Once you’ve decided to go for it and to buy a laser cutter, and you’ve got to grips with how to use it, if you haven’t already then it is inevitable that you’ll start to think about how you can create a business, or to use it to increase the profitability of the business you already have. Whether you have a high-spec laser cutter and a workshop, or simply a half-decent PC and a space at home with enough tools to get by with, then setting yourself up in business doesn’t have to be difficult – as long as you set out carefully.
If you’ve made the investment in an industrial size laser cutter, you’re probably already pretty confident in how to create products that will increase your profits already. But if you’ve invested in (or are just about to invest in) your first at-home laser cutter to create a small business, or a medium to industrial sized laser cutter that is a new addition to your workshop, then you might be intending to create products that complement your everyday operations and increase your profits.
Although it’s relatively simple to get started, there are still a number of things for you to think about both before you get started, and as your business grows. In this post, we’re looking at ways that you can start to generate profits and grow a business with a laser cutter.
What can you make with your laser cutter?
As we’ve talked about in several of our other posts, what you can create with your laser cutter is also dependent on the type of laser that you’ve bought and the materials that are suitable to use with your laser cutter. In addition to doing cutting work on request from customers, you can cut materials to be used in other products that you’re making for sale, and use your machine for etching, engraving and marking.
The possibilities for what you can create with your laser cutter are pretty extensive – whether you’re going to be making personalised gifts, or you’re going to be making items for other businesses. Rather than present you with a huge list of ideas here, we’ll direct you to our favourite places to start looking for inspiration: Instructables, Thingiverse, Pinterest (both for finding ideas, and saving the ones we want to have a go at) and YouTube. These aren’t the only places you can find great projects available to use, or to inspire you – it is totally OK to start with Google. Take our advice though – when you’re looking for ideas make sure you have plenty of time available. There are so many pages with so many great ideas already, that you could be there a while.
Advantages of using a laser cutter
If you’ve decided to create personalised gift products with your laser cutter, you’re probably already aware that it is possible to use other methods to make those items. However, your laser cutter offers you significant advantages over manual methods. You’ll benefit from flexibility and increased accuracy, but you’ll also be able to replicate pieces with much higher quality finishes than when using manual methods. Even some lower priced laser cutters are accurate to within 0.1mm, which is more than accurate enough, especially for gift items.
These are all important considerations, but for small businesses that are creating items on demand when customers place orders, the replicability is going to present one of the biggest advantages. You’ll be taking the time to set up your designs and configuring the laser cutter for each task, but if you’re creating pieces on demand then being able to retain the design files and settings means you’ll only need to do this once – saving you time and effort.
Not only that though, creating on demand means that your cash will stay in your bank for longer. You can buy the raw materials you need, when you need them without needing to keep them in stock, and you won’t need to worry about needing as much storage space for your finished items either. Finally, you won’t need to discount any items to clear dead stock – because you won’t have created items unnecessarily.
Starting to build your laser cutter business
We’ve written about choosing your first laser cutter before – and whether you’re working with one at home, you have a desktop laser cutter in your office, or you’ve got a workshop that you’ve just added your laser cutter to, there are a few things you can do to get yourself off to a profitable start.
Practice makes perfect
This is a bit of an obvious statement, but you can’t start your business until you’ve got the hang of your machine. Make sure you’ve successfully completed some smaller projects, you’ve understood how to get the right effects with the software, and that you know how to keep your machine in good working order. Without getting these building blocks in place, you might find you can’t get the results you want and need when your business really takes off. The more you know, the more chance you’ll be able to say yes when someone asks if you can do something for them – so invest time in learning!
When most of us start our first businesses, we talk to the people around us – our family and friends – to see if they think what we’re planning is a good idea. There are no shortage of ideas for laser cutters online, so while you’re learning, get ideas from your loved ones and use those as test pieces.
Learning new skills today doesn’t have to cost a fortune either. Search YouTube for ‘laser cutter tutorial’, and you’ll find plenty of videos showing you how to use different software, how to cut different materials – even how to make money laser cutting. You might end up paying for a tutorial from a software provider to get a deeper understanding – but start with YouTube to save spending unnecessarily.
