The Kula Ring

Episode 95 The Digital Strategy of a Network Manufacturing Platform

The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.

Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.

The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.

Aaron Lichtig, Vice President of Growth Marketing shares how Xometry uses a digital approach on going to market as a network-based manufacturing platform. The two-sided network uses content marketing to attract customer demand, and partner acquisition marketing activities to secure the supplier side of the business. Xometry’s overall marketing is based on Google’s See, Think, Do, Care model, which is discussed more on this episode of The Kula Ring. Aaron also has some great stories to share as a former Jeopardy champion and the host of the podcast, OK Xoomer.

The Digital Strategy of a Network Manufacturing Platform Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, mate? 

Carman Pirie: I’m doing very well, sir. And you? 

Jeff White: I’m doing great. Yeah. It’s a beautiful day. 

Carman Pirie: Nice. A beautiful day indeed, and it’s good to be chatting with you, and look, I think we were just joking before getting onto this that we were maybe a little rusty. It feels like it’s been a day or two since we recorded a podcast, so hopefully our listeners don’t find us too… or I guess rustier than normal or what have you. 

Jeff White: Well, and I fear that we may be a little outmatched in this particular episode, just given the credentials of our guest, eh? 

Carman Pirie: I don’t want to go out and make something I don’t understand. 

Jeff White: This is the first time we actually have managed to get No Country For Old Men references into the show, despite our best efforts. 

Carman Pirie: What our listeners also need to know is that we have made a career of trying to one up each other with No Country For Old Men references over the last… Well, since the movie came out. And so, while all of our coworkers find it incredibly annoying, Jeff and I continue to find it a source of endless amusement. 

Jeff White: It’s quite true. Quite true. Yeah, so joining us today however is somebody who definitely can potentially one up us on this. I don’t know. 

Carman Pirie: I wonder if his encyclopedic knowledge of, well, everything else, also includes No Country For Old Men. Well, let’s find out. 

Jeff White: Let’s get right to it, and so joining us today is Aaron Lichtig. Aaron is the vice president, growth marketing at Xometry and a former Jeopardy champion, as well. Aaron, welcome to The Kula Ring. 

Aaron Lichtig: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Excited to be here. 

Carman Pirie: Well, Aaron, in our initial introductory call, you shocked Jeff and I with knowing the origin of the name Kula and The Kula Ring, which, look, in addition to being a Jeopardy champion, that in and of itself was very impressive. But what about your No Country For Old Men chops? How do you feel about that? 

Aaron Lichtig: You know, it’s funny. I’ve actually never seen No Country For Old Men, the movie. It’s on my list. So, you guys will definitely exceed my trivia knowledge of No Country For Old Men, but I do have a trivia question for you about No Country For Old Men. Let’s see if you guys can get it right. What poem does the phrase no country for old men, that was later used as the title of the book and the movie, come from? 

Jeff White: Oh, boy. 

Carman Pirie: Well, you see, now… Aaron, I want our listeners to know that it is possible that I may have an answer to that, but you know, I feel it’s important that we stick to our role. It’s my job to ask the questions here. How does the guy who’s never seen the movie manage to one up us in the first five minutes? Call it a day, here. 

Jeff White: Oh, man. Well, I think you have to tell us the answer at least, Aaron. What poem is it from? 

Aaron Lichtig: It’s from Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats. I’m a fan of Yeats. More a fan of poetry than I am of movies. 

Jeff White: Well, and Cormac McCarthy is kind of a prose poet. When you read his prose, it is devoid of a lot of punctuation and other niceties. He just really tries to get to the point. So, maybe that’s where he found Yeats and loved the title. I don’t know. 

Aaron Lichtig: I haven’t read the book, either. I’ll have to get to that soon. 

Jeff White: It’s quite good. It’s quite good. So, I guess you host a podcast, as well. Do people often ask you if you have to answer in the form of a question for everything when you do an interview? 

