[The following is an interview by Jessica Kao (EST staff) on Monica Shen, Co-founder and COO of MakerBar Taipei, with authorization for publishing on the personal blog of Start Jeffrey Up and the FB pages of Entrepreneurs Society of Taiwan (EST) and Plus8.]
1. Where did the idea for your startup come from?
The idea of MakerBar originated with my co-founder Jason (Hsu, of TEDxTaipei), who visited Techshop in San Francisco and realized it was something Taiwan needs to link up soft power with Taiwan’s strong manufacturing background. A missing link, a physical space and platform where ideas can turn into projects. Then he found Kamm, who was also wanting to build a makerspace, with his background in digital fabrication, so Kamm built the technical and design aspects of MakerBar. I just sort of came out of nowhere and tied things up for them.
2. Who are your target customers and why do they use your service or product rather than competitors?
Everyone from students to designers to engineers, just anyone with ideas and at least some technical skill sets to turn them into products. We offer classes to those wanting to acquire the skill sets as well. The whole maker concept is so new and there are already quite a few players, but it’s unclear as to who our “competitors” are – we are all still trying to figure out the ecosystem. Most of the time we try to co-work rather than compete. But in terms of our target users, I think MakerBar does offer better structured lessons, as well as a technical staff who is always there to help build things. More services are in the plans, of course.
3. What is your business model and your most profitable product offering?
Again, the maker ecosystem or “industry,” if you will, is so new and being explored, we are fine-tuning and trying out the business model as we go along. That is quite honest truth. But we do have a clear direction of where we want to go, and it’s eventually going to be an incubator model.
4. Give an example of how the marketplace has proved your intuition completely wrong, and another example of when your intuition has been completely on the money. How have you cultivated a better sense of the market?
It’s too early to provide such examples as the field is so new – the whole maker concept only started to take shape in Taiwan for a bit over a year. But what we try and do is to study a lot of examples – of successes and failures in Taiwan and other places in the world, and being very aware all the time of the changes that take place in the ecosystem and with the communities. But really it’s about talking to people and finding out what they need in terms of resources and finding those resources for them. Right now I think that’s the best way to go.
5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having co-founders instead of just a founder? How does this affect how decisions are made in your startup?
What I find awesome about being in this team is that we really play off each other’s strengths, and everyone brings something unique to the table. Jason is the big brother who brings in the resources, also ideas and insights on the bigger scale; Kamm is the architect that constructs the whole thing and is the only one of us that actually makes a concrete thing, and I am in the softer role as the host of MakerBar and make sure things are running smoothly. We try and watch out for each other, and it’s great to have people to share the happy moments and the frustrations with (and I sometimes yell). As for disadvantages, of course there will always be things we disagree about and decisions sometimes get dragged on, but in retrospect they have all been good experiences where we learn to communicate with each other and understand where the other person’s coming from, and that’s good in the long run.
6. What has been your best marketing investment to date?
We just got overall uniforms. They’re going to kick ass. OK just kidding (but they ARE going to kick ass). I think traveling to other cities to look at how their hardware/maker movement have developed has really helped us to understand the ecosystem and get clearer pictures on the one we hope to help build in Taiwan. That’s immense and immeasurable investment.
1. What pivotal experience led you to seriously consider entrepreneurship?
Jason forced me. But also I was unhappy in the corporate structure, and although I was very happy in my previous job (a small entertainment company), I wanted to do something that would benefit more people on a social level. What Jason was doing with TEDxTaipei was a huge draw for me to jump ship and I distinctly remember Jason saying that he doesn’t want this to be a “job” for me but rather my own start-up project (back when MakerBar was still a project and not a separate company). And now that it’s its own company, I do take total ownership for it, like a baby!
2. What has been your greatest challenge since becoming an entrepreneur?
I think a lot of it is the logistics, which given my outgoing personality I am not very comfortable with. But since I’m the designated COO, I force myself to really sit down and be grounded about it. It’s a pain but I think it’s making me a better person Another challenge is work-life balance. I get a kick out of working long days sometimes, but the stress builds up and it takes a toll on my health. So it’s important to pace myself with better time management and I’m still learning.
3. What helps you keep going in the face of challenges and obstacles?
MakerBar was originally founded with hopes to make social changes, in education and industry and even government. That is a very big goal that keeps me going. And now that our team is gradually in place, the team keeps me going too. When you find people who believe in what you do, you have a responsibility to them.
4. What experience has been most useful to you in your entrepreneurship journey?
My entrepreneurship journey hasn’t been that long, but I think the experience and skills in communicating has really helped me personally. So much of what we do everyday is communication, to the public, to the community, the influencers, the team, to everyone that comes into MakerBar. It’s important to know what to say to different people to get the big ideas cross and find synergy. I am glad my previous work and life experience have helped me in this way.
5. What do you need to learn or improve to take your business to the next level?
As COO I think management is important, financial and organizational. And also as a team, targeting key milestones with better efficiency and quicker action plans is always challenging as projects pile up, so that can always use more work.
[Monica will be a guest speaker at the upcoming EST event on May 10: EST Woman VC + Entrepreneurs Night. Join us and listen to her startup stories!]