|Adding an aluminum frame to a simple wall sign takes it to a whole new level of elegance for a minimal amount of money.|
About once a week I get an E-mail asking how to make money with a laser engraver. Usually it’s someone with a very limited budget who has heard of the pot of gold that lies at the end of every laser engraver purchase. Salespeople paint glorious pictures of wealth beyond belief. No matter what screwball idea one might have, some of those salespeople will promise the moon. Is any of it true? Is there really money to be made with a laser engraver and if there is, how can someone tap into it?
Clearly, there’s no way I can tell anyone how they can make money with a laser. I don’t have that kind of insight; my crystal ball is broken and I don’t much like tea so I can’t read tea leaves. Whether or not you succeed in your laser business is pretty much up to you.
What I can do is share what’s worked the best for me. If that’s helpful in helping you build your business or deciding whether or not a laser engraver is right for you, I’m pleased. It doesn’t come with promises or guarantees. There aren’t many of those in life. Most of us have to take a chance, work hard and with a little luck, we’ll make a few dollars.
Buying A Laser
Service, service, service is the most important thing to consider when purchasing a laser engraver. It isn’t the brand you buy so much as the kind of hand-holding support you expect and receive from your dealer that makes the biggest difference. You can always buy a good laser cheaper somewhere. Cheaper isn’t the key to success, support is and support usually costs money.
Size Is Important
For your first laser, buy one with at least 25 watts of power. I think air assist is a must too. Beyond that, most features are bells and whistles like the kind of stereo is in a new car. These features may be great, but the heart of the machine is the amount of power the laser can produce. That’s what makes money. Machines less than 25 watts may make good second machines for people who know exactly what they’re going to do with their lasers, but for a novice, I’d suggest 25 watts as a minimum. I have both a 25 and a 50 watt laser in my operation and although I love my 50 watt for the speed and power it can produce, there’s very little I can’t do just as well with the 25 watt machine (although it may take longer to do it). What makes the biggest difference is the air assist (an optional laser engraving attachment that sends a constant stream of compressed air across the engraving surface at the point of burn to minimize flare and produce deep, clean engraving and cutting). My 25 watt machine doesn’t have air assist, my 50 watt does. This dictates that all rubber stamps and wood engraving and most cutting projects be done on the 50 watt. Not necessarily because it has more power but because it has the air assist. Most new lasers either come with air assist or offer as an option. Air assist is not required to do these types of jobs; it just makes them better, easier, quicker and cleaner. For years, I did all these jobs without air assist. Never again!
As for the physical size of the engraving bed, the bigger the better. Yet, there are some hard questions that come with that. How much space do you have and how deep are your pockets? My machines are 12" x 24" machines and there have been only a very few times when I’ve needed anything bigger. Even then, it was for rather strange jobs like engraving cabinet doors.
The new “table top” machines offer table sizes smaller than mine. 12" x 16" and 12" x 18" tables prohibit placing a full sheet of engraving stock in the machine. This is a restriction—not because you need to engrave an entire sheet of engraving stock but because you can’t stick a full quarter sheet of plastic in the machine, engrave what you want, cut it out with the laser and return the remainder to storage. It means you have to cut a 12" x 24" sheet of stock down to fit the laser before engraving or cut the stock into the finished size before engraving it. This would be a pain for me but not one I couldn’t tolerate, especially for a first machine on a tight budget.
Again, I can’t really say how “you” will make money with your laser but I can share my experience of where I found the best money, highest profits and fewest problems. Your experience will be different but maybe something I say will give you a new perspective or turn on some light in your head that helps you to identify a new market.
Can you make money with a laser? Yes! Anyone who has a laser and isn’t making money with it has either been grossly mislead or just isn’t trying. Those are strong words but I believe them. Anyone who puts in the effort, learns the necessary skills and has just the tiniest bit of luck will make money with a laser engraver.
Through the years, I’ve served just about every market there is from making inexpensive little trophies to making parts for jet fighters. Some jobs just fell into my lap and no matter how hard you might try, you could never replicate that. Like the $35,000 job that just walked in the front door one day from the Merchant Marines. That job paid for my first laser in less than 30 days and made a big profit to boot! There’s no way you could ever hope to repeat that stroke of good luck. But many of the jobs are there for the asking.