Aaron Lichtig: No, not so much. I was thinking about doing a trivia podcast, actually, either manufacturing trivia or general trivia. Haven’t gotten around to that yet. I’ve been focused more on OK Xoomer, which is the… It’s kind of a podcast, but we also put the video out there. OK Xoomer is in reference to Zoom. We do all the interviews over Zoom and record them. And basically, we’re looking for people who have interesting stories to tell about engineering, manufacturing, design, hardware. We’ve had people on with a variety of different backgrounds. We had Roger Craig, who was the one-day winnings record holder on Jeopardy before James Holzhauer. He’s a data scientist and we talked about the applications of data science to manufacturing. 

We’ve had some YouTube stars, like the 3D Printing Nerd and the 3D Printing Professor. Actually, my colleague, Greg Paulsen, and I just appeared on the 3D Printing Professor’s show Makers and Minecraft, where they take people who have never played Minecraft before and throw them into the Minecraft environment and watch them move about. It was an interesting, frustrating, and humbling experience, but it was a lot of fun working with them. 

So, yeah, the show, it’s been going well. We’ve been doing it since the COVID period, when you’ve had a lot of people working from home and on Zoom, and we’re gonna keep it going. 

Carman Pirie: Appreciate this background. I wonder if our listeners might actually want to know more about your actual company and what you all do, and what you do there. Why don’t we start there, rewind and start there a little bit? 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah, for sure. So, Xometry is a custom manufacturing network platform. It is the biggest manufacturing network in the United States. We were founded late 2013, kind of really got going into 2014-2015, and have been growing since then. And the two things that make us unique, we offer instant quoting on a full range of custom manufacturing processes. CNC machining, and injection molding. Injection molding takes about a day to get the quote back. The other processes are instant. 3D printing, urethane casting, sheet metal fabrication. And then we also have an online eCommerce store for buying supplies and tooling. That’s the other key part of our business. You can check out our site and our quoting engine at Xometry.com. You upload your 3D CAD file and you’ll get your quote and your DFM feedback very quickly. 

The other really key thing about our business is that we are a two-sided network, kind of like Airbnb and Uber, where we have demand on one side and supply on the other side. So, on the supply side, we have over 3,000 highly vetted shops that are based in the US. We also have some abroad and we have a business, Xometry Europe, that’s headquartered in Munich, Germany, focused purely on the European side, as well. But we have a wide range of partners. It’s mostly small to medium sized manufacturing facilities, and we bring work to them, and especially during the COVID period, we’ve helped a lot of those businesses bring in much needed revenue from industries or parts of the country that they wouldn’t have been otherwise exposed to. So, that’s really what makes us unique, and the flexibility of the manufacturing network is something that has a ton of value. We can do highly customized jobs. We have a very wide range of capabilities. 

If something like COVID or a natural disaster happens, we can shift jobs around and make sure that we still get parts to people on time, so it’s a very flexible and agile way of manufacturing. People often talk about it as manufacturing as a service, or manufacturing on demand, and it’s something that has continued to grow as a sector, and we think will continue to grow over time because it offers a really good overall experience in terms of its customization and its flexibility. 

Carman Pirie: And it’s fascinating. Number one, I just think in this time, an awful lot of our listeners would love to hear your perspective on just kind of… Because you touch so much of the manufacturing space as a result of being a network, frankly, and as such, I’d just be curious. What are you seeing out there? Is the demand still fairly strong? How do you feel that the economy’s kind of working through what we’re experiencing? 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah. What we’ve seen is it varies by sector and by part of the economy, so there were some sectors in oil and gas, as an example, where everyone knows the oil prices have dropped, and that sector has struggled, but we’ve also seen many others, especially medical, during this time remain strong. And new and unique sources of demand pop up. We’ve done a variety of projects with both medical companies and companies that in ordinary times don’t do a lot of medical work, but because of COVID, have shifted their production over to producing things like PPE, ventilators, ventilator parts. We’ve seen some great demand there and we’re gonna continue to work with those companies and help out where we can. 

