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    Default Self employment a different way

    When I read all these threads about self employment and jobs, I feel like there is an option missing. Everybody seems to think that the only route to making it in business is advanced training and expensive equipment. Well, I'm sure that is the most popular route, but it's very popularity makes that route more competitive, and that's what you DON"T need!

    I'm sure that a lot of you folks make a lot more money that I do now, and many probably make more than I ever did, but I have managed to raise 5 rather expensive daughters and keep my wife from having to join the workforce, own my home and shop outright, so let's say that this is my definition of success. If it's not yours, well maybe you need to follow the popular formula and just be better at it than anybody else, however it seems more like just hammering out stuff faster than anybody else can dooms you to always be buying the newest and fastest and most expensive machines you can afford and watching them decrease in value rapidly so you have to do it again in a few years. That's just how it looks from my side, so don't think I'm claiming any big knowlege about your buisnesses or the ones you want to start.

    All I know is that I started doing some hand work that required some offbeat skills back in the late 70's. Before that, I had always had a job somewhere and did some moonlighting. When I sold auto parts, I used to buy broken machinery, (wheel balancers, battery chargers, jacks, etc. and repair and sell them on the side, then later I'd pick up electric power tools from customers and repair them for parts and labor charges. I kind of got my feet wet that way, and found out that I could make SO much more money doing simple repairs than I made at my full time job. And it was work NOBODY else wanted to do. Almost no equiment required. Then I found a source of single phase motors, used, that were cheap and started building alternator testers and selling them to junk yards so they could prove the used alternators worked when they sold them.

    Anyway, jump to the late 70's and I was making some stuff (once more on the side, still had fulll time job at the mines) that required some off hand grinding skills and I thought I was getting quite good at that, so I heard about a guy who made ortodontic pliers and instruments, mostly by hand. I went and had a talk with him and he said I could do contract grinding for him, after he looked at my work. He hung 100 pair of pliers around the side of a cardboard box and told me what to do to them and sent me home with them. I had to grind a spot on the side of each pair of pliers that was almost the size of the side of the box joint to flat and parellell within .0005 on each pair, offhand, and could only screw up a couple of times or the side of the pliers would be too thin. I brought them back a few days later and he inspected them and paid me, then gave me another job to do on the same pliers and sent me off again.

    I trundled those pliers back and forth for a time, doing different stuff to them, until he kept them one day and gave me another hundred pair of blanks to work on. He was finishing the jaws and putting in grooves and ramps, etc. on the first hundred. When he was done with that, they went out for plating. When they came back they were finished.

    At that point he was going through a cardboard box that the mailman always tossed the mail into each day, and which Larry had never inspected or opened in the past 30 days I had been working for him, that I could see. He was opening envelopes and taking out checks and orders. He never opened an order until he had stuff to ship. When he had opened enough orders with enough checks for that particular style of plier to use up the hundred we had made, he chucked the rest of the envelopes back in the box. That was it. No need to look at any more orders, 'cause we didn't have any more pliers finished. He always started with the most recent orders, 'cause he figured the guys who sent the older orders were already mad, and "we might as well make somebody happy with our snappy service." He used to go to dental conventions in Tucson and write a phoney name on his badge and go around starting rumors that he had died, just to give himself a laugh and stop customers from "pestering" him.

    Here is the point;

    Those 100 pair of pliers brought in about 10 grand. That was 1978. They were not TOUCHED by any machine more sophisticated than a small horizontal mill. Most of the work was done on belt sanders. He had some nice machines, but they were all manual and mostly used for building jigs and fixtures. His building rent was about $250 per month as I recall. I didn't cost him much, and he was the only person who worked there. I figured his gross income at about 12 to 15 k per month and his expenses not enough to keep him below 10k net before taxes per month in 1978. Don't know what that is in today's dollars, but it ain't bad for a 70 year old man who is fond of coffee breaks and long lunches.

    I knew what I needed after watching him for 6 months. I needed products that a small number of people REALLY wanted, and I needed the manual skills to make them very fast. Anything that represented a large enough chunk to tempt the "big machine" guys to horn in would be no good, because I couldn't compete against CNC. Whatever it was, I had to either be able to pleasantly surprise the customer with the price or it had to be good enough that nobody really cared about the price. My capitol had to be my product and my skills, because I had no money to speak of.

