Marco Perry of PENSA: “Persevere is key to getting through it all”

Many people seek to bring their ideas to fruition, but without much thought for the details like learning the business or skills required. You have to tackle each issue, which takes significant time, money, effort and patience. Along the way, you’ll constantly question yourself. But having the grit to persevere is key to getting through […]

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Many people seek to bring their ideas to fruition, but without much thought for the details like learning the business or skills required. You have to tackle each issue, which takes significant time, money, effort and patience. Along the way, you’ll constantly question yourself. But having the grit to persevere is key to getting through it all.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marco Perry.

Marco Perry is an inventor, designer, engineer and co-founder of Brooklyn-based product design consultancy Pensa. With over two decades creating just about everything — from diapers and digital fabrication tools to connected IOT devices and solar chargers — Marco’s work has garnered countless awards including: IDSA/IDEA Gold, IIDEX/Neocon Gold, Architizer A+, Fast Company Innovation by Design, Core 77 Design Award Category Winner, Chicago Athenaeum Good Design awards, Appliance Design award and Medical Design Excellence awards. Beyond product consulting, Marco also lectures and mentors young engineers and has launched ventures such as Pensa Lab’s D.I.Wire.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born in Rome, Italy and knew early on that I wanted to be an inventor. My father Charles Perry (American) was a successful artist and my mother ran the business side. Growing up, I spent every free moment in my dad’s workshop making things. And during the summers, my siblings and I all worked on building large-scale sculptures with my Dad. That experience forged my insatiable curiosity for how things are made.

But it wasn’t until I went to Lehigh University for mechanical engineering — and later Pratt Institute for a Master of Industrial Design — that I realized my upbringing was atypical. Apparently, most kids don’t geek-out tinkering in workshops. Or have childhood heroes like mine: Edison, Tesla, and DaVinci.

Also, from observing my Dad I learned that artists are truly entrepreneurs — making unique things that people will value and buy so they can keep on creating. From a young age, that notion inspired and drove me to want my own business. Launching Pensa 15 years ago with my wife Kathy was simply inevitable — whether it worked or not, I had to try.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that’s relevant to you in your life?

“90% of life is showing up.” — most often attributed to Woody Allen

It’s a quote that I live by and can actually link back to my successes. Want something? Need something to succeed? Just show up, get involved, make the call, or introduce yourself in-person. Don’t wait for the phone to ring or the inbox to fill. The outcome of your initiative will always amaze you. And once you have momentum, it will drive you towards your goal. And that remaining 10%? It’s all about following up.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I have two businesses, each sparked from different inspirations: Pensa is my innovation and invention firm that started from my dream to be an inventor. Since I thrive on variety, launching a consultancy that works with a range of clients seemed the perfect fit. Every day we work on something new and get better at refining our process.

Pensa Labs is our venture side where our team creates products of our own making, like the D.I.Wire — the first-ever desktop wire former (adopted by MIT, NASA, Disney and the Smithsonian Institute). The idea came from our invention process at Pensa — we use a range of digital fabrication machines like 3D Printers and CNC machines for prototyping. But we lacked a device that could quickly and precisely bend wire. This process requires meticulous time and talent, so we saw a gap in the market.

People seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

Many people seek to bring their ideas to fruition, but without much thought for the details like learning the business or skills required. You have to tackle each issue, which takes significant time, money, effort and patience. Along the way, you’ll constantly question yourself. But having the grit to persevere is key to getting through it all.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

Odds are you’re right — someone probably has thought of your idea. It’s extremely rare to invent something entirely unique. The lightbulb? Edison didn’t come up with the idea. The car? Ford was not the first. They were just among the first to succeed with the idea. And that success translates to a reliable and growing revenue stream. So, rather than researching whether or not your idea has already been created — spend time solving how to make it a viable business.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

My father not only made beautiful art sculptures — he sold them. He didn’t work with galleries or agents. He made it all happen, which is incredibly hard. And vastly different than selling features to consumers or businesses. Some might argue that he was selling objects that don’t “do” anything, but simply uplift experiences. In other words, if my father could feed five kids on an artist’s salary, then I can persevere.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from idea to how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it?

