Inventables’ Success Combines Timing, Promotion and Hustle

How do you enter an emerging technological field and live long enough to taste success? If you’re Zach Kaplan, CEO of Inventables, you maintain unrelenting focus, pay attention to what’s most important and keep preachin’, baby.

“I love building things, this company was the opportunity for hands-on building,” said the 34-year-old. “So far, so good.”

Kaplan was an experienced entrepreneur when the bug to build a new company hit him, having launched a custom software enterprise while an engineering student at the University of Illinois. The new venture — Inventables, launched in 2002 — was rooted in his vision of a manufacturing power shift from the very large to the small and nimble, brought about by technology.

The only problem was, the very technology that made such a shift possible – 3D printers — was so prohibitively expensive. It seemed the day when just about anyone could have a 3D printer on their desk, much less have a use for it, was far, far away.

Turns out, the future arrived a lot sooner than anyone not named Zach Kaplan expected. Inventables – with its inventory of futuristic hardware and associated supplies – captured the media’s attention and cast Kaplan as a tech soothsayer. Within three years, he was a featured speaker at the TED Conference with a talk, “Toys From the Future” and the company’s line of novel products was featured on Discovery Channels “Prototype This!”

By the time the company gained its first round of funding in 2009, two important hurdles to success were starting to crumble. First, corporations were starting to figure out how to put 3D printers to work, in many cases assisted by the kind of technology translation Kaplan and crew provided.

“The market started to change dramatically,” he said. “Interest started to generate outside of what we were doing and when we’d work with companies, we were reflecting what they had already been hearing.”

Second, and perhaps even more significantly, the price of the machines was coming down substantially, which opened floodgates of individuals and companies that understood how to use the technology but were barred access due to cost.

“In 2002, a 3D printer cost $500,000,” he said. “Today we carry a model that costs $900.”

As his vision of technology levelling the design and manufacturing playing field between the very large and the individual inventor has come to fruition, Inventables became the go-to source of small quantities of materials and supplies to go with hardware.

“A small company typically doesn’t have a lot of cash reserves to be inventory heavy,” he said. “Before Inventables, there was an option for them to buy supplies and materials in the quantities they needed. They also need to have more or less exactly what they need on hand, so we play that role of a company store or warehouse. We do a lot of second-day shipping to ensure that they get what they need, consistently.”

The confluence of these elements has meant substantial growth for the 27-employee company. Staff has grown to 27 and sales doubled between 2012 and 2013 alone. The company launched a new website last year that contributed to record one-day printer sales and also launched its first catalogue to 73,000 people in the second quarter.

Kaplan has also been active in cultivating the next generation of the company’s clientele. He was instrumental in bringing a Fab Lab to the Chicago Public Library last July, a maker space that provided public access to 3D printers, laser cutters, a milling machine, vinyl cutter and design software, free of charge.

In 2009, the Chicago-based company landed $2 million in VC funding from True Ventures in San Francisco to create an online marketplace that connected customers and vendors of technical products. A second round of funding, in 2013, raised an additional $3 million with Tim Draper via Draper Associates, Dundee Venture Capital, Richard Yoo, founder of Rackspace, Georges Harik, and True Ventures participating.

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