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Failure issue: John Schneider

John Schneider Fargo Inc magazine cover photo

From Bees to 3D

If there were ever an argument that entrepreneurship is in your blood, Schneider might be it.

Raised on a farm 20 minutes outside of Morris, Minn. – in
the west central part of the state – Schneider got really
into beekeeping in eighth grade, a pursuit he continued into his senior year of high school. Around the time he was nishing up his apiarist career,

he began buying LEGO sets and selling the individual pieces online.

“There’s software that can take a look at a particular LEGO set, look at what pieces are in it and calculate the average selling price based on a six-month running average,” Schneider explains. “So you’d know before buying a set how much money you could make on it.”

From there, it was on to NDSU, followed by a position as an insights analyst with Fargo-based marketing and technology company Sundog. He was performing website analytics and preparing advertising reports, and while he says it was a good job and a steady paycheck, he had an itch he needed to scratch before too long.

“I was looking for an industry that had a lot of growth potential,”

Schneider says. “I didn’t even have a business idea in mind, I just had a notion that I wanted to have my own business. I just wasn’t sure what that was.

“And I was reading an article in Inc. or Fast Company – looking at high-growth industries – and the highest ones were biomedical and 3D printing. Biomedical, I didn’t have the background for that kind of stuff, but 3D printing, I started looking more into that and the geek side of me really gravitated toward it. It was something I could wrap my head around, something I felt con dent I could do.”

As he says he tends to do, he threw himself into it head rst, spending hours online every day in 3D printing communities and message boards, learning everything he could about 3D printing.

“When I get in my head that I want to do something, I don’t just kind of casually do it,” Schneider says. “And that’s not always a positive thing, because I tend to go after shiny stuff. I get distracted really easily. So it’s dif cult for me to focus on just one thing, unless it’s that one thing I’m really diving deep into.”

He discovered very quickly, too, that his new passion was not a cheap one – the printer he was looking at retailed for $2,000 – and that’s when he had an idea.

“I thought, alright, what if a bunch of people went in and we shared the use of the 3D printer?” he says. “So I started looking into if anyone had ever done that before, and that’s when I came across the concept of makerspaces.”

A makerspace is like a gym, except instead of exercise equipment, you have tools that allow you to make stuff. There are typically laser cutters, 3D printers, soldering irons, really anything that would either be too expensive or impractical for people to own themselves.

June-2016-Fargo-INC
Sweet People

Hemorrhaging Money

It was January 2013 that Schneider had the initial idea for what would eventually be called MELD Workshop, and by May of that year, he had approval for a small loan and a lease on a space.

He also started an Indiegogo campaign, which he said not only provided some extra dollars but also some validity to the idea, and he started pre-selling memberships to interested customers. It was with the memberships that he said he made his big mistake.

“I didn’t spend enough time building the community of people,” says Schneider, who officially opened MELD in October 2013. “Knowing for sure that, ‘We’re going to have 50 people who are going to be using this space, day one.’ This was before Emerging Prairie. This was when Emerging Prairie was just starting, so there weren’t a lot of events I could go to, to really get in front of people and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing. Come be a member.’ If 1 Million Cups would’ve been around back then, I think it would’ve been a different story. Because what I needed was 50 members to break even, and the closest I got was 35 at one point.

“And so, you can imagine, as this whole thing’s going along, I’m hemorrhaging money and supporting it with just my Sundog income. It’s not really self-sufficient, and so it never gets me any closer to being able to leave my full-time job and do MELD full- time.”

Having to stay on full-time at Sundog had other rami cations as well.

“So I still have my full-time
job, and I’m trying to get the space prepared with my leftover energy,” he says. “I mean, my mental energy, by the time my day is done at Sundog, is pretty much gone. (The bank) wanted to make sure I still had income coming in, but that made it very dif cult to get the space running quickly.”

Another thing that Schneider says caught up to him pretty quickly was trying to go it alone.

“The thing I didn’t get into my head was that I needed to have people helping me run it,” he says. “I needed to have a member board where it’s like, ‘Hey, we’ll help you with this thing.’ Splitting up the responsibilities of running stuff. Because then they would’ve become better advocates for the space and they would’ve really helped me promote it.

“And here’s another mistake. I brought in equipment without being proficient myself at using it or without having someone committed to teaching other people how to use it. So I had a mill and a lathe and no one was using them because no one really knew how to. I didn’t have anyone who was able to teach a class on it.”

After months of problems compounding and money continuing to ow outward, Schneider grew increasingly frustrated. While MELD had plenty of busy periods, there’d be nights when only one person would come in – some nights even zero – but he had to be there because the space was open.

“It left no time to do anything else,” he says. “I was just getting burned out.”

Where Were You Before?

It was around this same
time – in January 2014 – that Schneider was introduced to Jake Clark, a fellow, local 3D printing enthusiast who had just started a 3D printing business in his spare time. Clark expressed interest in taking Schneider on as a partner, but Schneider, ever con dent in his abilities and still clinging to the idea that things would turn around with MELD, was hesitant at rst.

“When Jake rst approached me,” Schneider says, “I looked at it as, ‘Okay, I’ll help you. I’ll give you some advice. But I don’t want
to become too involved.’ But then, by around March 2014, it was really becoming clear that Fargo 3D Printing is the thing that’s actually going to make money. MELD, even if I’d gotten things really gured out, at that point it was only ever going to break even.”

So Schneider quit his job at Sundog and after a few more months, shut the makerspace down as well. He sent out an email to the members he did have, saying it was just not sustainable any longer, and in one nal twisting of the knife, says he got some after-the-fact commitments from interested customers.

“After I sent that email out,” he says, “I had a number of emails saying, ‘Oh, I really wanted to get a membership’ or, ‘I was just going to get a membership next month.’ That was extremely frustrating because, if you were going to get a membership, you should’ve gotten one. Because if the 15 people who reached out to me afterwards would’ve had a membership, then MELD probably wouldn’t have closed.”

Onward & Upward

Schneider now spends his days trying to grow Fargo 3D Printing, which sells 3D printers and provides custom 3D printing services, as well as 3Dom USA, Fargo 3D Printing’s sister business that manufactures eco-friendly 3D printer lament using everything from beer to coffee grounds.

He says that he’s been able to apply a number of lessons he learned from his experience with MELD Workshop to his current ventures and says that the thing he maybe regrets the most is the speed with which his failure happened.

“I would almost say I didn’t fail fast enough,” he says. “I think I drug out the failing a little bit too long. And I almost think that’s more expensive. Instead of just hit it hard and if it doesn’t work out, then you can quickly move on. It’s not always the financial cost, it’s the cost in time. Time you could’ve spent doing something else.”

Schneider adds that while his failures have made him more practical, they’ve also made him a more compassionate business owner.

“Because I’ve been on that side of things,” he says, “When I see another business going through something similar, it’s like, ‘Okay, I get it. I get it.’

“I don’t dance around stuff as much as I used to. I mean, I still do. My business partner would say I’m not enough of an a**hole, almost because I’m too empathetic. He’s like, ‘Hey, John, you gotta watch out for yourself a little more.’”

Schneider ends with this:

“Someone can tell you, ‘Hey, this is going to happen’ until they’re blue in the face,” he says. “But until you experience it yourself, it doesn’t really cement itself until you’ve gone through it. There’s always that hope that (you’re the exception).”

Written by Fargo Inc

Nate Mickelberg is the former editor of Fargo INC! He holds his master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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