Starting a 3D Printer Store Online And Growing to $300k/month

The Story of 3D Universe

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

I’m Jeremy Simon, one of the founders of 3D Universe, a company dedicated to making 3D printing and digital fabrication accessible to everyday people and professionals alike. 3D Universe was founded in late 2013, along with my two partners, Aleks Jones and Alina Dragu.

Our income is derived from our ecommerce business. We sell a variety of 3D printers and supplies through our website (shop3duniverse.com). But we also work extensively with the e-NABLE volunteer community, making free 3D printed prosthetic devices for people around the world.

As part of our support of the e-NABLE community, 3D Universe provides assembly materials kits to make it easier for people producing e-NABLE prosthetic devices.

We have also developed the e-NABLE Web Central platform, which matches e-NABLE volunteers with e-NABLE device recipients.

3D Universe currently generates about $300,000 per month in revenues, with a growth of around 300% over the last three years.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

In 2012, after selling my shares in a consulting firm I had owned for 15 years, I became interested in 3D printing and bought my first 3D printer. I became amazed by the possibilities offered by 3D printing.

While exploring the designs on Thingiverse, a popular 3D file repository, I came across a design for a 3D printable prosthetic hand. Investigating further, I found my way to an online volunteer community called e-NABLE, with people using 3D printers to make free prosthetic devices for people around the world.

I joined this community and started making e-NABLE prosthetic devices for people. A man in my local community named Jose Delgado reached out to me to ask if I could make a hand for him. Jose was born without fingers on one hand, and while he owned an expensive prosthetic device, it didn’t work very well for him. So I made an e-NABLE device for Jose and did a video about it. This video ended up going viral on YouTube, and led to an interview on Fox News. Partially as a result of this publicity, the e-NABLE community grew rapidly, from a few hundred members at the time to thousands of members around the world.

At this time, 3D printing was becoming increasingly popular, but there wasn’t a great deal of competition from companies selling 3D printers online. My business partner and I sensed a good opportunity and proceeded to develop a business plan for 3D Universe.

In 2013, we launched 3D Universe with an ecommerce website, offering a small selection of 3D printers and related supplies. Both my business partner and I had existing income from other business ventures at the time, so we were able to focus on building our new company without being overly stressed about making money in our first year.

In 2014, 3D Universe became one of the first authorized resellers for Ultimaker products in the United States, and our business grew significantly as a result. Ultimaker is a leading manufacturer of desktop 3D printers, and this was right around the time they were developing a reputation as producing the most reliable and highest quality 3D printers available. The previous market leader, Makerbot, had made some bad decisions, leading to a rapid decline in their market position, and opening the path for Ultimaker to take the lead.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

Some of the products 3D Universe sells are purchased from other manufacturers. For example, Ultimaker manufactures their 3D printers in Memphis, TN, and we simply resell them. However, there are some custom products that we manufacture.

After working with the e-NABLE volunteer community for several months, it became clear that one of the challenges preventing more people from making the e-NABLE prosthetic devices is that a variety of assembly materials are needed for each device produced. These materials include things like screws, cords, velcro, foam padding, etc.

Avoid products where the manufacturer has lots of resellers drop-shipping their products. It’s hard to compete when nearly anyone can sell a product without having to keep it in inventory.

While all of these materials can be obtained separately, we found that you end up having to buy far more than what’s needed for producing a single device. And finding all of the individual materials and ordering them separately proved to be rather time-consuming.

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Seeing an opportunity to help the e-NABLE community and increase the number of free prosthetics being produced and distributed, we decided to create kits with all of the assembly materials needed for producing e-NABLE devices.

We did extensive testing to determine which materials would be needed for each design, and how much of those materials was needed to produce a device in various sizes. Then we found cost-effective sources for ordering each of the materials in bulk quantities, and we hired someone to help prepare and package the kits.

Our e-NABLE assembly materials kits have been very popular. So far, we have distributed over 8,000 of these kits to people around the world.

