Business resources take entrepreneur’s 3D printing idea to next dimension

Sam Hightower photo
Samuel Hightower holds two of the containers he makes using the 3D printers at "3D Buildtower," his kiosk-based business at the Everett Mall.

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Some people like to say they are “serial entrepreneurs.” They get an idea, create a business and then move on to the next idea.

Samuel Hightower’s brain is just too full of ideas to wait for one project to finish before starting another; call him a “simultaneous entrepreneur.”

“I just like doing things I’ve never done before,” the 27-year-old said, standing in the middle of the Everett Mall next to his kiosk, “3D Buildtower,” an on-demand, 3D-printing service which opened for business in late May. “I always wanted to make my own business, I just wasn’t sure what or how.”

That’s when he bumped into Kassy Rodeheaver, lead librarian for business at Sno-Isle Libraries.

“I met Kassy at a SnoCo Makers meeting,” Hightower said of the maker-space group headquartered on Casino Road in Everett. “Kassy showed me the market research and databases available at Sno-Isle Libraries. It helped form my business.”

Rodeheaver says that visit to SnoCo Makers was a first for her, too. “I’d heard about them and wanted to check them out,” said Rodeheaver, who has a focus on helping entrepreneurs.

For Hightower, that meant showing him just what was available for free through the library.

“We have market research that can identify trends in an industry,” Rodeheaver said. “There are databases, company profiles, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analyses and thousands of periodicals and news reports.”

Rodeheaver also referred Hightower to SCORE, the business mentoring service that now offers their services in four Sno-Isle Libraries community libraries.

“Every part of that web is important in terms of the business-support ecosystem,” Rodeheaver said. “And, they’re all available to everyone.”

That ecosystem helped Hightower launch his business.

“I now have two Leapfrog printers here and a scanner with two more printers at home,” he said. The printers use various kinds of plastic materials to print objects, anything from keyrings and business-card holders to cosplay masks and an arm.

An arm?

“A clothing manufacturer came by and wanted an arm to use as a model for some clothing,” Hightower said. “So, I used the handheld scanner, scanned the person’s arm and printed it in plastic, exactly the same size and shape as the real one.”

Hightower’s kiosk also has a sign, “3D artists wanted.”

“My training is in graphic design and art,” said Hightower, who came to the region from Minnesota in 2009, a two-year degree in hand. Once here, he enrolled at the Seattle Art Institute earned a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts degree.

“I want to bridge the gap between technology and art. Once I found what 3D printing can do, I felt so free to create,” he said. And he’s trying to bring that freedom, and business, to others, too. An artist can bring their file to Hightower and he’ll print and display it for sale in the mall.

“The artist gets most of the money, as they should. I keep enough for the material and small fee,” said Hightower, who also sells the printers he uses from The Netherlands-based company.

After doing the market research with Rodeheaver’s help, Hightower found that his mall-based business may be just one of a kind.

“There’s one at Mall of America (in Minnesota), but they scan your whole body and then print you in miniature,” he said. “My model is like a sign shop of 3D printing, which I did that, too, worked at a sign shop in Minnesota.”

Hightower brings all of his experiences together to make this business work, including the customer interaction: He was a member of the crew that opened the Microsoft store at University Village in Seattle.

“That was my first exposure to retail and I learned a lot there,” he said, adding that just getting the job was an education. “They had a job fair for all the finalists. There must have been 150 of us and all the other people were from Microsoft, watching us interact.”

It was while at the Microsoft store that Hightower says his interest in 3D printing began: “I became the local expert on 3D.”

The start-a-business bug bit in 2015.

“I jumped off the cliff,” Hightower said. “I let Microsoft go in August 2015. I was doing freelance web and design work and had this 3D idea. A buddy said, ‘Try the mall.’”

Hightower said he started talking to officials at Everett and Alderwood malls this past January and met Rodeheaver about the same time.

“I’ve had lots of help: Kassy, Kelly Gruol at SnoCo Makers; I got the (printers) from Kelly. And, I couldn’t do all this without the support of my grandparents,” he said. “As you would imagine, its 24-7 running a business.”

Yes, 24-7, but somehow Hightower finds time for other interests.

Hightower and his roommate are both halves of the duo, “Wombo Buxom.”

“We started playing music together and that became the group which became DJ’ing at clubs,” he said. According to their website, Wombo Buxom is “an audio visual design duo … (to) produce and DJ (electronic dance music) that will send you … to a place filled with hiphop and house drenched dance music.”

The duo perform at The Crocodile in Seattle and other venues in the area. The two worlds do overlap a bit, he said: “We wore the masks I printed, lit up with LED lights. It was a big hit.”

So what’s next?

“I like the technical aspect, the business side and the creative side. And, I’m interested in gaming,” he said. “I’m definitely juggling, but I have a high level of interest in creating whatever I can.”