Interview with Jenny Lawton
Terry Morreale: Hi, this is Terry Morreale from the National Center for Women and Information Technology or NCWIT and this is part of a series of interviews we're having with fabulous entrepreneurs, women who have started IT companies in a variety of sectors, all of whom have fantastic stories to tell us about being entrepreneurs.
With me is Larry Nelson from W3W3.com. Hello, Larry. How are you?
Larry Nelson: I'm excited to be here, of course. This is an absolute favorite series that I'm involved with, W3W3, and the fabulous women and the entrepreneurs and the people who are doing things. You can hear it all here.
Terry: Good. Tell us a little bit about W3W3.com because these will, of course, be available on W3W3.com as well as the NCWIT site.
Larry: We'll also have it in our podcast directory so those that listen to it via podcast. We'll have it on our blog, also. We've been doing this since January '99. We are just really excited and pleased that we are focused strictly on business.
Terry: Today we are interviewing a serial entrepreneur who has started everything from bookstores to IT consulting firms. Jenny Lawton is the president of MakerBot. MakerBot is a company that specializes in 3D printers and has been on the cutting edge of the industry since its inception.
Jenny has been with the company since 2011 and has been responsible for the overall strategy and growth of the company, including strategic partnerships, product development, and retail.
Before we start, Jenny, tell us a little bit about the latest at MakerBot.
Jenny Lawton: MakerBot's been busy. We just came back from a consumer electronics show in Las Vegas where we announced three new hardware product lines and five new software products and applications that create a 3D printing ecosystem. We're very proud to finally launch these products after a good, long year of development.
Terry: Tell us how you first got into technology.
Jenny: My getting into technology was, my parents would probably, say a real accident. They don't quite understand it. My father has a PhD in Middle Eastern History and my mother has a master's degree in Sociology so my graduating from college with a degree in Applied Math was a real anomaly to them.
On top of it, my only brother went to art school so to say it was an accident is not an overstatement. All of my upbringing was around Liberal Arts and reading and learning about history and how people work.
When I went to college I started out to become a doctor and I found out when I started my program at school that chemistry was really hard. And so, I decided to do something that I felt was a lot easier for me which was math. That's where I really fell in love with learning about logic and how things work and solving problems, which I think is a lot of what's behind technology.
My entrance into technology came in going to college as a math major. My path to technology wasn't direct. I left college and worked with several engineering firms that really weren't technology based but my third job I started working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which is an academic laboratory that's funded by the military as well as MIT where there's a lot of defense work that goes on.
I really fell in love with real time programming. I worked on a radar project. I just loved the way that computers could make things work. That's really where I fell in love with technology and all things...And the Internet and learning how to make things work.
Terry: What technologies do you think are cool today?
Jenny: I still am really connected to the Internet. I know it's passÈ at this point but I left the technology industry for about 10 years. I was both shocked and also really heartened to come back into the world and find out that there have been a lot of advancements in technology but there's still so much more to do.
I love the concept of connecting things to the world and the Internet is just this amazing network. It's built to not break. I love the tenacity of it. I love its flexibility and all the different things that you can do with it.
I really like some of the projects that are going on in the hardware space, the world of robotics and how you can make things be smarter and do more interesting things. Those are the areas that are really intriguing me right now.
Larry: Let me throw a little curveball at you, a two part question. One, why is it that you're an entrepreneur? After all, it's not like it was in the family. And then, also, what is it as an entrepreneur today that makes you tick?
Jenny: I get asked this question infrequently, but I also spend a little bit of time trying to figure out what makes me tick. When I look back at it, I realize that I've been an entrepreneur since I was a little kid. I always kept files on everything. As a kid I was very curious and was always starting clubs and projects and getting people to join in and do things. I, of course, was always in charge. I probably still have some of the paperwork from some very complex clubs that I created in fifth grade.
I started out early and then I did a lot of different things as a kid. My dad was in the military when I was young. After the military he was an academic, so we never really were in one place a lot. We traveled around, so I got to sample the world a lot and do a lot of different things.
I read a lot. I was always into organizing things. I was a really big reader, so I created my own library.
