Shapeways, i.materialise, I love you guys, but you gotta change.  Now have a seat, make yourselves comfy, because we have to have a heart to heart, and this is not going to be easy (and it will take a bit of time – feel free to scroll down for main takeaway points). This is coming from a place of love because I want you to grow and be better, so I’ll have to be blunt: you’ve got a serious issue with your online store.  Both of you.

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I’ve been chatting with a friend recently, and she told me that her gorgeous earrings have not been selling well through Shapeways.  Now, I was really surprised, because her pieces are some of the best out in the 3D printed jewelry world.  So I tried to look her up in the store, to see if it maybe was something with the pictures, or description, or something else.  And then I really looked in your stores.  And found the problem. 

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Shapeways today proudly let me know that they currently have 159,899 designs for sale on their site.  Although that’s definitely a ‘wow’, and a big testament to your popularity with designers, it is not actually a good thing for a store.  No ‘store’ has this sort of inventory, and for very good reasons. 

When we go to a store to buy soup, lets say, there might be half an aisle of soups.  Which seems like a lot, but then you are able to quickly narrow down the choices.  In ‘chicken’ soup or ‘vegetarian’ soup, your actual choice will be about 3-5 items.  Now that’s because the soup manager knows that people prefer to make choices from a fairly small selection, don’t have all day to evaluate soups, and would end up walking away if the choice of chicken soups included 20+ labels.  Having over 1,000 earrings on your site might seem like a good idea, but it actually overwhelms the viewer and reduces the likelihood of anyone ever finding any earrings they like.

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Now of course you’d bring up Amazon as an example of a store that has every single item imaginable.  Which might be true.  But the way that Amazon presents that information to the customer is very well thought out – not only does Amazon already know the type of earrings I like and uses that info to give me something I’m likely to buy, but they also let users ‘rate’ their items, helping me further narrow down my choices.  In addition, Amazon is now embracing the whole ‘curated store’ idea: carefully picking a small, easy to choose-from selection like you’d find in a boutique. 

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An overwhelming choice will make your customer give up, but lack of choice loses a sale as well.

i.materialise currently has under 1,000 items in its store.  However, the choices are not ‘curated’, hand picked or well organized.  When you want to buy earrings, you have to scroll through the entire jewelry section.  And that jewelry section might have a piece or two that are ok, but nothing that I’m in love with (plus – whistles in jewelry?)

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What I did love out of i.materialise stuff, however, was the gorgeous headband by Gloria Valli from the last i.materialise fashion show.  That’s what the company really excels at: i.materialise has presented the best 3D printed pieces in their fashion shows in the past.  The upcoming NEA fashion show will have some stunning works as well.  Yet if the history will repeat itself, those pieces will disappear from sight the second the show is over, unavailable for purchase unless you negotiate directly with the designer.  The “Woodpecker” headband is nowhere to be found.

Now, i.materialise, please do understand that I’m wishing you the best here, but why don’t you just give up.  At 1,000 items you’ll never catch up to Shapeways, and you cannot run a store with the same business model.  Its just not working for you. But that’s ok, because you excel in other ways.

How about, instead, you embrace your inner fashonista, and only feature winning designs from fashion shows, or from some of your fab competitions?  How about carefully selecting your inventory to only feature the best designed, the most beautiful pieces?  Heck, combine i.materialise store and MGX store, and become an exclusive distributer of the highest caliber of 3D printing designs – if you have a small, well chosen and well curated selection, you’ll not only attract customers, but will also appeal to designers who really want to stand out from the rest. 

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Now both of you, fixing up your stores isn’t enough.  Lets talk customers.  Both of you are working hard to grow the 3D printing designer base. And I get that.  Designers create cool things, and they contribute interesting designs to your sites, inspiring other designers.  But the thing is, both of you are doing next to nothing to grow the actual consumer base, to attract people to buy the 3D printed stuff designers create. 

Really, think about it, do designers actually buy the stuff made by other designers?  Why would they?  If they are a ‘designer’, they have an artistic vision, and esthetic, combined with a skill – if they see a particular design that they like, they are probably going to use it as an inspiration to create something bigger, better, closer to their personal esthetic.  They are not going to buy the item itself.

So, who will?  I will.  People like me, who struggle to make a power point presentation pretty, let alone create a CAD file (or put together a well-illustrated post).  And how am I supposed to find great stuff that you feature on your store, when you are not just competing with each other, but with the rest of the universe when it comes to earrings, for example?

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You are expecting the designers to promote their stuff themselves.  Well, guess what – designers are not marketeers, and are not merchandisers, and are not that well versed in selling stuff.  And even if some multi talented designers take a marketing course, develop those skills and end up better at selling than other designers, they are still struggling.  Their platform to connect with customers is still incredibly small.  Its hard to be an independent designer when you are competing with H&M, every ‘hip’ boutique in town as well as the other 150,000 designers on your site.

And I know that engineering types tend to think that if you just made the design good enough, it would sell itself.  “Build it, and they would come” sort of mentality.  Well, no, that does not actually work.  If you build the hippest 3d printed iPhone case in the forest, no one is going to go looking for an iPhone case in some forest if there is an Urban Outfitters around the corner, no matter how amazing that iPhone case is (though watch out for Urban Outfitters, they just might ‘accidentally’ have a similar design next week)

So, main takeaways from this little rant:

  • Shapeways, you gotta shape up.  Curate your stuff, trim the weeds, make your content easier to navigate, and amazing new stuff easier to find.
  • i.materialise, embrace your inner fashonista.  Curate your store to focus on ‘exclusive’ hand-picked designs.  You don’t have to be big if you’re special.
  • Both of you, you have to help develop a consumer market for 3D printed items.  You can’t just expect the designers to find customers for their 3d printed wares. If you help the designers grow their market, your market will grow as well.

To stress once again, love you guys both.  Keep growing, keep making beautiful 3D printed stuff, and keep creating.  And lets keep the conversation going: call me, you got my number ;)

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Shapeways, i.materialise, I love you guys, but you gotta change.  Now have a seat, make yourselves comfy, because we have to have a heart to heart, and this is not going to be easy (and it will take a bit of time - feel free to scroll down for...