One of the challenges in the e-NABLE community is matching volunteers who wish to make e-NABLE devices with recipients who need those devices. To address this challenge, my business partner and I decided to develop a web application, called e-NABLE Web Central. We have invested thousands of hours into the development of this application, and development is ongoing, as we’re constantly adding new features and capabilities. The platform currently has about 2,000 active users.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

My business partner has a strong development background, so creating our website required no outside assistance.

We spent about a month creating our site initially and have made improvements periodically since our initial launch. After reviewing our options, we decided to use the Shopify ecommerce platform, and it has met our needs well.

We didn’t require a lot of capital to start the business. My business partner and I both had existing incomes, and the out-of-pocket costs for starting the business were minimal. Once we started purchasing products to sell, our costs increased, but those increases were fairly gradual, so revenues were growing at the same time.

At one point during our first year, we took out a business line of credit for $50,000, which we used for several months, but we haven’t needed to use that line since that first year, as we’ve had a positive cash-flow.

Business was slow at first, as we had to build our customer base from nothing. But once we added the Ultimaker product line, our growth was exponential. It was a matter of being in the right place and the right time. Ultimaker and 3D Universe both exhibited at an e-NABLE conference at Johns Hopkins University in 2014, and we had a chance to talk while there. We met some of the key folks at Ultimaker, including one of their founders, and shortly thereafter, we became one of their first authorized resellers in the US.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Since our launch, we’ve learned some valuable lessons about picking the right products to generate maximum sales and profits.

First, avoid products where the manufacturer has lots of resellers drop-shipping their products. It’s hard to compete when nearly anyone can sell a product without having to keep it in inventory.

Second, try to find vendors with a strong product who don’t sell direct. It’s difficult to compete against the manufacturer of a product. Some vendors are 100% channel-driven, meaning they only sell their products through their authorized resellers. This is the ideal kind of vendor to work with, as the vendor will usually help to generate sales opportunities for your company.

Of course, the ideal circumstance is being able to develop your own product - something unique in the marketplace. Having unique offerings found nowhere else is a great way to attract and retain customers.

Our business is focused entirely on selling products online, so almost our entire monthly advertising budget is directed to Google Ads, which we’ve found to be the most effective platform for bringing qualified customers to our website.

We've found Google Ads (formerly AdWords) to be an invaluable traffic source for new customer acquisition. Our successful campaigns are a mix of shopping and text ads. We've also had some success with remarketing. Our focus with paid traffic has always been on customers that are generally further along in the sales funnel. Thus, we target high-intention keywords. With every new text ad campaign, we'll experiment with between 5 to 8 variations of ad copy for several months, before cutting low-performers and spinning up new ones. For shopping campaigns, we wrote a custom app to ensure we had control over the product description and other facets of the user experience.

For ongoing maintenance, it's utterly essential to monitor performance on a regular basis. You'll need to watch CPC and ad spend relative to both attributable conversions and overall revenue. Because of the way they work, shopping campaigns require constant tuning with negative keywords. It's also important to remove products and keywords (for text ads) that may have a high CTR i.e. cost, but low ROI. Also, be wary of the the campaign-level settings suggested by Google Ads, especially location. As opposed to getting "everyone" to visit your site, focus your budget on people that are in your addressable market, and that indicate a strong interest in making a purchase.

We tried selling some of our products on Amazon, but it didn’t work well for us. Some of our product vendors don’t allow us to sell on Amazon. For the products we were able to list on Amazon, we found the process of managing orders and returns to be overly burdensome. In the end, we decided not to sell on Amazon and to just focus on directing traffic to our own site.

We have developed a strong email marketing list, and we send out emails to our customers with useful information about once a week. We also post regularly on our blog, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. YouTube videos have proven to be especially effective at driving additional traffic to our ecommerce site.

For example, when a new product launches, like the Ultimaker S5, we do a video introducing the product, and we embed this video on our product page and promote it through social media. Having the YouTube video link back to our shopping site helps increase organic traffic results also.

Another valuable lesson we’ve learned is the importance of targeting specific vertical markets. We’ve developed a strong reputation amongst educational organizations, and this continues to grow due to word-of-mouth referrals.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Our business is profitable (and has been since our second year in business). We’ve continued to focus on offering products with good profit margins, and our Gross Margins currently average around 28%, which is pretty good for an ecommerce business. Factoring in all of our other operating costs, our Net Profit Margins are averaging around 12%.

