Give us an overview of the laser engraving business and how these machines work?

A laser engraver is a very simple machine to operate. It actually works just like your printer would. Whatever you design on your computer and send it over, it pretty much will cut or engrave for you. The hardest part of running a laser is actually learning the software that you're using.

Do you offer refunds?

Unfortunately we do not offer refunds though all machines come with a 1 year guarantee on the machines and a 6 month guarantee on the laser tubes.

Can you run a laser engraving business out of your home?

Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I recommend it. If you do not have to get a shopfront, why have that expense? I would probably say 70% of the new entrepreneurs today are running out of their home and I think that percentage is conservative. I think it's actually higher. If you can create a product line that you can expose without having to have a storefront, I recommend that.

Is there a lot of competition in the awards and trophy business?

Yes. If somebody said "I'm going to try to corner the market in the awards and trophy business" I'd wish them well but that would be very, very tough.

What kinds of things can you make and sell with a laser engraver?

Well, that's a loaded question. There's probably 101 to a million and one, because the laser right now is changing so fast. New substrates are coming out every day. New designs, new product lines. If you go to a trade show, you'll see just a tiny portion of what can be done with a laser. You've got to remember, you can engrave but you can also laser cut almost any type of product or sub-part. There are a lot of industries out there that could use your service if they knew what your laser was capable of doing.

What kind of products can you make with your laser which offer the most profit margin for you?

Our industry, or what we do for business, is we create product lines. I try to tell everybody, think about what you can get locally for substrate. Could you run a simple piece of printed paper through your inkjet printer, laser cut it and turn it into a product that could have 2500% mark-up over material costs? Absolutely. Could you get local wood at a lumber yard and turn it into a major product that you could sell nationwide? Absolutely. Besides doing the onesies-twosies, the plaques, the awards, and name tags, look at what type of product line you can develop with substrates you can get locally.

Laser engravers are such a versatile tool that I would imagine a lot of people buy one before they've developed a business plan. How do I go about developing a business plan for my laser engraving business?

You know, any business you get into, if it isn't a franchise, you have to give some thought to what your exit strategy is. Your first priority is to aim to pay off your laser machine in 6-12 months. And with an almost 100% profit margin, that's straightforward.

What about selling wholesale instead of just retail?

Exactly. A big business right now is pets like dogs and cats. If you can make a product that could sell in a place in Cape Town, there is a good chance that someone in Johannesburg who has a dog would want that same product, so technically you could wholesale across the country. Nowadays with shipping and Speed Services, it doesn't matter if you're shipping ten kilometres or a thousand kilometres.

How much should I try to make per hour for engraving?

Let's be realistic here. The laser is one of those machines that you can compete with against Chinese goods, because the profit margin can be that good, but you have to realise that if you ran just forty hours a week times sixty minutes in an hour, that's 2 400 minutes a week. If you were making R5 a minute, that'd be R12 000 a week. For a R33 000 (PLT 3040) machine? I mean, if somebody told me that I could make that kind of money, I'd want to be buying ten machines. The truth is that what you want to do is keep that machine steady. If you kept that machine steady, even at R2.50 a minute, you'd be making a good living off that R33 000 investment. The trick is not how much you make an hour on that machine, as much as it is getting the sales and marketing volume for running that machine. Better still, train an operator or family member so you can concentrate on networking and marketing.

What are some effective ways to market my laser engraving business?

This is the easy part: weddings, celebrations, gifts (especially tourism ones). Engrave wine glasses and bottles, pictures on jeans and clothing, stylize gifts and accessories, engrave photos directly onto wood, steel or glass to give that permanent durable look and feel. The possibilities are endless.

What are some of the most common mistakes people who start a laser engraving business make, and how do you think I can avoid them?

The biggest mistake one can make is not to network with your friends, business associates and social circles. Constantly set out to impress them with your suggestions. If you keep quiet no one will flock to your door. There are no major recurring costs in the engraving business once you have bought your engraver, but by the same token unless the machine is operating, your revenue will not be maximised.

Any other general advice?

I would say that if somebody wanted to get into a new business, was looking for something very different, something that not everybody has, something that's almost futuristic and that has many possibilities. We can't even tell all the different things you'll be able to make in the future. Then it could be a great business for somebody. It's just like every other business. I don't care if you have a service station, a shoe shop, or a laser engraving business, without exposure and somebody marketing and getting sales, that's where the money comes from. This can be a great, fun business and you can make a lot of money and be able to go to work in your garage if you want to.