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SPI 737: Win with Your Unfair Advantage with Dan Shapiro, Founder of Glowforge

What is an advantage you have that almost feels like cheating? Is there something you can do that others can’t or won’t? What makes you stand out from the crowd, and how do you leverage it to uplevel your brand?

All of us can find our edge if we know where to look. Today’s incredible guest, Dan Shapiro, is here to help show us the way!

Dan credits his mind-blowing entrepreneurial track record to his own unfair advantage: a love of creating things. As co-founder of the iconic 3D printer company Glowforge, Dan has empowered tens of thousands of people to start and run physical product businesses. He is the creator of Robot Turtles, a board game designed to teach kids the fundamentals of programming, and the author of Hot Seat, a guidebook for startup CEOs. [Amazon affiliate link] To bring his ideas to life, Dan has also run some of the largest crowdfunding campaigns ever. Tune in to hear his fantastic insights!

Why do some businesses work while others fail? How do you create and scale products that resonate with people? What can you do to get a leg up and build something special?

Listen in on my chat with Dan to find out!

Today’s Guest

Dan Shapiro

Dan Shapiro is the CEO and co-founder of Glowforge, the iconic 3D laser printer. Starting with the biggest 30-day crowdfunding campaign on record, hundreds of thousands of designers have now used their Glowforge printers to create millions of products like wallets, lamps, and furniture. Dan is also the author of Hot Seat: The Startup CEO Guidebook, published by O’Reilly.

Before founding Glowforge, Dan launched the bestselling board game in Kickstarter history, Robot Turtles, a game that teaches programming fundamentals to preschoolers. Before his detour as a board game designer, Dan served as CEO of Google Comparison, Inc., a Google subsidiary. Shapiro landed at Google when they bought his previous company, comparison shopping website Sparkbuy. Before Sparkbuy, Shapiro was the founder and CEO of Photobucket Inc. (formerly Ontela).

Dan’s been featured on NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and on the front page of the New York Times. His game, Robot Turtles, has been sold everywhere from Target to the Museum of Modern Art. He has been awarded a dozen US patents and received his B.S. in Engineering from Harvey Mudd College.

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SPI 737: Win with Your Unfair Advantage with Dan Shapiro, Founder of Glowforge

Dan Shapiro: There’s actually no such thing as cheating in this world. You’ve got to find some advantage that you have that everybody else who’s knocking on the same doors doesn’t have.

Whether it’s because you buy a tool that most people don’t know exists, and you leverage that. Whether it’s because you email every human being you’ve ever met on planet Earth, you have to find something that is unique to you.

Some piece of your experience, some piece of your story, some piece of your history, something that’s special. You have to figure out how to use that to make your experience, your company, your business, your side hustle, how to make it different, how to make it special.

Pat Flynn: What are your unfair advantages? These are the things that you have that others don’t. The things that you even have access to that others don’t. Or something that is perhaps often difficult for others to do that, for some reason, you are just much better at. These are the things that we need to take advantage of, and we’re going to talk about those kinds of things today, with a real life case study of somebody who’s created successful businesses, one of them being a board game, this person was not a board game designer before creating one of the most successful board games ever, and then later, a physical product that turn into something that helps thousands if not millions of people build their own businesses from the comfort of their own home. That thing being the Glowforge. You’ve ever heard of a Glowforge perhaps you are a parent of a young child who is in school that has access to a Glowforge or maybe you’ve just heard the story of the most successful and most backed campaign ever on Kickstarter at least at one point it was the Glowforge is amazing it’s a laser cutting tool that allows you to, to, could allow you to create your own business at home, physical product business.

And it’s done so for many, many others. We’re talking with the founder of Glowforge, the creator of Robot Turtles, which is that board game and the story behind that. And they’re sort of the pushback he got from the game board community as a result of this and more and a lot of lessons for us entrepreneurs, whether you’re doing physical products or digital products. Dan Shapiro, who also has a book that you should check out. We’re going to discuss all that here in this podcast episode today. It is episode 737 of the Smart Passive Income Podcast. Appreciate you joining me today. Listen in, cause this is a great one. Glowforge founder, Dan Shapiro.

Announcer: You’re listening to the Smart Passive Income Podcast, a proud member of the Entrepreneur Podcast Network, a show that’s all about working hard now, so you can sit back and reap the benefits later. And now your host, he says one of the biggest regrets he’s had in his life is participating in the one chip challenge, Pat Flynn.

Pat Flynn: Dan, welcome to the SPI podcast. Thanks for joining me today.

Dan Shapiro: Thanks so much for having me, Pat. I’m excited to be here.

Pat Flynn: Oh, I’m so excited to have you. I probably mentioned this in the intro to this podcast, but the Glowforge is a big deal here in our community, at our schools.

And not only that, you also invented a board game called Robot Turtles that has been a part of my family’s life as well and is really cool. So thank you for all that you’ve done and all that you’ve built and created for the world.

Dan Shapiro: Thank you, Pat. I mean so much to me to know I have an impact on like real people out in the world.

