Navigating the transition from engineer to CEO
Justin Nussbaum, CEO and founder of SPIE Startup Challenge finalist Ascend Manufacturing, details his journey as a new entrepreneur - such as how to improve confidence and the importance of mentorship
Tell us about Ascend Manufacturing's background and stage of growth?
Ascend manufacturing is a university spin out. It was founded in 2018 as a result of a new type of 3D printing technology developed during my PhD in mechanical engineering. Now we are transitioning it into a commercial product. With our technology we can print injection moulded quantities of parts essentially overnight. We can print hundreds of thousands of parts a day, so people can now get large quantities of parts within days, instead of two to five months, like it takes with injection moulding.
We are currently still pre revenue, we're probably about six months away from our early stage revenue. All the funding that we've received to date, both through our convertible notes and through grant funding, has been in developing the technology and building our pilot system, which is relatively small. The next stage is to build our large volume production machine, and in order to get there, we need to raise some more capital on the order of a few million dollars. And then from there, we can really start branching out and growing the company.
Where did you go to get advice/help with setting up the company?
I have a strong technical background, but at the beginning I didn’t know any of the other areas involved in starting a business. I applied to a programme called Innovation Crossroads, funded by the US government, which allowed me to work with the Department of Energy, within their largest national laboratory. I was able to get their assistance from the technological side and access to their entire network as far as mentors, advisors, and people to assist with the financial and legal aspects. So it has been a very beneficial opportunity. Because as an entrepreneur, you know pretty much one or two areas very well. But everything else in terms of building a business is just something you have to pick up along the way. So the biggest piece of advice I could give to everyone is find mentors and find people who know about building a business that can assist with that.
And, as you stay in the industry a little bit longer, you start getting additional introductions, you meet new people. I would say the number and calibre of our mentors has definitely been increasing quite a bit over time.
How do you go about finding/asking for mentors?
Whenever I'm speaking with somebody who's providing some advice to the business, whether it's a family friend who just happens to know a lot about building a business, or whether it's someone random you meet at a coffee shop somewhere, whenever I'm done with that discussion, I always like to follow up and ask: Who else do you think that I should speak with? Are there other potential customers that you might know? Do you have people that might be able to provide some assistance with marketing and advertising or financials? You don't have to list all those out but just pose a question: Who else should I speak with or what other introductions can you make?
Entrepreneurs are going to get very familiar with reaching out and making cold calls to potential customers, advisors, and so on. And you get pretty familiar with being rejected. Honestly, you know, it's a numbers game - if you reach out to enough people, eventually there will be those that get back to you. But getting a personal introduction is the best way to start that conversation. And typically, those interactions with individuals that you receive warm introductions with, are most likely to move forward.
A lot of people find putting themselves out there challenging. Were there things that you did that helped you develop ‘people skills’?
In the technical fields, there's lots of introverts like myself. It’s about speaking with other individuals, which is something you have to do when you're building a company, there's no way around it. Again, it's a numbers game, do it more and more.
What I was told by my first mentor actually was you have to go out there and get your nose bloodied a little bit, you know, you go and you speak with different companies and different individuals. And at first, your pitch, or your story, is very unrefined. And you don't have much confidence in it. And it takes a while to build up that whole story, and build up your own confidence to be able to go out there and speak with other individuals, and really get them interested and get him involved.
It’s the same with public speaking. You need to put yourself forward for it. I'm by no means an expert at public speaking, and as a strong introvert, it was something I was always terrified of doing. So the best way around that also is practice, practice, practice so you build confidence in yourself. You want to spend a number of times just sitting in your office or sitting in a quiet place, where you can walk through your entire presentation. And then if you can give your presentation to others, get their feedback and their thoughts - whether it's on your slides and what you're actually presenting, on the story, or presentation style. And then you'll sound much more confident when you're giving that presentation, you really want to inspire them, the audience needs to feel like you're speaking directly to them.
How did you build your team at the very beginning?
I would say you need to sit back and determine what your strong points are. Where do you usually succeed? You need to realise where those gaps are - what are the areas you don't have any background in? There are always elements you could try doing yourself, but from step one you need to figure out exactly the areas where the quality of work that you're able to provide isn't going to be anywhere close to what an expert in that field can do. So you need to first start by identifying those capability gaps, and then try to find individuals or groups that can help and assist with filling those gaps.
But at the same time, when you ask for an introduction, many of those will end up being very good. Some of the other ones, they'll be people who are highly interested in wanting to help, but they don't necessarily have the experience that you need at that time. So you have to be able to look at all those opportunities and determine which ones are best for you for your path forward.
Were there any other ways that you developed the skills needed to run a company?
My background is all technical. I don't have any marketing background. I don't have any financial background. There are lots of free resources available online to go and educate yourself. Because the more that you learn about that, the more you'll realise that you need to get some additional assistance in those areas. When you're a smaller startup at the beginning, you don't have a huge budget to go out there and hire a marketing agency and hire a law firm and an accountant. And so at the beginning, you need to watch YouTube videos or, you know, just spend a lot of time on Google trying to learn the laws and requirements in your field of operation. Find templates online, see what other companies are doing, look at your competitors and research them - what do their marketing materials look like? What are the stories that they're telling?
But without a doubt, you're going to realise as you start developing the company, that things are going to pop up randomly, and you're just going to have to come up with a solution, there's just no way around that. And so much of my time is spent doing research. For example, we filed for a number of patents while I was at university and then after I graduated we had to sign an exclusive licence agreement for those patents. I didn't really know what the value of a patent was in our field. So it takes a lot of time to sit down with Google. I found that there were lots of other companies too that assist in valuing patents that are comparable to yours. And so it's all about doing research and finding other places we can get those answers. As an entrepreneur your mindset is that once you have a problem, you just find a solution. A lot of times it's not necessarily always the best solution, but you learn that later.
Again, take advantage of that mentor network. Many of your mentors and people who have been through similar paths have already had these problems. And so reaching out to them is really great for two reasons. Firstly, you get really good feedback on problems and you can get good involvement from your investors. But secondly, it keeps them up-to-date on what you're doing and keeps you at the front of their mind. And when you're at the front of their mind, that's when they have the most opportunities to send your way. You'll find that you’ll randomly get emails from your mentors, saying: ‘You should look into this company, they might be interested in working with you. Let me provide an introduction.’ And a lot of times, those random introductions that you're not planning that end up being some of the best opportunities for you as a company.
How did you cope with juggling everything at once at the beginning?
Having to deal with time management is something that I always personally struggle with, there's always a million things that have to be done. We only have two full-time individuals including myself, and we're about to bring on a third individual soon. During the day, I try to spend my time working with the technology itself - we have an operational system - and be hands on, if I'm able to. A lot of the time, that's not possible, and I'll go weeks without being able to touch the machine at all. In the evenings I typically sit down and do all my computer work, do all my planning, write my proposals and so on. It’s not a perfect solution by any means. But you do have to try and block time out for different projects. And even if you don't have hard deadlines for things, set soft deadlines for yourself. Put in your calendar who you need to respond to with what and when, and make sure that you're actually hitting those goals as well as you can.
What do you see as your next stage growth challenges? As an entrepreneur, and as a company?
As an entrepreneur you need to transition more from a scientist into a salesman and be able to sell your product. For me specifically as the CEO, or as anyone who wants to sell the products and their company, which I would imagine is most people out there who are entrepreneurs, you really get more into that salesman like mindset - what is that story behind your product that's going to get your customers interested in you?