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jeffreyandjllian Maker Business: Venturing out...

Kicking off our Maker Business series is this piece by Jeffrey McGrew, who along with his wife Jillian Northrup, and their trusty CNC machine named Frank, are a two-person (and a bot) design and fabrication juggernaut. From their design-build studio in Oakland, CA, they do custom interior design, furniture, and such artist wonders as the “Art Golf” course they’ve set up at Maker Faire. Here, Jeffrey shares some words of advice to those who may be thinking of going “Maker Pro.” — Gareth

Venturing out…

By Jeffrey McGrew of Because We Can

We get a lot of friends and folks asking us about how we got started. And we know a lot of folks through the Maker Faire that would love to turn “pro.” So, I thought I’d jot down the six big things that I see as being key elements to getting started in such a business. I hope they help, and I’d love to hear more from other folks! [Chime in via comments. -Ed.]


1. Get as debt-free as possible, and try your best to stay that way.

We would have never been able to buy the robot (or CNC machine) and make the jump to working for ourselves had we not had our financial lives in order first. Having six months in savings to fall back on, no debt, other than a half-paid off car loan, and not taking on huge debts to get started, made it possible for us to make a lot of mistakes and learn things instead of going out with a quick bang. I’ve met a fair number of people who want to start their own business, but simply can’t, due to this single issue alone. No amount of great business ideas, hard work, or luck can overcome the burden of an unstable foundation on which to the start. Also, honestly, once you get your business going, you’ll find that your priorities, and what you think is important, will change greatly. If you’re really happy (which running our own business certainly make us), then you’ll need less stuff anyways. So, save your pennies, don’t worry about getting the latest and greatest, and pay off all those loans and credit cards before you take that leap.

2. Plans are worthless, planning is essential.
That quote from Winston Churchill sums up nicely a lot of what you’ll need to do when you start a business. You don’t need a perfect plan, with every step already outlined, in giant Gantt charts. But you do need a plan. And you need to be smart enough to change that plan as circumstances change. Running a business is more like sailing a ship than launching a rocket. What I mean is that you need a plan, and to be prepared, but honestly, at some point you’ll just point yourself at the horizon and go. And then everything will change, you’ll need to change direction, plans, and ideas. You’ll re-aim for that spot you wanted to get to constantly as the world around you changes in response to what you’re doing. And heck, sometimes you’ll find when you’re halfway there, you actually want to go somewhere else. So don’t fret too much and over-plan everything (and therefore never get started), or freak out when things don’t go according to your plans. But at the same time, don’t aim for that horizon without one!

3. Listen to everything everyone has to say, but then go ahead and do what you were going to do anyways.
Knowing too much is as bad as knowing too little. When you know too much, you stop listening, and when you know too little, you do stupid things. So it’s very important to listen to what everyone has to say, and to read whatever you can get your hands on. But it’s also equally important to ignore what’s wrong, misleading, or irrelevant. Knowing which is which isn’t easy. So it’s best to take a middle road: listen to what everyone has to say, but try things for yourself anyways, pay attention, and fail quickly. Don’t be scared. No one’s actually going to care that much about what you’re doing. I have to admit that it was shocking when close friends and family simply didn’t care to follow what we were busy with. And honestly, if what you’re doing is at all original, it’s not going to be easy for people not in your industry to understand it. So while it’s vital that your customers or clients understand how you provide value to them, and it’s vital to communicate how your business works to bankers or investors, it’s not so vital to prove it to your mom. Or even to some random naysayer. They will just be happy if you’re still in business, not starving, and happy.

4. Look (and learn) before you Leap.
And moreso after! You know all those folks around you at your day job? And especially your boss? Talking to anyone with their level of knowledge and experience will cost you many thousands of dollars once you’re on your own. And what about all those boring operational things and management practices and financial reports and other boring business stuff? Just think about how much time, money, and energy (as well as stupid mistakes) it’ll take to develop anything even close to as good once you’re on your own! So talk to everyone, pay attention, and learn all you can. I’m willing to bet that wherever you’re working now has a lot more to offer than you might be giving it credit for, especially if you want to start something else up to get out of whatever you’re working now. Also, do your homework. Take some classes, get yourself over to the Nolo store, and learn some stuff when you’re not in the flurry of activity and suddenly don’t have time to do lay this crucial groundwork! Starting your business solely to “get away” from your current situation isn’t a very good recipe for success.

5. Have a solid plan B in place.
Sure, I’d like to think that our business is going to be a raging success now and well into the future. But there’s no way, especially for a small company just starting out, to weather all storms. For us, we’ve got things to fall back on — Jillian has her Photography and I have my Revit consulting, and heck, we could always just cut stuff with our CNC machine for money. If the business doesn’t work out, we won’t starve, and actually will probably find it even easier to get day jobs again if we need to due to our additional business experience. While “betting the farm” sounds romantic, you’ll never be able to do your best work if you’re always stressing about money. Never burn bridges.Keep those connection. ‘Cause, in the end, It’s really about people, and about doing something great.

6. You’ve probably already got a niche, you just don’t know it yet.
I’m a big ol’ geek. Steeped in an upbringing of D&D, comics, animation, and other not-very-cool-at-the-time pursuits, I’ve also always been handy with computers and making things go. While I’ve got a deep background in architecture, and love design in general, I’ve always hung out more with artists, engineers, makers, and programmers, rather than the black turtleneck crowd of the classic design world. Having some sort of niche for your business, something you can do or make that’s hard for others to match, is always a good idea. When we started our company, our intent wasn’t to do interiors for game design and software companies. We just wanted to make great stuff. Turns out that being able to make anything we can think up, at a reasonable price via the robot, as well as being able to speak geek, is a perfect fit for our clients. We are of their tribe. You, likely, are of several tribes as well. It many not be obvious yet how that fits into your business, but if you’re smart, it will in time, and it will likely become vital.

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Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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