The $10.6 Million 3D Printing Startup That Almost Lost Everything

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Toybox aims to give kids an almost magically simple experience: at the push of a button, a little machine will print almost any toy imaginable, all in their own home. But for the company’s founders, building and selling such an easy-to-use 3D printer was anything but simple.

The team started with a few key advantages: experience in the tech industry and experience using 3D printers. Even for them, using 3D printing technology was far from straightforward.

“We were building all kinds of things, but the learning curve was very steep.”

Ben Baltes, CEO and co-founder of Toybox

Building more accessible 3D printers became the goal of Baltes and Toybox co-founders Jenn Chinn and Zach Oligschlaeger. But before starting the company, the team wasn’t sure what kinds of objects they wanted to produce with 3D printers. A 3D printer can make everything from medical devices to flutes to camera lenses, which is an industry worth over $13 billion.

“We wanted to find a market that made a lot of sense, and we looked at a ton of markets,” Baltes told Freethink. “There are tons of things around the house that you can print out, but we wanted to start with something that people would find immediately useful. And for us, they were toys.

The toy that builds toys

The toys are very suitable for consumer 3D printers. Although industrial 3D printers can produce a tiny house in about 24 hours, hobbyist printers like Toybox print more slowly, and the small size of the device limits the range of producible objects.

Simple toys fall in the right corner. To build them, Toybox works like other 3D printers: fill the printer with filament, connect it to a computer, choose a design, and it can print objects in minutes to hours, depending on the complexity of the design.

What makes ToxBoy unique isn’t necessarily its hardware, but rather its ease of use and the company’s software, which includes an online catalog of free, customizable toy models: animal figures, castles, cars miniatures, whistles, ninja stars and fidget spinners. , to name a few. Users can also create and upload their own toy designs for others to download, and the device can print designs outside of the Toybox network.

Today, Toybox’s simplicity and wide variety of toy designs help the company generate millions in revenue. But that success only came after several failed close calls.

On the verge of failure

In 2016, Toybox presented one of its first prototypes to attendees of the San Francisco Maker Faire, a convention where DIY enthusiasts present their creations and products. Baltes felt confident entering the convention. But after seeing all the other stylish creations on display, the team realized that their spray-painted prototype needed a few upgrades in order to appeal to a wider commercial market.

The kids at the convention didn’t seem to mind how raw the prototype looked. They were more interested in seeing a toy build before their eyes. By the end of the convention, the Toybox team had 3D-printed around 600 toys for the children in attendance, suggesting that there could be a strong demand for Toybox printers if the company manages to grow.

“The kids, they’re the ones who really proved we were on to something here.”

Jenn Chinn

But scaling up would require money. As they continued to innovate the product, Baltes and his team went about two years without paying themselves, eventually reaching the point where the CEO had to dip into his retirement savings to keep the company afloat. Part of the problem was poorly calibrated pricing.

Toybox started offering its printer for around $400. Although most potential customers thought such a device would be more expensive, few were willing to buy it at that price. After lowering the price to $200, more customers started buying, even though that price was too cheap to be sustainable. The team eventually landed on $300.

Sales were growing but not fast enough. A private fundraiser, followed by an Indiegogo campaign, helped boost sales. Then came the company’s big break: an appearance on shark tankwhich ended with the company entering into a $150,000 investment deal in exchange for stock and consulting stock.

The publicity caused an increase in Toybox sales.

“We sold out almost immediately,” Baltes told Freethink. “It made a huge difference for us.”

Big business has taken notice. In 2021, Toybox and Warner Bros. announced a licensing agreement that allowed Toybox to add iconic characters from brands such as DC Comics, Looney Tunes, Cartoon Network and Hanna-Barbera to its design catalog. The deal is one factor, combined with fundraising, product innovation and increased publicity, that has seen Toybox’s annual revenue grow from $160,000 to $10.6 million.

More broadly, 3D printing is a growing industry. Although the technology dates back to the 1980s, home 3D printers only started to become affordable in the last decade. Today, most hobbyist models are priced between $200 and $500, while more advanced home models easily top $1,000. The culture of 3D printing is also growing: users can design and produce just about anything the size of the device and the thermoplastic filament allow.

Toybox continues to focus on its key demographic: children and families looking for an easy way to explore this emerging area. Despite flirting with failure, the company’s decision to go all out in its targeted niche paid off.

“Most successful arcs have periods when the founders think they’re going to fail and get through it,” Baltes said. “I think what differentiates, you know, successful people are people who don’t give up. And a bit of luck. »

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