Offering your services
Getting news of your service out there can be tricky. Unless you’ve got a lot of contacts in the industry, word of mouth marketing probably isn’t going to cut it – and even if you have, you probably won’t have enough potential business to make a massive profit. That means working on your marketing strategy – which, when you’re eager to get going using your laser cutter, might not be the most exciting prospect. But hear us out.
Using social media is generally a pretty visual thing – which means you can use photos of almost anything you create to market your business on channels like Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. Social media marketing has been a thing for a while, and there are thousands of posts and guides about how to get started on each of those channels online.
Having your own website is usually a good idea too – it gives credibility to your business and gives customers confidence that buying from you isn’t going to waste their time or money.
Setting your prices
While you might spot plain items that you’re selling customised versions of online for pretty cheap, you shouldn’t try to match those prices. You’ll need to pay for your time, the cost of the materials, consumables and anything else such as heating and lighting – so don’t under-price your products in order to make sales. If you’re engraving onto a generic item, then you’ll have the cost of the item to add on too.
It goes without saying, if you’re not making a decent profit margin per item sold, your success won’t be as great as you’d like it to be!
Enhancing your product lines
Starting out creating just one item to sell is OK, but the more items you can offer, the more profits you can make. Don’t try and sell everything, all at once – adding an item to your offering every few days, once a week or even monthly is absolutely fine.
Create your USP
The increasing affordability of laser cutting technology means that there are more businesses than ever that are offering products online. Having a unique selling point for your business is essential to encourage customers to buy from you, rather than a competitor.
Perfect your customer service
When you’re selling just a few pieces each day, handling your customer service is a piece of cake. As your business scales, you might need a different approach to handling calls and emails yourself. You might have employees that can deal with that, but if not, look for automated systems to help you manage enquiries, or look at using a virtual assistant, which can be an affordable way to get some help.
Get your policies in place
You can present the best service in the world for your customers and there will still be people who decide to complain, return the item because they found a cheaper item, or they’re not satisfied for any number of other reasons. By having your returns policies and terms and conditions in place before you start selling will save you a lot of potential headaches down the line.
Sort out your shipping arrangements
Your shipping is part of your expenses, so don’t wait until you’ve had your first order to work out costs. Establish how much shipping will cost in the UK, and worldwide too. You never know where your first international order might come from – and while the products you sell might mean that you never get an order from overseas, being prepared means that if one does come in, you won’t be panicking to find the best delivery option.
When it comes to postage, don’t just rely on Royal Mail. They might be a good place to start your search, but they might not be the cheapest, and a different carrier might offer you a better rate. Lower expenditure on your shipping means better profits – which is what you want!
When you’re starting out as a new business, generally you need to spend as little money as possible. That’s especially true if you’ve already made the investment in your business and you don’t have any external sources of funding or investment. These are the costs you can’t avoid when you’re creating a laser cutting business.
Your laser cutter
It goes without saying that your laser cutter is a significant investment. How much you have to spend, alongside other considerations like the space you have availbale, and the amount of time you expect to be using your laser cutter each day will heavily influence your choice. As we’ve mentioned before, there isn’t a single laser cutter that is perfect for all applications and every single business, so you’ll need to do your initial research carefully.
If you choose a cheaper laser cutter due to the lower initial outlay, you’ll be making compromises in terms of speed and finish. That might not be an issue if you’re crafting ornamental pieces, or you’re personalising items – because many lower cost laser cutters will provide a more than good enough for those purposes. But if you’re looking to create pieces that are very precise, then you might need to spend more on your laser cutter.
You’ll need to be able to design and configure your laser cutter, and for that you’ll need a PC or laptop with a reasonable spec. If you want to keep the cost of your PC to an absolute minimum, Raspberry Pi could be an option for you – depending on what you need (and the software you want to run) you may be able to get an option for less than £100.
Of course, if you’ve already got a desktop PC or laptop then you won’t need to spend on this just yet. Just remember to stay on top of your security software, especially if you use online banking or have personal information for customers saved. Even as a small business, you’ll need to abide by GDPR regulations – because if you don’t, you could end up with a hefty fine!
