Note: I use affiliate links and may receive a commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.
As I mentioned in my last post, 2020 Etsy Shop: A Year in Review, two 3D printers were plenty to handle the volume of sales for the year. Even the Christmas/holiday spike in November and December. Yet growing the printer farm is one of my primary goals. I need more 3D printers. That means I need to continue growing the Etsy shop to justify purchasing more printers.
Goal 1: Purchase 2 Prusa Printers
Prusa recently came out with a smaller, less expensive version of their 3D printer. They call it the “Mini” since it has a smaller build plate at 7″ x 7″ x 7″. Still, it is large enough to handle 75% of my orders. The majority of my Etsy sales are models that are smaller than 6.5 inches. There is significant value for me in this size of a printer. I want to purchase at least one in 2021.
The larger Prusa printers, the MK3 series, are reliable and have proven to be perfect printers to continue building out my farm with. I want to purchase an additional Prusa i3 MK3 in 2021.
Purchasing two more printers would bring the farm to four printers total. This allows me to better handle larger orders and better handle the Christmas/holiday gift spike.
This leads me to my next goal – increasing sales on Etsy.
Goal 2: Increase Etsy Shop Sales
My Etsy shop has been in existence for 2 years now and reviewing the sales data shows me that the vast majority of sales occur in November and December. My monthly average for 2020 is exactly 10 sales a month (it was 3 sales per month in 2019 – my first full year).
I would like to increase this to 20 sales a month on average with a manageable holiday sales spike above 100 sales.
This would justify two additional printers at least for the holiday months and would also pay off the cost of purchasing the printers within the year. The more products (with the right tags, descriptions, photos, and videos) on the shop the more chances of driving organic Etsy search traffic.
Strategy / Actions to Accomplish Goals
Increase product listings on the Etsy shop to over 100 products. Currently there are 46 listings. This will take a lot of invested time, effort, and printer filament. Ultimately I believe this is what will drive organic Etsy traffic to the shop.
Social Media Marketing
This one is going to be the most difficult for me. Every blog and video on growing an Etsy shop says that I need to build my social media presence. It isn’t my forte but I get it – it is how I am going to ease into marketing for my shop.
I decided that Instagram is going to be my primary channel. I actually created the Instagram account/profile a long time ago and only recently started adding content to it. The focus is going to be on highlighting the products on the Etsy shop and adding inspiring wilderness photos. Maybe a little behind the scenes of me creating the digital models and working with the printers.
Currently I work out of my garage and am competing for space with cars, bicycles, storage… basically the rest of my life. This year I am going to carve out a corner of the garage and dedicate solely to the printer farm and managing the Etsy shop.
To motivate and inspire myself I plan to renovate the area to optimize it for processing orders and working on the printers. I want to transform it from being a space where everything is to being an inspiring little workshop that motivates me to continuing building.
Update My Etsy Shop Profile
There are a few more things I can do to improve my profile on my shop. Etsy allow you to add a video and images to the “About the Shop” section. I have been dragging my feet on this but am committing to creating a simple 1-2 minute video about the shop and my process of creating the models.
My Etsy shop, JoySpark, finished up its second full year of operation in 2020 with positive growth and revenue. Although the sales numbers are really modest (still in the hobby-business range) the shop definitely grew and outperformed 2019. As it stands there are 196 sales, 30+ five star reviews, and double the favorites of last year (not sure if favorites mean anything… maybe social proof). Here are some screenshots.
Note: There have been fewer than 196 orders but some of those orders contained multiple models. Etsy counts each model sold as a sale.
One of the goals is to grow the 3D printer farm and sadly, these numbers don’t yet justify buying a third printer. Two printers handled the entire year just fine. The only pressure was in the first two weeks of December. Those 38 orders in December of 2020 actually happened in the first two weeks of the month. My two printers could barely keep up at 12-15 hours a day.
Printing 3D models takes a lot of time. The average small model I print takes 5 hours. The average large takes 20 hours. So, if I have just 10 orders of large models then it takes at least 5 straight days on two printers. And that doesn’t account for failures or mishaps or me sleeping in. You can see how 38 models in two weeks was difficult.
Improvements to the Shop
Our shop growth has been mostly organic on Etsy (see Etsy offsite ads section below). And although I have been tracking it, I can’t say exactly what causes the traffic. It was probably due to nearly doubling our product listings but I can’t really say. We would add a few products, get a few more sales, receive a review or two… and slowly our store developed an established little presence. Here are a few of the things we worked on.
