Maker Business Profile: Novatropes by MPI - 16 minutes read

Maker Business Profile: Novatropes by MPI

Who are you, and where are you located? We are Master Plan Industries, a group of friends from Arizona dedicated to sharing our home-made interactive art with those who seek beauty and inspiration in their surroundings.

What do you make? We call our line of products Novatropes, affectionately dubbing them “Electro-kinetic Sculptures.” They’re a form of 3D zoetrope modeled after the phyllotactic spirals found naturally occurring in flowers and other organic structures. For reference, zoetropes are a type of pre-film animation device utilizing rotation and a sequence of images to create an illusion of infinite motion.

How do you make them? We currently make every piece of our electro-kinetic sculptures by hand. Each sculpture (called a Novatrope) is designed by reverse-engineering the petal placements on a flower. This is achieved using the golden spiral and Fibonacci sequence. The sculptures are 3D Printed in-house and snap onto a motorized base, called a Strobe Dock, which spins them up and flashes colored strobe lights from underneath. The light diffuses through the translucent plastic in flashes, and your brain stitches the images together into a coherent “video” in a phenomenon called Persistence of Vision.

The sculptures are designed in a custom Blender toolkit before being 3D printed with natural clear PLA plastic. The motorized Strobe Docks consist of a custom printed circuit board and a wooden base that’s hand made by Keeber Custom Woodcraft, a Sedona-based woodworker who just happens to be the father of one of our co-founders. The acrylic display cases were made in-house for a time as well, but were eventually shopped out to a local fab shop to increase their quality.

The printed circuit boards utilized in the Strobe Docks were designed and are assembled by ourselves with the help of a reflow oven we made out of a repurposed toaster oven. It’s a pretty labor-intensive process which we plan to outsource as soon as we can.

What is the toughest part? In the beginning, designing the technology was the toughest part. We had to learn so many new skills like circuit building, Blender design, laser-cutting and 3D printing. Once we had our first flagship model ready for the world however, we realized with horror the same thing so many makers realize after deciding to build a business around their hobby: We had an amazing product and no one to sell it to.

They say most types of intelligence are compartmentalized, that you can be a natural at one skillset and be absolutely clueless at another. Such was the case with us. While technical problem solving and design came relatively easy to us, marketing and sales were like trying to learn to see in a new color. It has not come easy.

A big part of that skill gap came from the fear of putting our work out there for the world to judge. It’s an intensely personal thing, to submit your brainchild for public scrutiny, and it didn’t take us long to learn that not all who judge are kind. Finding ways to deal with negativity and criticism in a positive way and persevere has probably been our biggest challenge. It can be enticing to deal with these challenges by simply tuning out the bad feedback and focusing on the good, but this approach has its downsides. Quite often, those voicing unfavorable opinions carry some truth to them, and should be listened to. You can’t please everybody all the time, but critically analyzing each piece of feedback regardless of its favorability has allowed us to make significant improvements to our products, and will continue to do so as long as we’re still in business.

How can people find you to buy your stuff or get updates?

As of the time of writing this, we have an active Kickstarter campaign which is currently the only place to get our sculptures. Due to the complex nature of some of our components, we are simply unable to make our sculptures available at a price most people can afford. We’re also extremely limited on how fast we can make them, hand-soldering circuit boards takes a long time! Crowdfunding will allow us to put in orders for circuit boards, motor mounts, and the other parts that will allow us to share our work with a much wider audience.

After the Kickstarter is finished and we’ve fulfilled our backer orders, we plan on going direct to sales on our website We’d like to be able to sell at 3rd party retailers like Amazon, but many of those companies require additional certifications for electronic products, which can be expensive. Not to say it’s impossible, but it will be some time before we’re able to embark on that part of our journey.

If you’d like to see what we’re currently working on, we are active in sharing updates on Instagram and Facebook so come visit us there or sign up to the newsletter on our website!

Do you have a youtube channel people can follow? If so, what is it?

