The Beginnings of Torchmate - Part 3
The Internet/CNC Stage:
About the time that I decided I needed some help, my son expressed interested in joining me in the business. He had no fabrication experience, but had started and operated an unrelated business previously.
I put him to work cutting out brackets for me. He lived in a remote area in Truckee, California, near the site of the failed Donner expedition in 1847. It was just about the worst possible location for a manufacturing operation. Bears raided his trash cans nightly.
He had a ship container delivered to his property, and ran electricity to it. He cut out brackets there for a short while, before moving, and ending up in Sparks, Nevada. In Sparks, he bought a house with some outbuildings that was previously owned by a well digger. The buildings were crude, and being in a desert environment, had nightly visitors by scorpions. He fixed the place up some, and made one of the buildings usable for our purposes, at least for a while (see picture).
The original Torchmate CNC machine had used driver software that was DOS based. It had to go, and I started working with another electronics and software supplier with a suitable Windows based system. I continued to use them for the remainder of the time I owned the company, and stay in touch with them to this day.
I made an arrangement with one of my tech-savy customers to supply me with a torch height control that used proximity sensors to maintain proper torch height. We later switched to a version that used arc voltage to monitor and adjust torch height. He eventually started his own competing CNC table company. I worked out an agreement to continue to use the design of the unit, and found a Pennsylvania company to continue producing it.
By this time, competitors started coming out of the woodwork, and I had to try to stay a couple of steps ahead of them. I had the advantage of a couple of years of momentum, with all my suppliers in place, and a reasonable customer base. I also capitalized on the fact that Torchmate dated back to 1979. By now I knew how to use the Internet, which most of my new competitors did not.
In 1998, the Internet was kind of like California during the gold rush. There were a ton of opportunities there for those who could grasp them. States had yet to come up with plans for collecting out of State sales tax, so people were motivated to buy on-line and avoid tax.
Internet providers had not yet figured out how to squeeze out the last dollar, and advertising was basically free via the search engines. The key to success was managing to come out on top in search engine results, and that became somewhat of a science.
Google was just getting started, and the big search engines at the time were Alta Vista, HotBot, Lycos, Yahoo, Webcrawler, etc. Each had a different formula for prioritizing their search results, and it was necessary to get a handle on each of them. There were some criteria they all had in common, as well. Most users had dial-up connections, and it was necessary to make sure that each web page loaded fairly quickly. Picture size and quality had to be sacrificed to speed things up. Visitors would bail out rather than wait more than about ten or fifteen seconds for a page to come up.
All the search engines used “spiders” that crept through the Internet and cataloged web page content. The key was to sprinkle relevant key words throughout your web pages, being careful not to do it to the point that it triggered spam guards. Words like PLASMA, PLASMA CUTTER, CNC PLASMA, AUTOMATED CUTTING, CNC CUTTING, THERMAL CUTTING would be used in meaningful sentences. It would work to your disadvantage if you just threw the words in there randomly. Key words that brought visitors to non-relevant web sites were frowned on, and in most cases rejected by the search engines. Businesses appeared on the scene that promised all of us fantastic search engine results, but I viewed them all with skepticism and never used them.
Over time, the search engine companies figured out how to profit more fully from their services, and it became harder to stay at the top of search results. Having a large web site with many pages and many visitors helped, and we had an advantage over our competitors in that regard.
Google came out with a tool called “Google Adwords” that helped us considerably. It provided advertisers with comprehensive reports on how many visitors a given page had on a specific day, how long they stayed on the page, how long they stayed on the web site, etc. The Adwords ads appeared on the right side of search results, and we paid a certain amount for each response to those ads. The amount charged depended on the popularity of the particular keyword used in that ad campaign. We had many ad campaigns.
A visit using conventional search engine results (called an “organic” search) produced a somewhat greater probability of a sale than one from Adwords. However, Adwords was still a great tool for us. Analysis of Adwords reports was essential in both saving us advertising money, and orchestrating where it would be spent.
An example of how such analysis paid off: Adwords, among other things, told us where each visitor was geographically located. We could determine what locations, i.e.; States, Cities, Countries, etc., were the most profitable. We found that we were spending over $5,000 a month for Adwords visitors from some obscure locale in South America. Yet, we had never had a single sale in that region. We blocked campaigns in that area, and saved $5,000 a month. The same tool could be used to determine locations where we should increase our presence.
Please forgive my going into so much detail about our use of search engines, but I can’t over-emphasize the importance they played in our growth. We were, to some extent, in the right place at the right time, with the right product. I don’t think one could duplicate what we did today, in the same manner we did it. However, there are perhaps even greater opportunities out there now, for those who can identify and take advantage of them.
As sales continued to grow, as our target audience expanded from car buffs and hobbyists to small shops and some fairly large businesses. In late 2001, we came out with a somewhat beefier machine called the Torchmate 2. The Torchmate 2 used aluminum extrusions from a company called 8020, and linear rails and roller cassettes from a Swedish company called Origa (now Parker-Origa). Torchmate 2 kits required substantially less fabrication on the part of the customer, and resulted in a more rigid gantry.
We now offered everything necessary for a complete machine, including the extrusions, hardware, rails, brackets, electronics, software, etc. The customer merely had to bolt it all together. I located a Canadian company to supply us with a Torchmate branded Cad program that included a number of unique features including automating nesting of parts, direction of torch travel for inside and outside shapes, etc.
By this time, my son had considerable experience with the machine, and had hired a couple of his old college friends. We settled on a division of labor in which the bracket cutting, shipping, and receiving would be done in his location, and I would handle the product development, marketing, sales, and technical support.
We rapidly outgrew the Sparks, Nevada outbuilding, and started looking for industrial space.
To be continued …
Photo 1 - One of the first gantry's I experimented with
Photo 2 - Completed Torchmate kit
Photo 3 - Shop in Sparks, Nevada
Photo 4 - Torchmate 2 supplied as a complete bolt-together unit.
Photo 5 - Torchmate 2 using oxy-acetylene. This was supplied as a gantry kit.