During 2020 I added nearly 30 new products to the shop. This took significantly more time and effort than I anticipated. But creating the digital model, printing it successfully, taking photos, creating listings, etc. is a lot of work.
We explored a bit with different backgrounds for photos for the listings. Still haven’t figured out the best setup for this.
My wife officially took over all communications with customer inquiries on the shop. We discovered that this takes a ton of time and is very distracting. Now I work on managing the business and product development and she handles nearly all the communications and listings. So far it is a good distribution of tasks.
One thing that I think has helped improve the shop is that we have a goal of responding to all inquiries within a few hours. As well as following up with messages about how the order is progressing as it gets printed and shipped.
One thing that was recurring throughout the year was custom requests. Potential customers would message and ask about custom sizes, shapes, locations, etc. Some were reasonable and a natural part of our work flow like adding a date. Some were too big for my operation to handle like a request for the entire Sierra Nevada range on a 4 ft by 8ft model (my printers max out at 8 in by 10 in). Others were just super complex and out there like taking the elevation data and transposing it’s inversion on a sphere inside another sphere… or something like that. Regardless, it was really cool to get all the requests and interact with potential customers. Some of the ideas even led to inspiration for new products on the site.
But the truth is all that messaging back and forth took a lot of time. And the majority of custom requests never turned into sales. Often people would message back and forth a bit and even if it seemed to be going well they would inevitably stop responding. Some would pick it back up in a week or a month. Others we would never hear back from.
Even if the custom request turned into a sale the return on the time to communicate and then make a one-off (like a specific date on a mountain) wasn’t always profitable. In fact, I am confident it was only profitable 5% of the time. Why did I do it then? I wanted more sales. I wanted more 5-star reviews. I wanted customers to have a good experience with the shop.
Did it work? I think so. Custom orders became time investments that helped grow the presence of the shop. That being said, I am working out a profitability model and strategy for custom requests to try and make the effort involved a little more favorable to me going forward. Currently we charge a standard $10 custom order fee on top of the price of the product but will likely change this soon.
Etsy Offsite Ads
About the same time as the pandemic hit Etsy began rolling out a new option for offsite ads. It was an optional thing for stores (like mine) that made less than $10,000 in sales a year. Basically, Etsy would take my listings and advertise them across various online channels. If someone clicks through and purchases from my shop within 30 days then Etsy would charge me a 15% fee.
There are several things about this that rubbed me wrong and there are plenty of arguments about it across the internet but I thought that it couldn’t hurt as an experiment. I naturally expected the increased exposure to drive up traffic and sales. If the sales volume was high enough then the 15% fee wouldn’t hurt as bad.
After about 6 months my wife and I noticed that every time an order came through we were dreading checking if it was due to an Etsy offsite ad. Our sales volume is low and our profit margins are low. If we had to pay a 15% additional fee then our drive to the post office for a single sale wasn’t worth it. In other words, we weren’t making any money on them and we weren’t seeing much of an increase in traffic to our shop. And since most sales were not due to offsite ads we decided to save ourselves the anxiety and turned off the offsite ads option.
Although the goal is to grow the shop beyond $10,000 a year in sales, I haven’t figured out how to handle the mandatory offsite ads that Etsy imposes on larger shops. I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Granted, if the volume of sales was significantly higher, say 50+ per month, then I could see the 15% fee being less of a burden as everything starts to scale up.
Looking Forward to 2021
2020 was a year of growth for JoySpark. Although modest, it was exciting to see the printer farm standing on its own and justifying its existence. It was also really great to have so much interest in the shop by way of custom requests.
In the next week or so I am going to publish an article on my goals and strategies for 2021. Mainly more of the same but maybe add some social media presence and work on driving some traffic that way.
Growing my 3D printer farm requires the printers to be productive and (ideally) profitable. In order to do that I needed a product that I could print, sell, and ultimately use to keep the robots busy. In this post I dive into my current products, why I chose the ones I did, and how I feel about them from a business and product development perspective.
This is the second post of my JoySpark 3D journey. Check out my first post here. Or for a quick summary and goals read more on my About page.
Cart Before the Horse?
