LaserFlair owner, Jane Banks, is the fifth in our Businesses Branching Out blog series, where we ask the owners of growing Fife businesses to share their journey so far, lessons learnt along the way and amusing incidents!
LaserFlair are laser cutting and engraving experts, who have worked with clients ranging from Volvo, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (pictured) and, most importantly, one of our Awesome Saplings, Bearded Basturds!
Among other things in this blog, Jane describes how redundancy led her to establish LaserFlair, explains the importance of social media and digital marketing and engraving David Cameron’s butt!
1. As a business owner, how would you describe yourself in three words?
Efficient, organised and collaborative.
2. What or who motivated you to form your business?
Redundancy. I lost a manufacturing job I loved at Curtis Fife Papers at the start of the credit crunch in 2008, and in the interesting times that followed, I struggled to find the opportunities I wanted in a similar environment.
My husband encouraged me to find a way to set up my own manufacturing business that would be efficient enough to make money. I’d asked creative people in the past if they were able to make a living out of their hobbies, but the feedback was that when they costed in their time, they priced themselves out of the market, so I knew I’d have to choose carefully. After considering several options, laser cutting and engraving seemed to offer a good solution with many applications from artistic to engineering.
After attending a course on laser cutting and many Youtube videos later, I took the plunge and bought a machine, and the rest is history.
Redundancy was awful at the time, but if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have started a business. I needed a very hard push to step out of my comfort zone.
3. Have you taken advantage of the new age of social media and had tangible results?
Believe it or not, I only really started in the summer, four years after starting the business. I’d been on Facebook and LinkedIn from the beginning, but hadn’t done much with them. I started using Twitter, Instragram and Tumblr this year and found them fun to use, especially as what I do lends itself well to publishing images of things I’ve made.
My motivation was to drive my website up the Google rankings, but I’ve also found it useful for keeping up to date with customers and what they’re up to. I’ve definitely had more enquiries and some new customers have found me through Twitter and LinkedIn. I have also found some companies I hadn’t otherwise heard of who could be worth approaching to see if I can help them.
I’m enjoying blogging too. It’s a great way to share expertise on artwork design tips, the challenges that different types of laser cutting and engraving projects can throw up and how to work around them, and the results that can be expected. Customers often comment on how useful case studies like this are to show them what’s possible with different materials for a wide range of applications. They’re always looking for new ideas and solutions, and it’s nice to provide a source of inspiration.
4. Has a business mentor ever helped you over a major obstacle or make that crucial breakthrough?
No, I’ve not had a mentor.
5. How would you describe your business in three words?
Varied, creative and fun.
6. What are you most proud of about your business?
I’m very proud of my customer response times and speedy turnaround times. I like to handle jobs and communications as efficiently as I can and customers really appreciate that, especially if they have tight deadlines. I get lots of business through referrals.
I’ve been privileged to work closely with such a wide variety of businesses from furniture makers and artists to engineering companies and branding agencies. I’m really proud of the mixture of products that I’ve helped customers to create in all sorts of materials, from model aeroplane kits to art installations. No two days are ever the same.
I’m also proud to have helped some of my customers during their business growth spurts. Tom Pigeon’s formica and metal jewellery ranges have sold in increasing volumes around the world since we started working together over the last few years. It’s been great to help them keep pace with increasing demand and be part of their success story.
7. What are the three most important things you would tell an aspiring business acorn?
1. Don’t be afraid of sales.
Remember that sales is all about people. People sell to people. If people like you, like your product and like your prices, you have a relatively easy sale. Networking is great for building confidence in making contacts, describing to people what you do and getting feedback.
2. If business opportunities take you in a different direction to what you originally planned or anticipated, go with it if it looks like a good option.
At the start, I’d imagined that LaserFlair would be all about personalised gifts, but once my website went live, enquiries for contract manufacturing started coming in. This suited me perfectly as my background was in contract manufacturing, and this business model offers more economies of scale. I just didn’t think the business would have developed in that direction when I wrote my business plan.
3. Don’t be afraid to try to do things yourself if you have the time and want to save some money, especially at the beginning of your venture.
You can pick up so many new skills that will only build your confidence. Book keeping is easy if you have a simple spreadsheet which you can tailor to your own needs in Excel, especially if you’re a sole trader. And there are lots of good value tools out there to build your own website and maintain it. Don’t be afraid to develop completely new core skills too. I wasn’t very confident with computers and had no idea about computerised artwork before I started LaserFlair, but practice makes perfect. You can learn anything on Youtube!
8. What is the most amusing incident that has happened in the history of your business?
One of the most entertaining commissions I’ve had was from Funbox, formerly The Singing Kettle. Kevin Macleod who’s one of the three performers (he doubles up as Bonzo the dog) got in touch to ask if I could help make new and robust yale key eyes, skeleton key teeth and padlock noses out of coloured acrylic for the costumes of Funbox monsters Flossie and Fluffy. He’s since been back for a bespoke dog tag for Bonzo’s costume. Kevin sent me some great photos of Flossie, Fluffy and Bonzo with their new body parts and collar respectively!
There are little things that happen every day that give me a giggle. Last week, a customer asked me to make unicorns for her, which must be one of my most exotic enquiries. I laser cut them from plywood and she paints and personalises them as decorations and door signs.
9. If you started over, what one thing would you do differently?
Apart from getting stuck into social media immediately, I’d look for help with digital marketing much sooner.
10. Who’s the most famous or interesting character you’ve met whilst running your business?
Kevin Macleod from Funbox, famous amongst small children and their parents across the land! He kept me entertained with stories about their shows and the costumes as I laser cut his orders. Last time we met, when we were making Bonzo’s dog tag, he told me about their competition for children to win a meeting with Bonzo, and the children’s reaction when they first saw him close up. Kevin’s very tall anyway, but in the Bonzo costume, he’s even bigger, and some children find him quite scary initially!
David Cameron did admire the cask end I engraved to commemorate his visit to Diageo’s Leven and Cameronbridge sites in 2013, but I didn’t get to meet him. Diageo gave me a good picture of him hammering in the bung on the cask and they let me put it on my website. It was great to be able to say in LaserFlair’s early days that I’d worked for Diageo. One of my cousins never lets me forget that I once engraved David Cameron’s butt!
11. How do you unwind?
I’ve taken up golf this year and joined the Lundin Ladies Golf Club. I’ve got my handicap now and played in some competitions already. I’ve also joined a book club which gives me a great excuse to curl up with a good novel. I also enjoy walking (especially when fish and chips are involved on the Fife Coastal Path), good food and travelling.
12. Why Fife?
We moved to Fife for work, and fell in love with our little corner of it.