Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey! I’m Alroy from Voltera. We make electronics manufacturing equipment.
Wait… most people begin to yawn when they hear “manufacturing” and “supply chain” so let's try this again: Voltera designs and builds a circuit printer that shrinks an entire electronics factory down to the size of a laptop.
We have thousands of units in over 65 countries being used by hardware businesses of all sizes to bring new ideas to market faster, academic and government researchers for breakthrough technologies, and educators in high schools, colleges, and universities to train the engineers of the future.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Building hardware sucks! We learned this the hard way while designing electronics at various companies.
Personally, my background was in industrial electronics (ruggedized communications for factories and other harsh environments) but I also did some development on medical devices. My business partners had plenty of experience in automation, EDS, and materials research.
Engineers don’t like being sold to. This means they don’t like sharing their email addresses or phone numbers. They don’t want to talk to a salesperson that doesn’t know anything about the technology.
In 2012 we realized that 3D printers were very handy for mechanical prototyping but a circuit printer didn’t exist for electronics engineers.
During the early stages of product development, it is awful to wait weeks for prototypes to arrive from factories or to pay ridiculous fees to expedite delivery. The electronics were becoming the bottlenecks at many companies.
We decided to put our Mechatronics and Nanotechnology Engineering degrees to good use by creating this tool. At first, it was to scratch our itch… just to see if we could do it. However, pretty soon we started getting interested from former colleagues and friends so we decided to take it from a project to a product.
Little did we know how incredibly challenging that would be.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first step in designing a product is knowing WHAT you’re building. This was fairly easy for us since we were our ideal customer but that didn’t stop us from doing dozens of interviews with electronics engineers to validate our feature set.
We realized we could not build a product that did everything we, or they, wanted so we pared back our ambitions for our MVP and set some benchmarks for performance and reliability.
The second step of designing a product is knowing whether you CAN build it and that means being able to finance the development. Considering we had no money (we weren’t even taking a salary), we began applying for grants and competitions. We’re so grateful for all the individuals and organizations that believed in us in those early days.
Another aspect of knowing whether you CAN build it comes down to what physics will let you do. We spoke to experts in the fields of electronics and conductive inks and they told us that creating a machine that prints these metal-based inks and that hits our benchmark would be impossible or that it would take us millions of dollars and an army of PhDs.
After a year we had barely made any progress and were about to call it quits. It seems those experts were correct because using the standard technology for these things (inkjet printing) we couldn’t create anything we were proud of.
Thankfully we had a breakthrough after we experimented with thicker inks to get better conductivity, solderability, and reliability.
The third step of designing a product is knowing HOW to build it. We broke this into two parts: the gantry (easy) and the dispensing (very difficult). The gantry went through many iterations and we spent a lot of time creating our early prototypes by 3D printing and machining parts ourselves.
Developing, testing, patenting, and fine-tuning the dispensing mechanism and algorithms took months (arguably, it is still ongoing as we continue improving the product). As challenging as it was, it led to some hilarious moments like the time we determined the value of a fudge factor in an early algorithm by printing Nutella.
Once we realized the fundamental technology could work with some more tweaks, we knew we had to begin getting this ready for use by many people. This meant working on the industrial design (we teamed up with a great, local ID firm), supply chain, and scaling up manufacturing.
This was when we moved the company to Shenzhen, China. We were all there for 4 months to visit factories, source high-quality components, tweak our design with the help of manufacturing engineers, and understand how we were going to certify and assemble this product.
We then returned home but two of my business partners were still flying back and forth to be our boots on the ground in China. This arrangement didn’t last long after we launched the product.
We LOVE hearing from our customers. We love seeing what they’re building and helping them create cool things. I can’t begin to explain how important it is to treat your customers the way you would like to be treated.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In a way, launching the product took 30 days - the length of our Kickstarter campaign. In other ways it took us another two years - the time it took for our focus to begin transitioning from manufacturing to marketing and sales.
Right out of the gate, our Kickstarter was going great:
- We ran out of early bird units before we could even refresh the page
- We hit our goal within 30 minutes
- By the end of day 1, we had already surpassed everyone’s best-case scenario
I think we were able to accomplish these things (without a single dollar of advertising) due to the incredible amounts of hard work we put into prep for the campaign. Two main things come to mind:
We built a huge mailing list by that point thanks to press coverage we had already received and used the Thunderclap tool (now defunct) to synchronize our social media awareness. Surprisingly, although we lined up a lot of press coverage for the launch, we barely saw it convert.
