(EDITOR’S NOTE: Seven teams competed in the finale of this year’s “What’s the Big Idea” competition sponsored by the Development Corporation of Knox County, Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Knoxville Chamber and Tech 2020. Sing and Spell won the event, but six other entrepreneurial teams “gave it their all.” This is the third in a series profiling the other finalists that competed in the revamped, 48-hour event.)
MakerNetworks is the creation of Ben Farmer and Adam Byram. Both are software engineers with about 31 years of combined experience in hardware and software engineering. .
When did you first come-up with the idea that you submitted for the 2015 “What’s the Big Idea” competition?
We came up with this idea about a year ago – did some research and development on it and came away with a hard conclusion: how could we possibly explain the problem and solution in a way that normal people that have never used a 3D printer would be able to understand and relate to? We really believed in the idea and knew (from our personal experience with our own printers) that it would be a revolutionary leap forward, but if you can’t sell it, then the idea would never be more than another good idea.
Tell us about the original idea. What is it? What market need or deficiency do you hope to address?
The idea was to simplify 3D printing – to make 3D printing as easy as printing a document. We’re both highly technical people – both software developers with lots of experience with hardware – and 3D printing was a very hard and frustrating process for us. We wanted to make things rather than spend our time becoming experts on 3D printing.
Our idea was (and is) to make a device that you can plug into your 3D printer that will make the printer just work. It connects your printer to our cloud software and configures everything you need. It will also store your files and organize your projects. It gives you a video stream of your printer. It handles all the magic and complicated mess to take a model and make it come out as an object on your printer with a simple user interface you can use from any device anywhere in the world.
How did the concept change during the 48-hour weekend of intense mentoring and advice from others?
The concept didn’t change very much during the weekend. We did narrow the focus for our initial product and pitch. There are a lot of components or products to our idea, and we really had to focus it down to the core product for the pitch. We have a prototype that is this core function and worked to get everything ironed out for launching that initial version to some test customers. The mentors also really helped in where to expand the vision next and with market research on the potential of the idea.
What did change – and changed in a hugely positive way – was our ability to communicate the problem and our vision to solve it. Before the contest a reporter called and asked me, basically, what my big idea was. It took me 45 minutes to explain it in the simplest terms I could think of, and I’m not even sure they really understood what we wanted to do at the end. But after the 48 hour weekend, we are able to explain it in simple terms and in just a few minutes.
I will readily admit bias in this, but no team made as much progress as we did that weekend. The transformation is still surprising.
At MakerNetworks, we simplify the process of 3D printing – from setup to final product – so that anyone can print with confidence on any printer.
Who were some of your more valuable mentors/advisors and how did they help you get ready for that Sunday night finale?
Wow, all of them! Adam and I had, without question, the hardest working team that weekend. Doug Speight was our lead mentor and really helped to focus us and keep us on track. Thomas Egan and Phillip Scruggs were indispensable – from research, marketing, and even making notes during the pitch of the questions that the judges asked and sending them to us after the event. Jeremy Floyd helped immensely with how to craft a big vision of our idea and how to communicate that during the pitch. Dan Lipe is an incredible designer and user experience expert (who) helped focus our message into terms that normal people could understand. Our slide deck was the best deck at the event and that was all Dan. We called Dan our secret sauce. We also received critical advice and ideas for our pitch from Jim Biggs and Jonathan Sexton at 2am Sunday morning.
Although you did not win the up to $10,000, you were on stage before an appreciative audience. Do you plan to continue working on the idea?
Yes, we are currently working on getting a beta test group together to prove out our prototype. Winning would have helped us move along much faster and get to market sooner.
If you could wave the proverbial wand and get one wish for something to help you move forward, what would it be?
There are two things we really need. First, 3D printers – lots and lots of different 3D printers to test with. Second, we need feedback from potential customers and beta users to help us refine the product. (EDITOR’S NOTE: You can contact Farmer at firstname.lastname@example.org and Bryam at email@example.com.)