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“People, process, product. Always.” With Douglas Brown & Christina Perla

People, process, product. Always.Get yourself a good team, people that not only do the job but also people that see and believe in your vision. It’s the little suggestions they make in the day-to-day that will help to shape your business.Next is your process, it’s what guides your entire business and your ability to make […]

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People, process, product. Always.

Get yourself a good team, people that not only do the job but also people that see and believe in your vision. It’s the little suggestions they make in the day-to-day that will help to shape your business.

Next is your process, it’s what guides your entire business and your ability to make money. Stay on top of this and make sure you are efficient.

Next is product. You want to make sure that what your clients/customers are paying for is good! This is the culmination of people & process.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Perla.

Born in China, raised in New Jersey, and now residing in Brooklyn, New York, Christina Perla is the Cofounder & CEO of Makelab, a 3D printing service company. After acquiring a friend’s company with her partner, Manny, Makelab was born and Perla hasn’t stopped since. In addition to running the business, she is also on the Board of Directors for the global nonprofit, Women in 3D Printing. Aside from thinking of engaging ways to activate the local NYC 3D printing community, Christina works with other Board Members to foster a diverse industry and expand the global reach of Women in 3D Printing through interviews, events, networking opportunities, and resources.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My entrepreneurial journey started pretty young! So, while my career before Makelab was relatively short, it was far from uneventful. I went to Pratt Institute for Industrial Design, and quickly after joining the “workforce,” I realized that I wanted to be my own boss. The switch was made relatively quickly. I quit my job and began freelancing industrial design to help clients with their product development process. From there, I teamed up with my now fiancé, Manny, and we freelanced together. We had the need for 3D printing to “iterate” and test product ideas for clients, which is how we found a small 3D printing company. We became good friends with the owners and one year down the road, they told us they were moving and asked us to take over their company. Spoiler alert: we did! A few months later we rebranded to Makelab.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The hardest moment was in 2018. We had a huge client come in our doors in late 2017, we were so amazed they even found us that we really overly allocated resources to their project. The problem was, their project required a good amount of painting, finishing, and sanding. So, we needed a custom fabrication shop for that. We set it up, completed part of the project, and then they pulled the plug a 12–14 months later. Honestly, we felt pretty down, it was a huge pivot and luckily, we still had the energy to do it. So, we did it and shut down the fabrication shop. That year, we ended up tripling our revenue in print services. It was a good pivot.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m ALL about community. There have been so many that have helped Makelab along the way, even if it was just a conversation and bouncing ideas off of them. I would say the culmination of Women in 3D Printing and all its positive effects really helped me get to where I am. All the monthly networking, the friends I met during it, the contacts, the opportunities to collaborate and create something new. That’s something that is invaluable. Without Women in 3D Printing, I would not have the business network that I currently have. I’m forever grateful.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

3D printing can be a bit overwhelming and intimidating to the average customer, but it can really benefit the product development process, so it’s worth giving it a try! Our goal is to free creativity from the messy and technical hassle of maintaining a 3D printing schedule. We help clients increase productivity and opportunity by drastically reducing time to market. Simply put, we make life easier for our customers. They are able to stay laser-focused on their end goals, while we handle the rest.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes Makelab stand out is that we are so heavily invested in the customer service experience. Traditional 3D printing companies don’t offer the same level of engagement and personal connections that we do. We were the customers before acquiring the company in 2017, so we know the workflows in and out. We’re tuned in based on our own experiences as product developers, so we have a deep understanding of customers’ wants, needs, and aspirations, as well as their insecurities and uneasiness. This has really helped us find our niche and construct a business model that truly checks all of the boxes potential customers are longing for.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Makelab completely shifted business operations in late March to join the fight against the coronavirus, and this has become a staple in our offerings. When COVID hit, just like many other businesses, we felt extremely helpless. At the time, we saw only one way to move through this: turn the shop into a PPE production factory to help fight the global crisis. Without hesitation, we jumped on the opportunity to make a difference by producing face shields, mask extenders, etc. to help hospitals, women’s shelters, and more get accesses to the equipment they needed.

We allocated 75 percent of our machines to face shield production and were working extremely hard to get involved any way we could: assembly, delivery, you name it. Our customers were receptive to this initiative, which really brought everyone together.