We currently have just over 10,000 customers on our email distribution list, and that list continues to grow over time.

All of our sales are through our e-commerce site. We do not currently operate any brick-and-mortar locations.

We have kept our team small and our operations efficient to maximize profitability. All orders are processed daily by two individuals (one does the packing while the other generates shipping labels).

Our warehouse is currently in a building that we already owned when we started the business, which helps keep costs down also. Eventually, we may need to move to a larger warehouse, but we’re delaying that as long as possible to keep our costs to a minimum.

In the future, we look forward to adding new product offerings, especially higher-end products with a higher selling price.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Sometimes it’s better to keep things in house.

At one point, we hired a third-party service provider to help manage our Google AdWords campaigns. After spending $2,000 per month with them for three months, we discovered that they weren’t adding enough value to justify their cost, and we went back to managing the ads ourselves.

It takes a lot of familiarity with the product offerings and target customers to properly optimize ad campaigns, and we found that a third-party just can’t do that as effectively as we can ourselves.

Test your products!

We’ve learned that we need to be careful about selecting the right products to offer our customers. We test everything first, using the products ourselves to make sure they work well and provide a good overall user experience.

By only offering products we’ve tested and work well, we significantly reduce the number of returns or customer satisfaction issues. We also gain a certain level of trust with our customers, as they can be confident that anything we offer has been carefully tested.

Focus on customer service and reviews.

Everyone on our team is intensely focused on providing excellent customer service, and we’ve developed a great reputation as a result.

A couple of years ago, we implemented the YotPo service for collecting customer reviews and sharing them on our website. Those reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Those reviews also integrate with Google search results, so our 5-star review ratings appear along with our Google search results and Google Shopping ads.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use a wide variety of tools to manage our business, including:

eCommerce:

  • Shopify: This is our ecommerce platform, used to host our website and manage orders. We’ve found using Shopify to be a tremendous advantage in launching our online storefront. Shopify manages 100% of our shop’s hosting needs - which includes server maintenance, security, OS updates, etc. As a small-business owner this is a huge value add. It also comes with a built-in PCI-compliant payment gateway and it allows for complete control over a store’s branding and appearance. Moreover, Shopify integrates with a wide range of apps (plugins) that often provide critical functionality that’s non included in their base platform.

  • Order Printer: This Shopify plugin is very useful for printing packing lists and invoices. The Order Printer Emailer plugin makes PDF invoices available to our customers by adding a download link to their order confirmation emails.

  • Riskified: We use the Riskified service for fraud prevention. We pay them 0.5% of every order in exchange for chargeback protection. It’s basically insurance to eliminate the risk of fraudulent orders that can result in credit card chargebacks.

  • Shippo: The Shippo plugin makes it a lot easier for us to generate shipping labels.

  • Metafields Editor: We make extensive use of metafields in Shopify, and the Metafields Editor plugin makes it easy to manage those metafields.

  • Live Search: The Live Search plugin is used to provide product search capabilities on our website.

  • Affiliately: This plugin allows us to manage affiliates. We have several affiliate partners who help to direct traffic to our site. Those referrals are tracked, and we pay a commission to our affiliates each month. The Affiliately plugin makes it easy to track affiliate sales and manage affiliate payouts.

Operations:

  • ZenDesk: We use ZenDesk for our helpdesk ticketing system. This makes it easy to manage support emails in a multi-user environment.

  • Intuit Quickbooks Online: We use Quickbooks Online as our accounting platform, and the Intuit Quickbooks Online plugin syncs all of our Shopify orders and customers to Quickbooks Online on a nightly basis.

  • Google Shopping Feed Automation: At the time we started, none of the existing plugins for loading Google Shopping data for Shopify products were a suitable fit. Thus, we developed an in-house tool that runs daily to load our catalog into the Google Shopping Feed.

  • ProfitWise: We developed this Shopify plugin ourselves, and we use it regularly to keep track of Cost of Goods and profitability for each of our vendors, products, variants, etc.

Marketing:

  • YotPo Reviews: The YotPo service helps us to collect customer reviews for our website and for specific products on our site. Reviews are published on our website and also appear in Google search results and Google Shopping ads.