I fortunately run a product design consultancy with a super talented team and together we took the D.I.Wire from idea to product in people’s hands. It took countless steps, but to summarize, these are the four major phases:

  1. Define it — What are you making, what must it do and why? Who wants it and what would they pay? How does it satisfy people’s needs? What are your customers trying to accomplish and how are you helping them?
  2. Design it — What does it look like? How does it work and how’s it made? What and how does it communicate its brand values? What’s the environmental impact? What’s important to you, your customers and partners?
  3. Make it — Design, engineer, prototype, test, measure, learn, refine, and repeat. Keep going until it’s right.
  4. Launch it — There is still a ton to do: sourcing, manufacturing, documentation, regulatory requirements, logistics, distribution, supply and value chain management, sales, marketing, finance, legal…and the list goes on.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

The tipping point was the day we made enough profit not only to self-sustain, but to grow the business. I remember clearly the day we hired our first employee. Since I’ve always bootstrapped, adding another mouth to feed is a big deal. But we were not only able to pay the costs of employment (salary, benefits, taxes etc.) but grow from the extra help. I don’t believe in launching a startup that relies on the next funding round. For me, if I can’t sustain a business on its own revenue, then it’s not a business. It’s a money-losing hobby.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Ultimately, you’re in the sales business — Businesses thrive or die on sales. I got into the consulting business to make things. But I actually spend more time selling our services than creating inventions. The fun work tends to be done by our amazing team of designers.
  2. You have to have a passion for the subject — I tried a few ventures before Pensa. I chased opportunities for money, but I didn’t particularly have a passion for the actual businesses themselves. Ultimately, the ventures fizzled out due to lack of passion and revenue.
  3. It’ll be harder than you think — Uncertainty is the norm and why it can be so challenging to plan, anticipate and react. There were days I wished I had a job that allowed me to go home on-time, stress-free so I could enjoy work-life balance with my family. Now I understand and accept the reality.
  4. You’ll need skills in your core business — I’ve met many potential clients lacking experience and skills in their startups — and it never works out. I always keep that in mind whenever I want to expand Pensa’s offerings. To set us up for success, I dive deep into learning everything I can from the skills required to the competitor landscape.
  5. Partnerships are marriages — Because I’ve had a few poor business partnerships, I’ve learned the ideal partner must have complementary skills, personalities, work ethic, values and vision. In hard times, and even in booming growth, a shaky partnership can really hurt a business. And of course, the only winners in a partnership’s “divorce” are the lawyers.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Prototype your idea, show it to people, get feedback, fix it. If you don’t know how to prototype, you’re going to have to learn. Or partner with someone who can help you. The steps are simple, but the execution is not so straight forward.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Companies large and small come to Pensa because it takes specialized design and engineering expertise to bring a product from idea to market. But once launched, a business’s core is marketing, sales and distribution. And that’s something entrepreneurs must be good at — on their own — or they’ll lose all the institutional knowledge when they stop working with a consultancy.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

In general, never take money if you don’t have to — you’ll lose equity and control. That said, some businesses are capital intensive and can benefit from investors’ expertise and connections. I’ve always bootstrapped my businesses and never regretted it. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who successfully bootstrapped and wished they hadn’t. Yet, I know many folks who regretted getting investors involved too early. If you don’t succeed quickly, you won’t get further funding and could quickly find yourself in a down round, or worse, out of business. With bootstrapping, the time is yours to fail and learn.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I’d encourage all inventors to come up with ways to positively impact climate change without sacrificing positive experiences. Fix the real problems and in a way that results in a better experience than the one you’re replacing. People buy electric vehicles today — not because they’re environmentally responsible — but because they’re better and more fun to drive. Let’s aspire to make vastly superior product experiences that are also environmentally conscious. It’s not only possible, it has to be done. Do it, and people will be busting your door to buy it.

How can our readers follow you on social media?








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