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5 Lessons I Learned From my Laser-Based Business

5 Lessons I Learned From my Laser-Based Business main article image
Posted on November 25, 2022 by Christy Madokoro
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Are you looking to expand your craft into the laser cutting realm?  Have you seen advertising on home lasers and want one to start a business?  Do you own a laser and are having difficulty moving forward?  Running a business built around laser cutting is both rewarding and challenging.  I’ve started from barely knowing how to turn on my machine to being able to produce and sell files and products and even teach others how to do the same.

Here are five useful tips to help in starting and growing your laser-focused business

  1. You don’t need the newest, biggest, or shiniest tool.
  2. Don’t undervalue yourself.
  3. Find your niche.
  4. Step out of your comfort zone.
  5. When things get overwhelming, ask for help.

You Don’t Need the Newest, Biggest, or Shiniest Tool

Basic Glowforge on top and a used Pro on the bottom sitting on a homemade rolling table

It’s easy to get caught up in the “go big or go home” mantra.  When making a large purchase for your business or potential business, you’d like to future-proof yourself by buying the largest and most versatile piece of equipment you can.  However, this is not always necessary, and can sometimes be frustratingly counter-productive.

When I first started shopping for lasers, I was drawn in by lower-priced models.  However, I was quickly consumed by my desire to own the biggest, baddest laser I could fit in my kitchen.  I might have even contemplated removing several important appliances to make room for my imaginary makerspace.  In the end, my husband talked me into a practical base model of a home laser.

In truth, unless you have an immediate need for your business that requires extra bed space or a passthrough function, you can save yourself thousands of dollars by going entry level.  This also relieves a lot of the stress associated with buying a higher-priced machine.  When you’ve invested several thousand dollars into a piece of equipment, you are immediately bombarded with the need to make it profitable.  Your expectations are much higher for both you and the machine.

I’ve seen countless people sell their lasers in defeat or vent frustration when their expensive laser is out of order and cannot produce enough to break even.

By going with only what you can immediately use in the beginning, you can see if and how a laser will fit into your business.  When you’ve broken even on the cost of your machine and can foresee going bigger as a profitable investment, then you’ll be well equipped with both experience and knowledge when you take the step forward towards an upgraded machine; you may even find that your next machine upgrade will be to a used machine rather than a brand new one.

Don’t Undervalue Yourself

Handmade does not mean cheap. Every item takes planning, time, and expense to create, so don't sell yourself short.

You’ve bought the laser and you’re ready to start making and selling.  The question of pricing is always a tricky point for many.  Newcomers will often try to keep their prices as low as possible thinking this is the best way to bring in consumers.  This thought can reduce your sales.  There is no way an individual maker can compete with large factories when it comes to cost and output, so don’t try.  When consumers are shopping for handmade items, pricing a product too low will put your product in line with lower quality, mass-produced products that buyers will bypass.

There are so many other factors involved in pricing than your materials cost.  Your materials cost on a pair of earrings may be low, but that doesn’t mean your only consideration should be how much money you are making back on materials.

Consider the cost of your laser-it is a machine with moving parts that will eventually fail.  Like a car, it will require maintenance and repair.  Working your machine replacement costs into your product price is a sound practice that should be done to protect your investment and increase the value of your product.

A good example of working the cost of the laser replacement into your product price would be as follows:

Your laser tube is rated with a shelf-life of how long it’s expected to last before needing replacement.  On my CO2 laser, the tube is expected to last two years or 10,000 hours.  You want the machine to make its replacement value back before then.  One hundred hours is a good goal for this example.  If your laser cost three thousand dollars, then to make your money back over the one hundred hours, you’ll need to charge at least thirty dollars an hour for your laser’s time.

A lot of projects won’t take an hour to make, so to break it down further:  You’d need to charge fifty cents per minute to meet that 100 hour pay-off goal.  And if your goal is to invest in a more expensive laser, consider adding the cost of that laser into your calculations.

Don’t forget about your own time invested into the projects also.  You wouldn’t work for free for someone else, and now you’re designing, sourcing and prepping materials, packaging, selling, and marketing.  Give yourself a fair hourly wage and stick with it, and after a while, if you think to yourself, “my time is worth more than this,” give yourself a raise.

