Sean Newman Maroni – Co-founder and CEO of Betaversity

Sean Newman Maroni - Co-founder and CEO of Betaversity,

Ask everyone around you what you could be doing better as a leader, and why they think your business is NOT going to be successful. Most people will never tell you how to improve your personal skills or your overall business. You have to rip that feedback out of people with a giant crowbar.

Sean Newman Maroni is the co-founder/CEO of Betaversity, an engineering project portfolio website and the company behind BetaBox mobile prototyping labs. Maroni is a mechanical engineer and systems thinker who is driven to spark the world’s best work through meaningful learning-by-doing experiences. He writes about systems and startups at seanmaroni.com.

Where did the idea for BetaBox come from?

The idea for our mobile prototyping lab BetaBox emerged from insights we discovered as a university makerspace consulting business. We found that the high up-front capital costs and sustained operating expenses of a fully operational makerspace were difficult for schools to justify. We were inspired by the business model of cloud computing when we asked the question: “what if we could simply rent makerspaces to schools that can’t afford permanent spaces?” After we launched our BetaBox MVP at UNC Chapel Hill, we built a stable business around BetaBox. Schools see BetaBox as a way to expose students to the latest rapid prototyping technology and the design thinking process all at once.

In addition to BetaBox, our new product offers a way for undergraduates to share their hands-on projects with employers. This business idea emerged from my personal dissatisfaction with poor transparency of the university recruiting process. I was amazed that the engineering projects I worked on in our on campus makerspace had no bearing on my employment prospects. Our platform is changing that.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

A typical day starts with smartphone emailing, ideally followed by a run. Next I’ll walk to the office and prioritize my day. I organize thoughts and come up with ideas during this routine. If it’s a weekend I’ll open Sublime Text and start working on new product features. If it’s a weekday I spend time on email and in meetings speaking with customers, handling pressing internal issues, and building with our product team. I have a google reminder at 11pm to “Stop working and go home” at which point I’ll usually wrap things up for the day, turn on an audiobook, and walk back home.

How do you bring ideas to life?

The best model I’ve found to describe this process is the Inventure cycle developed by our advisor Tina Seelig. It’s an excellent framework for communicating the messy process of early imagination and technology entrepreneurship. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWTWwps0ezQ

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The advent of strong AI during my lifetime.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I think that general critical thinking skills have proven most useful to me. Too often entrepreneurs rationalize negative feedback for a company idea with an arsenal of cherrypicked anecdotes and statistically insignificant data. I try instead to poke at an idea and seek ways to simulate failure scenarios before investing too many resources.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The worst job I ever had was a commercial mover in DC. We’d spend 14 hours a day moving office furniture. I learned that I hate cubicles, repetition, and the color beige. I really hate the color beige.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I am very fortunate to be building a company with a tremendous group of people whom I love working with. We’ve been smart about boostrapping to build value before seeking investment, which has maximized our control of our own future. Furthermore, by starting as a consulting company we were able to generate revenue while using our design thinking lens to unearth real problems we could solve for customers in a scalable way. However, if I were to start again I would graduate from college first, it is nearly impossible to start a real startup and pursue an engineering degree simultaneously.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Ask everyone around you what you could be doing better as a leader, and why they think your business is NOT going to be successful. Most people will never tell you how to improve your personal skills or your overall business. You have to rip that feedback out of people with a giant crowbar.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

When we realized what we were REALLY selling, sales increased dramatically. We thought we were selling a mobile prototyping lab, but what we are actually selling is an experience. Schools pay us for their students to have meaningful learning-by-doing experiences in a safe, fun environment surrounded by helpful role models. They don’t pay us to show off our 3D printers.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

In college I attempted to start a 3D printing materials company that manufactured recycled 3D printing filament from automotive plastic regrind. I undervalued the importance of sales and was overconfident in my ability to execute the product with sufficient quality to win in a commodity market. Had I actually secured startup capital and moved into production I would have learned that the product was too low margin and not unique enough to build a meaningful business around. This “failure” was essentially a free experiment in starting a business, and the rate of learning I was able to achieve made the experience well worth the time invested.

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

Start a company that launches interstellar probes like Voyager 1 that can communicate with earth. The purpose of the fleet of probes would be to create a “historically immortal” species, by uploading a consistently updated history of humanity onto each probe in multiple formats. The idea is that the existence of this fleet would increase the probability of another civilization learning what happened on the Pale Blue Dot after we’ve wiped ourselves out. It could make money by charging high net worth individuals for premium placement in “the only story of human history likely to matter in the long run.”

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Whiteboard calendars for our new office space where we write our upcoming BetaBox rental dates.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Asana/Slack/Inbox/Drive/Zapier. I like them because each is “neural,” meaning that you can impose your own organizational system on top of the core functions of the product. I like open ended tools like these that give you a loose constraint within which you can customize your ideal workflow.

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

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I like people from the systems thinking community like Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Dana Meadows, Peter Senge, and Russell Ackoff. This community of thinkers is undervalued, they’ve developed an excellent lens through which to see the world.

Connect:

@seanmaroni

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