ShopBotting for Profit

For many ShopBotters, owning a ShopBot is a business proposition. Sure, a lot of ShopBots are used as production tools in manufacturing environments and as small components of a bigger business. At the other extreme, an increasing number of non-commercial ShopBots are being used for hobby, home, or D-I-Y projects. However, many ShopBots are purchased as the centerpiece around which a small business will be organized.

Selling ShopBot Businesses

I think this is a good thing, and it’s one of the primary reasons we developed and make ShopBots. We wanted individuals to be able to use them. And, from what I’ve been hearing at Camp ShopBots this year, ShopBot-based businesses are blossoming. More and more people are telling me about the success they are having with small enterprises based primarily on products they are producing with ShopBots – these businesses vary from doing a range of subcontract work, to manufacturing an interesting or unique product; and from selling locally through word-of-mouth, to marketing through a relatively sophisticated web-based storefront.

Ed Lang's ShopBot Business

Ed Lang’s ShopBot Business

But encouraging such enterprises carries with it both responsibilities and concerns. Yes, of course we think our tools are pretty amazing, but they aren’t magic. Not everyone is cut out for running a business and we worry about getting people excited about something they aren’t right for or aren’t ready for. It would be nice if simply putting a ShopBot in someone’s hands made them into a successful entrepreneur. But ShopBots are, in the final analysis, just amazing tools. Those who are successful with their own new ShopBot businesses probably would have been successful without a ShopBot. ShopBots just facilitate their ability to be innovative, creative, and productive.That said, from the beginnings of ShopBot, we have wondered what we could be doing to provide information, advice, resources, and assistance to this group of ShopBotters who are considering building businesses around our tools or who are already in the process. In some cases, such resources might provide some reality testing, in others maybe just a little edge to help reach success.

Because we have been busy building a small venture ourselves, we understand all too well the difficulties. A seasoned entrepreneur once tried to explain it to me saying, “It’s about those crocodiles that you can’t see and that you aren’t expecting.”  He offered this up after our first batch of electronic control boards — intended for our first 15 customers, which we had just spent 3 weeks painstakingly soldering — had been stolen out of the back seat of one of our cars (I’m betting there were some disappointed robbers when they discovered these were not stereo or computer components … seems funny now). What he was getting at was that, even though you have done everything the text books say you should do, you just can’t anticipate where the real stresses and demands of building your own business will come from.

CNC-Business Training?

We’ve attempted to see what sorts of informational resources we could develop for ShopBotters. Early out we thought that one way we might assist ShopBot start-ups was by providing some sort of business training. We piloted the idea with a day-long training program at a ShopBot Jamboree several years ago. We called this training “ShopBotting for Profit” and organized the session around the “6-Ps to CNC-Based Business Success.” The 6 P’s were:

Product     Purchaser     Price     Process     Profit     Plan

The session was led by a couple of experienced business consultants. For the group that participated in the 6P’s training at the Jamboree, it seemed to be a useful thing — effectively reviewing a number of the primary areas that need to be attended to in developing a small business.

Brady Watson's ShopBot Business

Brady Watson’s ShopBot Business

Not Quite What We Wanted …

We were encouraged enough by the response to the 1-day training session that we commissioned the further development of a 3-day business training program with a handbook to go with it. Our idea was that we could make a useful program for ShopBotters by relating it to the unique needs of CNC-based businesses. But, as we reviewed this program and the materials for it when they were completed, we realized that with a couple of exceptions, starting a ShopBot business was much like starting any business. Indeed, our materials seemed too much like any other “Start Your Own Business” books to be especially useful.

We came to appreciate that what had made the 1-day seminar at ShopBot special was that the participants brought their personal, specific, and CNC-related questions and experiences to the discussion and shared them with each other. The session worked well because it was a networking and sharing occasion that offered support and assurance that others were struggling with very similar kinds of problems. It is hard to beat others stories about “going it on their own” and hearing about the crocodiles they had to deal with. We see the same kind of thing happening at our regular ShopBot (machine and software) trainings in Durham. ShopBotters who come here are always very excited to talk to each other about specific business problems that they are experiencing.

Rob Bell's ShopBot Business

Rob Bell’s ShopBot Business

What’s Needed in ShopBot Business Resources?

When we carried out a survey at a Jamboree asking ShopBotters about their business concerns and how we could help, the concerns were not about the financial or management aspects of their business. Over 70% wanted to know about products and marketing, and another large percentage about pricing and selling. Very few of the ShopBotters taking our survey that year felt a need for training or information in financial, management, legal, or employee aspects of small businesses. The detailed responses revealed interests in fine tuning niche market products and in creating or discovering new products, as well as with how to sell or market unique products. Because CNC supports an almost unlimited range of products and productivity, product selection and promotion of unique products becomes a special issue.

