When the first ThinkHouse adventure first started, the Fellows did not know about all the opportunities they would meet and the great projects that would ensue. Three years later we’re catching up with Sean Maroni, an alumni of our first-ever class of Fellows. Sean was only 21 when he started his company, Betabox. Today he shares an update on their progress since being in the ThinkHouse.
My name is Sean Newman Maroni, and I am the founder/CEO of Betabox. Betabox are on demand prototyping experiences for organizations. Most of the time, we’re delivering these experiences in mobile labs. We manufacture these solar-powered facilities which are filled with rapid prototyping tech like 3D printers, laser cutters, and electronics. We aim to create experiences that boost the collective self-efficacy of the groups that go through our events. We’re building a network of Betabox that anyone will be able to integrate into their event, company, or school in a meaningful way.
I visited Sean at his office, located at the HQ Raleigh Loft, to hear more about his business and his ThinkHouse adventure.
- Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I grew up in the DC area, and my family still lives there. I’ve always been a bit of a square peg, dabbling in music, business, science, engineering, and programming throughout my life. Ultimately, I realized that the ‘thing’ I aim to master is ‘human centered systems design.’ My natural tendency is to arrange people and resources together in order to create stuff.
- How did you hear about the ThinkHouse? How did you get the idea of the Betabox?
Jason Widen told me about the idea for ThinkHouse at an event at NC State. I thought it was a great way to connect the university to the broader community, which is why I was excited to join. The original idea for Betabox was to apply the business model of cloud computing to lab facilities. We got the idea during ThinkHouse, and it was informed by our past work as ‘makerspace’ design consultants for multiple universities.
- Tell us about your ThinkHouse experience.
I liked being a part of the first class because I like starting new things. We were able to help define the shape of what ThinkHouse now has become, which was a fascinating thing. I still keep in touch with most of the fellows, especially the ones that pop up around HQ often.
- What are you doing now?
Today, I run Betabox out of the HQ Raleigh Loft space with the team. I actually met our Chief Design Officer Michael Hobgood at the kitchen table of ThinkHouse. We love the HQ community because it helped kickstart the growth of our own company culture by embedding us within an active community of creative thinkers. We’re 7 people, one of which is based in San Fransisco. Betabox is growing. We’re working on a new Betabox mobile lab which will operate in the middle of the country. We’re partnering with design firms and agencies to create corporate innovation workshops. We’ve also created dorsal.co which helps hiring managers collaborate with recruiters to hire culture fits.
- What is the biggest challenge to starting a business? The biggest reward?
The biggest challenge is achieving product / market fit. Before knowing that you can invest X resources into the business and generate more than X in a repeatable way, you have to spend all your time improving your product. The reward of starting is the opportunity to create your own universe within which your unique mixture of talents can be best utilized. It’s also rewarding to build an environment for the other people in the company to pursue mastery in their particular field, where success is a possible outcome of doing work. My job is just to be a friction reducer, to eliminate blockers that are keeping people from becoming the very best in the world at what they spend their time doing in Betaversity. A great piece of advice I heard from a fellow HQ Member is to ‘Be a net-exporter of talent.’ I love that phrase, and I think it’s a great goal to strive for.
- Based on your time at the ThinkHouse and your experience starting a company, what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Don’t start a startup because you want to start a startup. ThinkHouse program helped me understand that you have to find a meaningful enough problem to solve to turn it into a new business. The program emphasizes on entrepreneurial thinking, not entrepreneurship thus compelled me to question my idea and avoid building the wrong thing.
As I was talking to Sean, the other Betabox members gathered around their CEO. “Sean is a chess master,” said Michael, “He knows how to think divergently, logically or instinctively, positively. He foresees where the ship he leads is going and trusts his crew.”
Sean, Nicholas, Meredith and Rickey went to NC State together; Sean met Michael at the ThinkHouse and met Greg around downtown Raleigh. Together through their complementary skillsets and personalities, the team is growing Betabox nationwide.
I decided to join the Betaversity Team during one of their monthly dinners. We went to Capital Club 16 in downtown Raleigh, not far from HQ, and I sat in the middle of the table observing.
Sean was pouring the drinks while Rickey started eating. Rickey is always the first to speak and to make the others laugh, far from the stereotypical geeky awkwardness that people associate with engineers. He feels at ease with his team members – it’s an ambitious and motivated group that supports each other personally and professionally. He accidentally spilled some of his drink on the table.
Nicholas was already handing Rickey a napkin. He was telling the others about this book full of stories he was writing. Nick, or the wise “Obi-wan” as the team nicknamed him, is a believer. He strongly believes that the world is shapeable by everyone, and believes in giving others the power to shape it. It’s this faith in people that brought him back from the Big Apple to join the Betaversity team in Raleigh, where he can grow the company’s user-base.
Michael, who laughed with his team members, is endlessly passionate. When he first met Sean, they spent the whole night talking about BetaBox and Michael helped build the first one. “This is a small lab to solve big problems, and it feels big, nice and bright inside!”. Michael felt bored in the corporate world, so he quit his job and embraced the adventure of working with BetaVersity.
Greg and Meredith were chatting at the other end of the table. She was telling him about her future trip to Japan with her husband and how she might teach English. Greg shares this excitement to teach and educate, and found he could pursue it in BetaVersity. “Imagine all the students who are discovering 3D printing for the first time in the BetaBox,” He said. “Even I get excited about it, and I worked a long time in a technology start-up!”
Meredith nodded her head in agreement. She remembered her time as the President of the NCSU chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA). She feels exactly the same while working with children or running corporate workshops in BetaBox. The rational, calm and culinary member of the team, she also does Account Management. That’s what she likes most about working in a start-up: having different hats and opportunities she would have never dreamt of in the corporate world!
In the BetaVersity world, there is lots of growth and enthusiasm about building more mobile prototyping labs all across the country. The next Betabox is planned for March of 2016 in St. Louis. Check out their website or follow them on Twitter for updates!