Gregory Mark | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Gregory Mark

Background:  

Gregory Mark is the CEO of Markforged, a Boston area–based company that makes carbon-fiber 3-D printers for parts that are "as strong as aluminum and dramatically lighter." The business also prints stainless steel, titanium, aluminum, kevlar and almost a dozen other materials.

The Mistake

My main mistake was that we didn't ramp up fast enough. We had the world's first carbon-fiber 3-D printer, the Mark I. We had a very tight-knit team that put the printer together, and we did the science and research extremely fast. I kept a really tight team because there's always a trade-off between getting the product out in an efficient way versus taking the time to recruit more engineers and more managers.

So on the plus side, we had a core group of people who moved faster than humanly possible. The downside was that the printer did better than expected, so it was like a marathon run at a sprint pace. What I should have done is pushed our first release out a quarter further so we would set up for a better year afterward.

It was a rougher ride than it needed to be and ended up putting an incredible strain on our team. We had hit bandwidth limits that people didn't know they had — brilliant people who had excelled at MIT and never had a problem. If you exceed that type of person's bandwidth, you're pushing too hard. There weren't enough hours in the day.

We were running hundreds and hundreds of experiments every week. And people were feeling really good about the progress. It was like surfing and missing every wave; we were constantly paddling for waves we couldn't reach.

Taking action that's hard is sometimes the right thing to do. 

The Lesson

Taking action that's hard is sometimes the right thing to do. When you're in the heat of battle, you feel compelled — especially if you have integrity — to ship when you said you were going to ship. Nobody remembers the day they got their first Mark I, but they all remember how it worked on that day.

And so we did what we had to do to ship, and it was brutal. The reality is, it would have been more optimal from both a company standpoint and a customer standpoint to push it by a quarter. It's going to be a hard conversation, and you may lose a sale or two — although out of thousands of printers, we've only ever had two printers returned.

You can't go for a local maximum. As with optimization, when you find a peak, you don't know if you're at a local one or a global one. What I can promise you is that generic advice is worth exactly what you pay for it. So the devil's in the details: Optimizing for this quarter — unless you're about to go out of business — is usually a mistake.

Markforged is on Twitter: @Markforged.

Photo courtesy of Gregory Mark