Starting a business with a laser cutter
During the course of 2020, many of us have used the time to assess what we really want from our lives. For some people, that has meant major life changes, from deciding to move to a new house, to changing careers or starting a new business that they can really enjoy and feel passionate about, rather than being stuck in the 9-5 grind.
If you’ve already invested in a laser cutter, then using it to make products to sell can be really successful. You might intend the business to be a ‘side hustle’ – a small business that you work on at the same time as your main job for a second source of income – or the business may become your full time employment. The goal is up to you, and as long as you plan your business well, your laser cutter can help you to realise your dreams.
Benefits of starting a business with a laser cutter
Although starting a business is rarely easy, there are many benefits to starting a business with a laser cutter – so let’s take a look.
Costs are clear
Once you have your laser cutter, and you’ve done enough research, you’ll be able to predict costs fairly accurately – since they will mostly consist of your materials, electricity, and consumables for the laser cutter. If you need to pay for workshop or storage space, then those costs need to be factored into your business plan.
Of course, if you haven’t already got a laser cutter, you’ll need to invest in that first. If you’re looking for a great quality, all-round yet budget machine that can be used with a range of materials to get you started, we highly recommend the Beamo.
You don’t need to produce huge amounts of stock
Whether you plan to sell online, offline, or you’ll sell in a number of different places will determine how much stock you need to create.
If you’re intending to sell purely online, you can prevent waste and easily avoid having large amounts of dead stock by simply creating products on demand as orders come in. Of course, you will need to have created a sample piece, since you’ll need to photograph the item for your product listing whether you’re selling on a marketplace or on your own store. But once you’ve got images and your listings are set up, as long as you keep the files for creating the design, and the listing information, you don’t actually need to keep stock. As orders are placed, you’ll simply create the items and send the orders.
If you’re going to be selling to customers in person – whether that is in a shop, or at seasonal events like spring fetes and Christmas markets, then of course, you’ll need to create the items for people to be able to buy. There may be some trial and error while you understand how much stock you need to create, and you may still be able to avoid wastage by ensuring you have a few items available – you can always take orders that can be shipped to customers the next day.
If you’re going to be creating products on demand, then you won’t need huge amounts of storage space for your stock. Of course, you’ll need space to store your materials, but we’re assuming that you’ll have enough space in and around where you’re going to be working.
Customers want unique items
Although there is a lot of items on Amazon and eBay that are great, there will always be a desire for unique and bespoke items. Whether customers are searching for one-off, rare items for a gift, or they’re shopping for themselves, quality products will always be in style; and that’s what you can offer with your laser cutter. The great thing about selling those items online is that you’ll only need to create items once – so if demand is low and your sample doesn’t sell, you can use your materials for other designs.
Laser cutting is completely flexible
If you’re creating a business that is simply to make money from your hobby, you can keep your business small – or you can scale up dramatically, to sell thousands of items each year, if that is what you want to do. You’ll be in complete control – and you’ll be able to really indulge your creativity to take the business where you want it to go. Similarly, if you want to add other aspects to your business, you can diversify it so that your laser cutting is just one aspect of it.
As you create items with your laser cutter and orders start to come in, you’ll be able to create a brand that customers look for time after time. Having customers know you as a company that creates high quality items, has a broad range of products and that provides great service is the best way to get great word of mouth – and that is a great start.
But when customers receive orders that they are delighted with, they don’t just tell their friends and family in person anymore. They share photos and reviews online, on their social media, and if they tag you on their posts, that means more people will see your products – and if they’re interested, they’ll visit your feed. If they like what they see, they’ll follow you – which is the first step towards them making a purchase from you.
What products can be made with a laser cutter?
The type of products you might want to make with a laser cutter will be influenced by so many different things. What materials you like to work with, the type of laser cutter you have (or that you intend to buy), the type of customer that you want to target, and more.