I like it. It’s easy to go through and do your job and sometimes just feel like you’re, you know, you’re, you’re just a little piece of something. And it’s so powerful to know that something you’ve created gets to actually get out into the world and have an impact. It warms my heart.

Pat Flynn: For sure. And I think that’s why people listening are doing what they are doing, right?

Whatever it is that they’re building, they’re creating. Why do you create what, what is the desire for you for doing what you do?

Dan Shapiro: It’s a great question. I’ve always been a tinkerer out in the garage, you know, taking things apart and failing to put them back together. I wasn’t a very good tinkerer, but I was always trying and always, always patching things together.

And when I was in college, I wound up helping pay for school by building laser shows, like, you know, Pink Floyd, The Wall at the planetarium type laser shows, little ones and selling them on the early internet, which turned into a DJing business. But it actually started just because I liked building these things and people sort of saw it and were like, Oh, can we buy your laser shows?

Can we hire you to do a laser show where you play some music while you’re doing that at our party, which is probably my first sort of big entrepreneurial experience. And, you know, even when I went into software, although my real first love was building physical things, I kind of got sucked into the world of software.

The thing that was magical about it was I could leave an imprint on the world. I actually do things and make things that impacted me and the people around me. And that was so gratifying. So if I look through sort of the arc of my life, so many of the opportunities that I’ve had have come because I knew how to make things because I had that set of skills and, and I’d say the second half of my professional career has been all about figuring out how to give that gift to others.

Pat Flynn: I love that. And you’ve written books, you’ve helped coach different businesses, you’ve had an immensely successful Kickstarter campaign with the Glowforge, and we’ll dive into that in a little bit. But I’m curious, because you told a story about, you know, just really wanting to build. You’re building these laser shows.

Your, your, your builder, a lot of my audience is builders, but there’s often a disconnect between the building and the fascination for that and the love of that. And then like, now I got to turn it into a business. And that often drives them away from the thing that they were initially passionate about.

What has kept you a successful entrepreneur yet still doing the passionate things that you love

Dan Shapiro: to do? Well, I mean, for everyone that’s worked, there’s three or more that haven’t, and that’s probably one of the most important things to remember. Right? Like every overnight success was followed by many, many, many long nights of failure.

In fact, part of the reason why I wrote a book called Hot Seat, The Startup CEO Guidebook. And part of the reason I did that was because so many of the entrepreneurship stories I heard were like, it’s so easy. You do this, that, and the other success. And all the interviews with CEOs were like, Here’s how, you know, the inevitable rise.

I read there’s a book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which is, it was an Andreessen or Horowitz, Horowitz wrote it. And in chapter three, he’d already taken the company public. And I was like, I feel like you skipped a lot there. And I actually wanted to look at those earliest stages at that, at getting things going.

So when I worked, I’ve worked with dozens of, of early stage startups through things like, founders Institute and Techstars. And For example, the number one cause of young companies dying is founders not getting along. The founders couldn’t reach decisions that they got frustrated with each other.

It’s usually not what’s listed. Usually what’s listed is like ran out of money because that’s always the reason or, you know, dissolved, pivoted, whatever. But when you get down to it, like if you’re close enough to know what’s really going on at a startup and the startup fails, it’s almost always that founder strife is a piece of it.

Nobody talks about it. So like my first company started as until it turned into photo bucket, my co founder and I were arguing constantly. And there are three co founders. Eventually we added a third and we were constantly arguing and I felt like a complete idiot. I’m like, my goal is to manage a company of, you know, dozens and then hundreds of people and I can’t even like take two friends and have us line up on what to do.

I had no idea that that was normal. I had no idea that that was essential because if we couldn’t work out those problems when it was just the three of us in my basement, like, you know, on a shoestring, then we had no hope of doing it. And that if we could, if we paid our dues and did the work to figure out how to work together, to assign responsibilities, instead of everybody having their thumb in every pie.

That that would actually pay off and make the company more robust to shine. I didn’t know that because nobody was talking about that. So part of my book was just to document those stories, not, not just mine, although I tell some of mine, but so many other stories of startups that did and didn’t make it so that people can see how that stuff really happens and know when they’re doing it themselves.

It’s not just you. Like, yeah, everybody that I know has failures, everybody that I know has those, those challenges, those interpersonal strife. The only companies that don’t are the one person companies.

Pat Flynn: Right. That’s super valuable and really amazing insight. First of all, you’d mentioned Photobucket. I remember photobucket from way back in the day.

That’s so wild. And so I’m curious what questions should have come up or should have been asked amongst those founders that didn’t, that perhaps would have set it up for a better success.

Dan Shapiro: The three of us founded a company that was all about cloud services for camera phones. This is in the pre iPhone era that would automatically sync your images and eventually other files to cloud services, to your computer, et cetera.

And later I actually, in a weird transaction, I bought Photobucket from Fox Interactive, merged the companies into a single company, which is still the company that’s been operating on and off for the past decade and a half. But I left shortly after. After that went through the pain that we went through in those first, I’ll go to the first nine months was unbelievable.