And then there’s some other sectors that have been less affected in general. Things like defense, that tends to be less reliant on customer demand. But you know, we’ve seen consistent growth and consistent demand that’s still out there throughout this period, and I think especially in the United States and Canada, now things are starting to open up more and more in some of the more highly populated areas of the country. And that’s a good thing, and we’re gonna… You know, it’s very difficult for every company to forecast exactly how all of this is going to play out over time, but we… What we believe, and what we’re gonna continue focusing on is that manufacturing as a service and digital manufacturing, specifically through the use of a network platform that offers more agility and more flexibility, is going to be a good thing in times where there is more risk and there is more uncertainty out there. 

Jeff White: I really like the concept of the two-sided marketplace, especially as it applies to manufacturing, and obviously a big part of that is attracting people who are looking to have products manufactured. But I mean an even part of it is having that network of qualified, quality manufacturers that can actually produce the things that your other customers are looking for. How are you going to market in terms of recruiting and maintaining, or retaining rather, the manufacturing side of the marketplace? 

Aaron Lichtig: So, you’re talking about our manufacturing partners, the partners who are-

Jeff White: Exactly. Yeah. 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah. On that side of things, there are a couple of different ways that we approach it. We have a lot of people who come find us because they know we have a lot of jobs out there and we can bring revenue there for their shop, and we tell those stories of the people that we’ve helped, the businesses that we’ve helped get off the ground, the businesses that we’ve helped grow. There’s a great case study in our website and YouTube channel from a guy named Todd White, who is a Xometry partner out in Phoenix, Arizona, and how we helped him build his business and start to grow and got him through some tough times. So, we do a lot of content marketing on that front that attracts people to us. 

And then we also have our Xometry supplies business, where people find out about us by coming in and buying materials, buying tools, and then find out about our partner network, so it all kind of works together with people finding us for buying supplies and then joining the partner network and vice versa, and we do some other partner acquisition type of marketing activities. But in general, a lot of people, we get a lot of people coming to us. 

Jeff White: Do you find that the bigger the network grows, it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling machine? A bit of a flywheel then, eh? 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah, that’s the goal for any network-based business, that you grow the demand side, you’ve got a lot of people who are coming in with high quality jobs for those shops to do, and then the other side, people see that, and then they say, “Oh, I want to be there too.” And then the more shops that you get into the network, the more capacity you have, the more customization you have, and it becomes a very virtuous cycle, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. 

Carman Pirie: You know, I think sometimes wrongly the manufacturing sector gets labeled as being a bit laggard when it comes to digital adoptions, things of that sort. As you’ve endeavored to grow, have you encountered that? Have you had to bring folks along that maybe were not used to or comfortable with this way of doing business, frankly? 

Aaron Lichtig: You mean on the partner side or on the customer side? 

Carman Pirie: Just in general. I was reviewing my notes of our previous conversation and I liked how you said, “To grow, we had to bring offline people online at some point.” So, I’d be curious how you’ve kind of done that, I guess, as you’ve continued to grow. 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah. So, with custom manufacturing in general, the way that the industry looked for many years was there were a lot of local shops, and you would go back and forth, it would take a long time to get a quote. Pricing was highly variable. The shops had some capabilities and some of them were really good at certain things, but they didn’t have the wide range of capabilities that you see from Xometry and from many of the other manufacturing as a service digital players that are in the market today. So, what we have to do is continually not just sell Xometry and the network approach, but also the advantages of manufacturing digitally, uploading that CAD file, being able to get an instant quote and a quote that is based on market pricing, and our quoting engine uses artificial intelligence, uses machine learning to develop the pricing models, so you’re getting a price that is more reflective of the market price than you might if you were just getting a couple of quotes by hand. 

