Disrupting incumbent businesses and supply chains
MakieLab, brainchild of entrepreneur Alice Taylor, was recently announced by Wired UK as 3rd hottest start-up in London. Alice is also a near neighbor to Thomson Reuters, manufacturing the dolls on Scrutton Street – 50 meters from our Mark Square office. She joined us to talk about her own business and the wider 3D printing revolution. Phenomenally disrupting traditional supply chains, there is also mind-boggling potential to create anything in the future from medicines and body parts to planes, houses and structures which would be physically impossible to make by any other means, such as single cast honeycomb or hollow structures.
Prototyping a 3D printing business
Her company’s inception started with a character in Makers, a book written by her husband Cory Doctorow, who “hacked” toys. Deciding to start with dolls was the easy part, since they are the single biggest selling category of toys; the twist was being able to make them customizable on demand and unique to you. Alice learned a lot from the maker culture in London – a place she sees as being at the center of creativity and the democratization of access to technology. This definitely seems to be becoming mainstream – you can now use a 3D printer to create a version of yourself for £40 at Walmart owned ASDA supermarkets.
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Alice started with a bold step, investing £200k in a prototype of the process which made a doll that was not even toy safe. Despite the phenomenal rise of Makie, which included presenting customized dolls to Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince Harry in New York, she still sees the product as in alpha – making pennies on the dolls because the manufacture and materials are still so expensive.
Using narrative to differentiate products
It was fascinating hearing about the next step to create an online game and world for Makies, where you create and interact with your digital avatar first before deciding to create the physical version as the logical next step.
The interweaving of physical and digital worlds is a strategy many other businesses could learn from – you can definitely see that enabling a child to use an online game to create digital clothes, draw on them with their own designs to make them unique and printing them with the exact same designs is a very compelling proposition.
The products themselves are now made of Nylon and are completely toy safe. All Makies used to be bone white, because using coloured Nylon would have permanently dyed the printer. In an attempt to dye the dolls Alice’s numerous attempts included using ink to tea in her washing machine – tea was apparently very effective!
Which comes first: Innovation or patent protection?
The discussion turned to copy protection, and whether Alice was worried about someone, especially a large toy company, coming in and copying her ideas. Interestingly for a product company, she seemed to have a similar philosophy to many digital companies; investing her time in staying ahead of the competition, moving the product forward and creating an affection with her customers rather than investing time in patents which she wouldn’t be able to afford to defend against the giant toy manufacturers anyway.
The same was true when asked about her feelings regarding adding digital copyright to the dolls themselves, to prevent someone using a scanner and 3D printer to replicate a doll. This she felt would be pointless; all someone could do was create a 3D likeness of the doll, which in any case are all bespoke, wouldn’t have the same joints as the original, and wouldn’t be tied to the digital game which would be the only reason for creating the doll in the first place.
In a world of high-tech 3D printing it was interesting to hear at the end about the bits that are still done by hand – painting of all the features and colors on the dolls. This is something that is true of all dolls, including those mass-produced in factories in China and will be here to stay.
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About the series
Thomson Reuters Labs™ partners with Cass Business School to bring you EntrepreneursTalk@Cass in London. These interview-based evening events feature founders of successful start-ups from London and take place at Cass Business School. EntrepreneursTalk@Cass are designed to inspire students, entrepreneurs and anyone interested in tech.
The talks are hosted by Axel Threlfall, Editor-at-Large, Reuters. Prior correspondent experiences include: Reuters TV, Wired UK, CTV News, and CBC Undercurrents.