So I was the CEO. I was a full time CEO and my number one job was fundraising. Like that was it. And I probably spent a third to a half of my time on nothing more than fundraising and having read all the blog posts. There were not a lot of folks posting about venture capital in 2005, but I read Brad Feld and his book about venture deals, which is still the best book in the industry, read his book religiously, read his blog posts, which were very transparent.

Some of the other folks who were there and concluded that, okay, I get this done in three months. And everybody I talked to was like, yep, it’s going to take three months, three months over time. Like in three months, you find a lead, you bring the rest around, you close it. Took me nine months before I found the first investor who was willing to do the deal. For nine months, we were working with no pay in my basement, trying to build this thing with me.

I’m supposed to switch over to doing like CEO stuff and product and everything else. And fundraising is it. And I am beating my head against a wall. And from the day I started fundraising until the day that the first check cleared, I had no, I like, it didn’t seem like we were making any progress. Some folks who’ve done this and tried to raise the outside capital may know it’s not this like, you know, people say, well, you have this funnel and you take them from this and steps and there was a close.

Yeah, no, it was just talk, talk, talk, talk. Sure. I mentioned like, you know, week two, I’m totally interested. I have just three things to do. They never invested, you know, week six. I get blown off by some investor who’s supposed to be an expert in our area. Who’s in our backyard, who’s loves to search the thing and won’t even return my like after the second email won’t take a meeting on and on and on.

And I said to myself, if I ever figure this out, I’m going to write it down so other people don’t have to suffer. I will share the secret when I figure it out. And you know what the secret was? I still don’t. After nine months, I was at a random conference and spotted the guy who blew me off in week six and went up and started, and this is a conference in Barcelona.

It was like the largest wireless conference in the world. And I went there to try and shake some investments loose, went up to this guy, pretended I didn’t know who he was, started chatting. Oh, you’re from Seattle. Oh, what a small world. Oh, you’re in what a small world. We should talk sometime. That was the first check that cleared and the one that catalyzed everything else to come together.

And, like, there was no process, there was no magic, it was just basically bashing my head against the wall until I made a hole in it. And, you know, I could have just as easily quit after month three, month eight, it would have looked the same. And that’s what’s so frustrating, which is when you are trying to make something for nothing, and particularly if you are relying on the others to do it, if you’re relying on fundraising, you’re just putting yourself very much at the hands of the world and working for a long time before you see any results with very little feedback. That’s been my experience.

Pat Flynn: What’s the origin of motivation during those rough. times. What kept you going and not?

Dan Shapiro: Delusion. Delusion. I kept thinking, yes. I was like, this is going to be easy.

Like I’ve seen, not easy. This is going to be totally achievable with hard work. This is not random. This is like, like if I just follow the steps, if I just do the things everybody says, I’m sure it’ll work out. It’s a good idea. I’ve got a good team. Like, surely it’ll all work out. And, you know, after nine months, the delusion was starting to waver and I was starting to lose faith and, you know, had that gone another three months, I might have given up and thrown in the towel.

You kind of have to, I mean, you know, it’s like trying to make it in Hollywood. You kind of have to be a little ignorant to the odds or you have to be so absolutely motivated that understanding the odds doesn’t dissuade you. Because if you actually look at like, you know, our country produces venture backed companies at a less frequently than it produces Olympians.

That’s crazy. If you were betting on the odds of becoming an Olympian versus a venture backed CEO, you’re better off trying to get into the Olympics. That is a wild stat. Right? I mean, like it doesn’t happen that much. So if that’s your dream, it either has to be because you’re a dreamer and you don’t know the reality could measure that or because you’re so pigheaded that you’re going to do it even though you’re probably going to fail.

Also me.

Pat Flynn: Yeah. I mean, persistence obviously is key. I mean, you got to keep giving yourself shots or else. I mean, the only thing we can’t predict the future, but the only way to predict it is to just stop. And then, you know, you’ve basically gave up and yeah, that’s one way to predict it.

Dan Shapiro: But, and I bet a lot of your, your listeners know this.

The odds are very different when you take matters into your own hands, when you’re launching a Kickstarter and it’s just you, when you’re launching a business and you’re bootstrapping. Suddenly, you do control all the knobs and while you have way fewer resources and it is far more daunting because you’re going it alone, like it’s validating to have people invest in you, it reduces risk to have people invest in you, it is so much harder, but it also means that you do control your own destiny and there are a lot more small businesses That are self started than there are venture capital backed companies.

Pat Flynn: Yeah, the case for the solopreneur getting started and just helping a few people out, you can make a great living doing that and then choose to scale it up from there, if you’d like. Speaking of Kickstarter, I mean, the Glowforge I think is the most successful Kickstarter campaign that ever existed, or at least one of them.

Dan Shapiro: And technically not a Kickstarter. We did it on a self hosted site that was a self hosted crowdfunding campaign. But you’re right, I believe it is still the most backed 30 day crowdfunding campaign for anything ever.

Pat Flynn: And how much did you make after 30 days?

Dan Shapiro: 27. 9 million.

Pat Flynn: 27. 9 million. In your eyes, why was it so successful?