    I think you can get the picture from there. I'm tired and it's bedtime. Let me know if anybody wants to hear more about it and I'll be glad to carry on for a while, but I think the point is made, if there is one.....Joe

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    Spot-on! It's always been about reputation and personal touch in the world I live in....my customers come to me because they know me, they know my work, and they are happy with the quality they get for the price charged. Similarily, when I hang a rig, the performers all know that while they're in the air, they're my girls, each and every one of them, and they put their life in my hands, literally; because of my reputation, and their trust in my skill, they know beyond any doubt that I won't let them come to harm....

    I suspect, however, it doesn't apply once you cross over the 'terminator line' into 'big-business' size.....not, however, that I'd know where that particular line is, I've never even gotten a glimpse of it, and don't much care if I never do.

    Historically, small business is what made this country great, not 'too-big-to-fail' conglomorations

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    Joe, you're pretty much stating my business plan in your life story. I've got old machines, but they're paid for. I have a modest house, and it's paid for. I've got some proprietary designs, and I do some repair work and customization/modification. What I do, you can't really produce with cnc. If you have big overhead, you price yourself out of the market before you break even. Since my overhead is so low, I can make a good living without too much effort.

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    You have my interest...

    My number two goal is to start my own deal...jist me an' the missus.

    (#1 is feeding and providing a roof for my children...that's why I work for a paycheck right now...call me gutless I suppose)

    Carry on...please!!!

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    Joe, interesting story, I too would like to hear more.

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    Hi Joe, this is an interesting read, please go on.

    Dick

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    I'm in a similar situation to Joe. I sell my time and skills, and not machine time. I look at it as I solve problems for industrial customers that other shops find too time consuming or "tough", or "putzy" to deal with. After all, someone has to do it. I charge about $1/minute for my time, and I count ALL time involved with a project.

    I'm constantly busy. Most work I don't even have to quote. No one else wants to do the work, or sometimes is capable of doing it. The downside is that without employees and a shop full of CNC's, I'm limited to how much I can make. There's only so many hours in a day. Also, if I take time off from work, everything comes to a screeching halt, since I'm the only one here. I don't think this life is for everyone, but it has worked for me.

    Most days I make more money with a set of Allen wrenches, or a Harig 6-12 grinder (with a Harig #1 and #2 Grind-All, and about 1 of everything in the Hermann Schmidt catalog) than any machine I own. I started with a very small investment and low overhead, and have stayed that way. Keep talkin' Joe!

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    yea joe keep talking!! this is exactly what i am needing to hear.i too just want to get out on my own.

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    OK, I just looked at modern ortho tools and they are mostly the same as the ones Larry Obrien invented all those years ago, and some are still referred to as "Obrien pliers". He'd think that was pretty funny. He went to college back in the thirties and I don't know what he majored in, but he'd never been a dentist. From time to time, somebody would get him to make a tool to do a job, but want him to see the job get done first. He almost couldn't stand seeing the things oral surgeons do to people while they are asleep. He'd almost weep, describing the processes to me, years after the fact.

    His first adventure as a self employed was making a denture grinding machine. It had a very large carbide wheel that was used on the face with a mitre guage and tilting table. Kind of like a baldor carbide grinding bench grinder, only different scale. He didn't have any money to make the first run and the bank didn't want to loan him any, so he got his local customer base together and the dentists and ortodontists financed the first run. They got their machines for nothing, or rather for their seed money, and the rest of the first run was his profit. He was still making them from time to time for the rest of his working life.

    He called me one day and told me that somebody had bought a house that had belonged to a late friend of his and discovered a couple of hundred pounds of dental tool steel and wated to sell it. He told me that if I bought it, he'd show me what to make out of it for a profit. I went and bought the steel for $50 and drove down to his shop. He showed me a couple of tools known as "Brenner ligature directors" which were like little pickle forks with only about .020 width across the tines. Some of them had odd twists and turns in the shanks. They were used to handle ligature wire inside the mouth. Brenner had made them like Obrien made the pliers, by hand. His tools were also highly regarded world wide.

