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If you can’t handle the crowds, Maker Faire isn’t for you

One of the most critical parts of running a startup is getting solid market validation. That was our primary goal in attending the Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo, Calif.

We also wanted to show people our Discov3ry extruder, which retrofits most filament style 3-D printers to allow printing with paste materials. By showing people what paste printing looks like, and the range of off-the-shelf or homemade materials they could print, we hoped to remove some of the mystery of 3-D printing and get people thinking about possibilities.

So what is Maker Faire? On its website, it describes itself as "part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new." It's an eclectic gathering of intelligent people showing off interesting projects, or in our case, showcasing a company product. The crowd is sociable and like-minded; they attend the event to get ideas, have fun, network and find tools or parts for their next project.

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But critical to the Maker Faire experience are the crowds. The Bay Area Maker Faire attracts about 120,000 people over two days. If you can't handle crowds, this is not the event for you.

With an immense number of visitors, preparation goes a long way: cough drops and carbonated water, for example, are very helpful. On the first day, I repeated my 60-second pitch for 11 hours straight. The buzz from the crowd is formidable. Within the first hour or so, someone told me I'd better be careful with my volume or I'd lose my voice well before the day was through. Fortunately, my voice held out and I was still able to talk over dinner and drinks with friends from Kitchener-Waterloo. The second day involved another eight hours of pitching.

With 15 other startups in the tent, success depended on crowd engagement. We arranged our two tables to close off the booth, which kept traffic from clogging the space and locking out new visitors. I stood outside the booth in front of our tables, holding a plate of samples while Andrew Finkle, our director of research and development, stood in the booth and manned the live demonstrations. I made eye contact with anyone who paused for even a second, followed by an immediate, "Hello, how are you?" with a friendly smile. I began my 60-second pitch by telling people we made an add-on for existing 3-D printers that allows printing with paste materials, like silicone. At that moment, I would show them the floppy, printed silicone iPhone case we made and nearly everyone went "Wow!" This was vital to getting people to stick around to learn more. Once people were truly interested, I told them about our upcoming Kickstarter campaign and offered the opportunity to enter their e-mail address to win one of our Discov3ry extruders.

Our live demonstrations consisted of printing with silicone, Nutella, and cake icing we made at the booth (each printed separately, of course). Each of the demonstration categories had solid traction. (In the neighbouring startup pavilion, word got around that a company was company printing food and silicone!). People loved what we were doing because it was fun and different from all the other 3-D printing companies.

At the end of the second day, we were exhausted, but satisfied knowing we achieved what we'd come to do – validate our product and get people thinking about the bigger possibilities of 3-D printing.

Printer manufacturers and distributors also saw opportunities. We received hundreds of e-mail addresses from people interested in our Kickstarter campaign and the chance to win one of our extruders. The winner of the Discov3ry extruder was ecstatic and told us he did a lot of 3-D printing at work and is excited about being able to print silicone.

If you're a hardware startup, the Bay Area Maker Faire can be a great place to showcase your product, but user engagement is a key consideration. Can people pick up your product and play with it? Maker Faire is very much a hands-on event. If you have a limited number of prototypes that are delicate, this might not be the event for you. Everyone stress-tested our print samples. Many of the cake icing samples got broken or mashed by both children and adults. The Nutella sample didn't survive much of the second day.

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If you think your product is a fit and you're ready to attend a Maker Faire event, here are some tips:

  1. Engage the crowds, regardless of age. Don’t be shy. Have a good 60-second pitch ready and be confident.
  2. The Bay Area Maker Faire will cost several thousand dollars to attend, including booth fees, travel, and possibly shipping a crate. If you can fund a three-person team, this will help for shift rotation and food breaks and lessen the strain on any one person’s vocal cords.
  3. Prepare. Have quick, healthy snacks like granola bars handy, along with soda or mineral water and some cough drops. Hardware tools and spare parts are also a good idea. Sometimes buying things locally costs less than shipping, but verify availability in advance.
  4. A dry-erase board is a great way to provide extra information, like a demonstration schedule or website details.
  5. Be prepared for people to handle your samples and/or product. Stuff will likely get broken.
  6. Be fun, as this gets the crowds even more engaged.
  7. Be prepared for complete exhaustion.
  8. Never stop selling!

Charles Mire is the co-founder of Strctur3d Printing based in Waterloo, Ont. They were chosen to be one of only 16 startup companies to have a booth at Maker Faire in Silicon Valley on May 17th and 18th – where there were over 900 makers, 120,000 attendees and over 90 sponsors.

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