Robox: The first 12 months of my startup journey

Hi Chris, so what’s the story?

British company CEL, which made its name with a range of innovative power tools, has created the first 3D printer ‘for the home’ following a Kickstarter funding push that raised almost three times more than anticipated in December last year. The Robox is already available for pre-order, and will be widely available to consumers from September onwards.

How did your business journey begin?

I co-founded CEL in 2006 with my partner Kenneth Tam after designing the POWER8workshop – the world’s first cordless bench-top product made up of tools that combine with a case to take on extra functions. This design led to my appearance on Dragons Den, where we won the backing of Duncan Bannatyne and Peter Jones. We didn’t follow up the investment opportunity as we quickly realised the Dragons wouldn’t have as much involvement with the sales of the products as we’d first hoped.

Following the success of the POWER8workshop, I went on to design other tools to expand the range, and soon introduced new ranges as well to answer the needs of both professional tradesman and home DIY-ers.

Two years ago my interest turned to 3D printers quite unexpectedly. I realised we could cut our costs by modifying the 3D printers we were using to prototype the tools. Once we started making these modifications we were hooked by the exhilarating realisation that we had the tools, expertise, and experience to build a 3D printer for the home – a 3D printer that would revolutionise an industry based on complex, clunky, industrial machines that haven’t changed much in 25 years. That’s how the Robox project was born.

How does Robox work? 

On one level the answer to this question is: effortlessly. The Robox is designed to work straight out of the box. Plug it in, point it towards the file you want to print, and watch it go.

On a more technical level the Robox draws in plastic filament from an attached reel, and then melts it before distributing it through a very clever ‘print head’ in order to build up a 3D object layer-by-layer. The print head just mentioned actually has two nozzles: one to print in detail and another to fill in larger areas at speed; this dual nozzle system means the Robox can achieve highly detailed prints at speeds up to 300% faster than those posted by competitors.

When did you realise the potential of Robox?

I've used rapid prototyping as part of my daily work in design development and always had to out-source this to bureaus. When I first realised that it was possible for a homemade 3D printer to manufacture my designs on my desktop with extremely affordable components and consumable costs I got extremely excited! I’m not very academic but I understand how nearly everything works, so being able to make anything at the press of a button was too much and I instantly got excited and started the Robox project.

How have you found your first 12 months of business?

The response to the Kickstarter campaign was amazing, and we haven’t really ‘come down’ from that high – although the experience of working to bring the Robox to market has been very different from the experience of gathering the funding for the project - it’s been a lot more rigorous and intensive. We’re looking forward closing out the first 12 months of the Robox project with the full consumer launch of the printer.

How did you find the Kickstarter campaign?

It was incredibly exciting to watch the pledges pour in as journalists, enthusiasts and general consumers picked up on the story; as I’m sure other Kickstarter veterans can attest, watching the funding ticker was somewhat addictive.

Overall Kickstarter is a fantastic platform for entrepreneurs – if you’ve got what you think is a good idea Kickstarter is the place to test and get funding for it.

And was it successful?

The Kickstarter campaign worked well for us in two distinct ways. Firstly, we raised the cash we needed to progress with Robox. We actually raised almost three times our target amount; crucially most of the people who helped us exceed our target did so by pre-ordering machines (i.e. they weren’t just kicking in a few pounds for a thank you or a free t-shirt - they were sold on the concept, and effectively buying a machine from the first production run).

As a result, the Kickstarter campaign created a community of Robox beta users almost overnight. This community has been crucial to the development of the printer over the past six months, with feedback from its members leading to several new innovations and improvements to the Robox.

How have you grown your brand?

We’ve grown the brand by keeping in touch with journalists in the wake of the Kickstarter campaign (with a view to helping them better understand the 3D printing space), and by keeping in touch with our fans and supporters through our Kickstarter page and website; you can get a flavour of what we’re working on and thinking about on our blog here.

What was the biggest barrier you’ve come across?

The biggest challenge has been working with our teams in Hong Kong and China to perfect the Robox ahead of the first full production run. For us to realise our vision and make the business work the Robox has to work right out of the box and keep working (we’re guaranteeing every printer for a minimum of 2 years – although we expect our machines to have much longer lives than that). As a result we’ve been testing and tweaking for months, which has been exhausting.

What we haven’t wanted to do is release a product which isn’t close to perfect, so we’ve needed our Kickstarter backers, potential suppliers and customers to be very patient with us while we work through unforeseeable delays in production.  And because we publicised our project on Kickstarter we’ve done all this in the public eye, whereas when we were preparing the POWER8workshop for launch no one knew it was happening, so the expectation was much lower.

To answer your question directly: the biggest barrier has been getting a product that’s unlike anything else out there exactly right.

What’s your best entrepreneurial skill? 

Having triumphed in the Dragons Den, and appeared regularly on TV with our power tool products, it’s tempting to say that presenting is my best ‘entrepreneurial’ skill, but contrary to opinion I hate standing up in public and talking about what I do!

I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve managed to invent some products I’m incredibly proud of, and see them to fruition with the help of my very loyal and dedicated team.  And I’m now very comfortable handling the process of getting a product through the production process, right from drawing up the design in Bristol, to travelling to China to get those designs made and manufactured.

The pressure of running your own business, while raising a young family, is immense, but I believe it’s also more rewarding than any other job I could be doing.

How important do you think it is for small business to tap into global markets?

Extremely important (assuming the product allows for it). One of the most exciting developments to happen with the Robox of late is that someone in Australia has come forward and asked to act as our supplier in the region. He’s already toured his beta model around several important shows there.

This supplier knows the market intimately, making him an ideal partner for a small business like ours.  Small businesses who want to tap into global markets need partners like this if they want to scale internationally while keeping additional costs low.  We’re lucky to have half of our business running in Hong Kong and China so do have contacts in business across the world, so we hope to be able to launch the Robox internationally with the help of our partners there.

Want to know more about Robox? Visit their website, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter

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