 backers pledged $2.34 million to create 3Doodler, the world’s first 3D printing pen. It was, and still is, one of the most popular Kickstarter projects in history.

We felt a responsibility to deliver an innovative, high-quality product to those early backers and I’m proud to say that we made good on that promise. This was followed up with a second edition (3Doodler 2.0), then a third (the Create Pen) and now a fourth generation 3D printing pen (the Create+).

Somewhere in the middle of all that, we also decided to launch a children’s edition, the 3Doodler Start, that features a special low--temperature nozzle and biodegradable plastic that melts at approximately 110 degrees fahrenheit, making it safe for all-ages.

Six years on, 3Doodler now has a range of products for all ages and we have sold more than two million pens in 60+ countries.

So why on earth, with all that behind us, are we attempting to pivot into the world of ed-tech?

Here are a few of the things that went into our decision to pivot, and our learnings that can be applied to any business looking to make a directional shift in their operation.

Why pivot in the first place?

There are two reasons why any business would want to pivot.

  1. Growth
  2. Survival

Businesses that pivot for growth usually identify a series of organic signs that suggest a shift will elevate the company’s standing and sales. If survival is the end goal, these same signs will be a warning shot that a business model is unsustainable, requiring an immediate course correction in order to stay afloat.

3Doodler’s shift was about seizing new opportunities and building our business for the long term. We had enough organic evidence to believe that an educational focus would work, and we wanted to create products with a lasting legacy in mind. The potential customer reach and revenue opportunity of working with education was also too good to pass up, even if it meant going through the rigors of pivoting the entire company to do so. Our company DNA was also tailored for this challenging sector, or in other words, we had the right “stuff”, we just needed to align it better.

So what were those signs?

Since the very beginning of 3Doodler, even when we only sold consumer products, we saw an interest and demand from the education space in nearly every subject - whether that’s the English teacher in Wisconsin who had her classroom recreate their hometown as a way to inspire proper research skills, the High School Physics teacher who used a 3Doodled prototype of circuitry to help students understand voltage, to the college anatomy professor who uses 3Doodler to help students learn muscular structures, and even elementary school classrooms making fashionable (and easy to make) shoe charms to wear.

This level of creativity and demand was one aspect of the organic evidence needed to make our decision. What came next was making sure we weren’t just imagining a brighter future without giving it’s underbelly a good prod first. In other words, good old fashioned due diligence!

What metrics/numbers influenced this decision?

Businesses looking to pivot should look beyond their own day-to-day when considering such a drastic change, and also make sure the story you are selling yourself is backed up by numbers. They should consider their product’s scope within a bigger, broader landscape with the data to cement such a critical decision.

For example, was there really a market here, and how big was it? From a commercial perspective, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are nearly 133,000 elementary, junior high and high schools in the United States alone and if they have, on average, 250 students (give or take) that’s 33 million potential 3Doodlers in waiting.

And that’s just one country. Then you have Europe, China, Japan, the Middle East … you get the idea. It’s too big of a number to ignore.

As a company, 3Doodler has opted not to seek additional investment since our Kickstarter days, instead carrying a cash-flow positive mindset, but both investors and analysts see the value of EdTech to the tune of $1.45 billion in the United States just last year.

Furthermore, we’ve seen 3D printing as a whole mature from an overhyped, unrealistic buzzword, to meaningful, actionable results. You have major industries, including auto, aviation, medicine and even NASA leading the way when it comes to 3D printing innovation. Major research institutions like the University of Miami are teaming up with Fortune 100 companies like Johnson & Johnson to open research and testing facilities.

Ultimately, those 133,000 K-12 schools lead up to those research institutions, so there’s a natural fit and alignment to prepare those students for their entire academic career.

At the end of the day, we aren’t just looking at the 2nd Grade Classroom that uses 3Doodler to make Bubble Wands. We’re really looking at the impact of what happens to 3Doodler if every classroom embraced 3D printing, and how our technology helps students throughout their educational career, from Kindergarten to way way beyond.

What’s the easiest way to start making a pivot?

Start with what you have and work from there.

We knew we had educators interested in our line of 3D printing pens, but didn’t cater to the experience they needed to have when using our product in a classroom setting. It’s like giving someone a race car without a race track, or skis without a slope.

So we built the slope. We introduced our 3Doodler Learning Packs and Teacher Experience Kits, designed by teachers, for teachers. The physical pens inside of these Learning Packs are the same as those at retail, but everything from the unboxing experience, to the included lesson plans, and even the purchase process has been adapted for an educational buyer.