A few types of products that we know have been incredibly successful when creating business with a laser cutter include:
- Award items and memorabilia that are suitable for company awards, sports competitions and so on
- Custom stationery such as wedding invitations, greetings cards and business cards
- Acrylic items such as clocks, keyrings, jewellery
- Wooden items such as gift boxes, jigsaw puzzles, night lights
- Etched glassware
- Photo engraved gifts (you’ll need a package like 1-Touch Laser Photo)
We could continue with ideas of what you can create with a laser cutter, but we’d be here all day – and this is a post about how to create a business with a laser cutter, so rather than turn this into a post just with ideas for your laser cutter, we’ll stop here. Suffice it to say, if your laser cutter can cut the material safely, and there is customer demand for the product that you have in mind, then you can almost certainly start your laser cutting business.
Challenges of starting a business with a laser cutter
Starting a business is always a challenge – there’s a lot of time and energy that goes into it. But the time and energy required isn’t the only challenge you’ll face.
Some investment will be required
Even if you’re going to create the minimal number of sample items to photograph for your product listings, you’ll need to have materials, power and of course, your laser cutter available to create them. Depending on what your products are, and what they are made of will affect how high your initial setup costs are.
Financial investment isn’t the only investment that you’ll need to make. There will be quite a bit of time required to create your website, listings on marketplaces, and your social media content plan, as well as any systems such as inventory management and listing tools. While it could soon look more expensive in terms of both time and money than you first thought, if you plan well and advertise your products, you’re likely to see an excellent return on your investment.
Knowing which products will be successful
It doesn’t matter how incredible your laser cut products are, if there is no customer interest, your designs simply won’t sell. This is why your product research, and knowing your target customer is so important – so you can ensure that you don’t waste time and money designing and cutting products that are unlikely to sell.
If you don’t already know how to use design packages like Illustrator or SolidWorks, then that can present a challenge – but if you have time to invest, then it isn’t nearly as much of a challenge as it once was. Free laser cutting software is available if you pick open source (LaserWeb and Inkscape are great free options) and learning how to use your software, or learning how to do something new is as easy as heading for YouTube for tutorials.
A big challenge that you might face when you’re starting your business, is if you become uninspired – which can affect even the most talented of designers. When that starts to bite, it can create pressure to get stuff done, even if you know you’re not creating your best work. Luckily, there are free to use projects on communities and forums online that can either help you to get your creative juices flowing again, or you can use those projects that have been shared until you’re feeling inspired again.
While you might be flattered if someone is copying your designs, it might be equally as infuriating to think that someone else is going to profit from your work. Unfortunately, although you can register a design, or obtain a patent (depending on the nature of the product) there isn’t really anything stopping anyone overseas from copying your design. You can apply to the Patent Cooperation Treaty – but that won’t guarantee worldwide cover.
Customers know that they have a huge amount of choice, and your marketing is what will sell your item. Demonstrating that you’re in the UK, that your items ship quickly, and you’re a small business that provides high quality items is likely to be far more appealing than taking a risk on items from overseas that could be of dubious quality.
Particularly when you’re offering bespoke, or customisable options, you’ll need to have ways that your customers can reach you to discuss what they’re looking for. Making sure your contact details are available will help customers to have confidence in your business. Having a contact number is the best, but you can have a contact form on your website too. Responding promptly to messages through your social media accounts should be a priority, so using a combined mailbox to manage those messages is a good plan, and there are plenty of social media management tools with this built in.
While you’ll undoubtedly be proud of your laser cut products, there will be times that customers won’t be 100% satisfied with their purchase, or that they change their minds. In those situations, you’ll need to be prepared so that you can respond appropriately.
While it might be tempting to start creating your products and to create listings for them on marketplaces, or to start building your website, there are some really critical first steps to take – otherwise there’s a good chance you’ll make some expensive mistakes.
Identify your niche
Finding a gap in the already busy market can seem almost impossible. But since you have a laser cutter, the possibilities are pretty extensive – you just need to find out what customers want.
To establish where your niche is, do some research about what sort of items are already on the market, and that are selling well. Tools like Google Trends can be really useful, but getting an idea can be as simple as going to Amazon or Google, and starting to type ‘laser cut…’. The search suggestions will give you a good idea as to what is being searched for at the moment. On Amazon, you’ll also have information like which product won the ‘Amazon choice’, and you can find out what people like about items (and what they find lacking in the product) by checking the reviews.
