Catching up with Bre Pettis on the launch of his new startup, Bre & Co.
We sat down with Bre before his Dec 6 pop up, which you can RSVP for here.
Bre Pettis says he doesn’t want to scale, and his Bre & Co. headquarters at the Navy Yard looks it. There’s no white board, no calendar, no prototypes, no boxes of takeout. A giant Persian rug and a circle of 1930s arm chairs cover the middle of the floor. Abstract and landscape art decorate the white walls and an Electric Objects digital frame plays soothing Tumblr gifs. Exposed ceiling beams match the long wooden table lined by Meiji-style stools. But the Makerbot Replicator 2 next to the coat rack is a reminder that Pettis is an expert scaler.
Between ‘09 and 2014, Pettis and his cofounders grew MakerBot from three employees to 500. They drove the desktop printer from DIY hackerspace to polished international commodity. Time magazine called the Replicator a top-50 gadget of all time, Colbert interviewed Pettis on Comedy Central, and the White House invited him to hangout. Pettis, Adam Mayer and Zach Smith invented a product that captured the public’s imagination, defined a vertical (3D printing), an industry (21st-century manufacturing) and capitalized on the movement they started. In 2013, Stratasys bought MakerBot for $400+ million.
But scaled doesn’t mean permanent. It turns out most consumers don’t want, need or know how to use additive manufacturing. Pettis told Colbert, you can create everything “from a bath tub plug to a birthday present.” True, though, in reality, plugs are cheap and we grow out of plastic presents when we’re six. Instead of a printer in every house, 3D printing’s gone industrial. Desktop printers are more commonly offered as a service via companies like Voodoo Manufacturing and Shapeways or decentralized on 3D Hubs. Global sales for industrial printers are six times bigger than the consumer market. Stratasys stock is down 88% from a 2014 high of $136. Last year they laid off more than 150 MakerBot employees and moved manufacturing from Brooklyn to China.
With Bre & Co., Pettis is starting from scratch and specializing in presents. A block from his office, the team designs heirloom consumer goods out of the company’s workshop. No longer limited by plastic, or by pitching one machine, Bre rapidly expanded into a spectrum of collaborations and materials. The CNC-milled metal Origami Watch and Origami Pen are made in partnership with Kansas City’s Burger & Brown. Jewelry, like the Healing Amulet created with Carlos Zamora, includes rose gold and a pink diamond. Bre & Co. sources maple for their gift boxes from Thomas Edison’s factory in New Jersey. Their teapot is slip-cast out of ceramic and produced with Brooklyn artist Michiko Shimada.
The strategy flies against traditional product-startup strategy. The modern blueprint is to create one product, “perfect” it or cut out a middleman, promote like crazy online, show top-line revenue, raise capital, rapidly expand team, buy subway ads, repeat. (See: Away, Mack Weldon, Parachute, Brooklinen, Casper, Harry’s.) Instead, Pettis invested his own funds, built an 11-person company and opened with a series of diverse products that don’t claim anything except being meaningful and – as long as you don’t break them – permanent. The amulet, for instance, is a gift intended for friends battling cancer. The teapot, a reminder that company is about bringing people together.
Bre & Co. is a welcome break from the product-startup mold and hopefully a new model for New York City manufacturers whether he scales or not.