How I Started A $6.5K/Month Business Selling Digital Files For CNC Machines
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, I'm Ahmed Nassar a freelance designer for more than 10 years and the founder of DXFforCNC.com one of the most popular websites that provide 2D designs for CNC machines.
I started to learn the digital design 10 years ago as an amateur because I loved the arts and spent more time with self-studies watching tutorials and follow the inspirational websites of arts and I thought to get benefits from these learnings I have and worked as a freelancer until I started my online business website at 2016.
If you are a beginner or professional designer and want to start a low-cost online business that will be a part-time business with max 4 hours/day I think this story may change your life. What you need to have is some basic design knowledge and some part-time, what you need to do are very simple silhouetted 2D designs using rules of CNC machines, what you can gain is a standalone running business with revenues could be about $7K monthly. The 1st month I started the business I got only about $140 and started gradually increasing to be about $6.5 now.
The CNC machines I mean here; the kind of machines controlled by computer software and used to cut the metals or nonmetals materials using a 2D axis like plasma or laser cutters and I will not explain more details about its work here as we just design its operating file.
The main products I provide at the website are unique 2D digital DXF files ready to be cut using CNC machines like plasma, laser, water-jet cutters also I can provide other formats as required from the customers like SVG or PDF. After the design is applied to the CNC machines it can be cut on materials like steel or copper to get magical fabricated masterworks for indoor or outdoor decor.
My designs now are popular and most wanted from the CNC machines owners that run a small shop business and they need a wide range of unique and special designs to cut, fabricate and show them to their customers also the amateur customers that have their small CNC machines and like DIY to decorate and improve their home or workplaces will find what they need on my website. I also provide custom services to create designs based on ideas or images my customers have.
The use of CNC machines may not be easy and require more experience one of them is to have the design of the product that will attract the customers to buy it from you after you fabricated it and that is what I do to give the CNC owners more designs and values to their shops to improve their business.
The most important point I learned at my business and will cost you $0 money is the customer service, this is the key point to start the business with the lowest cost you can, make your 1st customer very happy and he will buy from you again and will share his experiences with the others and will talk about your service, I will try to show you some practical experiences I learned while I run my business.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I graduated from the faculty of aviation engineering and technology and I started working on my field once I graduated until now but always love the arts and from my childhood used to draw using the traditional ways of pencils and papers. After I got my 1st computer I decided to improve my hobby by learning the digital arts and I learned some basics of designing software like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Flash, Adobe Illustrator, 3D Max, Dreamweaver, fireworks and other software and used to follow some inspirational websites like DeviantArt.
Read more about business and project management, marketing skills, and customer service, all of them you will need in your business whatever the business is, product or service.
I decided to start working as a freelancer in 2010 and I started working on freelancer websites as a graphic designer part-time. During this time I finished many successful jobs and started to build and enrich my portfolio.
Besides the freelancer job, I worked in a kind of arts called micro stocks, it was a very small business and may help the beginner, simply you design small elements that can be used by another professional designer to use them on his professional design.
Assuming that the professional designer wants to design a sunrise view he will need small elements to build this view like sun, sky, ocean, trees, gardens and maybe people, to design all these elements himself it’ll take a lot of time, so he may purchase these small elements that are called micro stocks designs. You can design the elements and sell them many times with royalty-free licensing.
One day I met my now old friend Matt DeVos, he was a client looking for a kind of designs that are similar to silhouetted designs but using special rules to use them with metal cutting CNC machines. He hired me and I worked for him about 2 or 3 years until I decided to start my own website business.
I studied the monthly costs and what I needed to start before launching the website. I spent more time designing and building the products and content for the website. This also included all the products and descriptions, keywords, prices, and other SEO requirements. When I launched I had less than 100 designs available and gradually I started to create other designs by working about 2 hours daily designing and generating ideas and info about the most required designs from the customers. Today we have more than 600 active products on our website containing more than 3000 unique designs.
Researching the options to launch my website, I found Shopify, which is SEO friendly and provides very easy to use and well-designed stores. The starting fees of the website were only $30 per month.
I was shocked when I saw my first order on the website after about weeks from launching. Yes, the sales were not daily and the revenue was very low but I realized that I started the right way and I had to continue.
The most important thing I was doing was to read more about the improvement of the website and I learned that the most powerful way to do that is to enrich the content of the website, the visitors should find what they are looking for in your website, day after day I increase my designs and the number of the visitors gradually increasing, till now I continue to improve my skills in SEO, social media and other marketing ways and focus on the right way that works with my website, not all the way that works with the other successful business worked with my website.
As you can see, the idea is not to brand new or innovative. I learned from a business and management expertise to "look in the box before thinking out of the box"; the box is full of ideas that are certified as successful businesses if you follow the guidelines and steps. When you tried all of them then you can think out of the box and come up with new ideas.