Since the beginning of my fascination with 3D printing, I wanted to create a viable business that significantly relied on a 3D printer farm for the bulk of manufacturing. So I bought two printers and started exploring. Although this enabled me to experiment with and get to know the printers, they weren’t very productive for a long time. Most of the time they sat silent, making me feel silly for purchasing them without a solid plan for productivity.
You see, I knew next to nothing about 3D modeling or CAD software. And since the bulk of my work experience is in software development, I had zero knowledge about product development in general. And to print a product to sell… you kind of have to know how to make something in a 3D modeling software.
Looking back on this I probably should have worked out my business strategy prior to investing. But 3D printing had caught my attention and I wanted to just dive in and see what happened.
So, this is what happened.
Mountains, Volcanoes, and Islands
I LOVE maps. So much data packed into such a simple format. If I could, I would be a historic cartographer, join a guild, and travel the world making maps.
After a lot of brainstorming and reviewing what others were doing (or at least suggesting to do) I stumbled across the idea of 3D printed terrains. And that resonated with me. My first attempt was of Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, Utah. Standing at over 11,000 ft, it was the tallest mountain I had summited (still is). And after many painstaking hours of trial and error with finding source data, trying out different modeling softwares, figuring out slicer settings, etc. I finally printed a successful model of Mount Timp. After so much work, it was beautiful. And I decided I was going to create an Etsy Shop and list it as my first product.
Note: The current model of Mount Timp on the Etsy store is a reworked model for better scale and detail. It also has text around the base with name and height. My initial models didn’t have any of that.
Ever since then I have made these 3D printed terrains the focus of my shop. With just over 40 models on the shop so far, it has proven potential as a product for the long-term success of the farm.
Product Development & What I’ve Learned So Far
Ultimately, a product is only as good as it has value to others (is marketable) and is profitable (able to be priced to cover time and materials), right? So, this is the breakdown of that intersect for me and these model terrains.
Value to Others
After I printed Mt Timp and a few other models such as the Grand Canyon and Mt St Helens, it quickly became apparent that people I showed them to really enjoyed them. Of course I showed them to friends and family, but I also had a few interactions with some Etsy customers, and the anecdotal evidence supporting their appeal became sound in my mind. I didn’t exactly have a target market yet, but I knew that people generally got excited about the models. Especially if they had memories or experiences with the locations.
People who knew the area loved being able to see where they had been in a small 3D model. They recognized the unique features of the locations and remembered the adventures they had (and really liked to talk about them). The model became a prop in the show-and-tell and an artifact that connected their stories to their experience. And not just the hikers, skiers, mountain bikers, or general outdoors group of people, those who lived near these locations and had attachments to the geologic features on their horizon liked the models as well.
For example, I had a custom order for the Wellsvilles mountain range. This is a fairly unknown mountain range outside of Cache Valley, UT. There is nothing really significant about it except that it forms the Western wall for a large portion of the valley. And as such, it has found its way into many of the residents hearts as a symbol of home.
After these experiences and several others, I decided that I could move forward, confident that I could find that target market. Seeing the joy in someone’s face as they explored a printed model of a familiar place was also encouraging.
Profitability with 3D Printing
Since I am not a great designer or maker and originally didn’t have much experience with working the 3D printers, I was grateful to find a product that wasn’t very complex. That being said, 3D printing is a painstakingly slow process. Even slower than I had realized when I first dived in. This is probably the largest con to the process of additive manufacturing with the style of printers I have. They are just slow. And that time on the printer costs money in wear and tear, electricity, and management.
Some benefits of choosing terrain models that keep the costs of development and manufacturing low are as follows:
Time required to model the products is minimal because I can use open topographical map data. This eliminates the need for serious artistic creativity in recreating a model from scratch. The data does the heavy lifting and I just choose how to present it. Currently it takes about 3 hours for me to create a model from raw data to finished file ready to be printed.
The models don’t require support material when printing. This eliminates a whole slew of potential issues and post-processing time.
No moving parts or assembly means that post-processing of the models after printing only takes a few minutes.
To figure out the costs associated with printing the models I created a cost calculator in Google Sheets that takes into account
Printer depreciation (estimating 2,500 hours of print time)
Pre-processing and post-processing time
Cost of material
10% fail rate
Note 1: Fail rate is a nice buffer, but thankfully fail rate has been less than 10%.