The second way we prepped was by analyzing the campaigns of any product somewhat related to us that had already launched on the platform. From this, we figured out exactly what rewards to have, how much to set our goal for, how and when to provide updates, and what style of video would work well.
Most importantly, we categorized every comment left on these campaigns and any articles pointing to these campaigns and that helped us understand what questions people had about the products. We made sure to structure our page in a way to address these topics immediately.
After we wrapped up our campaign, it was time to deliver on the product. I’m very proud to say that our early bird units went out on schedule. We moved mountains to make it happen so a HUGE thanks go to our team for that incredible feat.
Unfortunately, delivering these first couple dozen machines made us realize that we had to bring our manufacturing back to North America. Not only were my business partners and I separated by a 12 hour time difference and a poor internet connection, but we could not get what we wanted from the factories we worked within China.
Most businesses optimize for cost or speed but we realized that what was most important to us was control, flexibility, and reliability. The only way to get that is to be as close to our suppliers as possible. After explaining this to our backers, they encouraged us to build things the right way and give them something we were proud of.
While we still source off the shelf parts from China, we ended up bringing the majority of our custom parts back to Canada and continue to build, test, and ship everything ourselves from our facility.
Since the campaign had already gone so much better than we expected we couldn’t handle much more demand so while we were accepting new orders, it was only after the first few manufacturing runs that we began shifting our focus to continuous marketing and sales.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Understanding our customers
If we didn’t understand our customers and how they view our product, we wouldn’t be able to work so hard to lower their barriers engaging with us or to buying from us. For example:
Engineers don’t like being sold to. This means they don’t like sharing their email addresses or phone numbers. They don’t want to talk to a salesperson that doesn’t know anything about the technology. This is why we interact with so many people over live chat. Once they see that our sales team can talk shop they’re more willing to give up personal information to move a deal forward.
Engineers will do lots of research before buying. This is why once they start a conversation with us we arm them with so many videos, gifs, pdfs, and stats. The better informed they are and the more competent we seem, the higher the likelihood of a good relationship (and someday soon, a sale).
Over the years we have found that the best way to sell our machine is live demos. However, we cannot do that all over the world so the second-best method we’ve found is video.
Take a look at our Youtube channel. We try to invest in creating high-quality videos that show off the different things our product can do but it also has some of the best support videos I’ve ever seen (I’m biased, I know).
If you sell a physical product you need to be investing in video. I find that many B2B hardware companies forget this and that is a huge mistake in my opinion.
International reseller partner network
If live demos are that useful, what if we could find a way to be all over the world? That’s where our reseller partners step in to save the day.
We’ve spent the last few years building out a network of talented companies that can help with sales and support in the many languages and time zones that our customers are in. They also represent us at trade shows and conferences.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
This is being written a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic so obviously, there is still much uncertainty about the future in the short term. Like many other hardware businesses worried about supply chains, we had our eye on the news coming out of China since the beginning of the year and in early March we began working from home.
We put a lot of measures into place to prepare for a precipitous drop in revenue. While we are incredibly thankful that our reality has not come close to the scenarios we prepared for, we are still moving forward with the mantra of “plan for the worst, hope for the best”.
Moving our sights beyond the next twelve months, our attitudes shift from cautious optimism to excited optimism. We haven’t stopped our R&D and still aim to launch a new product next year.
In our early days, I often felt upset with our lack of progress compared to other start-ups. I’d make us work on initiatives because other companies had done them, not because they were right for Voltera.
The world of hardware development is beginning to shift as designers are demanding more from the parts they work with. Electronics need to be lighter and conform better to the device or the user. The variety of sensors we have access to and the density with which we deploy them are both growing exponentially. Material selection of electronic components, circuit boards, and device interfaces continues to increase.
The additive electronics industry is heating up. While the Voltera V-One is a great introduction to this space, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
This is going to sound cheesy so bear with me… we LOVE hearing from our customers. We love seeing what they’re building and helping them create cool things. We can’t constantly call them to shoot the breeze which is why we take advantage of every opportunity they contact us - mainly for support.
