Who would have thought that so many people wanted to become superheroes? When Chris Lightfoot was inspired by a Lego figure staring him in the face and a 3D printer to the side, he had no idea what was about to happen.
But when he managed to find a way to create an individual’s face, the size of a pea, and put it on a Lego superhero figurine, the product went viral. Funky 3D Faces received 6,000 orders in just one week and didn’t have enough staff to cope with the interest.
Having a business idea go viral from the moment that it enters the market is a hard task to keep up with, especially when it’s not even the original business idea. Chris had been working for a medical company when he invested £65,000 in a state of the art 3D printer that could use Plaster of Paris so he could create lifelike bones for surgeons to practice with, reducing the time spent in theatre by nearly two-thirds, thereby reducing surgery costs.
However, after putting it into practice, neither the NHS or private hospitals wanted to invest in the additional money that it would cost to incorporate the product.
“The main purpose and the reason for the business starting in the first place was to make bones for the medical industry,” Chris explained.
“Unfortunately, the NHS is currently broke and in order for you to increase the cost of a procedure, which is what it would be, you have to do a full health economics model and justify why that surgeon would want to spend more on that extra bit.
“All surgeons wanted it, but when it came to the hospitals actually paying for it, there was no market. That’s why I very, very quickly had to start looking for different things.”
Every day Chris would come home and tell his partner Colette about a new business idea. He wanted to create something that was truly personal and there is nothing more unique than a person’s face.
First he thought of greetings cards for various occasions, where he would incorporate a 3D printed face into a scene. After mocking up a few of these, he realised that it was not financially viable as a product. But one day, when he saw one of his son’s Lego characters on top of the computer staring back at him, he had a sudden rush of inspiration.
“He had lego everywhere. We were always finding it all over the place. I was just sitting by the computer and there was a little mini figure there. It was staring right at me. That’s when we came up with the idea of putting a face on one.”
A viral venture
Chris wanted to test the market. He took his new product to a Comic-Con event in November 2015 and found that it received a lot of interest. His next stage was to get it ready for release in time for the Christmas rush.
“We had to develop a website and there was still product development and lots of issues that we needed to overcome in order to make them properly so they fitted. We only actually launched the website the day before Christmas Eve. Obviously completely missed the Christmas rush. In a way, I am very glad about that.”
Chris put the 3D printed Lego heads on Etsy to continue to test the market with the anticipation that he and his partner Colette would be able to create 300 a month. The first week of January they received 6,000 orders from across the globe.
His product was picked up by news corporations across the world from the BBC to Fox News. “It was the American stations that picked up on it first. Then we were on Fox News and The Today Programme, which I think is the world’s largest breakfast programme.
“Then all the regional news picked up on it as well. We have done things like Hawaii News and New Jersey News. It’s quite funny actually when you look on the internet and see your face appearing on Hawaii News. It’s very surreal.”
But it wasn’t long before the true realisation of what was needed to cope with the unexpected interest set in. “It was panic. Pure panic. We weren’t in the position where we could have fulfilled all those orders. There were only two of us in the business and we were doing everything manually.
“We didn’t know how long it was going to last for. It just took us by surprise. We were completely unprepared for it.”
Chris would have been equipped for him and his partner to fulfil 10 orders a day. He had to think quickly and took on a second office and 10 temporary members of staff to get over the backlog.
Six months later and Chris has cleared the backorders with the help of his temporary staff. Now he looks to what the future could bring.
A sustainable future
As organic business slows, Chris has kept on four staff to be able to continue with ongoing orders whilst looking to other products and partnerships.
With around 90% of his business currently coming from America, and the cost of shipping from the UK, Chris would like to find a new partnership where he would be able to delegate the 3D printing to across the pond.
Around 8% of the interest in the product comes from the UK with the remaining 2% being ordered from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong along with other countries.
Having invested around £100,000 into the company, Chris is looking into a new operating system which will help to streamline the process. “We are making something that is completely and utterly unique for every single one. You can’t mass produce something and then get it out. You have to make each one and then identify each one. You’ve got to match them up, you have to make sure that they look like the person that you’re doing. You can’t all of a sudden say, ‘alright, I need 10 of these,’ and then just send them out.
“We can no longer do it manually. So we’ve had automatic processes commissioned. We have been waiting for them to be delivered and sometime soon, we will have an automatic ordering process, which will help streamline everything.
“We were concerned about going out there and marketing it massively again because we wouldn’t be able to cope with the orders as they come in until we had this new platform in place. Now that we’re nearly there, we can start marketing it and bring in the level of business that we had before.”
Setting up the business hasn’t been the easiest decision he has ever made but he has high hopes for the future of the company. “The most challenging thing is taking the first step. To say, ‘right, I’m going to leave my secure job,’ which was well paid, secure and easy.
“I knew how to do it, I knew I was going to get paid at the end of the month and taking that leap into the unknown, and when I say unknown, I didn’t know anything about 3D printing. I just knew that it had potential.”
But it was Colette who gave him the determination that he needed to be able to pull it off. “She has listened to me go on about different business ideas and when I came up with the idea to do the 3D printing, and I said, ‘I’m going to have to give up my job. We’re going to have to remortgage the house and go into an area where we have no experience, but I think it will work.’
“The fact that she actually said, ‘Yeah, go on then. If that’s what you want to do. Go ahead and do it.’ She had confidence, blind confidence, some might say. But I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her backing. It’s unbelievable that she even let me do it.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 87 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.