My business is most popular in the USA region as they love this kind of arts so I focused on the culture of the USA and what they love to make designs for them like popular kinds of automobiles, motorcycle, sports nature and animals, garden decorations and so on. This is the main target market as I have more than 50% of the sales come from the USA and then I made designs that can be popular for any customers from other countries.
One of the benefits of saving time for the management of the business is that you will get more time to read about improving and managing of your business and get more time to fast contact with your customers and this is a very important point, the customer service, whatever you have experience doing this yourself or you can't and will hire someone expert to do it for you, all the digital products are marked as "non-refundable" but I did not hesitate to refund the money for my customer if he can't use my files or he doesn’t like them, I focus on customer satisfaction. With some of my customers, I refunded the money and after that, I started to solve the issue with him and the customer liked my service and purchased my products again. This is another advice I get from the experts "loose money, earn the customer".
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Come back to my designs and CNC machines again and how I do it, as I said before, you just need to know basics of the designing, the process of using any CNC machine consists of designing and manufacturing, the manufacturing process will be done by the CNC owners not you, you will have to do the designs using and software with vectors like CorelDraw, Inkscape, Adobe illustrator… I found that Adobe illustrator is best for me.
Now you have software to design, what will you design? You can say that you will design silhouetted design that is connected, you can do a design based on an image like a personal image or an image of an old house or farm view or based on an idea or style you have like generate the farm view elements yourself with the old house, animals, sun, sky, putting specific words, style and so on. You have to design a simple silhouetted black and white design and use your experience to show the main required details for this design to be recognized and reflect the original image or ideas. But this silhouetted designs should follow some rules to be good for CNC machines, one of them:
No intersected lines, some of CNC machines read them as errors
No sharp edges or so closed lines, the CNC generates very high heat to cut the material and the sharp edges of so closed lines will increase the heat at specific areas and may lead to unwanted melt or burn in this area
All the design should be connected, after cutting the design it will be as one part and not separated
Don't make more empty areas, this means more cut and will produce a weak design after cutting it and maybe broken easily
Take care of the letters, you need to cut the letter itself or you need to cut out the letter from other design or shape, if you need to cut the letter like "O" and will be without any outer shape or design there is no problem, but if you need to cut out this letter from a shape like a circle, be careful to use stencil font not a regular font or you can make a connection tab on the letter if don't do that the inner circle of the "O" will fall out
Describe the process of launching the business.
Before I launched my website I spent weeks to prepare, design and build the products that will be online, at least 4 hours per day I spent at the beginning, I worked before launching the website to save some fees of the website without any valuable content, I finished about 100 designs and started to handle the website.
As my website powered by Shopify it gives you about 2 weeks free subscription this helped me more to take my time setting up the website as I need and submitting my products, once I started launching the website the visitors started to come up about 10 to 20 visitors daily, that is very low traffic but the website started to be visible for the search engines and the traffic started to increase day after day, the Shopify SEO friendly platform helped me more.
Fortunately, I got my 1st order in the 1st month of launching the website. I started the website on 6 October 2016 and I get my 1st paid order on 18 October 2016. The amount of the order was $50, which was very exciting for me and I felt like "yes I'm on the right path" after about 2 days another paid order for $12.5.
I got these sales even before the end of the trial 2 weeks I have from the platform and before I paid the $29 fees of the website. That was a really good start for me and I got more energy to get more inspirational unique designs and put them on my website for the customers.
Also, I monitor the requirements of the customers and make designs for what they ask. When a customer asked me about a kind of design I never tell him "no I don't have" and do the design then show it for him. This was at the beginning to show the customer that I'm fast in delivering the product and not to lose that customer that asks for something he needs. This is another advice I learned from experts "never say No for your customers", even if you don't have or can't do what he needs. “I can do it for you shortly…" The word "No" delivers negative feelings.
Another important thing I did, I looked at my competitors and see what kind of products they have and I started to do my own. One of the bad things I faced was the copyright issues, as I do custom works for my customers many of them show me designs they have and need it to be ready for CNC after a while I found that this design is not for my customer and it has a copyright and the original owner of the designs contacted me and was very angry. I don't want to build disputes with my competitors because that is not good for me and will be just a waste of time. So I apologized to that copyright owner and friendly discussed the issue with him and that it was an unwanted mistake. Now I put restrictions on any custom design we will do for our customers like not include any personal designs.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I started a Facebook page for my website and Instagram later. I also share my products on Pinterest, which is one of the most powerful traffic sources for my business. Not all social media has the same good results with all businesses. Even Facebook or Twitter did not help me and the cost of the ads on them is very expensive.
I spent a lot of money on social media ads but never got valuable revenue from them, maybe just kind of traffic. I tried ad campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and Google Adwords, but didn’t have positive results.
