Michelle Mihevc is a Co-Founder and Principal at FATHOM. She is sharing here her 8-year experience within the 3D printing industry.
Michelle, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?
I was introduced to 3D printing in 2008. A friend had learned about an opportunity to become one of the first US partners for a desktop 3D printer being released by a company out of Israel, Objet Geometries. I was a recruiter focusing on software sales placements and was looking for something new and exciting given the state of the software job market at the time. I started doing research and became excited by the technology and the potential business opportunity. It was easy to see how the technology could completely revolutionize the way products are designed and manufactured.
What was your first experience with 3D Printing?
My first experience with 3D printing something myself was actually when our demo printer was set up in my garage. I was printing out a sample part for a customer. I can’t tell you exactly what it was (almost all of our work is done under Non-Disclosure Agreements), but the excitement and empowerment I felt from taking a file to a tangible part in a matter of minutes was, and still is, very gratifying. I was hooked.
You are the co-founder of FATHOM, an online 3D printing service based in Oakland, CA and Seattle, WA. Could you explain furthermore what FATHOM is and the services that you are providing? And how did you come to build the company?
After starting with the printer sales and support, we realized that we had an opportunity to offer more value to our customers by offering prototyping, low-volume production, and engineering services. We opened our first production center in Oakland in 2012, expanded to Seattle in 2013, and have continuously expanded our square footage, capabilities, and expertise every year to meet the needs of our customers. We are currently undergoing our biggest production expansion to date, adding about 10,000 square feet of production space to our Oakland headquarters. We have also recently added more software development capabilities because we see software creation as another opportunity to fill a significant need in the AM industry.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company to share with us?
At FATHOM, we try to have a lot of fun! We believe that strong company culture is a major key to our success. We want our employees to be highly engaged and to develop strong relationships across departments and an effective way to do this is through fun team building activities. For instance, each Halloween, we have an all-company scavenger hunt where we split into randomized teams and run around Oakland (in costumes!) doing things like 30-second dance routines, taking photos with the owners of local businesses, and singing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” at full volume in Jack London Square. We also have twice-weekly (optional) yoga sessions at FATHOM, to encourage healthy pursuits amongst FATHOMers.
As a woman entrepreneur, what was/is your biggest challenge? Any challenge specific to the 3D printing industry?
My biggest challenge as an entrepreneur has not been gender-related. My biggest challenge has been scaling the business without external investment while remaining profitable. There is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with investing in more assets, and hoping that the revenue will rise to give you a return on those costs. We do a lot of analysis before making these decisions, but a lot of it just comes down to going with gut feeling and believing we can make it work. We have made a number of investments that didn’t pencil out on paper beforehand, but we have turned them into successes. One of FATHOM’s themes is “Make It Happen,” and we strive to live that message every day.
Being a woman entrepreneur in the 3D printing industry does present its challenges. I think the biggest thing I learned early on was that in many situations, I needed to be assertive to get my point across. I’ve also learned to think about the way I present my opinions. A man may say something that is described as passionate, but a woman who says the same thing may be described as emotional.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you, as a business person?
As a business person, I recognized early on that the 3D printing industry is ripe with opportunities. The technology is making a significant impact on the way products are designed and manufactured. There is a high demand for services that require expertise in additive manufacturing, and more need to incorporate additive technologies in augmenting traditional manufacturing. The opportunity spans almost all industries; any company that makes a tangible product is a potential customer. We are almost at the 2000 customer mark and we know this is just the tip of the iceberg with the amount of potential opportunities out there.
As a woman?
The 3D printing industry is a traditionally male-dominated so it’s been exciting to be a female leader in this space. The broader manufacturing industry is also traditionally male-dominated. I like the fact that I am helping to change the face of manufacturing and hopefully some of the stereotypes that go along with that.
What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?
There have been many significant industry changes since we started the business. The hype over the technology a few years ago helped bring awareness to the industry. Many of the large manufacturers are still rebounding from inflated growth expectations, but for companies like ours, the industry is in a great place. Everyone knows what 3D printing is but expectations are more realistic. There are also some exciting new technologies coming out and exciting innovations on existing technologies that broaden the range of available applications. I think we will continue to see equipment and materials evolve to be more suitable for end use applications. Many of these will be specialized for specific industries—for example, Nano Dimension’s focus on 3D printed circuit boards. Another area that is fascinating to me, but doesn’t have much to do with FATHOM’s area of focus, is bio-printing and all of the breakthroughs taking place in that arena.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D printing?
When I started in this industry 8 years ago, there were actually less women, so I’m happy to see more women coming into the industry but we are definitely still in the minority. At FATHOM, although women still only account for just 30% of our team, over 40% of leadership positions are held by women. So we are making progress with bridging that gap. We try to attract and retain talented women by creating a great environment to foster learning and growth. Some of our applicants don’t know much about the industry when they come to us, but it’s easy to get them excited during the interview process after completing an assignment that requires them to do some research on the technology.
For our needs for software development hires, we focused our recruitment efforts on recent Hackbright Academy graduates. Hackbright is an all-female coding bootcamp in the traditionally male-dominated software development space. From this effort, we had 2 new hires.
Finding female applicants for our production-related roles has been challenging. We currently only have one woman in a production role, a skilled model maker. If there was additive manufacturing bootcamp we could hire from for that role, we would definitely be interested! We are seeing more interest in additive manufacturing from women at the high school and college level, which we’re thrilled about.
We have also partnered with the nonprofit e-NABLE, an online 3D printing community that creates free prosthetics for children in need. One of the children we’ve worked with, Isabella, has already taken a huge interest in STEM, and we’ve seen similar sparks in other girls involved with the community. We’re hoping to help e-NABLE continue to grow, help more children, and promote STEM and 3D printing!
If you are interested in learning more about Michelle and FATHOM, I invite you to check their website!
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Thank you for reading and for sharing!