Dan Shapiro: Let me go back. Let me tell you about my first Kickstarter. Because that was where I learned all the fundamentals. And then Glowforge was an odd beast. I’m like, really an odd beast. I’m not sure I could tell you the magic that made Glowforge but I think I can tell you the magic that made Robot Turtles.

So let me go back to there and then I’ll try and extrapolate. So, I’ll set the scene. I started a company called SparkBuy which was a comparison shopping service. Six months to the day after the company was incorporated, Google acquired it. The acquisition happened because of a random conversation I had with somebody on an airplane.

If we have time, I can tell you that story. It’s in my book, if not. And I worked at Google. I was the CEO of a wholly owned subsidiary called Google Comparison, Inc. for a couple years. And then I took a leave of absence to just spend a summer dorking around with my kids. So my twins are, at the time, were four.

They’re now 15. At the time, they’re four. And they were interested in board games. I love board games and Candyland was a fate worse than death. I did not want to play Candyland with my children. So I’m like, I’m going to invent a board game. And I had this sort of half baked idea. I’ve always been a terrible programmer.

Like, I’ve always been a programmer and I’ve always been kind of terrible at it. As a side note, with GPT 4, I’m a very productive, terrible programmer, which is a lot more fun. But I was, you know, like, would always go in and sort of dabble. And every time I would do it, I would think about how these… These programs were really designed for people who know how to use them already, rather than programming languages designed to learn.

Except there was one I remember from my childhood, a programming language called Logo, where you controlled a little square turtle, and you moved the turtle around the screen by saying, go forward, turn right put down a pen, change the pen color, go forward, and you draw a line. And this is where I first learned to program, in like third grade on an Apple IIe using Logo.

And somehow these two ideas got like twisted up in my head and I was like, I’m going to make a program. I’m going to make a board game about programming. And what is the most fun thing for a four year old to do in the entire world? Boss around their parents. And what is computer programming? It’s bossing around a computer.

So the whole notion of the game, it’s very core, is going to be teaching kids that programming isn’t about learning or studying or being bossed around by technology. It’s about taking control of technology and making it do what you want. And teaching kids that it’s not that computers are hard because they’re smarter than you.

Computers are hard because they’re dumber than you. And you have to explain to them in painstaking detail how to get what you want. So the whole idea of the game is that the parent is the computer, and the parent is very literal and very dumb, and has to do exactly what the kids do and make silly noises while they do it, and the kids use a programming language, which is just cards, they don’t have any words on them, with pictures.

And they lay down one instruction at a time and the parent has to do whatever the kid says. So the kid’s bossing around the parent to go win the game. And I played this with my kids and they loved it. And I gave it to some friends and they played it with their kids and they loved it. And through a weird side thing, I was working with a friend of mine, a guy named Ilan Lee, helping him pitch a TV show.

And part of the TV show had a crowdfunding angle to it. And I was like huh, I should actually run a crowdfunding campaign. And, you know, I was the crowdfunding expert in there. I never run a Kickstarter. So I was like, I should do that. And I thought this will be a great opportunity. So I was sort of prepared the artwork and the design and got everything ready.

It was a foundational moment when I was talking to a friend who runs a small board game company and I explained the idea of the game to her and she said, Oh, shoot. Yeah, that would never fly with any board game publisher. I said, well, how come they don’t like educational games? She said, no, because board game publishers know from experience that parents want a game that lets them stop parenting.

The goal of a board game is to send the kids off into the corner to leave the parent alone. So the idea of a board game that centers around the parent would never fly, you could never get it published. I said, could I please use you as my rallying cry? Can I please say that the board game experts told me this is a game that could never get made, and would only get made if you the people of Kickstarter, the people who want this game, will it into it in existence?

And she’s like, Oh yeah, that’s a great, like, yes, wonderful. Go use me as, as, as the boogeyman and go forth and, and, and succeed, which was the rallying cry for the product. So this is all going on. You said like, why, why do things work? Here’s why. It’s because it had the simplest pitch imaginable. A board game that teaches programming principles to preschoolers.

90 percent of people would say, I don’t care, and 10 percent of people would leap in and say, tell me more. It’s the best thing to have, a polarizing product. Because you don’t want to waste time with the people who are ambivalent. You want people to select in or out. The second thing was, it was something people wanted, but it was also a cause.

Because I could truly say this will not exist except for you. You are a part of this. You are helping me bring it into the world. You’re not just transacting a thing. You’re changing the world in a small way through your support by bringing this into the world. And so that led people lean forward. And finally, it was just something different.

It was something weird and, like, interesting. I wound up getting outreach from NPR, two weeks into the four week campaign. And it was Elise Hugh, who’s since become a friend. And she reached out to me on Facebook and was like, this is amazing, this is so cool. I’d love to do a piece about Robot Turtles and crowdfunding.