ShopBot Resources for CNC Businesses

Of course, many ShopBotters need to figure out how to manage their accounts or best utilize their business software package, but we’ve come to realize that we aren’t going to be the best source for generic business start-up support. Instead, the best type of help we feel we can provide is that which emphasizes the product, marketing, and pricing concerns that arise from the unique creative and productive capabilities of CNC tools. Here’s how we’re working on it:

Camps and the Jamboree. Last year’s Jamboree included numerous talks from ShopBotters with unique business stories and adventures, well captured in the name of Jillian Northrup’s and Jeffrey McGrew’s ShopBot business, “Because We Can” (Jillian and Jeffrey were last seen at the Austin Maker Faire showing off their portable “Art Golf” miniature golf course. The Jamboree also featured a session on the marketing of CNC products. The session was led by ShopBot’s own marketing maven, Dave Minella and by David McNutt, a Wisconsin ShopBotter, builder, and marketing whiz.

jambo_session1 Even if they offered nothing else, the show-and-tell sessions at Camps and Jamborees offer a cornucopia of great business ideas and examples of entrepreneurial inventiveness. There are ideas, and more importantly there is inspiration in seeing what others have done. Also at Camps and Jamborees, there are incredible opportunities to learn about how others are approaching making money with CNC. You might think that people would keep their good ideas to themselves, but they don’t. There is an incredible openness and sharing of information and experiences, both about how they make things, and how they manage their businesses. I think this is because ShopBotters are not as interested in the specifics of what others are selling, as in the problem-solving involved in getting something efficiently produced and successfully sold.

ShopBot Trainings. As I mentioned earlier, trainings at ShopBot turn out to be a great time to learn about how other ShopBotters handle business issues. The trainings are not actually oriented to business issues, but you will meet people from all over who are engaged in many types of business. There are lots of opportunities to learn about what they are doing or what they are planning to do – people in the same boat as you, and people a little further along.

The Talk ShopBot Forum. The Forum is the place to interact over ideas and to get help with your plans or reactions to what you are trying to do with your business. It’s an online business roundtable. Go right to the business section. It’s OK to lurk for awhile. But don’t hesitate to jump in and ask your question or make your comment. It goes without saying that there are no dumb questions. This is a place where you can get a dialogue going.

ShopBot Wiki. The Forum is for interaction, but the ShopBot Wiki is the place for content and resources. We’ve just started it, but ShopBotters are helping making the best and most appropriate business information available here. Please use the Wiki, and when you get comfortable with it, contribute the information and information sources that have been most useful to you. It’s thin now, but with help we hope to make it incredibly useful. [If you aren’t familiar with the Wiki concept, read the introductory material to get the idea.]

ProjectWizard. This one is a little further out, but we want to share what we’ve got in development. We’ve been working on our website application for generating cutting files from parametric projects. Stretch, modify, or customize a project (a coffee table or boat) until you get it just the way you want it. Click a button and run a credit card, then download complete cutting files and detailed instructions.

Step one is to make ProjectWizard available to ShopBotters as a source of content. But as step 2, we have been planning to tie ProjectWizard to a network of ShopBotters looking for business. Anyone who wanting to design something using one of the parametric projects could do so, and then make a selection from the ShopBotter network list and download the cutting file to the nearest ShopBotter for production. ProjectWizard can work both for any individual wanting to get a project cut or made, as well as work for the growing community of ShopBotters interested in providing CNC services. There are a number of logistical difficulties that will need to be overcome to make the system work, but working with ShopBotters seems a great way to get something like this going.

ShopBot Storefronts. While I’m pondering ShopBot businesses, let me mention another kind of ShopBot business idea. We’ve been wondering whether it isn’t time for a ShopBot storefront. Imagine a sort of Kinkos for ‘making things’ — organized around a ShopBot or two, with a laser cutter and perhaps a 3-D printer also on site. There would be computers for designing with lots of software resources, and a basic stock of sheet goods so that things could be cut immediately. You could design something and get it cut, or get help cutting it yourself. A ShopBot storefront might be a little like a Fab Lab and a little like a Tech Shop, but with an emphasis on turning sheet goods into little things or big things using digital tools. You might even sit down and use ProjectWizard at a computer to create your design, or perhaps send your design to someone at the store for reproduction.

First ShopBot storefront?

First ShopBot storefront?

Of course we have no idea whether this is going to be a model for others or a franchise kind of thing. But, Bill Young is going to take a crack at setting up our first ShopBot storefront this spring in Exmore, Virginia. He’ll be experimenting with which tools and resources to put in it, and what kinds of activities and services to organize. And most importantly, figuring out what sort of personnel it will take to make it happen. Exmore is small (and quaint), so Bill will have lots of time to contemplate the details — and we’re hoping to learn a lot.

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