Why GlowForge is Killing It

Personal fabrication startup GlowForge has confirmed it’s a serious contender with recent news of another huge raise of $22m. This comes after they destroyed the previous crowdfunding record of about $27m earlier this year. Why is this product so successful and resonating so much? Isn’t it just a laser cutter wrapped in some fancy industrial design?

A quick look at the GlowForge website, intro video and other material will quickly tell you that there’s a lot more to it than that. Glowforge has done a fantastic job of taking something complex and making it simple, and showing lots of people how it’s feasible (and super cool) to spend $3k and own a machine like this.

While laser cutting machines have been around for a long time, they haven’t been all that accessible, even for the smaller units. Typically, you would expect to pay about $10-15k for a basic one. At the very least, Glowforge has done a great job of bringing the cost down and making a machine like this accessible for the general public.

What the laser cutting machine experience used to be…

First off, you got all the usual bits and pieces of a laser cutter — all the motors and hardware that make it actually work. As an added bonus, you also got some pretty terrible (likely needing Windows XP or earlier) software. Now, this software wouldn’t be all that helpful because you would need yet another piece of software (like Solidworks, AutoCAD, etc.) to generate what’s called a 2D DXF file, the file that would provide the necessary cutting instructions for your drawing. To make matters worse, there would often be errors with scaling (you get parts that a too big or too small), a power settings, or some other random problem. Eventually, you got what you wanted out of the machine. Sound like fun?

GlowForge simplifies all of that.

A huge part of the value that GlowForge brings is its ability to simplify the process I just described. There are some great features demonstrated in their videos that you should watch. They’re done so well, that they you say to yourself, “Sure, I can do that!” This is a key part of the GlowForge “magic.”

But wait, there’s more…

Unlike other fabrication techniques such and additive 3D printing or CNC machining, laser cutting is “neat” and does not create a huge mess, meaning the machine will be very much at home in the home, because it doesn’t need its own workshop. Additionally, the GlowForge laser cutter is big (well, big enough), so it’s capable of producing things that are useful, not just trinkets that are, well, not. And laser cutting is suitable for a wide range of existing materials such as cardboard, leather, plastic, and many others. In addition to cutting, these machines can etch or engrave  surfaces, too. The possibilities are endless.

Where does the “magic” come from?

What I find interesting is thinking about how GlowForge’s features came to be. Who defined “the magic” within the requirements document?

Usually these sorts of insights (or “magic” as we are calling it here) come from taking a step back and thinking about how the average user would interact with a machine like this. We want to ask important questions like: What are they trying to do? and Why are they wanting to do it?

Of course, this begins with a clear definition of our target user. Once you have a clear picture of the desired user experience, you then (and only then!) think through all the “technology” you need to make it happen. Too often, people get excited about the technological aspects first, which is backwards. In thinking of the user first, you’ll create a “program of work” for your engineering team to go off and figure out. As Steve Jobs said in an interview back in 1997 “one of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology”. Both hardware and software solutions will be required, but more importantly is that your engineering team will be directed to address things that support the user experience FIRST. This ensures that you have a better chance at ending up with a product with an amazing user experience.

In an article Brad Feld wrote recently, the following observation is proof that you have nailed it:

“My partner Ryan’s son Quinn (who is 12) was in the office so we sat him down in front of the Glowforge, gave him an iPad with the Glowforge software on it, and he went to town making stuff in our conference room. After 30 minutes the grin on my face was so huge I had to go sit quietly in my office for a few minutes to calm down.”

GlowForge is a great example of how user-centric thinking can drive product development, resulting in an amazing product. If you’re looking for this kind of product success, take a user-centered product design approach — it will have an enormous impact on the entire design process, influencing the product roadmap and driving everyone on the team to develop features and solutions that matter to your target user.

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Jarrod Barker
About the Author
Jarrod Barker
Jarrod has a keen interest in technology development and operations. He has an honours degree in Mechanical Engineering and his industry experience spans product design, sports technology, medical device engineering and power generation. He has worked for a leading design consultancy in Cambridge, UK and now runs the Outerspace branch in San Diego USA.

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