But at the same time, we have a great network and you know that your job is not necessarily just going off into the ether. You know it’s being done by a great shop in the US. If you’ve elected the US option, you know that it’s gonna be produced in the US. So, just continuing to inform people about those benefits, the benefits of instant quoting, the benefits of the flexibility and agility of having a network behind you versus working with just one shop, where there could be a single point of failure, or having 100% of your supply chain based overseas, which also introduces some risk. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Certainly, these days we’re experiencing that risk more so than I think people would have predicted six months ago. It’s interesting how quickly supply chain risk kind of came up into general consciousness, right? 

Aaron Lichtig: For sure.

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Carman Pirie: I want to kind of dive in a bit as to how you go about marketing the organization and how you apply the model that I believe you kind of first learned at Google, how you’ve applied that to the marketing of Xometry. So, perhaps introduce us to the model first and just how you think about it, and perhaps some examples of how you’ve brought it to life there. 

Aaron Lichtig: Sure. Yeah, there was a guy at Google named Avinash Kaushik who had a model that was pretty broadly shared when I was there within the company, as well as outside, called the See Think Do Care model, and what this says is that it’s similar to a funnel, but it’s not necessarily a funnel that you’re trying to ram people down all the time and push them from, “Okay, now you’re aware, let’s get you to buy tomorrow.” It’s much more about reaching people in whatever mind state they’re in. So, the see audience, it’s your largest addressable qualified audience. It is the broadest group of people that could buy your product. And for them, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to drive brand awareness. You’re trying to drive awareness of your equity and having enough options for them. Even if they don’t want to go deep, they don’t want to get a quote, having a little bit for them to engage with, that’s the point of the See marketing. 

The next bucket is Think, and these are your largest addressable qualified audience with some commercial intent, so they have expressed that they are doing research, they are looking around and potentially are going to be making a decision at some point. And for them, it’s a lot about content. It’s a lot about giving them things to engage with that get them more comfortable with the company. So, in a Xometry context, that’s where you see us, we produce a lot of good video content. We produce webinars on a regular basis. We produce design guides, eBooks, a pretty robust website, case studies, giving people who are evaluating more of a reason to dig in and learn about what we do, and move us to the top of the list. 

Then you have your Do audience, and these are people who have heavy, significant commercial intent. They’re people who’ve got a project coming up over the next month or two. They’re ready to buy. And for them, it is all about making that experience of buying from Xometry as easy as possible and converting as many of those people and being there for them in their time of need, making it easy to find us.

And then Care is all about retention and taking care of those people who have already bought from you and moving them from somebody who bought once to someone who’s a true loyal, who’s gonna then go out and promote you. 

So, as we think about our marketing plan, everything from paid media to content, we’re thinking about what states people might be in, and for people in each of those states, what’s the right message and what are the right channels that we can use to reach them when and where they’re most receptive. 

Carman Pirie: So, you contrasted the approach a bit, because of course I was frankly going to mention that it doesn’t sound a whole lot different than frankly just a funnel. Awareness, consideration, decision stage, et cetera. But the point of difference that you drew was that you feel that this approach lacks I guess the forcefulness of trying to push people from one stage to the next. I guess I’m kind of curious how big of a distinction that is. I mean, it’s still obviously important for Xometry to move people from one stage to the other eventually, so is kind of velocity of that or what have you not a consideration as you think about the marketing of Xometry? Have you felt that in some way kind of focusing on that leads you to focus on the wrong things? 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah. You know, we are a business, and every business wants people to become a customer. You don’t get any points in the marketplace for just driving awareness or having people read your content. You ultimately do want them to buy. But I think the thing about custom manufacturing, I’ve worked before in arenas like media and consumer products. With something like Tide laundry detergent, which is a brand I worked on early in my career, people can pretty much buy Tide any time, and they’re gonna go to a store that carries Tide on an almost daily basis, or every couple of days. 