Which Market Should You Approach?
Should you approach the award, trophy, corporate, ad specialty or gift market? The short answer is, all of them, because to some extend, at least, you’ll find yourself dabbling in all kinds of strange markets, but the ones that have paid off the best for me, year after year, have been the corporate and industrial markets. When I spend time doing marketing, I invest it all into the corporate and industrial markets. Trophies are pretty much left to someone else (although I do sell them—mostly because I don’t want my corporate customers to go somewhere else).
Single plaques such as coach’s gifts and the like are fine but again, anyone can do those. Engravers for these projects are often chosen not by quality of work or product, but solely on price. I have no desire to be the Wal-Mart of the awards industry. Too many have already tried that philosophy and failed. I see no reason to repeat their failure.
Buyers in the corporate market, however, usually make their choices based on things other than price. In most cases, the money being spent belongs to the corporation, not the person making the purchase and so as long as they have the amount budgeted, they can buy whatever they like. So, what will they like? They’ll look for whatever they think will make them look good in front of their boss, Board of Directors, etc. I’ve seen it happen a thousand times. Both in military and business, my most important job is to make my customer look good in front of whoever he or she needs to impress. Doing that means three things:
1. Quality products and workmanship
2. Delivering the product on time
3. Doing it right the first time
Although those three simple rules may sound easy, living up to them is quite a challenge. Customers call with rush orders, send unreadable faxes with long lists of names or try to describe things over the phone that don’t even begin to match what they really want.
The real secret to building a business in the corporate world however, goes one step beyond those three rules. It’s the building of a personal relationship and trust between you and the corporate buyer(s). Most of my clients call me and say something like, “I’ve got $2,000 and need six awards for a big dinner. What can you get for me by Friday?” Let that client down one time with cheap products, bad engraving or inappropriate pricing and you’ll never see or hear from them again.
Likewise, corporate and industrial clients come up with some strange requests. They ask for things you’ve never heard of before. Over and over, I hear shop owners respond, “Naw, we don’t do that” and hang up. A relationship is more than just selling whatever you have to someone. It requires effort beyond the call of duty sometimes. Some of my most profitable jobs have resulted from a client asking for some off-the-wall product. At one time I actually sold American flags to the United States Navy! Lots of them! Surely they had a better source than a retail trophy shop for buying flags yet, for a long time, the Navy repeatedly ordered flags and flag poles. This was a product I wouldn’t normally sell, but it added significantly to the bottom line so why not?
Pick Your Product
Again, you need to be open to finding product lines you might not normally think about. I can however, share some product lines that have been particularly profitable for me.
• Acrylic Awards and Mementos: Lasers and acrylic were made for each other. Corporate clients love acrylic. It’s elegant, not too expensive and engraved logos look great in it. On your side, it’s fast and easy to engrave, carries a high profit margin and because it’s so difficult to do well on a rotary machine, your competition is greatly reduced.
• Think safety: Corporations, especially in manufacturing industries, eat, sleep and breath safety. Accidents cost companies a lot of money and paperwork. Government oversight, Workers’ Comp and lost man hours strangle a company’s production and profits. Because of that, many companies not only stress safety, they reward it with plaques, acrylics, key chains and of course, cash. You can easily carve out your piece of this market with your laser, no pun intended. The most difficult part is to move safety-conscious buyers from cash gifts to engraved gifts. Not a difficult sell when you remind the company that all the employee is going to do with cash is pay a bill. If you give them an engraved gift, it will stay around for a lifetime. That means your logo will be displayed with pride for as long as the employee lives. And many of these corporate oriented awards will remain in the workplace—in the person’s office or work area—functioning as an inducement to others. All of this usually does the trick. Employees may not agree, but the corporations sure will!
• Perpetual Plaques & Employee of the Month Awards: A great many companies have latched on to the fact that salary is not the most important factor to an employee’s happiness at a company. In fact, in most surveys, salary comes in forth or fifth. Recognition on the other hand, usually comes in first or second! People like to be recognized for their loyalty and efforts. A pat on the back goes a long way and recognizing one or more “Employees of the Month” can make a world of difference. Remind your client that giving an award is not the key. The key is making a big deal out of giving an award.
