“There’s no better time in your life than now to give this a try.” That’s what Chris Padgett’s parents told him in 2013 when he left his job as a mechanical engineer and threw himself into building Fusion3, a Greensboro, North Carolina-based manufacturer of affordable high-performance 3D printer for commercial and education use.
“I had designed and built some proof-of-concept prototypes, but that was about it,” he says. “I had only the fuzziest idea of a business model, target customers, etc., all the normal stuff they tell you to figure out early, I had no clue on. It was very much a gut feeling that there was a hole in the market I could address, rather than an exhaustive data-driven study.”
A year and a half later, Padgett’s dad, David, joined the company “when it became clear the fundamental product was working in the marketplace and that we had something here,” he says.
So what’s it like running a company with your dad?
“Our dynamic is great,” he says. “We’re able to leave our egos and father/son dynamic at the door. It definitely requires mindfulness and good communication on both sides for this to work. But it was great to be able to bring on someone I trusted to help grow the business, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Fusion3 serves businesses of all sizes in industries such as automotive, aerospace, defense, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, architecture and electronics. “On the education side, research universities all through grade schools are finding applications for 3D printing in their curriculums, libraries/student makerspaces and research centers,” he says.
Most 3D printers fit into either the industrial (capable, reliable, outrageously expensive) or the hobbyist category. “Our key insight was there are a huge number of businesses and schools that are poorly served by both of these segments,” Padgett says. “They cannot afford, or won’t pay for, the expensive industrial systems. Or, their needs are not met by existing hobbyist printers. From the outset, we set out to build a machine targeted exactly at those customer’s needs. Through a combination of a lean business model, innovative engineering and some technological improvements, we’re able to offer most of that industrial-level of capability for about 10% of the traditional cost.”
Things are going well for the company, which has not yet taken any outside funding and manufactures its printers in-house. Padgett says average year-over-year growth is about 2x over the past four years, and the company has been cash flow positive every year except year one.
“We think this is a great growth trajectory, as it allows us to scale the business relatively quickly, but not so quickly that we run into growing pains that might throw a wrench in things, or outgrow our cash flow,” he says. “It’s all about keeping everything in balance.”
Padgett’s startup journey has not been without challenges. “A saying someone once told me comes to mind: ‘You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.'”
“Luck is a huge component of success in startups,” he continues. “I think anyone who tells you differently is deluding themselves about how smart they really are. But to some degree you can make your own luck, by making smart choices, and looking for that collision of right place, right time, right skillset.”
Based in Greensboro, the company draws a lot of support from both the local community and the nearby Research Triangle.
“Greensboro has been a great place to start a business,” he says. “I was actually surprised at the quality of the support network in Greensboro for startups, through organizations like our local chamber of commerce and business incubators. We’re about an hour from the Triangle, which in my mind is perfect because I’m close enough to hop over for the day, but I don’t have to live there and fight the traffic daily.”