Founder's Spotlight: Jason Ray of Paperless Parts

Join Emma Wright as she explores CIC Boston’s innovation community, meeting with local entrepreneurs to discuss their trials and triumphs launching new ventures.  This episode features Jason Ray, Co-Founder and CEO of Paperless Parts, a software company working to transform the manufacturing industry and make hardware more agile. 

I heard a while back that if you’re not embarrassed of your products, then you probably waited too long to release it. So I’m completely embarrassed. I have to remind myself constantly that this is great because we’re getting such good feedback.
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Jason Ray: I'm Jason Ray, one of the co-founders of Paperless Parts, a company that's created a manufactured pricing engine. So what we've done is we've used a combination of different technologies to develop a highly accurate instant quoting system which is used in a variety of different ways, whether it's manufacturers sending quotes to their customers, or coming to our marketplace, or basically allowing customers to see their instant pricing on their own websites. I'm very excited to be here speaking with you.

Emma Wright: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how paperless parts got off the ground?

JR: I was in the Navy and I was working on manufacturing in the Pentagon.

And when I got out of the Navy and into a consulting position, I actually wanted to buy a machine shop. I thought, you know, I know a lot about automation and a lot about process flow and business, I just got my MBA -- so thinking I was smarter than I really was -- and started working to buy a machine shop and that's how I met one of our co-founders. He became a mentor to me, and when we started to look into it he was like, maybe the machine shop is not the right thing for you. We actually have five co-founders. I was not the person who came up with the idea for the company, that's the three of the other co-founders who are actually longtime employees of one of the largest rapid prototyping companies -- so, we are really rooted in this domain expertise.

 

We find a lot of software companies build software for people they never have any experience working with. It's like saying, I'm going to come up with a solution to solve your problems, but I don't know anything about you, and Paperless really tries to be deeply rooted in who our customers are. We want to work with manufacturers and work with prototype buyers and really build solutions that are practical.

I don't want to try to force someone to come through this incredible workflow that you would never use in your business, because it just doesn't make sense, and it made a lot of sense to kind of go towards Paperless Parts.
 

EW: And so you mentioned that earlier when we were chatting you had nine people now!

JR: We do! Yeah, it's awesome. We're growing up. It's fantastic. And were scattered around a little bit but we've tried to put people in the right positions to be impactful because a lot of what we do relies on the data coming out of our customers operations, or coming off of their machines.
So I'll tell you that I met Scott, who's my CTO and works with me here at CIC -- we actually met while I was going to Babson. He was my best friend's neighbor, it's really kind of a crazy story. I came back from class one day and Scott was sitting on the couch. This is 2013. I was like, man, you're beyond intelligent, I definitely want to work with you at some point. It just so happened that the timeline worked out perfectly and when I told him about Paperless he was onboard.

 

EW: So now you're at a point where you have a great team of co-founders. You've got your funding and your team is growing. Can you tell me a little bit more about where your company is at now? What's your next milestone?

JR: So we launched the platform, we did a soft launch, where we really didn't market it very much but we put it out there. We started processing transactions, which is super exciting because my watch vibrates every time an order comes through our sites.
But I think the next big milestone for us is like officially launching Paperless Parts to the world and hopefully we'll do that here in the next couple days. We're finishing up a couple of screens and trying to polish things. You know it's really interesting -- I heard a while back that if you're not embarrassed of your product when you release it, like a software product, then you probably waited too long to release it. So I'm completely embarrassed of what Paperless Parts is in its current state. And I have to remind myself constantly that this is great because we're getting such good feedback and the site is continuing to evolve. I don't think we've built too many things where people are like "this is a useless feature, I'm never going to use this." And that's always kind of a litmus test of if we've allocated investor money properly.

 

EW: That sounds like quite a big challenge. And on that note why do you say. And some of your other big challenges so far?

JR: I would say really trying to figure out what steps in the value chain we could add value on was a huge challenge. I'll give you an example of one of the things that we had to figure out: shipping. Shipping alone is such an interesting dynamic for a marketplace because if you're dealing with suppliers that are coming from all around the country, shipping could be hugely impactful.

 

EW: So before paperless parts launched you were based in Boston. Can you tell me a little bit more about your experience in the Boston ecosystem?

