Polish 3D Printer Company Zortrax Lied About Contract With Dell by John Biggs
Two years ago when the international 3D printing industry was still a much-contended space a small Polish company called Zortrax made waves – and raised capital – on the news that it had signed a contract with Dell for 5,000 3D printers.
I reported the news in 2014 and researched the implications more deeply later that year and found little that might concern an investor or fan: the company had a deal in place to supply printers to an Asian Dell R&D subsidiary but questions to that subsidiary were left unanswered and the co-founder of the company, Rafał Tomasiak, consistently defended the news with me personally. In April 2014 I approached him regarding the rumors that the order was false and he continued to lie. But by May I dropped the story and in many ways dropped the ball. For that I’m regretful and I’d like to follow the thread a little more deeply today.
First, let’s understand the mentality of a small startup thrust on the international stage. The company, formed by a few friends in Olsztyn, Poland, grew in prominence after a successful Kickstarter. Their printer, which I found solid and usable, was a good one and they had a everything a small startup needed in the heady investment years between 2010 and 2015 – a charismatic front woman named Karolina Boladz, a heads-down CTO, the aforementioned Tomasiak, a good product, and a good story.
Now they had a big contract.
But they were still a startup. Their technique was to accentuate the positive and bury the negative. They ignored questioning about their methods and the contract itself and instead crowded about the deal in investment materials for months after the announcement. So if the contract wasn’t a lie it was a careful and optimistic elision. Startups are keen to paint every letter of intent and every curt nod of approval as a signed contract and clearly that was the case here.
I was also willing to accept a certain amount of leeway. Things are done differently in Europe where valuations were (and still are) small and investments are often minuscule in comparison to the Valley. Good news from Europe was often tinged with a bit of hyperbole. Getting an acquisition or investment price for any round in Europe is like pulling teeth and when you do the math you quickly find that the reason is obvious: the numbers, in light of massive rounds in the US, were embarrassing.
When I first heard about the contract in January I wrote a basic story addressing the potential sale. Tomasiak sent a quote – “Frankly speaking, we were surprised that any company, even a company like Dell, wants to place such an order! But after a while we realized how many printers we use in our own office… For a designer who prints a large number of prototypes it is much more useful to use 10 smaller printers on one desk, which operate simultaneously, rather than one with a larger build volume” – and the news percolated out into other sites, even appearing in a March 2014 piece in