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the challenge

3-D printing is such a game-changing technology that its practitioners spend a lot of time and energy explaining it to potential customers, says Laurie Mirsky, 3DPhacktory’s founder, posing here with a razor and other items printed in his shop.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Imagine taking an idea in your head and turning it into an object in your hand. The possibilities are endless – for manufacturing, architecture or the creative arts. And if you don't happen to have a three-dimensional printer on hand, you can just drop into 3DPhacktory, a 3-D printing and design studio in Toronto's Leslieville neighbourhood.

Since 2012, the storefront operation has been offering high-resolution, multiple-material, 3-D printing to clients such as tech-savvy engineers with ready-to-print projects, film people wanting 3-D models and the guy off the street with a sketch on a napkin.

3DPhacktory is doing well, with a projected $350,000 in annual revenue this year. But its managers face a challenge: Explaining what they do, and how they do it, is getting in the way of doing business.

Three-dimensional printing has been around for a while, but people have misconceptions about it, says Laurie Mirsky, 3DPhacktory's founder.

The staff – three full-time and two part-time employees – spend more than half of their time talking to people who call or drop by. The shop welcomes people interested in 3-D printing, Mr. Mirsky says, but explaining it to them eats into work time.

"We depend on people's curiosity, and educating the client or potential client is critical to us," says Mr. Mirsky, who has a background in film production. "But we'd like to short-cut the education process and turn that curiosity into more sales."

The printers work somewhat like ink-jet copiers, but you can't just pop in a sketch and produce a three-dimensional version. First, customers need to sit down with a digital designer who can translate a concept or drawing into digital instructions for the machine using special software.

A computer then sends that data to the printer, which starts to lay down micro-thin layers of the material the customer has chosen – rubbery or rigid or somewhere in between. As the object is built layer by layer, a UV light cures or solidifies it, until the product is finished.

The process can be as short as 20 minutes or as long as three days, depending on the size and complexity of what you want to build.

3DPhacktory has an educational website with a how-to video and a blog. The firm also holds workshops, seminars and open houses, often targeting specialized groups such as industrial designers or art directors. The goal is to "get 10 people in the room to answer all their questions at one time, rather than have those 10 people come in individually and spend one hour with each of them."

3DPhacktory spends about $1,000 monthly on marketing, mostly Internet-based, focused on Google AdWords.

"There are really two things we're trying to do with education," Mr. Mirsky says. "To educate the people who are already working in the technology, and the other is trying to get the word out about 3-D printing to businesses that don't know yet how they can use it to their benefit."

The Challenge: How can 3DPhacktory show-and-tell its game-changing technology – and sell its services – without talking itself blue?


Tony Vlismas, head of marketing at mobile software firm Polar Mobile Group Inc., Toronto

How do you encourage questions to engage the customer without taking away from selling time, and still be able to turn that into a lead? Content creation is a great start, and 3DPhacktory is already doing this. By becoming thought leaders, it'll make it easier for people who know their stuff to find Mr. Mirsky's business, and that can offset the time required to find new customers.

One suggestion is to use in-store marketing materials for FAQs (frequently asked questions) that people can take home. That would also make it easy for people to visit their website or contact them again in the future.

Mr. Mirsky can also create more of a user-group feel by having tours and meetings once a week. That way if people have a lot of questions, he can recommend they come back on that date to meet other users. Suddenly he's fostering and building a community of like-minded individuals, where he's the main sponsor by association. This will make it much easier to separate those with questions versus those serious prospects that can turn into customers later.

Michael Denham, senior managing director of the business consultancy Accenture Canada, Montreal

They're focused on a good market and their timing is relatively good. The overall market for 3-D printing is poised to take off in the next few years from a couple of billion globally to between $15- to $18-billion by 2018. Recently Google, Apple and HP all announced an intent to get into 3-D printing as well as manufacturing, which will create a lot more awareness and interest.

So I think there's a window for this company that won't last forever. Because as big players get into this business and the cost of these printers comes down to $250 to $500 per unit, there's going to be less need for anybody to use an independent party for the manufacturing. That's probably four or five years down the road, but now is the time for this company to seize its moment and establish themselves – get the brand, get the scale – so they can survive.

They'd benefit from a sharper focus in terms of what end-use market to focus on and some sharper tactics about how best to connect with buyers in each of those segments. I suggest they focus on a subset of the markets, specifically consumer, fashion, art and film. There's a vibrant film industry and fashion industry in Toronto, and not a whole lot of regulations or impediments.

I'm a firm believer in the value of trade shows for small businesses because they bring together relevant people to connect with entrepreneurs. There could also be a very interesting market for 3-D printing in terms of seasonality, especially around the holiday season, for innovative gifts.

Michael Hyatt, executive chairman and co-founder of the IP address management firm BlueCat Networks Inc., Toronto

3DPhacktory is new in a newer business category that is not well understood. My guess is that they're trying to be all things to everyone. It may be better for them to do fewer things well. They should consider only serving their top two or three client types and selling only to those categories. Yes, that means saying no to some business. It's likely that clients who know what they want and understand the process may be the best – less explaining time and more deals done.

The business should also select clients based on the highest margin and the simplest replication process. By turning down business and selling only to a high-margin market, they can likely sell more with more gross margin dollars going into their pocket.


Use in-store marketing materials that people can take home

That would encourage people to visit their website for more information and make it easy for them to contact the business again in the future.

Market it and measure it

Spend very targeted dollars to a few higher paying clients. Carefully measure dollars out and qualified leads coming in.

Focus on trade shows

This can yield a winning combination of retail chains, distribution channels and wholesalers.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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