My brother works for NPR. He’s the host of All Things Considered, Ari Shapiro. And I was like, oh my gosh, that’s awesome. Did Ari, I assume Ari told you about this. And she’s like, Ari Shapiro’s your brother? Oh, well, I have to write a disclaimer about this in the piece because I had no idea the family of an NPR, but so she just found out about it totally organically that piece on NPR drove from Robot Turtles at the time was the most backed board game in Kickstarter history. More backers than any other game. And that was the piece, that NPR piece was what drove it over. But the reason that happened was because it was something interesting and novel and different and it grabbed people’s attention.

And so that, that trifecta. It was something people wanted. It was something people wanted to exist. And it was something that was interesting that people would tell their friends about that piqued people’s curiosity was the sort of virtuous flywheel that drove the success of that product.

Pat Flynn: And over 13, 000 backers, 630, 000 generated.

I ran a Kickstarter campaign with my videographer. We invented a specialized tripod and it made… 413k in 60 days. That’s huge. I was very proud of that, you know, and we didn’t do it alone, we had a lot of help from people who’ve been successful on Kickstarter. So thank you, but I I remember what it was like it’s like okay like people are like you made this much money and we’re like No, cuz this is all gonna be spent on making the molds now and doing the things. Like 630k coming in, what was going through your head as far as, okay, now I gotta deliver on this thing. How do you make sure that happens well?

Dan Shapiro: So my original plan was, I think I put the number at 10k, but my secret goal was 50k, right? That was the, if I get to 50k, and the way it worked was at 10k I would lose money, and my summer internship was gonna be learning Kickstarter.

And at 50 K I would just shy of break even, I’d still lose a little money, but you know, it’s like a mostly subsidized internship. And once it got up to 600k, I said, Oh my gosh, I’m in the board game business. Yeah, I did not mean to be now I have a real project. I’m gonna have to devote a year of my life to do this.

This isn’t something I can I can do in, you know, in a small batch. I mean, I have to do a much larger production run. I have to figure out the distribution and and everything else. And I did wind up when all was said and done, Robot Turtles the crowdfunding campaign, I made some money off it. I made about a third or as fourth as much as I would have worked a full time job during that time, but I made some money off of it.

And then in the after, I’m getting a little off topic, but in the afterlife, I licensed it to an amazing board game company who still sells it to this day. And I get royalty checks and I’m like, you know, to ultimately the, the, the reason everybody’s here. I don’t do anything and that’s licensing income that supports me and my family and has been for the past decade and that’s amazing, hopefully will for four years to come.

But at the time it was, it was my full time job to figure out how to deliver this. And I can tell the story two ways. First way I’ll tell it is like Dan would a rube, which is I literally went to google, right before I launched the campaign and Google board game companies. Called the first and second and third Google results.

I was like, how much does it cost to make a board game? So I can price my Kickstarter, which sounds pretty, pretty podunk, but I’ll tell you something that actually happened. And I’m foreshadowing a little bit. Glowforge, the company that I’ve since started and why I started it. I got on the phone with Delano Publishing, an amazing board game publisher based in the United States.

And I said, here’s the game, tell me about costing. And they gave me an estimate. And then I said, okay, what can I do to make it cheaper? And they said, what do you mean? And I said, well, like I told you the cards were, you know, this many cards. And I told you the pieces were this shape. But I can change that.

Like I can make it a little bigger or smaller. I can make the board 18 by 18, 20 by 20. Get rid of, you know, this or that. And there was long silence. And she said, nobody’s ever asked me that before. But let me tell you one and a half by one and a half or any half inch intervals very inexpensive. As soon as you change from rounded rectangles, I have to do a custom piece there’s an extra surcharge. Cards, cards, I’m gonna print if you say I have a deck of 30 cards I’m gonna print 52 cards and throw away 22 of them Recycle them, because that’s the way that the card machines work. So, you get 52 cards for the price of one. Yeah. And then if you want 53, you’re paying for two.

And she went through the whole thing and I was like, Oh great, I’m gonna, like, make really minor changes to my game and halve the production cost. And what do you mean nobody’s ever asked you this before? She’s like, everybody shows up, that’s so surprising, with like, the vision in their head that’s perfect and immaculate and they don’t want to hear about any changes.

And I’m like, no, this is DFM. This is Design for Manufacturing. This is what you do. You, you figure out what the capabilities of your manufacturer and you design your product around it so that they can build it high quality and inexpensively. And I will tell you something that happened months later, which was, I was in the middle of, like, the campaign had finished and I was, you know, getting out copies and, or getting production going and everything. And I was doing some vanity Googling. I Googled, like, Robot Turtles and was looking at where it was. And I found a board game forum, of course, a board game designers forum.

And of course there’s board game designers forum, but I hadn’t thought of that. And they were talking about Robot Turtles and they were talking about me. And they said, somebody posted, who’s this Jack Banana? He didn’t use the word Jack Banana. Who is publishing a board game. There are hundreds of us here.

We have been working for years, sometimes decades. We’ve been going to the toy shows. We’ve been doing the play tests. We’ve been doing everything we’re supposed to do. And we’ve been beating our head against the wall for years. And this Yahoo, I didn’t say Yahoo, comes out of nowhere and publishes a game.