    Mine were never as good as Brenner's, but I made and sold them until the steel ran out. Most of the doctors were fine to get along with, but the suppliers that bought them to resell were not the greatest folks to deal with. I was dabbling in a field where I had no prior experience and was pretty much a sitting duck for anything anybody wanted to tell me, so I never pursued that type of tool any more.

    In retrospect, I'm sure that Brenner's tools were being drop forged, while mine were rough forged and then ground to final shape. Somewhere in Brenner's estate had to be a tiny set of dies that he painstakingly shaped and polished and fussed over early in his career and produced product with for the rest of his life. He never had a real shop, just a one-car garage on the property. I never knew anyone in the business at that time who didn't know what a Brenner ligature director was, and he sold them all over the world to discriminating users. There were plenty of cheap ones around, but his were known as the best and some people want the best. Always have, always will.
    More later....Joe

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    Good going Joe.... We are on the same page.

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    Problem is, one wins a lottery in someway finding a product like that
    We can't win it all
    It is very hard to find one if you are looking for it
    So trying to do it the "popular" way is'nt such a bad idee perhaps

    Peter

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    It's not as hard as it seems to find a product. People stumble on them every day. The most popular product I ever made was just sillyness from beginning to end (well, actually the end has not come yet).

    At one point, much later, I had built my first sawmill on spec, then decided that I should at least make some lumber. Before you know it, I was in the mesquite furniture and craft business, selling lumber on the side. We went to a craft show in a nearby town, but on the first day discovered that all our high end mesquite framed mirrors, etc, were too high priced for the crowd. It was a three day show, so I went home and slept on the problem and got up the next morning at 3;00 AM and started playing with the bandsaw, just to see what I could turn out in a hurry. Pretty soon, I had a section of limb with a drawer cut into it that looked prettry neat. You could close the drawer and not be able to tell it was a box. Natural wood with some scars and holes and knots that added charm. No finish of any kind.

    Put a table full of them together before we had to leave for the show, and by noon they were all gone. Repeat performance the next day! COOL! Made a BIG bunch and went and hit the gift stores around Tucson; sold out in a few hours. And I was getting FAST at making them!

    Long story short; that was the beginning of what we just thought of as a fairly good thing, UNTIL I got whacked in the head by a jack handle and messed up my dominant eye, making it all but impossible for a period of about 10 years for me to make my main line, the stamping tools that I hand grind. I didn't think my eyes would ever work together again, (they did, but only after about 10 years) and so something else had to pick up the slack. Since I could not even cut off a tree branch anything close to a 90 degree angle by eye because the eye insisted on lying to me, I decided I'd make the bandsaw boxes from cedar fenceposts and make them as crooked as they wanted to be, and to hell with symetry.

    People loved them! I could cut about $650 per day at wholesale prices and my wife could glue at least that many. With one extra daughter working with me eventually my daily outyput got up to about 2 grand at the top of our production and my wife could catch up glueing while I was out gathering material or making deliverys over a three state area. My costs were gasoline, glue, bandsaw blades and posts that cost me $100 per cord. Each post was worth an average of $70 when made into boxes. Eventually, we were making them all sizes with secret drawers inside the other drawers and up to 30 drawers per box. Never did find out how big and expensive we had to make them for them not to sell. It was a rat race of making and delivering for several years, and I think that the take from silly little cedar boxes probably stands near a half million dollars or more by now. We shipped them all over the country and got calls from people who had bought them wanting more. Always sent them to the closest dealer to them. Didn't EVEN want to retail them because of the hassle of shipping one little box at a time.

    9-11 very nearly killed the gift shop business in the West. Seemed like it really hurt our customers all over the country, but the ones I called on here have never really recovered, and so the glory days of bandsaw boxes may never come again.

    After 9-11, I figured out that I could once again grind stamps and I also revisited a tool we made for a time years ago, and found that with the internet, we could now market it without breaking the bank. It was our carbide inserted woodturning tools.

    None of these things took a genius to figure out. None of them took hard tooling and sophisticated machinery to build. A year after I started making the chisels the second time, I was still laying out the screw holes with dye-chem. I didn't make fixtures for drilling the holes until the second year of operation. Didn't know if I was going to continue making the tools until the first guy ripped off my design and had to charge twice the money. He was the guy I was waiting for. Just wanted to see what the first rip-off artist was going to charge. After he came along, I was satisfied that the tools were probably not going to be undersold by anybody, and by that time I had halved the time I spent making them.