Note 2: Cost of materials is surprisingly minimal. Not insignificant, but not as high as I originally expected. Time is the most significant factor of the cost.
It was fuzzy then, and it is fuzzy now. I really have no idea how to price my models. I know the minimum amount required to make them profitable, but I am uncertain as to how much I ought to charge in order to make them worthwhile. The difference being that it has to support the growth of the business (product research, development, and adding more printers to the Farm) while also paying me at least minimum wage for the time I put into this.
Here is where I originally landed. I have 3 general size options for each product – SM (4.5 in base), MD (6 in base), and LG (8 in base). Some models vary from this but most follow this pattern.
Size – Price – Manu cost SM – $16.00 – $4-$7 MD – $24.00 – $9-$12 LG – $32.00 – $13-$16
As you can see, the manufacturing cost is between 1/3 and 1/2 the price I was setting on the models. Once you factor in Etsy fees, time to package and ship, and other miscellaneous time spent working on an order, then the margin quickly falls. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was barely breaking even at this point. But that level of granularity still needs studied.
I am still working on this. My current target is a profit margin of 50% on each model (this would include all costs associated with selling and processing an order as well as manufacturing costs).
Note: Selling a model for double what all the costs of manufacturing and processing equates to 50% margin.
If I can arrive there then hopefully this will be successful. I will continue to study this and make some growth projections in a later post.
As reviewed above, a 3D printed topographical model shows promise as a product to grow a printer farm with. There is a target market that sees value in the models and the complexity of development and manufacturing is low. This is fortunate for me and lines up with my plan to develop a viable business model supported by a growing a 3D printer farm.
Two years ago I fell in love with the idea of 3D printing. After binge watching 3D printing YouTube channels for a few weeks I purchased two Prusa i3 MK3 3D printer kits. And the journey began (sort of).
Welcome to the JoySpark 3D journey. This is my first post and, consequently, I’m going to lay out my purpose, my goals, and where I am at right now (May 17th, 2020).
Who am I? What’s my goal?
I’m a maker/entrepreneur with the goal of growing a 3D printer farm out of my garage. I mean, who doesn’t want an army of robots that makes them tons of money all at the click of a few buttons? Seriously though, going from hobby printer who enjoys printing miniatures to having an agile manufacturing operation with significant capability to design, prototype, produce and deliver for serious clients would be pretty awesome. I want to explore that possibility.
In other words, to have an income stream based on the capability of the 3D printers and to prove a small-scale manufacturing model. Oh, and to grow my printer farm to fill my garage (because obviously).
But is it possible? This is what I want to find out. And if at the end of it all I have a collection of articles on what not to do then that’s ok. However, the goal is to build a sustainable business based on small-scale manufacturing and provide content for like-minded hobby entrepreneurs looking to become full-time professionals.
Where am I at?
Two years ago I jumped into this with big dreams. Then I switched jobs, got busy and distracted with my other business (happydeveloperlabs.com), and allowed the 3D printing to run on auto-pilot. A few weeks ago I finally picked it back up with renewed focus and drive.
I sell 3D printed model mountains on Etsy (I’ll devote another post as to why mountains). The Etsy shop was super easy to start, and I have various mountains listed. It is fairly low-risk, mainly requiring a lot of time to make and photograph products. Of course, when I started it I had no idea if anyone would be interested.
Today I have 74 sales, 10 reviews and been favorited by 34 individuals.
My plan is to post a monthly “Status of the shop” Etsy update on this blog.
Aside from the Etsy shop I have had a few orders from MakeXYZ (I don’t recommend this route – perhaps I will write a future post on it). I have also done some work modeling and printing cookie cutters for a local business.
Then, of course, there are the one-off print jobs for family and friends. This is fun but really only covers the cost of materials.
As you can see, not much by way of a start. It is time to get to work and see where I can take this. Today I started this site and blog. Tomorrow I will ship off an Etsy order and print a custom request for a friend. Then later this week I’ll post another update.
Why am I starting a blog?
Let’s be clear, it’s not to sell you a course or a subscription.
I don’t consider myself as being successful—yet. I have ideas, drive, a little bit of traction, and lots of goals. But I’m not there. I can’t write about how I’ve “made $1,000 a month selling on Etsy” or earned passive income while I’ve slept. The internet is full of bloggers selling people on these ideas based on their own supposed success stories.