EATING YOUR OWN DOG FOOD
April 21, 2021
While this may sound gross, dogfooding-or eating your own dog food-is a way for brands to use their own products and services in real-world situations and test for quality control or other issues. This mindset is vital to the success of challenger style startups. Reacting slowly, or not at all, is a death-knell to scrappy brands with limited budgets. Zero margin for error! Rapid innovation that is driven by actual needs-not merely what management, investors or competitors “think” will work-comes from taking the pulse of the group that will make or break a product: users and community. While there are upfront and continual costs to maintaining an engaged community, those expenses are far outweighed by the tangible benefits gained from rapid feedback on consumer pain points. One company that exemplifies this is Prusa Research, a 3D printing company based in Prague.
Prusa was started in 2012 by a single person, Josef Prusa, as a hobby while he was in college. By 2018, it was ranked as the #1 fastest growing tech company in Central Europe with over 500 employees (prusa3d.com). What drove this success? It can be summed up in two words: open-source community. As an open-source community, anyone and everyone legally has the right to freely remix, play with, and improve on Prusa’s assets.
Literally everything Prusa makes from software to hardware to blueprints is open-source which is reiterated on the brand’s website: “[W]e strongly believe in the community and in sharing knowledge.” But why give away the 11 secret herbs and spices? While at first this seems counterintuitive, this commitment to sharing and contributing to open-source knowledge creates a continually improving cycle where both the company and community work together towards a better end result. The benefits are substantial as they range from passionate brand advocates to rapid innovation to additional revenue opportunities through vertical integration.
Prusa Research was founded as a one-man startup in 2012 by Josef Prusa, a Czech hobbyist, maker and inventor- and now one of the most famous names in the 3D printing industry.
Unlike typical startups that are backed by venture capital, Prusa spends virtually nothing on traditional marketing. Instead, this consumer 3D printing brand relies on word-of-mouth marketing from an active community of users and has since become one of the best-known tech brands and is often featured in “best of” lists and reviews (Hoffman 2021). A vibrant online forum along with a YouTube channel featuring Josef himself allows the company to engage and create a bond that is not just about exchanging money, but also fostering an environment of continual learning. Furthermore, having a pulse on user engagement directly impacts the product quality and innovation for their 3D printers via dogfooding.
Dogfooding and an open-source community also give Prusa valuable insight into opportunity areas for vertical integration such as slicers (computer software), filaments (print material), and 3D model repositories (marketplaces). Back in 2016, Prusa released their own slicer software, a program that takes a three-dimensional shape and turns it into thousands of thin layers that a 3D printer can lay down one at a time. Again, this was 100% open-source. Tight integration between hardware and software allowed prints from their machines to achieve high fidelity and accuracy with minimal adjustment to settings. Delighted customers! Prusaslicer has been adapted to work for third party printers as well. Filament—the plastic “ink” of a 3D printer—is easy to source, but has a wide range of qualities and styles that can be intimidating. Understanding this pain point in 2018, Prusa began to manufacture their own filaments. Not only does this allow greater quality control and greater precision, but also added a source of recurring income to their bottom line. Lastly, in 2019 the brand launched a new community hub that included a revamped forum, activities and contests. More specifically, the community hub included a model library where creators can upload designs for others to print and use. Not everyone is an engineer or a creative, so having one central location to discover fun and functional 3D models that are ready to print is incredibly helpful.
Prusa creates new 3D printers by 3D printing parts using their own 3D printers that they have 3D printed. It’s turtles all the way down! Any common issue or problem that a customer might run into, they have almost certainly resolved. If a new issue bubbles up through the community, it is quickly iterated upon with multiple solutions proposed. These, however, don’t always come from the company itself. Open-sourcing all product and schematic design lets more experienced community members and customers submit their own resolutions to the problem that can be integrated back into Prusa’s product designs. This cycle of rapidly prototyping and refining produces highly optimized results that just work.
With this model, Prusa is able to expand their potential consumer reach by making a highly refined and quality product complete with a full suite of supporting services. While not as trendy as Apple, Prusa printers capture the same core idea: they just work. This allows them to charge a more premium and sustainable price for their 3D printers compared to models that can be purchased in China for a cost as low as one-half or one-third compared to Prusa machines. Sustainable prices, recurring revenue, and dogfooding are just some of the key elements on why they have grown 17118% from 2016 to 2020 (Gillet 2020).
“Whether you are a Kickstarter meal replacement beverage brand or an international conglomerate with yearly revenue in the multi-billions, the ethos of being a scrappy challenger brand is an idea well worth considering.”
How can this Silicon Valley centric approach be incorporated into the land of CPG? One solution is to open-source part or all of a recipe and encourage the most loyal customers to be part of the development process. A brand that has embraced this philosophy is Soylent, the complete meal replacement drink. They open-sourced current and past formula breakdowns for their products, making it easy for fans and consumers to tweak and adjust (soylent.com). Additionally, the brand actively reached out and asked input from their community: Soylenteers. Subscribers were invited to the brand’s headquarters to participate in the innovation and trial of a new Soylent Stacked product. For Soylenteers who could not travel, prototypes were mailed directly to their homes for feedback.
Another approach includes leveraging the existing community around a brand, which one Swedish sweetheart brand has tapped this vein. While IKEA has had a long history of passionate “community hackers” that unofficially modify and re-imagine existing products, the brand launched an official touchpoint called “Co-Create IKEA” in 2018 (ikeacocreation.com). Torbjörn Lööf, the chief executive of Inter IKEA, stated “We are launching…a digital platform where customers will have the possibility to develop and test new products…a bit like the open-source development within IT.” Involving customers in the initial design phase allowed IKEA to quickly weed out problematic offerings and reduce the cost of internal R&D. In doing so, the brand could also improve customer satisfaction and deepen relationships at the same time.
Whether you are a Kickstarter meal replacement drink brand or an international conglomerate with yearly revenue in the multi-billions, the ethos of being a scrappy challenger brand is an idea well worth considering. It might just give your brand the edge it needs to become the next Peloton, and not another Quibi. Go forth and dogfood!