I did a lot of calligraphy as a kid, and I went and sold my services to everyone in the little town that I grew up in. I made all the little signs in most of the little stores and I sold those services.
I had a very, very healthy babysitting business in high school. Not just babysitting, but doing summer camps and organizing things. In middle school, I organized birthday parties for kids.
I was always putting together a concept that would make money that I needed to make. It supported my other interests and habits, but also let me sample the world and see how things work.
I got to interact with selling services to people. I got to figure out what people needed, what pain needed to be taken away from people that I could satisfy. I really feel like, growing up, I was sort of entrepreneurial in most of what I did.
My first four jobs, I was working for someone and I loved my fourth job. I loved working for the CEO of the company.
The CEO was Bill Poduska. He's well known in the Hardware Technology Space. He started Prime Computer. He started Apollo Computer.
He was just so fascinating to me. He talked about being an entrepreneur and what that meant.
I hadn't really heard that concept before that. When that company went under and I started my own company, it took me awhile before I realized that that's what I was, because it wasn't quite a buzzword yet.
I love being able to start something and then see it grow into something that goes somewhere. I realize that that's what fuels me as an entrepreneur.
Terry: You mentioned a previous boss you had that influenced you. What other mentors or influencers did you have along the way?
Jenny: I always have to give my mother credit. I was born in the 60s. My mother was probably one of the first subscribers to "Ms. Magazine," and was always telling me that I could do whatever I wanted to do.
I believed that. I took that on whole‑heartedly and my whole approach to life has always been, I could do what I wanted to do.
It was that concept that my mother taught me, that if you want to set your heart on something and you want to set a goal for yourself, you're the only person in the way of achieving that. Whether you achieve it, or don't, is in your control. I have to give my mother a lot of credit there.
My first boss, Nadine Yates was an early mentor of mine. She was just such a wonderfully well poised woman, who also gave me a lot of latitude in my first job.
She could see that I had a lot of ambition, a lot of different interests. She tried to fulfill those, see what they were and give me lots of different options and the ability to grow and learn in a company, even though I was a young kid out of college, working for a very old‑world consulting engineering firm.
She also gave me the sense that if I put my mind to something, or I set my sights, I could go for that.
Another interesting influence on my life ‑‑ and I wouldn't call it a mentor ‑‑ my tenth grade math teacher told me that I would most definitely fail math because girls can't do math.
Jenny: When I decided to become an Applied Math major, those words were ringing in my head. I was pretty satisfied to go back to visit him after I had become a math major, to let him know that he was dead wrong.
Jenny: Then, Brad Feld, who is a friend of mine, serial entrepreneur, VC, is a long time mentor of mine. I just always love to see what he's doing, and really enjoy the group of people that he interacts and works with.
I've never gone wrong interacting with his [indecipherable 09:22] group.
Larry: I can see now where I must have met you in the past around Brad Feld and his teams.
Terry: You'll be happy to know I saw Brad about a week ago and he was wearing a MakerBot t‑shirt.
Jenny: Oh great!
Larry: Very good!
Larry: You know, with all the different things that you've been through, it's really interesting, your history and the different things that you've tried. What is the toughest thing that you've ever had to do in your career?
Jenny: There have been a lot of tough things. Some of them sound trite. Some of them are heavy.
Traveling a lot has always been a tough thing in my career. It's sort of part and parcel to my job, but it was really hard for me being a mother of young children, having an entrepreneurial business and traveling a lot.
It definitely caused a lot of stress in my relationships and just made me tired a lot. Travel is always something that I list. It's something that's just tough and I know it can sound trite, but I think that in some ways it could have been a limiting factor in my career because it's just always been something that's tough.
I sold my company and that's tough. It's like selling your baby to someone. There's this awesome amount of good stuff that comes out of selling a company, whether it goes well or not.
It's a big achievement to grow something to the point where someone else wants to acquire it. Just that milestone itself is a huge success, but it's also a really tough thing to do. I think equally, buying people's companies is also really hard. I love doing it. I love the synergies.