    I also do a bit of blacksmithing from time to time. Investment....Pretty much nothing. Already had the anvil for swaging the stamp blanks and other stuff. I'd operated for years before I even got the anvil with a gigantic chunk of steel from a mining implement.

    A good example of this kind of work can be had by talking to Ries. Ask him what would happen if he lost all his machinery and all his capitol and had nothing but his brain and his hands. How long would it take for him to be making money again? Pretty sure he started out without much except his hands and brain, and I think he's probably one of the top earners amongst us.

    I guess the short answer to finding a product is to make a few things that you think should exist. Simple things that do not require much machinery to make, since you don't want to buy machinery you don't already have. Gamble a bit that your speed will improve a LOT by the time you have made 100 or so of them, and underprice them from the beginning. If you like what you have made, show it around. Run one on Ebay. If it flunks the test, chuck it in the corner and make something else. I have a corner full of things that did not sell, plus a corner full of things that DID sell, but I got sick of making and another corner full of things that sold, and then I sold the part of the business that made them.

    One final thing;
    You do not find products by serching the internet looking for somebody else's product to duplicate. You find products at the bench, making things that you consider to be the best that's ever been. If you can convice yourself that your stuff IS the best or SELLS the best or feels, looks, sounds, performs or in some other way is the best that's ever been, you can convince others as well, and there is always a market for the best...Joe

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    Quote Originally Posted by rj newbould View Post
    Good going Joe.... We are on the same page.
    That's high praise, indeed! Might print and frame it ...Joe

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    Awesome story, Joe D - keep it coming.

    And an excellent example of making lemonade out of lemons.


    Quote Originally Posted by Joe D Grinder View Post
    You do not find products by serching the internet looking for somebody else's product to duplicate. You find products at the bench, making things that you consider to be the best that's ever been. If you can convice yourself that your stuff IS the best or SELLS the best or feels, looks, sounds, performs or in some other way is the best that's ever been, you can convince others as well, and there is always a market for the best...Joe

    VERY profound words, Joe, bravo. Did all you guys who want to start up get all that? If you do the same thing someone else does, you'll get the same result, adjusted for circumstances. If you want to break out, take a new path. The sweetest fruit is on the end of the branch, etc etc, etc. My business evolved from me playing with my toys and doing what I found interesting, and it turned into a better mousetrap story. I've had so many people ask "should I go into the home garage lift business, I see a lot of them around" etc. If a product has been around long enough to get established, it the wrong product to go into unless you can do it clearly better in some way. Someone I admire says there is ONLY one reason to do something, and that is 'because it is interesting".

    Repeat -
    and there is always a market for the best...Joe

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    That is quite interesting. But sometimes coming up with those ideas has in large part to do with who we end up meeting, and certain opportunities that trigger "that important thought". Without some sort of factor like that, a person can just sit there for a lifetime and not come up with anything.

    I tend to find myself on the opposite side. I like new shiny machines and seeing what can be done with them. But most of the product ideas I've come up with require cnc equipment that I don't yet have. One of them would be super for a 180K screw machine, it would put the product well into the price range while making a way beyond expectation product. Takes too long to do manually to make a cent at it, mostly when customers want their parts. I also can't figure if there's a market big enough for it to justify a 180K machine. So, I run a job shop by myself, making fun small parts and some odd things so that there's eventually enough $ and work to justify buying such machines. When that day comes, then I'll just have to make time to use it for what I want and not just everybody else's stuff. Although once I have more space next year I have a few things I plan to start prototyping, again complicated stuff, most of which has a limited market but that is usually willing to pay for it if it beats the competition. Also takes a fair bit of $ to do the testing once its built, but that's the only ideas I seem to come up with.

    What also makes it hard to get started on some of those projects is that if the normal work slows down. I'm usually more tempted to go try to find more, instead of taking the risk of spending $ making prototypes without knowing that the outcome may be.

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    Its true, Joe, I started out with a tape measure and a hammer from Sears.
    And while the big difference between me and you is I LIKE to buy tools, so I have a few more of em, the way we work is pretty much the same.

