After thirteen years, tens of thousands of plastic injection molds, a quarter of a million quotes, tens of millions of molded and CNC machined parts, not to mention untold hours from hundreds of dedicated people, Proto Labs has gone public.
Seems like a good time to take stock.
When we started out in 1999 as The Protomold Company, Inc., we had three employees and a pretty good idea of how to automate the process of making injection molds for plastic parts. The parts were nothing fancy, but they were real injection molded parts, and they worked. Our new process cut turnaround time for injection molding to a fraction of what it had been, and made injection molding an affordable option for thousands of new products. I remember many meetings with engineers/customers in the early days when they would say “This is exactly what this industry needs. I don’t know why no one has done this before.” It seemed like we were onto something good.
Our first slogan was “Simple parts, Fast!” But as the business grew, we continually expanded the complexity and size of the parts we could make. One of the more frustrating, if comical, issues we continue to face is the number of people out there who still think that we only do “Simple parts, Fast!” When it comes to marketing, sometimes reeducating is harder than educating.
Somewhere along the line (yes it was over a beer), we realized that since we were really good at automating CNC machining, we ought to offer machined parts as well as injection molded parts. In 2007 we introduced our Firstcut CNC machining service, which gave product designers a high-speed, low cost, and super easy option for CNC machined parts in very small quantities.
With our two services, Protomold and Firstcut, it was time to do some housekeeping as a business. We began operating under the corporate name Proto Labs, Inc. Our Proto Labs facility in the UK, which we opened in 2005, was really getting traction, and in 2009 we launched in Japan. Now serving both the European and Asian markets, our worldwide business cruised through the global recession in fine shape.
As the recession eased, things really took off and we recorded near 50% growth in 2010 and again in 2011, bringing total revenue to $99 million. In order to support the level of expansion we needed to meet growing demand, we had been preparing for a public offering, and we finally pulled the trigger in February. We felt good about what we had to offer, but were not sure what to expect. In the end, telling our story and finding investors was a blast.
All in all, it is great to know that others believe a business like ours, that both fuels and is fueled by the innovation of others, is a smart investment. And that’s the whole point. What makes our work so exciting is the opportunity to help bring great ideas into the world as fast and as easily as possible. So thank you for your business, your support, and above all, your awesome ideas.
Larry Lukis is Proto Labs founder and CTO.