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Q&A: Ultimaker CEO Jürgen von Hollen on building an ecosystem, a culture & taking the company to the next level

Though announced at the end of 2020 and now nearly two months into his tenure, Ultimaker CEO Jürgen von Hollen sits in his Frankfurt home, having met only two members of the Ultimaker team physically and unsure exactly when he will make his first trip across to Geldermalsen, Netherlands. His first appointment is scheduled for May, but he’s optimistic he might be able to bring that forward to March or April should the COVID-19 restrictions ease off.

Despite the challenges of starting a new role in lockdown a three-hour drive away from the company’s headquarters, von Hollen is working to pick up where departing CEO Jos Burger left off. He wants to further develop the company’s ecosystem, establish the right culture and, ultimately, take Ultimaker to the new heights. Here, he tells us how he intends to do all of that and more.

You spent nearly five years as the CEO of Universal Robots. What attracted you to this opportunity at Ultimaker?

JvH: For me, it’s about the challenge, right? So, the challenge and what I saw here at Ultimaker, was the fact that there was something very similar to Universal Robots, but it was actually more prevalent and actually more kind of like a basic requirement, which was the ecosystem play. And I think, you know, the way I saw it was, there’s so much opportunity that exists; First of all, within the company. And Firstly, that starts with the people and the mindset of trying to deliver the best product out there. So that’s really almost in the DNA of the people is that they really want to create the best that’s out there.

And I think that’s, that’s one part. But then this kind of combination of them already kind of scraping the surface of ecosystem play. And that made me very interested, right, because running as the CEO or president of a company of your own company is exciting. But boy, if you want to make it exponentially more complex and challenging then add the ecosystem to that play, right? Because you basically, you’re not just the CEO of one company, you’re coordinating hundreds of companies going into the same direction. And if you can do that, then you really have something that’s a sustainable, competitive advantage. And I think that’s kind of what got me going was, wow, these guys have started that, and they haven’t even really understood what they have. It’s really this pearl that we can start now shining.

What are your early perceptions of 3D printing?

JvH: The market’s interesting. The definition of the market itself is relatively vague, market data is quite hard to come by and the segmentation of the market is not very clear. If we find that as the 3D printing companies, then just imagine what the poor consumer or the end user has to deal with? I always try to look at it from a customer perspective because, ultimately, the customer is looking not for a 3D printer, but a solution. From that perspective, I think the 3D printing market is pretty diffused, it’s difficult to grab. That in itself is an opportunity. We have an opportunity here to clarify and make more visible what the strengths and weaknesses are.

I also think the market itself is still very embryonic. I know it’s been around for a long time, but I think we’re only starting to see the potential of the technology, we’re still scraping the surface and I think, as technologists start developing this concept of the customer and the solution, the more we will open up the market because we deliver complexity to the customer and one of the things we have to do, and if you would ask me what my engineering or innovation strategy is, it’s ease of use. Take away the barriers and take away the complexity. That has got to be front and centre of what we’re trying to solve.

The other part is the fundamental drivers of the growth for this market are going to be unchanged. Through this pandemic, I think they’ve been reinforced because of the decentralised manufacturing, all those things are elements that will have made companies much more aware of the requirement of having a technology base in production that allows you to be much more flexible.

What are your ambitions for Ultimaker?

JvH: I think at the core, we’re a technology company. And I think one of the things we have to understand there is that this technology is not in itself the solution, it is one part of the building block for the solution. So, for me, looking at technology, as a technology company, we want to be the best technology out there, right. And I think, over time, we’ll be going from being a pure product player to much more of a platform player, application and solutions player, that’s going to be one of the key drivers for us. Just believing that we will have a long-term competitive advantage purely on tech alone, I’ve never seen it. Tech alone is not going to give us a sustainable competitive advantage.  

So, I then focus on five other things that I think are really relevant to the strengths of Ultimaker. One is the people and the competence; we have almost 180 engineers in the company just driving the solution and very focused on the products we have, and we’ve been working heavily on applications with customers. The next part is go-to-market and if I look at go-to-market, there’s highways to the large customers, but the small and medium is difficult, but if we can get our partner ecosystem strong enough that gets us right next to those customers. We’re going to be very focused on building those strong go-to-market channels. The next step for me is awareness and awareness is driven by getting the competence up, and that’s the academy concept, not just for us but our end users. The next point is the ecosystem for innovation, taking the concept of the ecosystem and extrapolating it up into where we want to be the platform for developers in materials, in hardware and software and make sure we provide an open, certified community, because we want to make sure that our end users get the [best] user experience. And then, the last part is the business model, where we continually build on top of the platform, us and our ecosystem partners, and if we marry this integration of technology and ecosystem then I think we have something pretty unique out there.

The appointment of Miguel Calvo as CTO came quite quickly after yours, what is he bringing to the company?

JvH: Understanding where we want to be in five years, there’s critical things that have to be done now to be able to get there. And I think this kind of structural approach, and looking at our, for example, engineering profile, from a competence perspective, needs to adapt every year. If there’s one thing that we all know about, change is going to be the constant. But how do we do that in a way that’s effective? With all those engineers we have, are we sure we are putting them in the right place? And I think one of the reasons why Miguel came on board was because he has a lot of experience from a very structured approach to be able to assess how do we make sure, from a process perspective, that we are delivering what we have to. There are two different types of innovation. There’s invention, which is where we came from, versus a structured process for innovation. And as companies move up and mature, they have to migrate to the process driven innovation, that’s just the way it is. But making sure that we leverage the community around us, making sure we are not becoming myopic, or introverted, but leveraging the ecosystem around us, because as the market matures, our customers actually know quite a lot about 3d printers, we should listen and engage with that.