You can’t start to create your products without having materials available to work with! While you’re establishing your business, you may need to research and buy your materials in multipacks and conserve offcuts and scraps to use in other products. Once you’ve designed your initial products, you’ll be able to establish how best to use leftover materials, to lower your costs and wastage.
We have a laserables starter pack that includes laminate, birch ply, MDF, acrylic & rubber for just £149.99 + VAT – which allows you plenty of scope for practice.
Your laser cutter needs electricity to run – and you’ll need to ensure you factor that consideration in when you’re pricing your laser cut products!
Whatever type of laser cutter you have, you’ll have components that need to be replaced on a regular basis, as well as any assistive gas that is required. Not only that, but you’ll also need to complete regular cleaning to ensure that your laser cutter maintains high levels of performance. Although it can be tempting to use regular cotton buds and tissues for cleaning your laser cutter, ensuring you have high quality cleaning products is essential for the longevity of your machine.
Laser cutter servicing
As your business scales up, you’ll need your machine to be in perfect working order to keep up with demand. You don’t want to be losing out on potential sales, or having to offer refunds because your laser cutter is out of action – that isn’t going to add up to profitability! Completing routine cleaning tasks, either daily or weekly (depending on how much you’re using your laser cutter) is absolutely essential, but it is important to have a professional engineer service your laser cutter periodically too.
If your laser cutter malfunctions or otherwise breaks, you’ll need emergency access to a technician. Think about how many items you cut (or expect to cut) each day, and how much that adds up to in orders. Now let’s say you can’t get an engineer out for a week, or a fortnight. If that’s a disastrous scenario for your business, then having a servicing plan is going to be an essential expense.
Of course, you might never encounter your machine being out of order, but if your laser cutter is essential to your business continuing to perform, then it really is a small price to pay. For the equivalent of just £75 per month, you can ensure you have access to a specialist engineer within 48 hours, with two routine maintenance visits included, so your business can keep growing without you needing to worry about unexpected problems occurring.
Click here for more information about service plan options with Hobarts.
While some of these things will be necessary, paying for them may not be. In this section, we’ll point you at some of the ways you can do these things without cost.
Looking at the cost of your software is a good place to start when you’re keeping costs low too. You’ve probably heard about Open Source alternatives to Microsoft and Apple products, but there are alternatives for laser cutting software too. That means you can make savings simply by using LaserWeb4, Inkscape, SolveSpace or Solid Edge 2D Drafting. Although there are many businesses that rely on Open Source laser cutting packages, these software packages might not be right for you long term – and so you may decide to invest in a paid software package.
If you’re creating gift items, you might need a specialist software package that will allow you to create really bespoke items featuring photographs. Many customers will pay for a favourite photo to be etched onto an acrylic block as a gift for a loved one, for example. Software such as 1-Touch Laser Photo is perfect for this, and can be downloaded for a one-time cost of £238 + VAT.
Once you’re actually creating your items, you’ll need to look at your marketing. While costs can be pretty minimal, if you haven’t done any type of marketing before then you might need to invest some time in learning.
Setting up your social media accounts for your business doesn’t take a huge amount of time, but you’ll need to be able to start adding posts and growing your following on each social media channel. In this phase, the time required is the biggest resource you’ll need. As long as you have a phone with a decent enough camera, that will be good enough quality to photograph your laser cut items to start with. You’ll be able to use online design tools like Canva to start with too, to create professional-looking posts effortlessly.
Once your business starts to take off and you have bigger capacity, you may decide to use a social media management tool to schedule your posts – which can be an additional cost, depending on the functionality you need. And if you’re struggling to make sales, or you want to use targeted social media or search engine ads, that comes at additional cost too.
If you have your own website, you’ll need to consider SEO and the best way to get your customers to your website – and while you can pay someone to handle that, there are also paid tools that can help you too. You’ll need to know how to make use of these tools best though, and learning them can take time – which is why many people choose to work with SEO experts.
Actually getting your laser cut items available for sale online can incur a cost too. We explain this below, but selling online doesn’t usually come for free!
Inventory and order management software
Whether you’ve got items in stock or you’re simply offering items and will create them on demand, you’ll need a system for keeping on top of your inventory and managing your orders. If you’re only offering one or two items, then keeping track might not be too much of a challenge, but once you’re over that level – and you’re selling on more than one sales channel, then you’ll need a bit of help.