Why does he get to do that and we don’t? Dang. And I’m not proud. My first reaction was something along the lines of, Neener Neener. Yeah. I didn’t post it, but in my head. Then I started thinking about it. And I actually really started thinking about the privileges that I’d been granted. vast majority of investment dollars go to white men in our society.

Huge credit for that, that is totally unearned, completely unfair advantage. I had parents who were both teachers, both my parents are professors, you know, raised in a home where I didn’t have to worry about where meals were coming from. My parents supported entrepreneurship, you know, wrote like not giant checks, but checks that without which it would have been possible, wouldn’t have been possible to get started, invested in me, you know, metaphorically and literally all these advantages that I thought about.

And then I realized there was one more, which was I grew up knowing how to make things, how to make software, how to make physical things. And almost every opportunity in my life came about because I knew how to create things. And the whole goal of Robot Turtles was to give that ability to create code, to create things from software to as many kids as possible.

And when I made the decision to start the company Glowforge, which was a hard decision, spent months deciding if that’s really what I wanted to commit to, the tiebreaker was that, was that with Glowforge, now I could give people the ability to create physical things, beautiful things, things that would let them start their own businesses to create the world around them the way they want.

You know what we have launched tens of thousands of businesses, tens of thousands of Kickstarters and Etsy stores and Saturday markets. That’s beyond the crafter or personal gifting people who’ve actually, or existing business people actually created a business from the products that we’ve given. So when I talk to people about working at Glowforge, I’m like, this is a place where you get to pay it forward.

You get to take the gift of creation that you were given and you get to give it to other people so that people can go create the world around them, create their own, because you know what, it turns out it is so much easier to take something like a Glowforge Pro and create a like a, a business engraving, custom cutting boards for realtors, or to create custom jewelry and earrings to sell at the local market, to support your family, to create a puzzle business.

We have, we have a toy designer. Who’s won international awards and became a full time toy designer with the toy designs that she created on her Glowforge. And when you have those kinds of tools in your pocket, like any support, it can be what makes the difference. Like having your first investor, like having the first person, you know, person who believes in you and wants to join forces with you.

Having the right tool can make all the difference in the world. And that’s the opportunity we have at Glowforge is to create that tool that’s never, never quite existed like that before.

Pat Flynn: I never thought about that, the idea that. You are giving the opportunities that people never had the opportunity before to create using this tool that is, that is wonderfully, wonderfully powerful.

And it’s obvious that this is a really big motivator for you. And like you said, it’s the tiebreaker for, for why creating it, because it’s not an easy product. I mean, my Kickstarter campaign was three molds. You put them together and boom, you had this tripod and that was already complicated. I mean, this thing has, it’s hundreds of pieces and it’s electronic. Over 500 pieces. Yeah. 500 pieces. Like that just like boggles my mind now that I know what that process of creating, like this is why I love digital products so much. It’s so much easier. Oh gosh. There’s so many things I want to ask you when we have so much time.

What was the first prototype like of the Glowforge and what did it take to make that?

Dan Shapiro: When I was working on Robot Turtles. I was trying to figure out how to make prototypes, and I stumbled into this backwater technology from the 60s called CNC laser cutting engraving. CNC laser cutting engraving was a way to use a laser to go create physical objects.

All the rage at that point was 3D printing, but it was like plastic junk made slowly, which it kind of still is, like these lumpy plastic things. Or you could spend like hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a metal 3D printer, but then you couldn’t do plastic, it was just one material. And lasers were amazing!

They could work across hundreds of materials, they’re super fast, print in minutes instead of hours, high resolution, a thousand lines per inch, like a, you know, like a laser printer, like a traditional black and white laser printer. They could cut and score and engrave and you could build real physical objects out of them.

I’ve done like, you know, I made a doorstop because I needed a doorstop. It’s one of the most boring things you can imagine, but whatever. It took me two minutes and 17 cents to create it instead of ordering it for 7 in two days on Amazon. When I, you know, started working from home, I grabbed a piece of leather and I made a mouse pad.

This is an antique hand drawn map of the city of Seattle I got from the Library of Congress website. So it’s really easy to create beautiful things. One thing led to another. I wound up with an industrial carbon dioxide cutting laser imported from a factory in China Installed in my garage, which was terrible. And I invited a bunch of entrepreneurs who I knew over to experiment with it and to make things for them to show them how to make things and they all thought I was nuts. But at the end of every one of those, you know coffee and laser dates as my wife called them I would hit the button and two minutes later out would be their engraved MacBook or business card holder with their logo on it or something and say Okay, that was pretty cool.

Like the whole fighting with the software that was still half in Chinese and, you know, aligning the mirrors and cranking knobs and dials to make it work was awful. But the actual creative process was stunning. You might be onto something. And one of those folks said, Hey, you should reconnect. With the co founder from my last company, Mark, you might remember him, we’d last met like eight years ago.

They just sold their company for 112 million a year ago. He’s like, I don’t know what Mark’s up to. So we got together for lunch. I said to Mark, I’ve been thinking about, you know, laser cutter engraver technology. And I explained briefly what it was and about what it would mean to make this affordable and put it in homes so that everybody had access to it.