Our Youtube channel is where we post lots of test footage for new sculpture designs and ideas, so if you’re someone who likes keeping up with pre-release content, you should definitely check out our channel here.

What is your day job if not this business?

Brandon, one of our principal co-founders, works full time on our business. He left his day job as a Manufacturing engineer to spearhead the project and make it profitable enough to bring the other co-founders on full time. Jimmy, our other principal co-founder works as a Vibrations engineer at a space launch company, spending nights and weekends working on the financial side of things, circuits, and coding. Our other co-founders, Tanner, Phil, and Miles, work and study respectively. Tanner is our in-house sculpture designer and has made massive strides in developing our custom Blender software used to generate new sculpture designs. Phil daylights as a logistics expert and has played a critical role in planning out shipping and fulfillment operations. Miles is our circuit R&D specialist, prototyping and implementing new functionalities into our circuit boards, working with our custom-designed reflow oven to ensure robust design functionality before interfacing with our overseas suppliers to submit orders and verify manufacturability.

Our goal is to use the momentum afforded to us by the Kickstarter campaign to establish a business that allows us all to work on Novatropes full time.

Do you attend a makerspace? Which one?

Until it shut down, we spent a good portion of our time in TechShop Chandler, a maker space with extensive resources that we enjoyed using frequently. When it shut down, we were left in quite a pickle, and realized that being dependent on external fabrication facilities for business purposes was risky. We ended up creating a pseudo-maker space in our own apartment by purchasing, building, and modifying our 1000 square-foot 2nd floor space and balcony to contain all of the equipment we needed for our prototyping and build efforts.

Laser cutters, 3D printers, and a DIY vacuum former were just a few of the things we built and/or implemented into our tiny space to allow us efficient access to the tools we needed. As you can see in the photos, the space quickly became quite packed, turning into an ongoing exercise in spatial resource management. It just goes to show that resource and space limitations can be overcome if you’re crazy enough to try, and of course have a very understanding roommate.

How did you get started making stuff?

We first caught the Maker bug in college when we founded a drone-focused student club called the American Helicopter Society. We felt that the aerospace engineering curriculum was too focused on theoretical work, so we wrote a constitution, assembled a cabinet and acquired university funding that allowed us to build and nurture a hands-on community geared toward design and experimentation of home-brew flight systems. We petitioned for a club space in the corner of a warehouse on campus and built it up into a flourishing community of like-minded students who wanted to work more closely with hardware.

Since then, we’ve undertaken countless custom build projects, from homemade CNC routers, to vacuum formers, and loads of custom jigs and tools used to help us build up our prototyping and manufacturing capabilities all on a shoestring budget.

What product or variation have people really responded to?

Everyone has their own aesthetic and preferences, but we’ve seen a super positive response to our hand-crafted wooden bases, especially the exotic hardwoods, namely Zebrawood and African Padauk.

In terms of sculptures, the consensus is split between Poly Lotus and Fractal Spikes for most popular. Poly Lotus is great because it so perfectly exemplifies the mathematical principles at play, as it is quite literally modeled after a flower with the petals slowly and infinitely blooming downard. Fractal spikes is an incredibly simple, yet profound appearing sculpture (not to mention incredibly sharp), consisting of a cone populated with slowly rotating pyramids sliding down the sides.

One of the best parts about this venture is how excited people get when we tell them how easily our software lets us design custom sculptures. Everyone seems to have an idea for a new cool sculpture, and we’ve been making them as fast as we hear them. But like many things in life, the best designs are usually the simplest in nature. After an early adopter suggested we start experimenting with platonic solids, we did some experimentation and found that geometrically simplistic shapes like cubes, spheres, and pyramids make for the most visually appealing designs. Fractal Spikes is a great example of this, as is Pulsing Bubbles, Cascading Cubes, and Escher Cubes.

What do you have on your horizon?