Automating your inventory and order management is another expense that you’ll need to consider as your business grows. There are a number of open source systems that are available to start using for free, with paid upgrades either as the number of your products or orders increase. Although it might be appealing for being able to use them at no cost initially, they may not be able to provide the functionality your business might need in just six months or a year – so think carefully. You don’t want the hassle of switching in the near future.
Some of the paid inventory and order management systems may provide far more functionality that is better suited to your business that works out a better option in the longer term. As with everything in business, be sure to do your research carefully before making your decision. Look at costs, but also look at the sales channels that you can connect to, and whether you will need to configure anything manually – and if there are manual processes required, what implications that will have for your business.
Where to sell your laser cut items
When you’re starting a small business, there are a lot of things to consider. You’ll need to decide on what you’re going to sell and who your target customer is. Your target customer isn’t ‘everybody’ – and it is much easier to do your marketing if you’ve identified the sort of person you’re going to be targeting with your products.
Your target customer will help you decide how and where you’re going to sell – whether that is in person, or online through social media, marketplaces and your own website. There are pros and cons to selling in each place, so you’ll need to work out what is going to be right for your business.
When we say marketplaces, we’re referring to eCommerce giants like Amazon and eBay. Although you’re likely to be able to reach loads of customers this way, and you’ll benefit from the trust that people have in shopping there, there are some downsides. Not only will you have fees to pay – which might be a listing fee, a commission or a seller subscription – you’ll also be selling items that are cheaper alternatives, meaning that either you miss out on sales, or you reduce your prices and your profits.
To sell bespoke laser cut items successfully on marketplaces, you need to sell where customers are looking for unique products – and are therefore happy to pay a little extra for quality. Etsy is a good option, especially if you’re offering customisation, but you can also look at Amazon Handmade, Folksy and nuMONDAY.
Your own website
Traditionally, getting a website to sell through has been expensive, time consuming, or both. But with the rise of companies like Shopify, BigCommerce and 3dcart, creating an eCommerce website is easier than it ever has been. These companies allow you to create a website quickly and easily, with drag and drop design features, and plugins and add-ons that mean you can get a high-spec, high converting website without needing to use code or pay for a developer. Some of these plugins and add-ons do come at a cost though – so when choosing your website builder, be sure to take that into account.
Marketing your products on social media isn’t anything new – companies have been doing it for years now. But so-called ‘social commerce’ – that is, selling products directly on social media, without the customer needing to leave their feed – is booming. It is estimated that sales made through social media will rise to around $604.5 billion in the next seven years.
But it makes sense when you think about it. The visual nature of social media means it is perfect to make sales on, and the social media companies have provided the functionality for businesses to create shoppable posts quickly and easily – and your followers can shop items in your feed just as easily – they simply see it, click it, and buy it.
Local fetes and fairs
Spring fetes, summer festivals, Christmas fairs – the great British public love a good seasonal market! Overheads tend to be low for taking stalls at these type of events, especially when they’re in small villages and towns, and provide a great networking opportunity for small businesses to become better known, and to build potentially lucrative connections with other small local businesses.
A retail outlet
Selling on the high street isn’t without significant challenge right now. You’ve only got to look at big names like Arcadia and Debenhams to see that! But as these changes occur, opportunities are presenting themselves for small businesses as town centre landlords repurpose space. We’re hearing of empty department stores being turned into ad-hoc marketplaces that allow small businesses to rent space by the square metre – which could give you just enough presence to get your name out there locally at an affordable rate. As your business grows, you’ll know whether you have enough demand to invest in a dedicated shop of your own.
Our final thoughts
Starting a business is rarely easy, and often isn’t straightforward either, but with careful planning and consideration of the type of customer you’re targeting, you’ll be able to grow your business at a rate that is both manageable and profitable. Getting your products in front of target customers is relatively simple, using your social media presence, and you’ll be able to choose the best place to sell your items based on your target customer profile(s).
Once you’re up and selling, you can expand your range, and your profits relatively easily, as long as you stay on top of your maintenance. If you’re starting your laser cutting business, we wish you the very best of luck, and stay in touch – you can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.