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How startups can hit it big by thinking small

When companies like SpaceX and Honeywell reported problems finding crucial metal parts, this VC founded his own company to figure out how to 3D print them.

How startups can hit it big by thinking small
[Source Photo: iStock]
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When startups tell their own stories, they’re often all about the big picture. They say they recognized a problem that individuals or organizations were facing, came up with a solution, and worked around the clock to make it just right. But this narrative often leaves out the most important step they took. I know from experience.

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I was an investor working with a well-regarded Silicon Valley VC firm, getting paid to find interesting companies and invest in them and to help portfolio companies fix any issues they ran into. Through this work, I discovered a common problem across the manufacturing sector. Some of the most brilliant engineering minds in the world kept telling me that they needed physical parts that were “impossible” to make. Engineers and designers tried for years, but ultimately concluded that these parts just couldn’t be built.

I estimated what the size of the market might be for seemingly impossible parts and calculated that the potential reward was worth the risk. Someone needed to undertake this quest. And even though it embarasses me now to think about how naive some of my original assumptions were, I decided that person should be me. So I launched Velo3D, aimed at using 3D printing to make the parts that innovative companies need to create the future.

The short version of our story is that we ultimately succeeded in creating some of these “impossible” parts and now work with some of the world’s most inspiring companies in space, aviation and energy such as SpaceX and Honeywell. But the reality is more complex and instructive.

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After lots of trial and error in our early days, we found that there was no single solution to this problem. There is no technological fix that can allow any and every kind of imaginary part to be created simply by inputting a design into software. This is the reality of metal alloys and their chemical properties.

We realized that we didn’t have to solve the entire problem. Instead, we could succeed with a much smaller focus by identifying the most valuable, specific problems to solve for customers and tackling those.

Suddenly our entire mindset changed. We were no longer looking for a solution to make any shape possible. We were looking for a way to create one specific type of turbopump. It sounds less exciting, I know. But it was the best thing we could have done.

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By thinking small, we poured our collective minds—along with the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears—into a much more granular effort. This time, after lots of trial and error, we achieved it: our first “impossible” piece.

I’ll never forget the first time we delivered it to a client. When we brought it into a meeting and showed them what we had made, they were blown away. By thinking small, we had proved something big: the “impossible” can happen. (This unforgettable experience took a momentary turn when the TSA agent checking our luggage had no clue what the piece was! But fortunately, that resolved quickly.)

We then took this same principle and applied it to other problems. One by one, we came up with individual solutions to satisfy specific needs, such as new designs for microturbines and heat exchangers.

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With each step, we have discovered more possibilities about how 3D printing technology can be used in new ways. To this day I still remind my team that success comes by solving customer problems. Only when we run out of customer problems to solve do we focus on anything else.

Know when it’s time

This doesn’t mean you should give up on seeking the holy grail your business is after. By all means, start off looking for a big picture solution. But if all your efforts end up showing you that there isn’t one—or, at least, there isn’t one your team can currently come up with—don’t despair.

Keep in mind that success can begin with achieving part of your goal. When the team is facing frustration, reset their focus and expectations by shifting to an initial piece of the problem.

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Choose by value

Where do you begin? With whichever piece you determine will have the most impact for your business, both externally and internally.

Externally this means calculating what your prospects or clients are willing to pay the most for, or most quickly for if you’re in a cash crunch. It means listening to investors and understanding what will excite them the most. And it means recognizing which small solution might help get you maximum positive attention in your industry, distinguishing yourself from any competitors.

Internally it means listening to your team about what they would like to work on first. Try to get a sense of how rejuvenated they’ll feel if one seemingly insurmountable task is completed. 

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Guide the new ethos

When you make this shift, it will take time for your team to get used to it. Every day at first, remind them of their new focus. Reward them for even micro-accomplishments along the way. Give them a vision for what it will take to achieve this first goal. And give them space to make mistakes and learn from them. 

In the process of this work, it’s quite possible your team will discover ideas that can then apply to other parts of the big picture. But keep them focused until this first one is done.

The sense of accomplishment they’ll feel is difficult to overestimate. And it will have profound effects on your organization. An analysis of 30 separate studies found that they generally see a “happy-productive relationship (not the reverse),” and that the available evidence “supports a causal chain in which collective well-being leads to team performance.” Or, to put it more simply, happier employees are more productive (by 12%, according to one study).

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Success doesn’t have to come from sprouting up in a big way overnight and disrupting an entire industry. In truth it almost never happens that way; it’s built more steadily over time. Little by little, you build toward the big picture you had in mind. And before you know it, your business may be everything you wanted it to be.


Benny Buller is the founder and CEO of Velo3D, a Silicon Valley startup that achieved a new way of designing 3D printable parts for aviation and space exploration.