From this experience, we learned the importance of not giving up. This was a time to get creative and pivot, go back to the drawing board, push through the stress and anxiety, and stay strong.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity and inclusion in our industry with the current sociopolitical climate. As women make up merely 10% of the 3D printing industry, I see a huge problem. I’m not sure about the numbers for diversity in our industry, but I’m not too hopeful. I’ve had conversations with colleagues, friends, and peers in the industry about how to change these numbers.

My takeaway is a few things; I would love to see more of an effort to amplify female and diverse voices, talents, and work. Role modelling is an effective way for the young generation to take that first step into something new.

I also would love to see an industry-wide effort to provide more access to diverse and immigrant communities to expand reach and spark curiosity and creativity. As a daughter of an immigrant, creative careers weren’t the biggest push from my mom. While she supported (and supports) me following my dream, she would have felt a lot safer and more comforted if I went the route of something steadier. If it wasn’t for the exposure I got during elementary, middle, and high school, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Because of my own experience, I’d love to see a bigger push for 3D printing to be incorporated into school curriculums and mainstream media.

And lastly, I feel we all could focus more on community, kindness, sharing, and inspiring others. If we all adopt a pay-it-forward attitude and really put in the work and effort to reach more and connect more, I don’t see how it wouldn’t result in more diversity and inclusion. With my involvement in Women in 3D Printing, I’ve seen first-hand the effect these values and attitudes have on people. It’s so powerful and often underestimated.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Honestly when it comes to anything technical and not people-focused, women aren’t expected to know anything about it. I’ve felt the pressure to be an overly know-it-all earlier in my career while still establishing myself. It was this thing where if I got the respect from the technical side of things, then it was this sign of mutual respect. But we had to go through that to get to that mutual respect part. I try to not walk around with a chip on my shoulder, but it was definitely a thing before.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

It’s time to get back to the drawing board and try something new, a different angle.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

My advice for high performing sales teams is to dig deep and figure out the qualities your team really needs to succeed in your industry. In return, that will help drive sales.

For example, we understand the deep-rooted issue in 3D printing is that the service typically lacks relationship building and below the surface conversations. Makelab was built on the foundation that the people behind the scenes in 3D printing can truly dictate the customer experience, which will ultimately help move 3D printing out of a niche, confusing, and sometimes intimidating market.

Our most recent hire of a Project Manager flips the traditionally highly technical role on its head. For our more creative customers, our strategy is to authentically connect with the customers first and talk nitty gritty tech second. We’ve seen success bringing project managers in from sales, business development, and relationship building backgrounds as opposed to industrial designers or engineers. This helps us thoroughly understand customer’s needs, and also build and foster strong connections.

The same strategy can be executed for high performing sales teams. Have your team be filled with the personality types, characteristics, and skill sets that you need to succeed.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  1. Always set the expectations up front.
  2. Treat customers like old friends, this will disarm both sides.
  3. Set up a usable guide for handling customers and disputes. This will help you A LOT.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

It honestly goes back to community. Engaging with customers really boosts retention rates. Think about it, if you had a project and a company took the time to understand what it is that you’re building, and they keep that in mind while they work with you, isn’t that a company you’d like to keep working with?

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

People, process, product. Always.

Get yourself a good team, people that not only do the job but also people that see and believe in your vision. It’s the little suggestions they make in the day-to-day that will help to shape your business.

Next is your process, it’s what guides your entire business and your ability to make money. Stay on top of this and make sure you are efficient.

Next is product. You want to make sure that what your clients/customers are paying for is good! This is the culmination of people & process.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

To hire differently. I want to see startups hire more diverse talent and think outside of the box, rather than just in-network. This is the root of the diversity problem in tech and I’d love to see it change.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

OMG where do I start. I must say, when I started this entrepreneurial journey, I really looked to (and still do) Christine Souffrant Ntim. She’s just such a do-er, she’s all about action and hyper productivity. I personally align on that and I find it so admirable. Especially when starting a business, that’s what you need. You always need to do more in the start. She was also always so giving, she did these free business bootcamps and brought together all these speakers (some of whom I still follow today),sand had a huge resources page on her site. It really helped you to decide which tool to use when setting up shop.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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