While adding all this into one project might seem like overkill, if you plan to sell multiples, you can spread this cost out over a goal of however many you hope to sell.  If this is for a custom project for a customer, be up front about your possible time and cost commitment.  I make my hourly rate clear to my customers prior to taking up any custom work requests.  Most people are happy to pay my rate, and those who aren’t are not my target customer.

When pricing your products, this time and cost breakdown is very helpful.  Keep track of the time (hours, minutes, seconds) of every product you cut and your materials expense (actual materials, masking, findings, paint, packaging, etc.) and once you’ve used those numbers to determine your base expense, use that total to determine your wholesale and retail prices.

Wholesale will typically be twice your total expenses, and retail is typically twice the wholesale price.  After completing the pricing process, you’ll often find that some products are not worth your time in producing because the retail cost is so expensive that a reasonable consumer would not pay that price.  You’ll know to either change the product to reduce your costs or move on to something more worth your time.  The formula you create can be used on all your products and gives you a good standard to create estimates.  And since this is your formula, it can always be adapted in a direction that is useful to you.

Running a successful laser-cutting business doesn't need a warehouse or expensive equipment. Here is a corner of the kitchen with materials and equipment set up on low-cost shelving.

Find Your Niche

Your laser is capable of so many types of projects, but that does not mean you need to do them all.  Being a jack-of-all trades can be overwhelming and can make it difficult to explain to others exactly what you do.  If you are unclear of how to define yourself, then your customers will also be unclear.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What do you enjoy making?
  • Is this something you’d be happy to continue for six months? One year? Five years?
  • Is there an opportunity for growth?
  • Are there communities where I can join to expand my craft and audience?

Many successful businesses find their niche, and with that, their exact target audience.  So, whether you’re focused on file design, leather hat patches, off-color joke coasters, or one-twelfth scale farmhouse dollhouse furniture, knowing your niche helps you stay focused on what products you develop and offer.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Custom 7-foot arched garden sign created in a Basic Glowforge with a 12x20" bed size.

Sometimes things may not be working out how you imagined.  Sales can slow to a halt, the product you thought would take off could have an oversaturated market, materials costs have gone through the roof; whatever it may be, be open to change and challenges because those are opportunities for personal growth.  Say yes to challenges, even if they make you nervous.

I came into the laser cutting scene thinking I would make money selling products I created.  But it didn’t work out quite the way I imagined.  Although I had found success later with my own designs, what really paid off my laser and gave me the breathing room for creative freedom was a request that I was almost too nervous to take.

Someone was looking for a laser cutting business to cut their own designs and ask for help in creating files.  This was something I didn’t have experience in, and I was worried I would fail miserably.  I took a deep breath and accepted the challenge.  This not only expanded my comfort zone but gave me the experience and confidence I needed to tackle other challenging types of work, like teaching others how to do the same.

When Things Get Overwhelming, Ask for Help

“No man is an island” couldn’t be a truer statement when it comes to laser cutting.  Even if you’re already coming from a digital design background, there are so many new terms to learn and apply to your work.  There may be times when you need helpful advice or technical assistance.  Even someone to vent your problems to who understands the struggles you are faced with is a great way to maintain your sanity.

Joining communities of similar creators is highly recommended.  Always start with the official forums created for the laser you are using.  Whether your laser is a Glowforge, OMTech, Trotec, Epilog, etc., the official forums are a wealth of knowledge from experienced users from all different fields.  Search the archived threads for topics that may answer your questions or ask the question yourself and become an active member of the community.  Doing so will bring you other opportunities and you’ll learn tips and tricks that can help simplify your life.

There have been times when a user would find their machine out of service and could find someone to help with orders to keep up with business until repairs are completed.  If you are new to file design, posts assisting with file issues can save you a lot of time and headache.  And if you want to try a new material or learn if a surface is safe to engrave, you can easily find others who have shared not only their experiences, but their settings.

Outside of the official forums, there are plenty of social media groups to join that are very helpful to new members.  There you will be exposed to a community of makers who are selling files, materials, and objects.  And of course, follow the communities involved in your niche.  There you will be able to find local events and follow trends that can greatly influence the direction of your business.  The more people you meet, the greater the pool of experience you have access to when you want to learn or need assistance.

Running any type of business is going to take work and commitment.  But with the right tools and guidance, the work doesn’t have to be hard.  Enjoy yourself, learn to take breaks, and go easy on yourself.  Do you run a successful laser business?  What lessons have you learned through your experience?


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