Over the years I’ve seen the quality of support Mike from our team provides people when they contact us. He goes out of their way to help, jokes around, and makes them comfortable enough to reach out to us whenever they need to. He often turns a bad experience into a friendship.
I can’t begin to explain how important it is to treat your customers the way you would like to be treated. The proof speaks for itself.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The main tools we use for Marketing, Sales, and Support are:
- Hubspot for marketing automation and CRM
- Shopify for order processing
- Contentful CMS for site management
- Intercom for a live chat on our website and in our app
- Google Analytics and online SEO tools for site monitoring and optimization
- Netsuite for supply chain management, inventory management, and finance
- Adobe Creative Cloud and Keyshot for content creation
The main tools we use for prototyping, product development, and manufacturing are:
- React, Node, Electron, VS Code, Arduino IDE, and Github for software dev
- Solidworks, Fusion360, EAGLE, Gerbv, and SnapEDA for hardware design
- Form 2, V-One, Digikey, McMaster Carr, and Misumi for hardware prototyping
- Rheometer and universal testing machine for measuring flow and mechanical properties
- Speedmixer and centrifuge for material preparation
- Minitab for experiment design & statistical analysis
- PointGrey Flycap, Keysight Handheld Meter Logger, and ImageJ for microscope capture, multimeter capture, and image processing.
- Various smaller pieces of equipment for ink testing such as solder pots, drying ovens, ultrasonic cleaners, and - of course - Voltera V-Ones!!
Our facility also has:
- All the standard electrical tools you could think of (soldering station, oscilloscope, hot air gun, multimeters, microscopes, etc.)
- All the standard mechanical tools you could think of (hand tools, calipers, adhesives, etc.)
- All the standard lab equipment you could think of (glassware, hazardous waste disposal, etc.)
- Refrigerators and flammables cabinets for material storage
- Dozens of custom assembly jigs and testing equipment
Other tools we use include:
- Gmail, Google Meet, Discord, Slack, Skype for internal and external communication
- Asana for project management
- G Suite, Overleaf, MS Office Suite, and Git for document creation and versioning
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My personal favorites when it comes to books that have helped with the business include:
- Radical Candor
- High Output Management
- Death By Meeting
- Hard Thing About Hard Things
- Scaling Up
- Signal v Noise blog
To stay on top of my industry, I tend to check:
- Podcasts: The Art of Manufacturing, The Digital Factory, The Edge, and The Prepared
- Mailing Lists: Printed Electronics Now, 3D Printing Industry
I should also mention that Google knows me incredibly well. Most days I have a few dozen tabs open with articles it suggested to me.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t measure yourself (or your company) by someone else’s ruler.
While you shouldn’t try to be Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, or Tesla, it is easy to compare yourself or your company to other local businesses or other businesses in your industry. Compared to your company, they might be growing faster, raising more money, getting a fancier office, or winning more awards.
The best thing to do when these things happen is to feel genuinely happy for them, be inspired by the right things, and then get back to work on your company.
The wrong things to be inspired by are their goals, metrics, etc. Your companies are different - different people, products, business models, skill sets, and luck. If you adopt their accomplishments or are even influenced by them, you will add undue pressure on yourself and lead your company down a potentially incorrect path.
In our early days, I often felt upset with our lack of progress compared to other start-ups without taking into consideration how incredibly difficult the problems we were trying to solve were. I’d make us work on initiatives because other companies had done them, not because they were right for Voltera. It was a disheartening and lonely time and I learned a lot from it.
So what are the correct things to be inspired by? In the early days of your business, surround yourself with (or be inspired by) people who hustle as much or more than you. Once your business is more mature, be inspired by the people that build strong teams, and learn about how they think about finding gaps in their business. Finally, once your company has grown more, be inspired by the leaders that have such a strong grasp over every aspect of their business that they can constantly think strategically - to constantly work on their business, not in their business.
In all these cases you should learn why and how they do what they do, not what they are doing. It will keep you objective and make you a better leader.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
“We’re always looking for great people. We’ve been known to create or modify roles depending on the people we build relationships with”.
That is my usual answer when asked this question, and while we do want to continue building relationships and getting referrals, we will not be bringing on anyone new for the next few months. We had to put hiring and spending restrictions in place due to COVID-19 to protect current Volterans but hope to continue growing as quickly as possible.
Where can we go to learn more?
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