We also just launched a partnership with Office Depot, a major education-focussed retailer, on a special Juku 3D printing pen that launched in May of this year. The pen itself is similar to the retail version of our Create+, but what’s unique about Juku series is that we are one of four products in an education-specific series. You can buy a Juku-branded 3Doodler, a Juku coding kit, a Juku music kit and more, all from one retailer, that already specializes in selling to educators.

Did you consider competition when it came to making a pivot into education?

We certainly did and it should be a major consideration for anyone pivoting.

Though 3Doodler holds a dominant market share of the 3D printing pen market, shifting into education also meant competing with traditional 3D printers, which have been gaining traction in classrooms for the last few years.

However, unlike traditional 3D printers, which are expensive and have limited interactive possibilities, a 3Doodler caters to each student on a personal level, enabling hands-on interaction. This also creates a very different learning experience for kinesthetic and visual learners.

How did you get everyone on your team on board for the pivot?

Our team is extremely passionate about the company and the products we work on. Getting everyone on board with a pivot is a matter of harnessing that passion, and then rebooting expectations about how we are making changes and what our new focus and priorities are. This requires extreme transparency and openness.

One big shift for 3Doodler is that our target buyer is shifting from individual consumers, to educational buyers who could be buying for an entire district. Everything about that customer and what they need is different, so we’re climbing that learning curve together, and fast. We’re also NOT our new consumer, while we were our old consumer, so we really have to take the time to understand them and their needs better. In addition to that, we’re also had to hire to fill gaps in our expertise, so we can make the growth we have planned in education happen.

How long did the process take and where are you right now with it?

Admittedly, while startups and small businesses are positioned to pivot fairly quickly compared to large companies, it doesn’t happen overnight.

You start by doing an analysis of the market instead of going into it blindly. You’ve got to hire people (or a person) who has a proper lay of the land or can augment your team where it’s needed. You also want to go into a pivot intelligently while at the same time trying to experiment with what works best for both you and the product, with a focus that is locked on your consumer and their experience. On our end, we also didn’t want to neglect a successful consumer business or our current users, so we need to keep our B2C operation together in tandem with the shift to education.

It’s a balancing act that we’re still learning how to handle. Even if successful, a company may sacrifice short-term gains for long-term benefits. In our case, we’re spending more money and allocating more resources on educational conferences, and other resources are being shared between our consumer efforts and educational growth.

EDU buyers are most active in May, June and July, while consumer buyers are most active in October, November and December, so that also dictates how and when we spend time and money, and how our year flows.

What are the biggest challenges?

For 3Doodler, it’s being able to chase a goal of being as ubiquitous as companies like LEGO, Crayola and Sharpie, with a small and nimble staff without chasing external funding.

Sure, we could chase an additional round of capital, but in other ways it would also slow us down and dilute our focus. As many of your readers and past interviewees would attest, raising capital is a full-time job (or three) in itself, and any partnership, including one with an investor, has to make sense as a whole.

From the Founder’s Chair or the C-Suite, what’s different about going through a pivot than starting a business in the first place?

I think with any new business, there’s a sense of following up on every contact, lead and opportunity. You have an idea of where you’d like your company to go, but there’s less prioritization, more opportunistic thinking, and your long term planning tends to be vaguer.

Years later, you’ll look back and laugh (more often than not over drinks) at how odd, small, strange and sometimes crazy much of that time was spent as you were growing your business. It’s a rite of passage for any founder, and as the company grows you learn what not to spend time on, vs what’s been lacking your attention most.

Pivoting is the point where a company and its leadership take command of the wheel and steer you towards new and uncharted opportunities - but with more knowledge and wisdom (we hope!) than the last time.

Most importantly, we’re no longer are we wondering what 3Doodler could be, but instead trying to chase its ultimate and most impactful potential.

As the famed Yogi Berra once said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Starting a company is like driving on an open road. Pivoting a company is taking a turn at that fork in the road.

Quick Tips For Embracing A Business Pivot

  1. Embrace organic signs that your business is ready to make a pivot. Then supplement that evidence with analytical data.
  2. Start with what you already have and work from there. More often than not, there are aspects of your infrastructure already in place. Or as Apollo 13 Flight Director Gene Krantz once said, “let’s look at this from a standpoint of status. What do we have on the spacecraft that’s good?”
  3. Get your team on board through honesty and transparency. This won’t be an easy shift for them to make and could potentially require a shift in job responsibilities and thought processes.
  4. This process won’t happen overnight. Typically the larger the company, the slower the pivot is going to be.
  5. Pivoting is all about reaching your true potential, so don’t get distracted and dilute your focus. The time for chasing every opportunity the way you would as a new business is over.