  • ActiveCampaign: We use ActiveCampaign for our email marketing. This plugin helps to integrate the ActiveCampaign service with our Shopify store. This way, we can create email automations based upon customer purchases or other actions customers take on our site.

Collaboration:

  • WhatsApp Messenger: We use WhatsApp Messenger for instant messaging. The app is available on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, so everyone is reachable at all times.

  • Zoom: We use Zoom for online meetings. This platform makes it easy to do video conferencing, share screens, etc.

  • Google Drive: We use Google Drive (extensively to maintain a shared repository of files for our company. Everything related to our company is on Google Drive, accessible by everyone in the organization. Changes are synced in near real-time, which helps to keep everyone on the same page.

  • KeyPass Password Safe: This app allows us to share an encrypted repository of credentials for our business. Any login credentials or other sensitive information is stored in KeyPass, with the encrypted database file stored in our shared Google Drive so we can all access it.

Media Production:

  • *Final Cut Pro X: *We do a lot of video production for YouTube, and Final Cut Pro X is the tool we use for creating and editing those videos.

  • EvoCam: We produce a lot of time-lapse videos of 3D printing various objects, and this app lets us use a webcam to capture high-resolution still images every X seconds. We just aim the camera at the printer while it’s printing, and we end up with a folder full of JPG’s, which we feed into Zeitraffer.

  • Zeitraffer: Once we have a bunch of still images for a time-lapse, this app makes it easy to combine them into a video file.

Development Tools:

  • Microsoft Platform: We rely heavily on the Microsoft tools like Visual Studio and SQL Server to develop the e-NABLE Web Central website, the ProfitWise app, and the Google Shopping loader. Their platform enables small startups like ourselves to be highly productive with limited resources.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

The most influential resource in my own experience has been the e-NABLE volunteer community. This global community of over 10,000 volunteers is using 3D printing technology to produce free prosthetic devices to people around the world.

It represents everything that got me excited about 3D printing in the first place - the fact that it democratizes the manufacturing process in a way never before possible. 3D printers are fairly affordable. Anyone with access to one can easily produce prototypes, replacement parts, and even small production runs for new products.

Working with the e-NABLE community has provided me with extensive experiences of using 3D printers in a way that has a huge impact on the lives of others. In my own home, I can easily 3D print and assemble a prosthetic hand or arm for someone who needs one but cannot afford anything - and then send it to that person, anywhere in the world.

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YouTube Video

Recognizing the value for students to see and experience positive, practical applications for 3D printing technology, thousands of schools have joined the e-NABLE community and have developed programs teaching their students to make these prosthetic devices.

Working with the e-NABLE community has continued to be a great influence on me, and it has a significant impact on the way we run the company. It has help to shape and reinforce a "give-back" focused culture, wherein we’re not satisfied to just earn a paycheck. We want to know that our work is having a positive impact on the world around us. That keeps everyone on our team motivated and excited about the work we’re doing.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

It is so very easy to underestimate (or overestimate) things when starting a new business. There’s a tendency to underestimate all of the efforts and costs while overestimating revenues, customer acquisitions, opportunities, etc.

Force yourself to be very conservative in your planning. Hope for the best, but plan for the fact that nothing ever goes quite as planned.

Find something that’s meaningful to you. Don’t go into a particular business just because you see a financial opportunity. Make sure it’s something you personally care about and enjoy working with.

Figure out what’s important to you. Earning a certain income may be on the list, but there should be other items too. Work/life balance? Scheduling flexibility? Making a positive impact on the world? Opportunities for travel? Opportunities to meet new people? Whatever it is - figure out what’s important to you, and shape your business strategy around that.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

At this time, we are seeking software developers to assist us with the ongoing development of the e-NABLE Web Central platform. For more details, see our posting on upwork.com.

Where can we go to learn more?

3D Universe Blog: https://3duniverse.org

3D Universe Store: https://shop3duniverse.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/3duniverse.org/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/3dprintingisfun

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/shop3duniverse/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/3duniverse/pins/

Email: [email protected]

Phone: 800-689-4344

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