    I, too, used to wholesale to craft and gift shops around the country, with simple products I could make with very few tools. I finally upgraded to doing one piece that I had cast in a foundry, a few hundred at a time.
    First time I walked into a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, though, and saw a table of a couple of hundred knockoffs selling for just a bit more than my raw casting cost, I realized that Value Added, as opposed to mass production, was what works for me.

    But similar to Joe, I never try to be a job shop, and I cant imagine bidding a job at $50/hr.
    I try to keep materials to 10% of my price, and I make my money because nobody else is crazy enough to do what I do.

    I know quite a few other guys, including many here, who work similarly- I think first, you need to love making stuff, as opposed to loving making money. There are plenty of more profitable pursuits- even now, Wall Street is handing out half million dollar bonuses to lowly traders.

    My friend Grant, for instance, who posts here as NakedAnvil, is an industrial blacksmith who manufactures most of the USA's blacksmith tongs in his garage- 30,000 or so pairs so far. Course, he used to own a bigger company that made chipping hammer bits- a million or more of em. So he is fluent in most industrial processes, and he does own a few more tools than Joe, including a CNC mill, but he makes his money with his brains, not his machines.
    I have another friend who makes Mokeme-Gane, the mixed metals that are made from copper,silver, gold, and so on. He supplies the jewelry industry, wholesale, and in any major city, you can see fine jewelry made from his stuff- again, no huge investment, a small shop with a few tools, the hard work is in the head.
    Or Bob Kramer, who started out as a cook, decided to learn how to sharpen his own knives, and now has a two year backlog of orders for knives that start at hundreds of dollars each.

    In each case, these guys study, sometimes in books, sometimes with their hands, until they really understand the processes and materials, and they really look at the world- how things are made, who uses em and why. And then, no question, they do some research on how to get their stuff out into the world- although nowadays, the internet helps that quite a bit. Whenever I go anywhere, I always see stuff that is broken, or poorly fixed, of products that are just plain crummy, and, in the fields that I know about, I think about how they could be better. And then, when I need to, I can talk to people- it helps if they are people with money, like business owners, and offer to fix or replace their problem. I have eaten a lot of meals, traded a lot of food, for signs, fixtures, furniture, lighting, and repairs to restaurants, bakeries, and specialty food stores- because there is a need, a cash flow, and to me, anyway, an obvious answer.

    But no one formula works for everyone. What it takes is figuring out what YOU love, be it guns, hot rods, cooking, pool cues, or whatever, and then making things you know are better than what is out there now. A new machining tool worked for RJ. Other people here make things for downhill skateboards, custom bicycle frame building jigs, jewelry tools, musical instrument repair tools, specialised vintage auto repair tools, blacksmithing tools, woodworking stuff, knives, upgrade parts for limo alternators, or recreate the Wright Brothers Drill press.
    The common thread is loving making things so much you rise above our current consumer culture, and make things so clearly better than the crap from China that a few people can tell the difference, and want it.

    Thats how Gene Haas got started, selling rotary tables from the trunk of his car.
    Thats how Yvon Chinouard got started, selling hand forged rock climbing pitons from the trunk of his car, now his little company is called Patagonia, and I am wearing one of his hundred dollar sweatshirts right now, because its so much better than a $20 Walmart sweatshirt.

    The big dogs will always do the mass market, consumer products by the million, and you cant beat China, or Vietnam, or El Salvador, or wherever the next sweatshop country is. So you need to be so clearly different and better in what you make that a few people, not everyone, will want your stuff.

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    This is inspiring stuff, guys. Please continue.

    -James

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    Well, I DO like tools and machinery, but I mostly love to build them instead of buy them. I have your basic large and small lathe, a mill, surface grinder, drill presses etc.

    Everything else in the shop aside from drill motors and stuff like that, I made, usually from scrap and junk. Many years ago, when I read that the lathe was the most basic machine, and everything else could be made with it, I vowed to get one asap. Since then, I have made so many machines I can't count them in my mind. Many bandsaws and sawmills, chicken plucker, wind generators, tote gote, forging press, MANY belt sanders, ring rollers, door machine for doing all the routing and boring on pre-hung doors and frames, wood lathes in gigantic sizes, power hammer, etc. Make my own profile cutters and reamers, spindles for anything I am making that needs to turn. Sometimes even my own v-belt pulleys. Never made a v-belt but lots of flat belts and pulleys.