For something like custom manufacturing, there’s some people that you know they have a project. They’re coming in, they’re quoting right away, they’ve got something urgent, and we obviously want to be a solution for those people. But there are a lot of other people who may have a big project, but it’s six months out, and the question, the key question is how do you make those people aware and engage those people such that if and when you have that project six months or a year down the road that’s the really big one, that you’re gonna be top of mind for them at that point. Because there’s within custom parts, even if we do really effective marketing, someone loves Xometry more than anything in the world. If they really don’t have a project for another six months that’s requiring a lot of prototyping, low-medium run production, they’re probably not gonna quote and they can’t order. 

So, it’s a little bit different than say a Tide, where you can advertise a sale on Tide, and people then the next time they go to Walmart or Target or whatever, they can buy it. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. No, I can definitely appreciate the difference between Xometry and Tide. I’m trying just to ask myself does the model… can I see it changing anything in the way I would approach it, or the way I would approach making marketing decisions if I in some way remove the notion of people, or trying to push people from one stage to the next. Can certainly appreciate, however, that just because somebody may well match your ICP, your ideal client or customer profile, but they just may not be ready to buy right now, it makes total sense to keep them in your universe. Yeah, just I’m trying to see how much I can contrast it in my head with funnel thinking, you know? 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah. It’s similar. It’s just the idea would be you’re not necessarily trying to get everyone to buy tomorrow. You’re trying to be there and meet their needs with unique and original content, and good marketing in every channel, based on what mindset they’re in at the time. 

Carman Pirie: And is there a way that you’ve applied a level of prioritization to various stages of that over time? Or have their been any cues for you to say, “Okay, we need to spend more time on think content versus see content.” Often, people would look to conversion rates to tell that from one stage to the next, so if we’re not all that concerned about that, then I’d be curious what else points us in those directions. 

Jeff White: It would be hard to know as well, unless you’re tracking specifically where the prospects are sitting within that See Think Do Care continuum, too. 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah. It’s a good question, and you need to be balanced across the phases, and so we’re not only investing in one. We’re investing our time and effort and money across all of them. And you have different objectives for each, right? So, we’re looking at with the See audience, what’s the number of people that we need to make aware and what’s the level of awareness we need to get to be the kind of business we want to be? With the Think audience, what is the level of engagement that we need to be the business we want to be? And then at the kind of the Do and Care stages, that is much more about the bottom of the funnel type of metrics like conversion rates and cost per acquisition with those dollars. 

So, I think the key is you’re not just optimizing toward one number. You are looking at different metrics across each of those and making sure you’re meeting the needs across them. 

Carman Pirie: I think you landed on something there in terms of explaining the difference. I just think that makes it clear to me, I guess, because it’s true that funnel thinking kind of points you toward there’s only one goal in mind, right? But your point around you ought to be measuring different phases of this differently really resonates with me. 

I wonder, Aaron, as our time is quickly drawing to a close, as you kind of look ahead and these are weird times for sure, both just geopolitically, economically, et cetera, I’m curious, when you look at the marketing of Xometry, what are you most excited about over these next years? 

Aaron Lichtig: I’m excited about helping more people bring their ideas to life, bring big ideas to life for individual entrepreneurs, all the way up to the biggest projects for some of the big companies in the world. And that’s why I’m inspired to work at Xometry, because we’re making real stuff that makes the world go and makes people’s lives better, and we’re offering what we believe is a better way of doing this, and using manufacturing as a service can help companies innovate faster, they can lower cost, it can lower risk. And what we ultimately want in our society is we want more innovation within built, real products, as well as with bits. So, the old bits to atoms, we want more innovation in atoms, and not just innovation in software and bits, and what excites me is the ability to tell the stories about how we’re doing that and really see the results with companies who went from using other approaches to working with us, and where we can say, “Yeah, we made a huge difference.” 