When your appointments were announced, you both mentioned how Ultimaker had the potential to outgrow the 3D printing market. How do you plan to do that?

JvH: There’s two parts to that, right. One is the ecosystem play, connecting and leveraging what is around us. And the other is there’s a market growth rate that’s, let’s say, hard to figure out anyway. But let’s say we have a market growth rate. And if you look at the market data today, the market research kind of projects between 20 and 30% growth over the next five years. And there’s lots of variability in that, so it’s hard to figure it out, but let’s say it’s 20 to 30%, over the next five years. If I look at how we have grown in the past, and how we’ve done it without a structured process, per se, by getting our ducks in a row and making sure we are very, very focused, I think we can grow beyond.

I really want to align the resources with the roadmap and what sales is doing in the sweet spot. And if we do all of that, I think we can actually almost exponentially grow just through better efficiency and effectivity of our own resource base, right? It’s a project I’ve kicked off inside the company called PIP, playing in position. What happens in an entrepreneurial environment, people pick up other roles that they do to help out. But it’s not necessarily very effective. And we’ve grown so much that we actually have enough critical mass to start getting people focused. And that focus will give us the ability to become much, much more effective.

You take up the role of Ultimaker CEO as the 3D printing market is going through a period of consolidation? Whether Ultimaker takes an active role or not in this, how will it affect the company?

JvH: As I said before, it took a long time for me to figure out how all these companies position themselves in this crazy market. There’s so many of them. I think what’s going to happen is a structure will start happening and that has to do with the fact that customers become more aware of what they’re looking for. And they realise there’s a price point to get to a certain specification or requirement, and that starts jiggling the market a little bit to kind of get clarity.

The other part that I look at is I’m never afraid of competition, it’s actually a benefit. If you’re by yourself, it’s not easy to build awareness. Right now, we’re still in the beginning phase so I’m happy there’s a lot of 3D printing companies.

The important part, and this is the third element, I think what we want to be is excellent in what we do. And so, the structuring of the company, the technology, the go to market, all those things I mentioned, we have to have our own ship in order, our own house in order, before we start looking to add more to it, right? And that’s part of my philosophy, I want to make sure that the business is a functioning, effective business, that’s really then only able to accelerate with more addition. I’m looking at this as a five-year structural build. And that’s what we’re doing. And then in the next two or three months, we’ll have that done. And then we go to execution mode.  I do think that we have to be aware of what’s going on around us, right, it’s just normal, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have your blinders up. So, we know what the competition is doing, and we know where the trends are. And we have to react to some of those things and be proactive in some areas. Right now, though, I would say I’m very happy just to focus on fixing our own house. And then over the longer term, medium term, we’ll look at other things.

You’ve taken over from Jos Burger, who is now sitting on the Supervisory Board, how will that help as you move forward?

JvH: I use Jos as my sounding board for a lot of stuff when it comes to the 3D printing market, because I don’t come from it, and he’s been there for a while. But that’s more of a personal relationship that we have. The board is relatively not operationally involved, so what I’m doing is I’m building my five-year plan, and I’m communicating that with the board over the last six weeks and we’re developing that story and they understand where I’m going, and they understand that there’s going to be points in that where we have to take decisions. With me coming in, it was a clear strategy, because what I do is, I don’t join to manage what’s there, I joined to take it to the next level.

In the next five years, then, what do you want to achieve with Ultimaker?

JvH: One of the things that was very attractive to me was that the company had gone through a process of defining their own purpose and values and vision in 2020. They had spent quite a bit of time on that as an organisation in developing this and I’ve picked that up because I like it and because you need to be very clear, right? The biggest challenge in the world, globally, is getting and keeping the best resources onboard. The best resources, the people, has to be at the core of what I do. I look at what we are, I want to be the most attractive company that you want to go work for. Because if I do that, then I have the best chance of being very successful in anything we intend to do over the next five years.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in this last six weeks in developing the purpose and how we’re going to be rolling out our vision and the values. This is going to be our whole year, we’re going to be doing activities around culture. Because we have so many new people in the company, including myself, right, we don’t have a true culture. We have some people; they’ve been here for a while, so you have one culture, and then you have probably got 200 other cultures, because everyone brings something with. So, I’ve got to marry all that together and make sure people get aligned.

And then once I’ve got Ultimaker aligned, the next job is getting the ecosystem aligned, because I can’t partner with somebody who doesn’t agree with us, we have to have the same values. I would love for us to, at the end of the day, be able to say we’ve got the biggest ecosystem and platform for 3D printing, in all its dimensions, whether it’s materials, software, printers, that we are the place to come to. And if you are a manufacturer, and you’re looking for professional desktop printing, you come to Ultimaker’s platform, because they have the ecosystem of partners to support you, not just today, but also in ten years from now. Having that kind of solution approach that, I think, would be my wish.


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