Brad Cleveland – President and CEO of Proto Labs

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My father taught me that “sometimes you have to do the right thing, and suffer the consequences”.  It’s something I try to live up to all the time.

Brad Cleveland has been the President and CEO of Proto Labs, Inc. since 2001.  Proto Labs is the world’s fastest provider of CNC machined and injection-molded parts. They have changed the way manufacturing works by developing proprietary software that allows them to deliver prototype and short-run production parts faster and cheaper than ever before. Unlike other quick-turn prototyping businesses, Proto Labs makes real parts using conventional manufacturing processes from engineering grade materials. To honor the company’s entrepreneurial roots – it began in 1999 by answering the question ‘How can we do injection molding faster and cheaper?’ – Proto Labs recently launched Cool Idea!, an award program to support innovation by helping designers and engineers turn their ideas into viable products.

Prior to joining Proto Labs, Cleveland held a variety of engineering and management positions with Minnesota-based firms MTS Systems Corporation and Honeywell. He holds a B.A. degree in Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science from St. Olaf College and an M.S. degree in Computer Science from the University of Minnesota.

What are you working on right now?

My main focus is to ensure that my colleagues who lead different areas of the company have the resources they need to do their jobs, as well as the clearest possible sense of our priorities as we continue to grow the company.  From my standpoint this means personally meeting with each of the executives to get a first-hand understanding of their challenges and opportunities.  I spent the last few weeks visiting our Japan and England operations to do that for our foreign subsidiaries and the process continues in the U.S.

What does your typical day look like?

Actually in my case there is no such thing as typical, which is one of the best parts about my job.  When I was in Japan I met with our employees, customers and vendors.  When I was in England, we hosted our board meeting there which involved the coordination of contributors around the world.  Back in the U.S., my days are equally varied as the focus shifts from marketing programs to sales initiatives to manufacturing discussions to software or process development areas.  It’s never dull and never typical.

3 trends that excite you?

First of all, something like half our marketing leads come from one customer referring us to another.  So the rapid rise of social media works very much in our favor, since networking is significantly accelerated beyond what was formally possible.  Secondly, since our manufacturing processes require a 3D CAD model as input, we are very happy to see the rapid adoption of this technology around the world across all industries.  And third, as the world continues to “shrink and flatten”, our ability to reduce our customers’ time to market is increasingly important. Also, and this isn’t exactly a trend, I’m really excited by the renewed enthusiasm I’m seeing around the notion of “making stuff.” Manufacturing has a tendency to strike people as stodgy and boring, but the caliber of 3D CAD models that come to us lets me know this isn’t the case at all. The creativity and insight of designers is always inspiring.

How do you bring ideas to life?

At Proto Labs we attempt to support innovation by promoting “experiments” designed to challenge internal assumptions. On an operational level, examples of experiments aimed at bringing ideas to fruition run from marketing to manufacturing strategies, where someone in the company can suggest a better way to do something and be given the opportunity to prove him or herself correct.  In the event they are successful, we celebrate it (especially if it is me they are proving wrong).  In the event they are not, we don’t dwell on it and move along.

And since overly hierarchical ideation (i.e. “top down direction”) is antithetical to creative thinking, we lean toward collaborative thinking followed by hierarchical decision making if and when it is required.  This way innovation isn’t stifled due to any excessive control tendencies of management.

This is also consistent with our new Cool Idea! program. We’re so convinced that good ideas can change the world for the better, we want to provide the production services it takes to make that happen. As a maker of prototype parts, we’re literally in the business of bringing cool ideas to life.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired daily by the very smart people I am lucky enough to be able to work with and by the exceptional work ethic of the people across the company.

What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?

Due to overconfidence I once didn’t feel the need to prepare for an examination, which I failed.  In another instance I was equally unprepared to give a presentation I thought I could do in my sleep.  That also went very poorly.  What I’ve learned from these mistakes is the same thing my grandfather taught me about 40 years ago: “Anything worth doing is worth doing right”. So I always try to take the time to make sure I am prepared before any sort of similar situation.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Something we’re thinking about in the long run is the creation of a non-profit organization to take what we’re starting with the Cool Idea! program.  If someone wants to beat us to it, now’s the time.  There are a lot of designers out there with great ideas that could use a helping hand.

What do you read every day, and why?

I read the local newspaper (the StarTribune), the online version of the New York Times and the online CNN website.  I also review the status of each of our international business locations through the use of our corporate dashboard intranet system.  I ascribe to the notion “Think globally but act locally,” which means I need to be as well informed as possible.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.  If you’re interested in the overlap between business, innovation, human nature and politics, it’s a must read.  If you’ve read it, you know why. If you haven’t, you should.

What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?

I’m a pretty big fan of Apple products and use things like the iPod, iPad, iPhone and AppleTV.  I like them mostly because of their design but also because they simply tend to work.  The coordination of iPhone or iPad applications like Maps with TripAdvisor with OpenTable is hugely convenient and the ability to sync with PC applications like Outlook make life much easier for me than someone in my position 20 years ago.

Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and founder of PayPal and more recently SpaceX.  Interesting person and amazing business stories, at the very least.

Any hiring advice to people building a company?

When I am interviewing someone I look for expertise, clarity of thought, a demonstrated sense of urgency and a sense of humor.  If it is someone coming into a lower level position that will probably have opportunities to grow with the company, I look for someone particularly bright yet potentially unproven, since they often provide extraordinary ROI and a great sense of accomplishment back to the people that hire them.  For higher level people where the skillset is more well-defined, chemistry can be a make or break factor.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and by whom?

My father taught me that “sometimes you have to do the right thing, and suffer the consequences”.  It’s something I try to live up to all the time.

Connect

Proto Labs: www.protolabs.com
Proto Labs Cool Idea! Program: www.protolabs.com/coolidea
Proto Labs on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/ProtoLabsAward

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