JR: It's so interesting because I was living down in D.C. and it was lightning speed -- In a matter of two weeks, we got our seed investment, Scott came on board full time and the company started and it was like oh my god I have to move to Boston. So in one weekend, [I] flew up to Boston, found a place to live, and it just so happens that I was looking through all the different websites of co-working spaces where we could get set up -- we were thinking about maybe running it out of the Babson accelerator.
Basically what we said is, I wonder if CIC can actually see us? and that's where Abby was awesome. So I was literally walking from the seaport having seen an apartment, and I called in like, "Hey Abby, can you show me this space right now? Do you have time?" And she was like, "Absolutely." So I came in, we signed the paperwork, and it was done. There's so much to think about when incorporating a company and getting bank accounts set up and it's like, oh my God, it can be information overload. And this was super easy. It was: walk in, what space do you like, here are the desks, let's set up billing. And then it just happened so fast.
I think that's what's really unique about it. We actually chose this office specifically rather than the Cambridge office, because initially we thought, let's set up in Cambridge, but then when we came down here and we looked around the office and we really kind of started to understand the proximity to everything in the Boston ecosystem -- with a young company you're going to be interacting with the legal team and interacting with your accountants.
All those people are in an ecosystem that is within a four or five block radius of the CIC. For instance networking events: we go to a warehouse like one Thursday a month to meet with our whole legal team, the whole group of service providers, and it's cool because I find that people don't really get the value in a startup out of those kinds of people.
They're willing to do so much more for you than just legal work. We work with guys that have introduced us to more people, just out of their Rolodex. It's been incredible, it's like, wow, this is totally worthwhile. The best lesson I've learned is to leverage those people, because they know everyone.
 

EW: And speaking of leveraging resources as well, I know you've already put on a panel here -- what a great way to integrate into the community. 

JR: Yeah, it is awesome. Being a part of Design Town has been really cool for us because we're not a traditional design company, so we don't help people go from idea to design, but there are a lot of companies that do that and just being in that ecosystem has allowed us to host a panel here and have a lot of people come in. We're really really trying to sell this idea of transitioning hardware from being a state of static development to being a much more agile process like software. We're actually going to be hosting a panel later this month.
The theme is agile hardware and the idea is you as a startup or you as a company -- there's no reason you should bet your company on tooling. So many startups design a product, they test it with a limited number of users, and then they go and they spend thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on setting up injection molded tooling to produce 10,000 parts, 10,000 of their product.
They go out to market and they only sell a thousand of them. And they find out there's one critical flaw and you literally have no money left in the bank to go edit that flaw out of your system.
If hardware was more agile -- which is really the goal of our company, to make hardware more agile -- you end up in a place where, okay, make eight hundred, I'll get eight hundred out there and as soon as I get the feedback on that, it's a much more Tesla approach to hardware. At Tesla, they don't do product versions. It's not like you see the Tesla Model S 2017. If they have a change they make, they make the change on the line, and the next car that rolls off has that change.  FabCafe and Render really do an awesome job at providing people that initial platform to come in and get your ideas out, right?
One of the principles at Babson was rough, right, and rapid for prototyping and it was like, no matter what your idea is, you have to have all these three R's -- always prototype everything you possibly can, whether it's, you know, taking a piece of Styrofoam and carving your product out of that, or making it out of cardboard -- whatever you do to get prototypes in front of people as fast as possible and get feedback. It changes the whole product development cycle.
It also makes a huge difference when you're talking to investors because there's something about someone holding a product in their hands [or] seeing a PowerPoint because you can go anywhere and have beautiful drawings done of your part, and it's a completely different story when it's like, here is my product. Take a look. You know we put in a lot of time, here are like 50 iterations of prototyping.
Most investors just want to know that you've tested the market and that everything you're trying to feed them is actually rooted in some kind of logic. You guys provide that which is even better.

 

EW: I have one more question. So you worked in fabrication for a while. What is probably the coolest product or something that you've seen or been a part of fabricating?

JR: I would say it's a contest between two. The first one was a fuel injection nozzle for a waste gasification plant. They used additive, metal additive manufacturing, to build all these different channels that allow for cooling and oxygen flow and basically made it so that the thing was super-efficient. And the other one was a drone that was basically set up as like a mono-hull of the drone so there was a fan inside. The thing kind of hovered and the blades were completely internal to the drone and they prototyped it in one piece, built the whole drone in one piece, and then 3-D printed the blades and everything else. Really kind of cool.