Because I think it’s like giving everybody access to a factory, to the means of production, giving every person the ability to create. And Mark is a profoundly quiet person. If I’m on a phone call with Mark, I have a rule that I have to count to 10 before I say, Are you still there? Because he’s just very taciturn.

We’re a little opposites that way. And he was silent this entire time. And then he said, I spent the last year in my garage since we sold the company building a combination plasma torch milling machine 3D printer and CNC laser cutter engraver could totally do this bolt of lightning. I was so shocked.

Sometimes the universe lines up like that. And we spent three months discussing it. Why we would do such a thing. Okay. So we’re building a new tool company, a new tool for people like tools. That’s not interesting. We’re building this thing. What does it do? What impact does it have? Why would we spend our time and energy on such a difficult project?

And the answers that came out of that was that Mark too felt like his ability to create things was a gift and that bringing that into the world would change the world. Could change the world from a place where things are made halfway across the earth in factories and shipped across the oceans and trucked in trucks to warehouses and delivered, maybe if you want one, to a world where it was faster and easier and better to make things for the purpose that they’re needed, where and when they’re needed, and that it could empower people across the country and globe to create things for themselves and create business and industry for themselves.

And so after the end of three months, we said, yeah, I think we want to do this. And then Mark said, do you want to see the prototype? And I said, I’m sorry, what? I may have mentioned Mark doesn’t talk a lot. And I went in at his garage and I saw the six foot by four foot by four foot thing he built over the last year.

And then I saw the first Glowforge, which if you took a Glowforge pro and you stripped off all the plastics and glass and everything else didn’t look too different. The guy’s a certifiable genius. And figured out a whole host of, we now have over 45 patents on the various innovations that went into that.

But many of those were cooked up at that very beginning. We’ve since piled on so much more. But but he really created the vision for how such a thing could be created from the very outset. And that was how we, how we brought that into the world.

Pat Flynn: Thank you for that. Wow. May I ask you about the brand name, Glowforge?

Glowforge, I think. It’s one of my favorite names of a company that best represents the thing that it creates. I love it so much. I’d love to know where that came from or who came up with that idea.

Dan Shapiro: Funny story. We had a placeholder name for the company and I set out on a process to name the company. And I’d done something similar with Sparkbuy.

I went to a crowdfunding website where you could crowdsource domain names that were available. And I put up a 500 prize for the, the best domain name and got 500 domain names. And so I went to Amazon Mechanical Turk. I, well, first I trimmed it down to like 50 and I went to MTurk and had people rate the, check the boxes of the ones that they liked.

And I use that data to narrow it down. Then I narrowed it down to, I think five finalists from that list. And then I did another survey where I asked people to describe what they thought each name was. Did they love it or hate it, and you got points for loving it, and you got a few points for hating it, and you lost points for ambivalence.

I wanted polarizing, not fine. And I took those ratings, and took those descriptions, and there was a clear winner out of that list. I should mention that the placeholder name was Glowforge and I put Glowforge into that original list, and wound up winning really through that whole process, which was a spectacular waste of time, , and the way that Glowforge happened was I was just going like light and making things.

What are some interesting words for those? How could I put them together and find something that was available? I remember I was driving out, I live in Seattle. I was driving home across I 90 and I was like, I wonder if Glow and Forge are available. I will. I will check that domain name when I get home.

And I did, and it was, and I was like, that’s a fine placeholder name until we find the right one.

Pat Flynn: That is hilarious. So it actually ended up being the one. And I was going to ask you, what was that website, that crowdsourcing kind of competition website for domains? Because that’s really interesting.

Dan Shapiro: I can’t remember.

I’m going to look it up and I’ll send it to you and you can edit the show notes.

Pat Flynn: Yeah, we’ll do that. But that is great. And I think it definitely stuck. I mean, sometimes it’s just one of those things. It’s like a gut thing. That just sticks with you and it just happens to be the best outcome. Dan, I feel like we could talk for several more hours about so many different kinds of things that you’ve had a hand in, but first of all, one more time, congratulations on the success and what you’ve done and.

Hopefully that realization that you are affecting so many people’s lives in so many different ways. Just want to extend that thanks to you. Where can people go to check out your book, number one, and also feel free to shout any of the other domain names that might be important for people to listen to or to get and follow your work.

Dan Shapiro: If people want to learn more about the trials and tribulations and hear the story of how I sold Sparkbuy to Google because of that random plane conversation, hotseatbook.com will just redirect to the Amazon page. So you can pick that up published by O’Reilly. It’s a little old, but most of the advice and stories there are unfortunately timeless. The Cautionary Tales was published in 2016. And if people are excited about starting their own business and being able to hold the business in their hands and go down a track that can work, they can go to Glowforge.com. They can pick up a Glowforge Pro, which is the one you see behind me, which is enough to go start up as one of our employees started on the sales team, and she said, I’m just going to give this a shot myself. I’m going to take a month off before I start. And so she launched, I mentioned a, a cutting board selling engraved cutting boards to realtors. That wasn’t hypothetical. She started that business, called up a bunch of realtor friends, booked $20,000 worth of business in the first month, spent the entire month cranking out cutting boards and then said, okay, so I guess I can do this.