The best source affected my revenue was the content of my website, I always keep my website updated with more and more designs to retract my customers again, this will lead to constant traffic from your old customers and will increase the value of the website on the search engines to get new customers also. In the beginning, you should submit at least 3 new designs per week.
A tip I can share about designs is to make many designs for free, the free designs will give you more and more traffic that you can't get through the ads. If you have about 100 designs you can make 10% of them available for free. This will make your work trusted for the customers that need to purchase your products but they are not sure of the quality of the designs and will love to check your premium products and pay for them.
One of the mistakes I did on our website was that I submitted the free products as one package product on one page, I found that this way made me lose more traffic and decided to put each design as a separate product on a separate page. By doing this, the customer will stay at your website more time to get all your free designs.
If you have about 100 designs for free and put them in one page the visitor will need about 3 seconds to check and download them, but if you but each of the 100 designs in separate page the visitor will need about 300 seconds to check them and will give him more chances to see other of your premium designs, this will help you to increase the ranking of your website and the search engines will know that your website is popular and the website will be at the 1st results.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As I started my business with $29 monthly fees, about $150 revenue, 0 customers on the website, and social media. Now, I spend more than $500 in monthly fees, and my monthly revenue is about $7,000. With 700 visitors per day, 11,000 subscribers to my newsletters, and more than 10,000 followers on social media.
I hope at least stay on this level and I have many todo lists for new designs and ideas for my customers, now the time I spend on the website is less than 2 or 3 hours per week and most of them will be just contacting and replying to your customers, remember I told you that you should start with at least 4 hours per day at the beginning of your business.
I started to expand my target location, I started with the USA and then Australia, and so on. The analysis from your website will guide you which location you should target, so at the beginning, you should have kind of arts that fit with all people whatever from where they are, then target the country you need with related popular designs, for example, the USA like the sports, old classic cars or hot road car, Australian like their national animals such as Kangaroo and Koal, by the time my sales increase and I increase the range of my customers.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the bad experiences I have gone through with my business is paying for the SEO. I can say that most of them are useless and will cost you more without any result, I hired one of the most expert agents on SEO and have good ratings and costs me more than $1,000 without any results.
The bad thing when you pay for SEO is that you do not have any way to measure the work of the person you pay, he will tell you that the SEO will need about 6 months to feel results, then you have to hire him for these 6 months, now he guarantees his money for 6 months, after 6 months will tell you that your business is very keywords and you need to pay more or do another 6 months of SEO.
Believe me, I hired experts for more than 12 months and all I get very useless bad backlinks, these bad backlinks may be rejected by search engines and ban your website, also most of these backlinks will not be at websites related to your business and not even at the country you target.
If you need to pay, you can pay for someone to help you post on your social media if you don't have time to do it, posting on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram… is very helpful to make natural traffic and customers to your website.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As I'm using Shopify it gives me the main basic tools to improve my sales without extra fees, but I still need more professional tools to help me more. Shopify has its app store that contacts many trusted tools to use and simply could be installed in your store.
The most important of them is the email marketing tool Omnisend. You can try what is best for you, I tried about 2 or 3 other tools and I found that this one is the best of all. This tool helps you send newsletters to your customers with just a few clicks. Send offers to your customers, messages to attract customers with abandoned carts and more futures will help you do your best of email marketing without any previous experience.
I can say that more than 50% of my sales come from email marketing by targeting previous customers. This is another trick, "spending money to get new customers to purchase from you is more costly than retracting already old customers to purchase from you again". Keep your current customers, keep them loyal to your business.
Reviewing tools are also very important. On my website I use Stamped.io, this helps to collect reviews from my customers and send them automated messages after they finished the order to ask them about the product. We can say that this tool is a very important tool to contact your customers and measure their loyalty and satisfaction to your business, if get negative reviews you should work hard on it to resolve your problems and make your customers satisfied.
Smart search tools are also very helpful for your website, it will give recommendations for your customers when they search on your website and help them find what they need or something similar.
WhatsApp is a very fast contact way with your customers. It helps me to receive messages from my customers asking about products or help.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I can't give you specific books or resources as most of them are for my local country and language, but in general, I can guide you to read more about SEO, doing it yourself better than wasting more money hiring others. Read more about business and project management, marketing skills, and customer service, all of them you will need in your business whatever the business is product or service.
Maybe one of the most successful websites that will be helpful for your online business is this one.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My tips for the new starter on business:
- Start now, do not waste time.
- Spending more time, in the beginning, will save you more time later.
- Invest in yourself, spend time, and money to learn more.
- Look at the box first before thinking out of the box.
- Managing your business is better than doing its tasks.
- Content improvement is the best you can do for SEO.
- Doing SEO yourself is the best.
- Lose your money, earn your customers.
- Spending money to get new customers is more expensive than the retention of your current customers.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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