I love all the energy that comes out of it but it's also a really tough promotional exercise to go through. I also think that I had to shut down, not quite shut down, my coffee shop and my bookstore in sort of a down market. That was really tough, really hard stuff to do because you become really very emotionally attached.
Retail is really one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. It's just gut‑wrenchingly hard. You're living on the edge and especially small retail. It's just a lot of hard work. I think that the toughest thing I've done is taken time off.
It's really hard to take time off and getting out of balance and not giving yourself enough time, I think is not good for your career but forcing yourself to take some time off is just an incredibly difficult thing to do.
Terry: What do you do to bring balance into your personal and professional lives?
Jenny: I started exercising, at one point. One of my assistants at my consulting company was an ultra‑marathon runner and a personal trainer. Good for me and also a little scary for me when I realized she was going to take her executive assistant role beyond my scheduling and make me work out and do exercise.
Terry: That's really funny.
Jenny: It was also just one of the best things anyone had ever done for me. It really brought me an appreciation for taking the 30 minutes to 40 minutes out in a day to give yourself some down time to do something just for yourself.
Exercise became an important part of one of the things that I do to bring a little balance into my life. When I had my bookstore and cafÈ, my kid was a rower for his high school at that time. I became very involved with a master's rowing program.
I rowed competitively which was just awesome. I loved being with a group of people who are people I wouldn't normally meet to be able to do something that we all loved, rowing, and being able to do something. Also, being able to compete.
I love getting medals. Going and winning medals was really awesome. That was another way that I brought some balance into my life. I think what I got out of all of that, I just learned some wonderful lessons.
I love being able to take the concept of if you over‑control the oars in a boat, you just don't row very well. If you over‑control what you do with your employees in your company they just don't work very well.
Being able to take those lessons that you get from doing more balance things in your life and bringing them into your business world has also been really satisfying to me.
Larry: I can just tell from the various things you've said and outlined that you've been through, that there are many different characteristics that would give you the advantage of being an entrepreneur. But if you were to pick out a single, most important one, what would it be?
Jenny: That's a tough one. Just one?
Jenny: I think that probably what bubbles up to the top all the time is I just have a natural curiosity and energy. I'm always curious about how something works and I want to know how it works or curious about where something's going to go. Learning more about a topic or how things are going to grow and impact the world.
I'd say the curiosity is probably the single characteristic that would come up, in my life as an entrepreneur.
Larry: I can believe that.
Terry: Jenny, if you were sitting here with a young person and giving them advice about entrepreneurship, what advice would you give them?
Jenny: The first advice that I always say is that you don't ever get to be an Olympic athlete without falling on your butt a few times. You have to be willing to fail and try and try again in order to be able to get to the success.
The other thing that I tell people, over and over again, is that networking is key. You need to meet people, understand what your relationship is with them, and stay engaged with people that you meet in the world because you just never know where it might go.
I've found that almost everything I've done in my life has come out of a relationship that I've developed and nurtured and maintained with people. The other thing I tell people, I tell people this in interviews, I tell people this when I'm reviewing them, I tell people this in general, is that, if you're not happy doing what you're doing, don't do it.
Life is way too short to spend your time doing things that aren't satisfying to you. Go out and find out what is that is satisfying to you and then do that.
Larry: That is excellent advice. I have to say just one thing. If somebody's driving down the highway right now listening to this interview in their MP3 player, tell us your website. We'll have it posted in a number of different places too.
Jenny: The website for MakerBot is www.makerbot.com.
Larry: All right. You have achieved a great deal. By the way, you listeners out there, go to her website. It is absolutely excellent. There's a lot to see. It's really fascinating. Now Jenny, you've already achieved a great deal. What is next for you?
Jenny: MakerBot has a long way to go. There's a lot of stuff I'm doing at MakerBot that is really exciting. We more than doubled last year in size. I'm continuing to grow MakerBot right now and leading the next industrial revolution.
Larry: That is one heck of a great statement. Wow, I want to thank you for joining us today.
Terry: Yes. Thank you so much. We appreciate your time and we know the folks listening to this are really going to enjoy it. Thank you.
Jenny: Thank you.
Terry: Have a great afternoon.
Jenny: OK. You too.