Shai Terem, the CEO of industrial 3D printing platform leader Markforged, recently led his organization through an IPO (NYSE: MKFG) via a merger with SPAC one, founded and led by tech investor Kevin Hartz.
During the pandemic, distributed manufacturing – a key strength of a 3D printing platform – has seen a tremendous increase in demand to meet the production needs of disrupted supply chains, accelerating a pre-existing trend.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I am fascinated with Markforged because I’m an industrial engineer. I made a drill press in shop class, the old-fashioned way. When I researched your company, I watched that happen on video from a 3D printer. With the well-publicized supply chain issues that the pandemic brought on, this must have accelerated the demand for localized industrial 3D printing. We often think about digital transformation as the big winner but perhaps 3D printing – or industrial, commercial 3D printing – was the other winner.
One of the most essential building blocks in our vision is to reinvent manufacturing today, so that our customers can build anything they can imagine.
We help our customers answer mission-critical applications, usually on the manufacturing floor, or with any other end-use part. Typically, we replace metals, so most of our business focuses on composite materials and defense composite materials – which is a trend in manufacturing.
If you look at the defense and automotive spaces, they are looking at a future beyond metal. Fifty percent of the body frame of the Boeing Dreamliner is advanced composites. On the BMW i3, the body frame is completely advanced composite. If you compare it with the traditional steel car chassis, you need a heavy lift to pick up a steel chassis. Now, two people can lift the BMW chassis. The automotive, aerospace and defense industries will continue to push into advanced composites for many years to come.
Markforged is the leader of advanced composites and accessible solutions, which has enabled us to grow to where we are today with about 10,000 happy customers and with 10 million parts printed on the network.
Another building block to our success is distributed manufacturing. Our customers are using our solution for MRO (maintenance, replacement, and operation). They put the platform that we sell, a digital forge, on the manufacturing floor and replace parts directly on the floor.
I want to go back to your first point about the composites. We went from steel to aluminum. Then aluminum clearly had its issues. So composites are a better choice here. Will you expand on the idea of a digital forge as a key part of your strategy?
We are not just a 3D printing company. We are building a platform that enables our customers to move manufacturing to the point of need. The digital forge is a combination of hardware, software, and materials. We continue to delineate our hardware – we try to make it bigger, faster, more robust and more reliable – and we have advanced composites.
All of our solutions are in the cloud, which means the digital forges are connected. We get data from our 10,000 connected printers and ensure that if we find a bug in one continent, we quickly fix it on all the networks. The more data we capture from the networks, the better the networks become.
Let’s talk a little bit about your recent IPO. Why did you choose an IPO?
We are still a high-growth company and we have an aggressive product roadmap, based on client needs. With the IPO, we have about $320 million on the balance sheet, which enables us to move from developing one product at a time to developing four – so our product roadmap is pulled forward. That means that every year we want to release a new set of products to the market. These new solutions will accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing and speed up the reinvention of manufacturing.
You actually made the bell to ring for your IPO. Is the bell still there? Did you bring it home with you?
We made a few versions of it. The version that we left is a version that will never break. It was a great initiative that came from the work of our marketing team and the New York Stock Exchange to identify what’s different about Markforged, and then our brilliant engineering team created it.
Let’s turn now to leadership. What is your leadership ethos, how have you shaped your team?
My leadership days started in the Israeli Navy, the equivalent of the U.S. Navy SEALs. I was there for almost nine years. As a young officer, I thought that the most important thing was running the fastest, diving the best, etc. I gradually learned that that’s not important at all for a leader. Now I focus more on the “soft side,” on caring, rather than being the best runner.
We believe in very solid core values in our organization. The highest priority is the one-team approach, meaning we try to set clear objectives in the organization, and ensure that everyone understand that meeting those objectives is the most critical thing in their lives.
Once we have that team cohesiveness, nothing can stop us, assuming that we have the right people on the bus. And we have have an amazing team.
If you think about a 2×2 matrix, the sweet spot is in the upper right-hand quadrant. Is there a moment in your career, when you knew that you were moving up and to the right?
Certainly, leading a military team created unique experiences. I learned that a leader who makes you work hard is one you will sometimes hate, but he’s going to bring you home alive. And on his team, we’re going to accomplish the mission. For me, that learning was pivotal.
At any company growing as fast as Markforged, work-life balance is tricky. People are always working very hard, and my focus is to make sure that we all understand where we want to go, why we want to go there, and get the buy-in from the organization to make it their vision, not mine.
I believe in hard work, but we saw that people don’t take enough vacation. My wife asked me how many vacation days I have.
I said, “We don’t allocate a number. It’s unlimited.”
She said, “What?”
Yes, we give employees the option to take as much vacation as they want, but what happens is they don’t take enough. So we’ve planned to shutdown the company for a week, ensuring that our employees take some time off.
I just spoke with a team member who told me, “After the IPO, I didn’t sleep for a few days after, from the adrenaline, the energy was phenomenal.” I told her, “I’m not shortening your life. I’m extending your life because if you’re bored, you will die much faster. By giving you more challenges, I know you’re going to live forever.”