    Sometimes i want to build a machine so badly, I'll do it without a client. Then I'm stuck with using it for a time in order to justify building it. Did that with a giant wood lathe once, and wound up turning mesquite lamps from root balls and selling them until some blessed soul came along and bought the lathe and let me off the hook. After building my first sawmill I built and sold a lot of them before I could sell that one, because everybody wanted someting different. That put me in the mesquite lumber business and that put me....Well, you know, the whole thing snowballed.

    Anyhow, back on track. I certainly do not claim that my way is the only way. HOWEVER, my way does illustrate that if you truly want to be in business for yourself, you are not barred from doing so by the lack of 100k for tools and machinery, or the lack of a 5000 square foot facility.

    Generally speaking, as per Ries, if you are short on ideas for problem-solving devices, go where men are working and listen for the sound of cursing. That sound marks the location of a need for innovation. If you are an innovator, you will not visit many of those locations before coming up with a usefull innovation.

    I listened to a conversation once between a jeweler aquaintence of mine and another guy who had introduced himself as a jeweler to my aquaintence. I found the conversation needlessly insulting to the first gent, but I'll repeat it as I heard it.

    Guy #1
    I'm a jeweler, too

    guy #2
    Yeah, what have you been making lately?

    #1 Well, nothing. Wife kicked me out, so my studio is gone.

    #2 What are you driving?

    #1 my pickup

    #2 got a tailgate on it?

    #1 Sure!

    #2 There's your studio. Now you are going to tell me that you have no metal, no money, no tools, right?

    #1 that's right. (Obviously hoping for a loan or bailout).

    #2 Well there is copper scrap laying around construction sites or at the metal scrap yard and the hardware store has hammers and files that can be bought for the price of the beer you have obviously consumed today. You know what a jeweler is called that's not working at the present time?

    #1 No, what?

    #2 A bum, that's what!

    Everybody has to start or re-start somewhere. If you are starting at the bottom, CONGRATULATIONS! That means you have not yet spent any money needlessly. You still have time to build a business based on your brains, imagination and skills....Joe

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    This has been a very enjoyable thread, and I hope it continues for quite some time! But I do want to raise a question --

    Generally speaking, as per Ries, if you are short on ideas for problem-solving devices, go where men are working and listen for the sound of cursing. That sound marks the location of a need for innovation. If you are an innovator, you will not visit many of those locations before coming up with a usefull innovation.
    Joe, I wonder if you and others are understating the importance of your "if." Not everyone's personality is oriented towards creativity and problem solving ... just as not everyone's personality is oriented towards repetition. So the question is -- can anyone do what you have done? How much does it depend on personality/aptitude/etc.?

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    Quote Originally Posted by SND View Post
    That is quite interesting. But sometimes coming up with those ideas has in large part to do with who we end up meeting, and certain opportunities that trigger "that important thought". Without some sort of factor like that, a person can just sit there for a lifetime and not come up with anything.
    My personal view is that if someone is just "sitting there" surely nothing will happen. But in a world of constant change, and lots and lots problems (as in opportunities), there shouldn't be a lack of inspiration and new possibilities. In my mind the problem is more about being ahead of others and doing it better. I try actively to get inputs from different areas, as the mix will often be interesting. (I'll even admit to at one point subscribing to an embroidery magazine just to learn something new and potentialy find new problems).

    Quote Originally Posted by SND View Post
    ... most of the product ideas I've come up with require cnc equipment that I don't yet have. One of them would be super for a 180K screw machine, it would put the product well into the price range while making a way beyond expectation product.
    Why do you have to make it yourself? Someone once told me that if it is worth doing, then it is worth paying for - the wisdom of that is more profound than I like to admit. At the very least you should keep risks down by not investing in a 180K machine before you actually had some initial prototypes made elsewhere. (Working ones hopefully).

    Quote Originally Posted by SND View Post
    ... risk of spending $ making prototypes without knowing that the outcome may be.
    Which is why you should spend as little as possible initially


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