• Labels, decals, control panels, legends: These are all really the same thing. Only their application differs. Labels are used on tools, pipes and control switches while decals might be used on products. Control panels speak for themselves while legends are those information panels you see on motors, electrical devices and the like. Industry often needs these products in small quantities and that’s where the laser really pays off. It means maximum return on your investment. It can also open doors to your selling screen printed labels and decals when larger quantities are needed.
• Plastic Signs: Plants and businesses use a lot of plastic signs. Door signs, desk easels, wall signs, safety and informational signs, tags for lockers and electrical equipment are fast and easy jobs for a laser and afford high profit margins and lots of repeat business. I have one laboratory that started ordering plastic signs from me five years ago. Since then, they’ve never placed a large order, but have repeated the same order once or twice a month, every month. I consider this the ideal client.
• Stainless Steel Plates: Industry uses a lot of stainless steel. It’s anti-rust properties make it ideal for everything except engraving. Rotary engraving a stainless steel plate, label or control panel is very expensive, time consuming and often doesn’t do a great job anyway, especially if the stainless is unusually hard such as the 400, 600 or medical grade. These extra hard metals are almost impossible to engrave using conventional engravers. With a laser however, and a product like CerMark, permanently marking stainless is a walk in the park. It brings lots of smiles, top dollar and vastly superior results. CerMark will also mark some other metals and alloys such as Chrome (tools), pewter and some raw steels. A test is always a good idea before making promises since the chemical doesn’t work on all metals. Brass for instance is very questionable. Some brass will accept the CerMark and some won’t. There’s no way for you to know before testing it.
• Rubber Stamps: Companies use a lot of rubber stamps for all kinds of things. Return address stamps and deposit stamps only scratch the surface. I serve a company that marks bolts for aviation and military applications using rubber stamps and special inks. They aren’t my biggest client, but they order between one and ten stamps per week. At a 66% profit margin, that’s OK. Stamps can easily be made in all sizes, even with logos and photographs (no one has ever asked me to make a photograph) can be made with any 25 watt laser with the proper software. The special software comes standard with most lasers currently being sold.
• Barcode Labels: This is something new to me, but is clearly something that will become big business in the future. The Department of Defense is doing something called Data-Matrix. Perhaps you have been reading EJ’s series on the developing UID market. Most industry however can probably be better suited to use basic old fashioned barcodes to mark tools and other valuables that might tend to grow legs and wander off if not marked. Tools are being marked with barcodes using a chemical like CerMark. Then, each time a tool is “checked out” to a worker, the barcode on the tool and a barcode on the worker’s ID badge are scanned so the company knows who has that tool. Barcode labels can also be made for application to electronic equipment and a host of other items and although many materials can be used for this purpose, a special die-cut label material is available from Horizons that’s specially made for durability and highly readable barcodes.
• Multiple Language Products: We’re in a global society. Medium to large corporations almost all have satellite operations overseas. Some of these are in English speaking countries, but many are not. The ability to engrave awards and other products in other languages opens an interesting door. Over the past few years, I’ve done awards in Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Taiwanese, German, French and Spanish. Although I hardly speak a word of any of these, engraving the awards is simple. Have your client obtain the exact text and layout from their foreign office in Word for Windows or Word Perfect and E-mail it to you. Then import the text into CorelDRAW, adjust the size and spacing accordingly and engrave it. Nothing could be simpler even if you don’t a have clue what it says.
There will be countless other projects your clients will dream up for you along the way, so be prepared for anything. Cast bronze plaques, screen printed coffee cups, ink pens, rulers and a thousand other things may come as requests. Don’t forget you can accommodate many of the odd requests even if you have to farm out the work. Remember, if it adds to the bottom line, it can’t be all bad.
So, there you are. My favorite ways to make money with my lasers—my business secrets, if you will. They aren’t anything so special, as you can see. Mostly common sense, a little hard work and a touch of luck. You can, if you work at it and follow the rules mentioned above, build a very profitable business that’s fun and exciting. It isn’t magic. It takes time and hard work, but since the introduction of the laser engraver it has become a reality for a lot of people. I sincerely hope you are one of them!
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