Now I’m going to take my job at Glowforge and I will be able to sell these things to people with a straight face that no. It really does do all that. So and then we have our new Glowforge Aura, which is a craft laser. So it’s not for running a business. It’s about 10 times slower. It’s not meant for like, you know, all day workhorse and my kids use it to create earrings and t shirts and all sorts of amazing, fun and beautiful objects, and it’s truly a delight.

That’s it. Glowforge.com.

Pat Flynn: That’s awesome. Well, we were thinking of picking something up for our house and our kids to play with. So I’ll have to look at the Aura. I think that’s, that’s pretty new, right? So right up the alley. Yes. Awesome. To finish up here, Dan, I want to go back to that game board forum that you went to where you were being called a, a yahoo for the space that you didn’t really belong in, at least from their point of view.

If you had a chance to sit down and chat with them a little bit, what would you say to them? And, you know, I know this would come from a place of, You know, Hey, I’m here to help you because they obviously were stuck in their own world and we’re being gatekeepers in a space and perhaps even a little bit jealous, but how with you, with your CEO mindset, best help somebody who’s in that position.

What would you say to them?

Dan Shapiro: I would say you’re completely and totally right. I don’t deserve to be here. And I got here cause I cheated. You should cheat too. What do you mean by that? Because there’s actually no such thing as cheating in this world. You’ve got to find some advantage that you have that everybody else who’s knocking on the same doors doesn’t have.

Whether it’s going to a conference and talking to every single person who’s there because you have no other choice not to do it. Whether it’s because you buy a tool that most people don’t know exists and you leverage that. Whether it’s because you email every human being you’ve ever met on planet Earth and say, I just launched my Kickstarter, you should go pay attention.

You have to find something that is unique to you. Some piece of your experience, some piece of your story, some piece of your history, something that’s special. You have to figure out how to use that to make your experience, your company, your business, your side hustle, how to make it different, how to make it special.

My daughter wants to start and is starting a business selling earrings on Etsy. And she’s like, I don’t think I want to tell people I’m a teenage girl. And I said, honey, it is totally up to you. But you know what? You need to be different than every other person out there. And that’s something that’s different.

And that’s something that’s special. And so saying like, I am a kid who is out there starting a business for myself. And here’s why it’s important. Like, that’s going to make you different. And finding something, not running the playbook, not going through the checklist or not stopping there, but taking it one step further to find some piece of magic that you can call your own.

It doesn’t have to be a lot. I gave a talk to her high school class about entrepreneurship. And the first thing I said was, look, Here’s, here’s the way it works. You figure out what your ethics are, you figure out what the laws are. And once you do, then there’s no such thing as cheating. So for the purpose of this next hour, when I’m talking to you, I want your phones out.

I want you to have Chat GPT open. I want you to ask your neighbors for answers. I want you to like, there’s no such thing as cheating. Anything you can do that’s consistent with your values and following the law, anything you can do, you do to go find that advantage for your business. And that’s what I would say to them.

I would say you did all the right things, but you also need to do one or two things beyond the checklist because ultimately that’s how you stand out and that’s how you, you build that success for the business that matters to you.

Pat Flynn: Thank you, Dan. This has been an absolute pleasure and an honor. I appreciate you.

Congratulations on the success. And I look forward to hearing the response from the audience here. So have an amazing day. And thank you once again.

Dan Shapiro: Thanks so much, Pat. It’s been a pleasure.

Pat Flynn: All right, definitely check out Dan Shapiro’s book, Hot Seat, the startup guidebook, as well as his website. And of course the Glowforge.

And after we finished the call, he said, Pat, forgot to share this, but I’m going to share it with you now. He said, if any of you are curious about the Glowforge and are potentially wanting to invest in one on your own and you want one, he has a discount. Actually, if you go to Glowforge.com/fod, which is friends of Dan, you can get it at the cheapest price, which I thought was super generous. It’s not an affiliate link or anything, just Glowforge.com/fod. So thank you so much for that, Dan. I really appreciate that. We’ll have all the links and everything to his website, his book. And of course, Robot Turtles, definitely check out really cool stories.

And I think it just shows that there’s not often just a playbook that you follow to success. Sometimes you have to, like he said, beat, or as I often say, use your unfair advantage to your advantage. I think a lot of us have unfair advantages that we just don’t use to our advantage. So go and do that and go and check out the show notes at SmartPassiveIncome.com/session737. Thank you so much. Take care.

And I look forward to serving you in the next episode. Hit that subscribe button if you haven’t already, by the way.

Thank you so much for listening to the Smart Passive Income podcast at SmartPassiveIncome.com. I’m your host, Pat Flynn. Sound editing by Duncan Brown. Our senior producer is David Grabowski, and our executive producer is Matt Gartland. The Smart Passive Income Podcast is a production of SPI Media, and a proud member of the Entrepreneur Podcast Network. Catch you next week!


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