Maker Business: Venturing out…

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.


38 thoughts on “Maker Business: Venturing out…

  1. rarebeasts says:

    Great piece and good timing, I have just started a full time maker gig myself.

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      Do tell us about it, rarebeasts. If you can at this point.

      1. rarebeasts says:

        I’m designing and making electronic musical instruments. I have a shop on Etsy @ and I’m looking for other inline places to sell my items . I started small but things are getting busy, the above post seemed timely for me.

        1. Jeffrey McGrew says:

          Awesome! I always think to myself that when things slow down a little for us that someday I’m gonna pull out some old schematics I’ve got and make me a Moog Modular-ish synth. WITH THE MOST AWESOME FACEPLATES EVER! ;-)

  2. Dale Dougherty says:

    One thing that Jeffrey mentions is obvious but important: talk to other people about your ideas and plans but don’t get talked out of doing something. Being open to feedback and advice is important and it’s a way of making your idea public while continuing to hang on to it. You’ll discover new ideas by talking about your own ideas. Often that thing you started with changes shape as a result.

    I have a hunch that one advantage today’s makers have over previous generations is that they are better communicators. It’s easier to find others who share your interests and reach them. It’s easier to find potential customers and see if they’re interested in what you’re doing.

    One might consider this “verbal prototyping.”

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      That’s a good coinage, Dale.

      I was interviewed today by writer Mark Dery about the maker movement and I was telling him that every time I do one of those State of the Art pieces in MAKE, asking pros and enthusiasts, what excites them about their respective domains (robots, desktop fabbing, remote control), almost to a contributor, they always rhapsodize about the ability the internet affords them to collaborate, think out loud, get feedback on projects, share projects, and other aspects of what could come under “verbal prototyping.” I have to edit out most of them, ’cause everyone would be saying the same thing, but it’s there on most makers’ radar as a huge asset in realizing projects and developing products.

  3. Brennon Williams says:

    Awesome piece. As someone who has had a little part-time maker business for a little while I found this info really useful. What I’ve learn most about is probably problem solving, which I found to be one of the most important keys for starting a home maker biz (not that I’m in any way a “Maker Pro” of course:) )

  4. volkemon says:

    SO very well said.

    Clarifies things I thought I saw, and says things I was composing for a friend starting to MAKE his way…

    Not to repeat mindlessly, but Awesome piece. Now I feel like I must try harder yet.


  5. Solarbotics says:

    Yes, there will be a bit of outlay in paying them, but they’ll save you a bundle by knowing how/when/where you should put your money/receipts/writeoffs. Plus, they’ll give you a good idea how you’re doing when all you see is a pile of numbers on a sheet. I mean, what _does_ “capital cost expenditures” really mean?

    In short, let a pro tell you how well you’re doing (as a company) while you’re doing what you’re doing.

    1. Jeffrey McGrew says:

      First year we hired an accountant to help with our taxes we went from needing to pay to getting something like $6k back. Well worth the cost I’d say. Also there are great folks out there who are not full CPA Accountants but instead licensed Tax assistants and such that are cheaper but just as full of help. Ours helped us setup our Quickbooks, taught us what was what, and is available for asking questions when we run into snags. Now that we’re all setup, she only drops by about twice a year, once to check in on us and again when it’s tax time!

  6. Donald Haas says:

    Great advice. It’s okay to follow some lofty dreams, as long as you ground yourself periodically in reality.

  7. Shawn Connally says:

    This is a great piece, Jeffrey! I feel like a lot of your tips apply to just growing your career as well as starting your own business. Thanks for sharing them!

  8. Dan Goldwater says:

    great article jeff! i was really surprised how every little point seemed to mirror my own experience so far. so, i guess 2 matching datapoints -> it must be true!!

    > I have to admit that it was shocking when close friends and
    > family simply didn’t care to follow what we were busy with

    yes this was odd at first, but now it seems like this: i’m thinking 60+ hours a week, 52 weeks a year about this one strange niche. the inverse: i wouldn’t want to talk to my best friend for more than about an hour a month about something as practical as Glue. If my friend was thinking about Glue for every waking hour of the past month, and had trouble conversing with me or anyone else near him for more than 5 minutes without bringing up something about Glue, i’d rapidly start to think he was a bit off. but, “my friend” often seems to be “me”.

    1. Jeffrey McGrew says:

      Ha! Indeed. That a big part of why we decided to do monthly open houses: it forces us to be social in a wide context. We found we were working so much we sometimes lost the ability to relate to random people, and even our friends at times. So we do a second-Thursday-of-the-month (which is tomorrow) open house (you and everyone else is welcome to come) so that we were forced to get out once in a while.

      Something that didn’t make it in here, is once you’ve got your business going you need to figure out what you’re bad at then either hire someone to do that for you and/or put systems in place that solve the problem. Like above: get an account (person) and quickbooks or similar (system).

      Little things like our open house are a nice little system that becomes a habit that then grows a ‘culture’ for your business. It also gets us to clean up the Because We Cannery once a month, too!

  9. Nigel Tolley says:

    I’d suggest that you let people talk you out of things!

    It might sound negative, but I’m sure half the people here are rich in ideas, and short in time and capital.

    Use those with experience and brains to let you sift the wheat from the chaff. What are the odds that your stuffed animal and blinkenlight taxidermy shop is going to get off the ground? Wouldn’t the other idea you had about remote CCTV microcopters for indoor alarm systems be better? Or one of the other brainwaves you’ve had recently?

    So, be open to persuasion from those who you trust and respect.

    Commit 100% when you do, though. Businesses are like that. Take your eye off the ball for a few days a week and you won’t grow your taxidermy business, it will just trickle along. Same with the CCTV business. So get onto one, and stick to it and make that work. Then, later on, you can start the second one. And then, you can make taxidermy animals with CMOS eyes, and start a 3rd niche!

    1. Jeffrey McGrew says:

      While I certainly understand and respect where you’re coming from, the big problem is that it’s almost impossible to know who to listen to when someone is trying to talk you out of something.

      I wasn’t saying ‘don’t listen’, far from it, but instead was saying that you should listen to everyone, and then try lots of things cheaply and figure out for yourself if something really works or not.

      And actually, every time someone tells you why something won’t work, it’s great information of what you need to do to make it work.

      If I looked at your blikenlight taxidermy and said “this will never work unless you can do FOO”, and you know perfectly well how to do FOO, or think you can figure it out, or actually know that FOO doesn’t matter, well, know you’ve got more information to work from regardless of whether I’m a market expert or not.

      As with all things, it’s a fine balance one must have.

  10. AO says:

    Great article! #3 really resonates w/ me, along w/ the “verbal prototyping” comments.

    Cheers from Canada,

  11. moneyonline says:

    Great article!!!

  12. Stuart Gannes says:

    Great article. I’d add that good businesses understand their customers’ needs. The starting point is often understanding what we need ourselves, because we are already customers of many things and services. And, it can go from there to broader categories: parents, homeowners, pet owners, small businesses, etc. Chances are good that real customer “needs” are real business opportunities.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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