Another great way of finding ideas, and for product research is to use hashtags on social media. Searching for #lasercutter (or similar terms) will show you all the posts with those hashtags – and you’ll almost certainly find inspiration, if not ideas that customers want.
Create your business plan
When you’re starting a business, it can be really tempting to rush in and to take steps to get your first orders in as quickly as possible. But without proper thought, you’re likely to hit bumps in the road – which could end up costing you if you’re not careful.
Creating a proper business plan, that documents both costs and potential profits in your best case and worst case scenarios will help you to avoid any issues, and will also ensure that you don’t forget admin tasks. Jobs like registering your business with Companies House and HMRC, or choosing the best accounting tool are all best done at leisure, rather than rushing when there is a deadline – especially where fines could be applicable, such as for late filing of accounts with HMRC.
How your business plan looks is up to you – it is a working document for your business – but you can find templates here to get you started.
Having enough designs could be the first major challenge for your business, as well as having the materials to make them. When you first get your laser cutter, designs are likely to flow out of you, but after a while, you might find that the ideas dry up, or you get bored. That’s when going back to your business plan is a good idea, and back to your initial research – or heading for social media and platforms like Pinterest, where you’ll find thousands of ideas to spark your imagination.
Find great suppliers for your materials
The best suppliers for your materials will depend very much on the type of products that you’re going to be creating, but it should go without saying that getting the best value for money when buying your materials will mean your profit margin on each product will be better. Doing your research, and finding dependable suppliers of quality materials will help your business to grow.
Make your samples
Once you’ve got your materials in, it is time to create your initial items, if you haven’t already done so. After you’ve created your first items, you’ll need to take photos. Make sure you take photos from different angles to show the product off and give customers an idea of how it will look. It is good practice to take photos with a plain white background too, depending on the item.
Establish postage costs
Depending on how big the items are that you are creating, you may find postage could become a challenge – although the increase in eCommerce over the past few years means that there are more shipping options available. The Post Office may be sufficient for your needs as your business gets going, but you may need to look at more competitive options as you receive more orders. There are businesses that aim to get the best rate of shipping depending on parcel size, weight and so on, and with a range of collection or drop-off options.
Have support ready before you need it
If your laser cutter is the focus of your entire business, then you’ll need to ensure that you’re prepared if something goes wrong. Even with perfect maintenance, machinery does sometimes break down. Where business takes off, buying another laser cutter is unlikely to be on your to-do list for the first couple of years, so make sure you have connected with a business that can service your laser cutter. Don’t put off investing in a service plan either – having to cancel, or delay orders because your machine has broken down is not good for the reputation of your business. With a service plan that works out at less than £12 per week, you can have an engineer out to fix your machine within 72 hours. Find our more about our service plans here.
Support doesn’t just mean keeping your laser cutter in perfect working order though. Although there are plenty of online accounting packages that you can make use of, getting an accountant who can help you advise you as your business grows is a really wise thing to do – they’re not just there for book-keeping. They can help you to identify grants that can be obtained, to know where costs may need to be cut in good time, and to advise how best to use your profits and grow.
Set up your online store
While setting up a website was once reserved for web designers who knew HTML code intimately, but today there are companies offering website setups that can be done by simply dragging and dropping elements. Shopify and BigCommerce both offer this way of setting up a website, or you can consider one of the many other website builders. Setting up your website this way has plenty of advantages – especially if you don’t know any code. They’re tried and tested by thousands of businesses, they’re easy to set up, and there are loads of integrations and marketing tools, as well as secure payment facilities. Just be certain that whichever one you choose has eCommerce functionality so you can take payments, and that you thoroughly test it before you start promoting your website on your social media.
Choose marketplaces to sell through
There is a huge number of marketplaces that you can choose to sell on – with the most widely known marketplaces being Amazon and eBay. While there are some businesses that can succeed on those channels, there is a huge amount of competition, and customers expect to pay the lowest prices on those marketplaces. With that in mind, if you decide to sell on marketplaces, look to those that place an emphasis on handmade and bespoke items, like Etsy, Amazon Handmade, Folksy and nuMonday.
