Brandon Williams had big plans. He saw a future in 3D printing that could revolutionize manufacturing. Like so many inventors before him, he started tinkering in his garage.
His goals were to eliminate waste and bolster small business. He would use 3D printing to help entrepreneurs build prototypes at low cost. In 2019, he hired an intern and rented out a production space outside of Traverse City. It was small, but DreamLab Industries was headed in the right direction.
“I never wanted a mega company,” he said. “I’m not Elon Musk. Never thought I was. I just wanted to do it the right way. ”
DreamLab rode the wave of local heroes pivoting their businesses to meet the demands of the pandemic. But the company, just five years into existence, overpromised and undersold which got the attention of the Better Business Bureau, Michigan Attorney General and the FBI.
Accusations of fraud, false advertising and price gouging overshadowed DreamLab’s good will and tore it apart.
As a veteran, Williams was driven by the idea of an American dream and leaving a legacy behind it. In March 2020, he got his chance.
When the pandemic hit, requests for masks started coming in. Williams took the idea and ran with it. A local Supercuts gave him a mannequin head to outfit the prototype on. He added a PPE section to the website and within two days the local news showed up.
A day later they had 1,000 orders. Williams said he was giddy.
“We were going to be heroes and we’re going to save the world,” Williams said. “A legacy was being born.”
The news spread quickly and gained attention from the Michigan Nurses Association. The union put in an order in the thousands. Williams started a GoFundMe to finance more machines and material. The GoFundMe promised to help subsidize the cost for frontline workers.
With $ 4,000 raised, DreamLab purchased material and 13 printers from China.
And then the logistical nightmare began.
The material was wrong and the machines were broken but orders continued to pile up.
The website warned customers orders would take 7-10 days. In reality, each mask took six hours to create, putting an enormous time crunch on each order.
By May the company had ramped up to 43 printers and 10 employees but they were just too far behind, Williams said.
The company was running on a continuous loop of using new orders to pay for refunds on unshipped orders.
A donate to healthcare workers button was added to the website. Those funds funneled into the DreamLab GoFundMe for parts instead. Williams said this was a technical error and that refunds and apologies were made. This only added to the confusion on the customer’s end.
Concerned customers were directed to a new receptionist. Some customers received strangely specific reasons why their orders were missing while others received no response at all. Fed up customers started taking their complaints to the comment section and then to government entities.
The backlog on unanswered messages was growing but Williams said he was in the dark until he received a call on his personal cell phone from a customer who had been trying to contact the company for weeks.
“That’s when everything really started to crumble,” he said.
On May 20, 2020 the FBI showed up to investigate DreamLab for fraud.
“When they said the word fraud I was devastated.” Williams said. “I thought‘ Great, all this work, five years of my family suffering for this? For this moment, to get here. ‘ And I broke down crying. ”
The FBI, Michigan Attorney General and Better Business Bureau had all received consumer complaints about unfilled orders from DreamLab.
On Sept. 1, 2020, the Attorney General had court approval to launch an investigation into the company based on alleged violations of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.
Accusations against DreamLab included misrepresenting its product as having sponsorship that it did not, false advertising, making false or misleading statements for price reductions, failing to provide goods to customers at all or in a timely fashion, price-gouging and others.
Williams said the accusations went public without him knowing. He answered a call for a radio interview and quickly realized he needed legal representation.
The business took a nosedive after the accusations were filed. Even non-mask related orders were being pulled. Pushed into bankruptcy, Williams had to fire his 13 employees, unable to pay all of them.
In his small town, the accusations became convictions as neighbors started treating Williams and his family differently.
“I really felt betrayed by the people we were trying to help,” he said. “At one point we were being called legends. How do you go from a legend to being a fraud? I just don’t see the correlation. ”
The legal stress, bad press and relentless customer reviews threw him into a bout of depression rooted in anger.
“I just remember feeling like my face was beet red for like three months straight,” Williams said.
In the end, Williams said he saw no profit from the business. The Attorney’s General office did not press criminal charges but required Williams to dissolve the company.
Ultimately 35,000 masks were shipped out including the order to the Michigan Nurse Association. However, the union did not authorize its name to be used as advertisement or authorization, said Janella James, MNA Executive Director.
The AG’s subpoena includes customer complaints stating masks were broken or unusable when customers received them. William said he stands by the quality of his product.
Part of the resolution says Williams is forbidden from producing 3D masks for five years. To that, he says good riddance.
The GoFundMe for DreamLab was also ordered to be deactivated. Williams is not allowed solicit donations or any form of crowdsource funding for five years.
Williams said he feels like the AG’s office used him to set an example. He agrees that the punishment was fair given that it stopped short of litigation, but the investigation alone destroyed his reputation.
Being called a liar just doesn’t sit right with him.
“I felt betrayed by our attorney general’s office,” he said. “I wasn’t able to ever tell my side of the story.”
The AG’s office maintains that the claims against DreamLab “were not mere accusations” and the investigation was substantiated based on consumer complaints, web screen shots and interviews with the FBI.
“The circumstances giving rise to our action were caused by Dream Lab; the Attorney General simply intervened in an effort to protect consumers, ”Press Secretary Lynsey Mukomel said in a statement to MLive.
The dust has started to settle for Williams.
Two years and a lot of therapy later he’s back in his garage. He started a new business, Great Lakes 3D Printing. He went back to school through a Veteran’s Affairs rehabilitation program.
He’s quieter now but the period of reflection gave him some clarity. If given the opportunity he said he would do it all again with some major tweaks. Outside of the pressure cooker of 2020, he firmly believes his company could have been something special.
Now it’s a lesson learned on how it can all go wrong.
“I just want the world to know that what I did was in good heart,” Williams said. “I tried my best and I let you down. I’m sorry. ”
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