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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 16, 2016 4 years ago

Cut up

Terraform Design turns ordinary plywood into functional works of art. The young entrepreneur behind the business has big plans.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributing Writer

In just a year and a half, Nick O'Donnell has launched a company, earned a mention in the Wall Street Journal and received the Florida Governor's Young Entrepreneur Award.

“I love things that act as proof of concept,” he says of the latter. “That yes, the business works and is a viable thing that can make me money and hopefully continue to into the future.”

That business is Sarasota-based digital-fabrication firm Terraform Design, which was born while 23-year-old O'Donnell was still a student in Florida State University's entrepreneurship program. He'd gotten intrigued by 3-D design and printing and taught himself the high-tech skills. After creating and 3-D printing a successful prototype over the summer after his junior year, he made his first furniture piece known as the Terraform Chair out of birch plywood cutouts.

The sculptural design — which O'Donnell's father helped assemble — proved so eye-catching that USA Today published a story about it before O'Donnell had officially formed his company. “That was a cool bit of marketing that honestly I wasn't even ready for,” he says. “I don't think I even had it up for sale yet, so that was a huge missed opportunity I'm sure.”

Realizing he was on to something, O'Donnell started playing around with creating lighting out of plywood during his senior year but didn't always have access to the tools he needed — or the funds to pay the hourly rates of the industrial shops off campus. After graduating from FSU in 2015 and returning home to the Sarasota area, he officially launched his company with a business membership at the Suncoast Science Center's Faulhaber Fab Lab, a work space for local makers filled with machines like CNC routers, lathes, and laser cutters.

“Instead of paying $200 to do a single project using some industrial partner, I pay $200 a month to have a business membership here and have access to everything I need,” he says. “It's basically like Iron Man's basement. The Fab Lab is the base of the company.”

There he can cut the wood needed for his parametrically designed lamps, chairs, and other pieces that combine science and art and are sold through his website and Etsy for $129 to $4,900.

That's how the Wall Street Journal found him and how he recently landed a major custom project for an apartment complex under construction in San Diego.
He made that client a funky coffee table and eel-shaped, 15-foot-long bench that he assembled on site. He seeks more jobs like that, where the margins are bigger. “The people I really want to focus more on now are interior designers and developers,” O'Donnell says. “One big sale could be more money than 50 small individual things.”

Exhibiting at this December's Art Basel in Miami Beach will help him get in front of more potential clients. Customizing one of his existing pieces is often as easy as a few clicks of a mouse. But he has no plans of abandoning Etsy and is also exploring wholesale options.

“I'm entering the growth and expansion period of the business,” he says. “Which is good for me but creates new problems of getting stuff out on time.”

O'Donnell plans to hire a few people for various roles within the next year. That includes things such as help with assembly and packaging (“Packaging is my biggest arch enemy,” he says) and assistance with sales and marketing, an admitted weakness for O'Donnell.

He's open to the idea of investors to aid with that element as well as the equipment needed to create his pieces. But for now he's just going to keep cutting away. “Sarasota is the perfect place to be for this company,” he says. “It has a lot of people who appreciate cool design and have expensive homes. And it's a welcoming place for the artistic community.”

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