Don’t forget, most marketplaces will charge a fee for selling through their website, which you will need to factor into your costs. Fees can be a commission on each sale, a listing fee, a subscription that allows you to sell on the marketplace – or they can be a combination of these types. Amazon charges a subscription and a commission (a ‘referral fee’) while eBay charges a listing fee and a commission.
Set your prices
Deciding what you’re going to charge for your items can be tricky. As we’ve just mentioned, if you’re selling on marketplaces or on your website, you’ll need to cover any costs that they charge, but you’ll also need to factor in costs of materials and shipping, electricity, additional marketing costs, and paying yourself. Pricing will look different for every business, but should be done carefully to ensure you don’t end up out of pocket.
Manage your product listings
Once you’re up and running, you’ll want to keep a handle on your product listings online. As the number of products you offer grows, managing listings manually can become near impossible – especially if you’re selling your laser cut items on multiple platforms. Getting an inventory, listings and order management tool can help you to automate those issues, to ensure that updates get sent automatically and that pricing can be updated without needing to log into each sales channel manually.
Build & promote your brand
Social media is free to use, and is a great way to get your products in front of potential customers. While Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are often the first channels that new businesses set up, think about what you’re creating and selling. You need to be able to show off your products effectively, so look at image-led platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, but also look at other social media channels such as TikTok and Snapchat.
You don’t need to have expensive equipment for your social media activity – to start with at least – a smartphone will do what you need. What you will definitely want to get your head around though are the social commerce functions that the social media companies are building in – which means using product pins on Pinterest and shoppable posts on Instagram as a bare minimum. There are a whole host of other social commerce features in development, especially with Shopify, and these will almost certainly help you to reach more customers, grow your sales and create a brand that customers start to recognise and to look for.
Diversifying your business
Once your laser cutting business is up and running, you may decide to look for ways in which you can gain different income streams, and to ensure you have money coming in even if demand for your laser cut items goes through a quiet spell. There are many ways of diversifying your business, but here are just a few ideas to get you started.
Extending your inventory
As the inspiration takes you, you’ll be able to design and create new items, which will help to encourage customers to return. But extending your inventory will help to maintain customer interest, and provide you with more opportunities for marketing. Once you’ve set up your eCommerce website and any other sales channels, there are options to sell other items, either by investing in stock, or by using a DropShipping service like Oberlo to sell mass-manufactured products alongside your laser cut items. This method of selling isn’t for everyone, but is possible to do at minimal cost.
Create digital content
Once your business is growing, you can diversify your business by creating digital products. There are so many options here:
- Creating a YouTube channel is one way to market your business, but it can also be used to create another income stream, if you use the monetisation options, and create partnerships with suppliers
- Write a book about your business, or about the history of to guide others to do similar things
- Create online courses that you can host on websites such as Udemy
These are just a few of the options – but if you have other skills or talents, such as photography or musical skills – you can use the time that you’ve created from making your own business to indulge those passions too.
Creating items for customers to buy from you isn’t the only potential income stream out there. If you have the right types of products, then businesses may decide to buy from you. Whether they’re looking for products such as awards tombstones, items to mark long service, laser cut stationery, or bespoke items to promote their business, selling to B2B could be the next income stream for you.
By selling to other businesses, you’ll be offering convenience, and even if you’re offering similar products to other companies, increasing the choice for businesses means that there is still a lot of potential in the market. You’ll need to stand out, and your marketing efforts will need to highlight the quality that you’re offering B2B customers.
When you’re selling to B2B customers, processes can be a little more complex – since you may decide to offer your products at different prices for different customers, and ordering can be different – there may be companies that want to order using purchase orders, rather than paying up front as B2C customers do. With that in mind, if you end up with a lot of B2B work, you may want to create a different section of the website for your B2B customers, to allow for these types of processes.
Our final thoughts
Starting any type of business isn’t for the faint of heart, but with great planning, and a solid strategy, your laser cutter can help you to start making profits relatively quickly. Following your business plan, keeping an eye on costs, and above all else – creating high quality products and delivering great customer service – you’re sure to build a strong business and one that you’ll enjoy for years to come. Not only will you enjoy running your business, but your customers will love your products, recommend you, and come back to you for years to come.