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Building a Tech Startup in the 3D Space: 3 Lessons Learned

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This page summarizes some personal learnings I experienced when building a deep tech startup in the 3D graphics domain - especially when it comes to go-to-market.

Table of Contents


From engineering PhD to 6 years of startup learnings

At the time of writing this article, in 2024, it has been already 6 years since I got out of my engeering PhD to created DGG, together with my co-founders: our very own tech startup to build awesome 3D pipeline technology for the world.

The journey so far was most times fun and exciting, sometimes tedious and brutal, but never boring. Some of the lessons learned will be transferrable to other B2B tech startups, others will be more related to the field of 3D graphics technology - for example, being in an early-stage market, at least for use cases like 3D eCommerce. In the following, I am summarizing my personal main 3 lessons learned after 6 years of managing our tech startup.

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Lesson 1:

Help people understand the Why of your software

No one might know (yet) what exact business problem your deep tech product solves

This, I think, is by far the most important issue I had when starting off back in 2018. Even knowing back then that deep tech startups must go an extra mile to explain to clients why they could benefit from the product, I still think I could have been better at tackling it. Especially, serving primarily emerging use cases such as 3D eCommerce, we were clearly in a so-called cold market (not many existing solutions). Example to illustrate the issue around explaining the technology:

Being in a tech bubble can make you blind for business aspects

Being in a B2B cold market can be challenging for first-time founders coming from a tech background, who will have to switch their mindset to business development and business intelligence. For me personally, this also meant overcoming a huge bias: during my time as a researcher, I used to be surrounded by smart people who knew already so much about 3D-related topics. In addition, I went to conferences such as SIGGRAPH where most attendants also knew very well about our space.

So, most people in my bubble would perfectly get why our tech was great (it was fast, automated and extremely capable!), but they would not really worry about why that kind of technology would be needed (the business case) - that was the job of other people who didn't usually go to deep, tech-focused conferences, for example. That our technology is horizontally applicable (say, in eCommerce, Gaming, Automotive, etc.) didn't make it much easier, because we didn't want to narrow down on only one market. Our fear was that our tech would loose its generality once we start building for only a certain sector. So, with that original setup, finding a good go-to-market strategy had cost us some time.

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Lesson 2:

Sustainable growth does not follow hypes

Hype cycles are dangerous and can work against you

3D technology has been around for decades in sectors such as VFX or gaming. For eCommerce, for example, it is still a rather new thing, especially when we're talking about real-time 3D (such as product configurators, 3D and AR in online shops, and so on). Some early adopters do it quite well, but the process of "crossing the chasm" to the early majority takes years. And then, when you're trying to enter the VC-funded space, there is this thing called hype cycles.

Hype cylces can work for you, if your idea fits well, but they can also work against you in many ways, at very least in two ways:

  1. Once a hype cycle starts, it might be hard to pitch something that does not perfectly fit in with what's currently "hot".
  2. Once a hype cycle dies, if they associate you distantly with the hyped-but-now-uncool topic (example: "everything that is 3D" -> "metaverse"), investors will be extra careful.

Hype cycles create unrealiable bubbles

VCs are mostly smart people, but many of them just read about technology trends in blogpost and newsletters, or learn about them from word of mouth close to their bubble. Therefore, they often have a hard time understanding what new technology will really be adopted in industry, and which one is more experimental and maybe doesn't have a clear real-word mainstream use case yet (keyword: crypt0).

In addition, many ambitious founders feel intrigued to "pitch what (we think) investors want" (already a big mistake), which then further amplifies this trend: investors, who are publishing their "thesis" around a new buzzword, receive pitch decks from startups labeling their idea with that buzzword, hoping to get easier access to funding that way. VCs then get the impression that their investment thesis is being confirmed, because there are so many pitch decks coming in with those buzzwords - until the bubble collapses. In our founding team, we were being just tech-minded people with deep experience in 3D graphics tech, and we always tried to completely bypass these hype cycles. That, however, isn't always easy, because others will always try to position you according to their mental model ("you're doing something with 3D graphics, so you must be a Web3 / Metaverse company, right?"). This is true especially for investors, but can also apply to consulting firms or big corporations.

Hypes can distract from real-world business problems

All in all, I must say - especially when fundraising - we spent quite a bit of time discussing about more "esoteric" topics like "where the Metaverse might be heading" and other great questions that, frankly speaking, are quite secondary at this stage - especially when you're a tech expert yourself in your field. The only thing that really matters at the end of the day, and that is hence worth getting obsessed about, are your customers, and how to best help them succeed.

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Lesson 3:

Marketing beats market size

Marketing is critical and it doesn't solve itself

With all said about the development of markets, one thing that is easy to forget is that marketing itself is a quite important activity. As experienced founders and advisors will point out, this topic is very often strongly underestimated, especially by technical founders. If you're an early-stage technical founder and you read this, you might think one of the following:

Now, in case you are considering any of these points, especially the last one, I hate to disappoint you, but: none of this is matching reality. In fact, once you start putting out marketing material into the real world for the first time, such as website, SaaS free trial, or printed flyers handed out at a fair, you are most likely to experience... the sound of crickets. As an anecdote on this topic: We had a feature launch once where we did a dedicated landing page, a contact form for early beta users, a welcome video and instructions for getting started, and, last but not least, a presentation at SIGGRAPH with a lot of physical gimmicks (demo screens, flyers, giveaways). After a week at the fair, the number of people who asked to sign up for the beta program was less than 20. This was a large disappointment, but the lesson learned from this is simple: If you haven't marketed to your audience yet, your product is new and you are concerned you would get "too much exposure too quickly", forget it. It doesn't happen so quickly - instead, focus on setting clear marketing goals (such as 100 sign ups for a trial), and try to achieve them. You'll then quickly see what works and what doesn't, and that will allow you to get better at setting realistic goals, and at reaching those.

Marketing activities help you learn about your product market fit

Another thing to keep in mind is that marketing puts us in touch with new leads - and that's not only relevant to do business with them, but also to learn if there is actually a good fit with those! For example, you might be rather sure that your product is very well-suited for automotive. However, what if you put out your ads and after a few conversations you realize there was something about that industry that you didn't have in mind which turns out to be a problem for your go-to-market? And what if, based on some outreach in overall area of dealing with companies that do vehicles, you suddenly realize that there is a perfect match with a segment that you didn't have in mind originally, say, RVs or motorcycles? Without constant outreach, there is a significant risk that you are just working inside your own, opinionated bubble, and testing markets through targeted outreach can help you verify or falsify your theses.

Marketing must be targeted

The last important part of this lesson learned is the realization that marketing cannot function if it is not well-targeted. Again, our technology is and always has been horizontally applicable - which means it can be used in many different verticals, and that's great! However, I think I have been naive to implicitly assume in our early days that experts from different industries would somehow automatically find us on the Web or at genereal 3D graphics & AR conferences. One reason for that misunderstanding was that addressing everyone and no one worked for a while. A very few big corporations are early adopters and send people to highly specialized events such as SIGGRAPH. And after good conversations and a few deals coming out of those, we thought that this might be the way to get leads in the future as well. However, for a successful go-to-market, it is usually necessary to break out of your own tech bubble and figure out which audience you want to address next, and where to meet that audience. After all, your early-stage startup will have very limited resources, so how could you even target different verticals well with your limited options for marketing activities? An advisor of mine once put it like this: it is typically smarter to be the greatest fisherman in a single little pond than trying to fish in a lot of bigger (and more crowded!) ponds at the same time.

Thank you for reading this article!

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