Being a business filled with makers, we want to make things. On our horizon exists a world in which we’re able to build an infrastructure which allows us to focus more on the stuff we like doing, which is designing, prototyping, and playing with our creations. To have a business which is set up to excel at taking prototypes, making them manufacturable, marketing, selling, and fulfilling them without us founders being too hands-on in the post-prototyping process is a dream of ours. We have so many ideas for new and interesting devices, art pieces, and installations. Getting to the point of focusing solely on “the fun stuff” is our ultimate goal.

What is your biggest struggle as a maker business?

Where do we even start? So much of building a maker business has been challenging and foreign to us it’s hard to choose. It would be easy to say that the financial uncertainty has been the worst, but most new businesses go through that and by gradually investing in our own infrastructure over time while holding down day jobs, much of the burden has been removed. This slow and steady approach does come at the cost of reduced speed and flexibility of course, but it’s hard to start a business if you’re living under a bridge. Marketing has also been foreign and scary, but a fantastic learning experience that has turned us into better entrepreneurs and business people.

I think that truly, the most difficult part of this venture has been letting go of some of the responsibilities of starting a business. Many makers will attest, that building powerful emotional attachments to your creations can make it extremely uncomfortable to then let someone else take over some functional aspect of its creation. But it’s also one of the most important things that a maker who wants to start a business needs to learn how to do. There is power in numbers, and insisting on doing everything yourself can only limit the bandwidth and potential success of your business. Finding the right people who have high competence, high value ethics, and letting them form their own emotional attachment to the creations is absolutely critical to being able to accomplish the thousand tasks that all need to be done before your business can start seeing success, without burning out the founders and having it all crumble to ashes. Our advice is to surround yourself with competent, genuine people, and let them shoulder some of the burden with you, you won’t regret it.

How has your business evolved?

Things have changed drastically and frequently as we’ve learned and grown our business. The two biggest changes have come in the form of expanding our team, and doing a complete product redesign from the ground up after our first launch failed.

When we started MPI, there wasn’t really a quantitative understanding of how to build a new company. We were really just two guys winging it and trying to sell the thing we were building. After the first product launch with our overhead-lit strobe docks, the result was less than encouraging. Heavily discounting labor, we sunk about $250 into each unit, and were asking for $350 per unit. We set up an online store, and hoped for the best. Suffice it to say they didn’t fly off the shelves. It was a harsh reality check, and we almost folded up shop. But we decided that just because we’d failed the first time didn’t mean there was a zero percent chance for success. So we started writing down all of the criticisms people had of our product, and realized that we needed to fundamentally re-approach the design. Around this time we also came across a company called Aha to Exit, which gave us something called “The Startup Roadmap,” a top-down view of the stages a company must go through on their path to establishing a successful business. It was incredibly illuminating, lifting the fog of uncertainty and putting our current situation into context within the larger picture. This spurred us to begin seriously bringing on new team members, and we began talent scouting. Working for nothing more than a vision and equity in a company that hasn’t sold anything yet can be hard idea to sell, but fortunately we were located in a university town, where intellectual resources paired with students willing to risk and sacrifice were plentiful. Armed with a few new team members, we set up a standing weekly company work session and redesigned our product using all of the feedback from the first failed model as a guide to create the newer, more elegant Strobe Dock that we now offer.

What project are you excited about?

Graduating to the next level with the support from our Kickstarter campaign has all of us extremely excited. Generating consistent sales, a facility that’s not in our garage, and providing local jobs to fulfill orders has been a dream of all of ours that we spend a lot of time visualizing.

We’re also excited about all of the projects we have lined up once we get fulfillment operations running smoothly. We’d like to experiment with extremely large-scale versions of our sculptures, as well as going back to our prototyping roots and experimenting with new and interesting interactive optical toys. They say having a policy of constant innovation is the one thing that separates long-lasting companies from those that get left behind. Luckily for us, innovation and experimentation is our favorite part of the process, so we’re looking forward to what the future holds.


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