We just published a case study about parts that we made for NASA that will be used on the International Space Station, so we are from kind of the bottom of the ocean all the way up to the heights of space, you will see products made by Xometry and those products will be better. Because if you can rapidly prototype something, where before you would have made one prototype for testing, but now you can make five quickly, or before you would have done two iterations, but because we can turn parts around in a day or two, you can now do five iterations, that’s gonna make the world a better place. We’re gonna have better products. They’re gonna be cheaper. We’re gonna be able to do more as a society and civilization in reaching further into outer space. All of that is really cool and you know, at the end of the day, marketing is all about stories and storytelling, and we’re gonna have some. We already do, but we’re gonna have even more really good ones to tell, especially as the economy starts to get back to normal. 

Jeff White: I think that’s really exciting, because you’ve basically got an unlimited pool of potential connections, products, and stories to be told and products to be made, so it certainly gives you a good breadth and depth to choose from when you’re looking to promote Xometry and the services you have. 

Carman Pirie: A bit of an embarrassment of riches for a marketer, potentially. 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah, for sure. 

Jeff White: Yeah. We certainly know marketers who would be ecstatic to have that, for sure. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. 

Aaron Lichtig: Yeah, and we’ve got it on both sides, as well, because our partner network has some fascinating stories, too, about how people have used Xometry and gotten jobs from Xometry and grown really interesting and big businesses that are having an impact on a lot of people in the US and beyond, so we’ve got those partner stories to tell. I mentioned that one about Todd White that’s on our YouTube channel and website. That’s a great one. As well as our case studies about how we’re helping some of the biggest companies in the world, like NASA and BMW innovate, as well as some really cool ones about how we’re helping individual entrepreneurs. We have a great video on this guy, he also appeared on OK Xoomer with me talking about making one of the first 3D chocolate printers, so 3D printers that make chocolate. We made parts for that, as well, and that’s really cool. It’s taking things in a new direction and using some of the capabilities that ordinarily wouldn’t have been available to an individual entrepreneur. They would have had to spend a lot of time going around to shops or they would have had to invest in expensive equipment and learn how to use it. 

Now anybody with an idea can use our services and bring that idea to life, and it’s gonna have a big impact on our economy, and it’s gonna have a big impact on quality of life around the world. 

Carman Pirie: Aaron, I want to just kind of get a bit personal for a moment as we close. How long have you been working with Xometry? 

Aaron Lichtig: A little under two and a half years. 

Carman Pirie: And it’s clear that you’ve made a considerable impact in that time and you’ve implemented a number of initiatives to move the firm forward. I’d be curious, with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently if you were talking to yourself two and a half years ago? If you were going back and giving yourself some advice? 

Aaron Lichtig: Man, that’s a great question. I think it’s what you learn in this space is it’s all about how fast you move, and I think there’s, when you look at everything that we’ve done, we have done a whole lot in a very short period of time. But I think you always look back and say, “Well, here, could we have moved a little bit faster on this one? Could we have pushed this even harder and reached more customers, converted more customers?” And there are always those times where you say, “Yeah, looking back, had I known what I know now, that was a great idea and we should have gone even bigger, even faster on that one.” 

But I think overall I’m really proud of the team that we’ve built here and the impact that we’ve had on both our customers and our partners, so in terms of strategy or fundamentals, not a whole lot I would have done differently. It’s just more about the speed, and the size, and the timing of it. 

Carman Pirie: I’ve found it interesting, even whether it’s interviews that I’ve heard with politicians and others, business leaders or what have you, how often that is what’s raised. They say, “Look, it’s not that we did the wrong thing or regret anything we did, we just should have done a number of them faster.” So, I think that’s interesting to reflect on. Aaron, I really thank you for sharing your story and experience with us today on The Kula Ring. 

Aaron Lichtig: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It was an honor to be here and hope everyone in the audience enjoyed it. 

Carman Pirie: It’s a pleasure to chat. 

Jeff White: Thanks very much. 

Aaron Lichtig: Thank you. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing.

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