When Chris Wood started LittleMachineShop.com, it was only supposed to be a test.
Wood and a partner were writing manuals for a Japanese printer company and he realized he should learn to build e-commerce sites for the clients he worked with. Wood had his own mini lathe at home but found he had few choices when it came to buying parts, so he decided to set up an online shop to sell them himself.
The timing couldn’t have been better. It was the beginning of the dot com crash, and as his other work fell off, the site Wood had conceived as a backup became his main business.
“A year or so before, I started working on mini lathes and had to go around to different places to find them,” Wood says. “In the beginning we never sold complete machines, only parts. Now we’re selling CNC milling machines and are looking into other new areas.”
Littlemachineshop.com is big now. They sell nationwide and the weak American dollar has helped push international sales, which now make up 7 percent of the company’s total sales. Wood says most customers are hobbyists, but he also has several large clients who purchase parts for the machines in their prototype shops.
Lockheed Martin is a client. So is NASA.
“They’re not building aircraft with our parts, but they’re trying some things in their shops,” Wood says.
The company has six employees, and other than a few down months at the beginning of the current recession it has grown in low double digits each year. Wood says he’s also negotiating with a large international company to be the exclusive provider of new and more powerful equipment (but he’s still a bit uneasy about giving too many details until the ink is on the paper for the deal).
Wood is a mechanical engineer by training, and earlier in his career worked more directly in the field. He designed cargo loaders for airlines and served as an engineer for a garlic distribution plant. When it came to machining, the only formal training he had was a shop class in college and his home shop.
From his perspective as an entrepreneur and a hobbyist, Wood says machining is anything but exploding.
“I’m not going to tell you this is a fast-growing hobby,” he says. “There are always people getting into it but then there are some falling by the wayside. It’s a real small niche hobby, especially compared to woodworking. You probably have three neighbors that are woodworking, but you probably don’t have any neighbors that have a machine shop in their garage.”
But that’s not all bad from a business standpoint. There are fewer opportunities for growth but also less competitors, and Wood says he commands a significant share of the market. The difficulty is in finding the customers, who can tend to skew older and are less connected to the Internet.
“We have a large percentage of retired customers and it’s not surprising if I ask a guy for his e-mail address he’ll say he doesn’t have a home computer,” Wood says.
The hobbyists also tend to be less concentrated. There are still only a handful of clubs people identify with, Wood says, while woodworking or car repair clubs are found in every medium sized city. LittleMachineShop.com’s offices are in Pasadena, but Wood says the nearest club is a day-long drive across the Los Angeles basin.
Even though machining magazines report proportionally more subscriptions in Southern California than most other areas, Wood says machining has remained a largely solitary venture there as it does in the rest of the country.
This is driving most machinists to the Internet, to congregate on blogs and message boards and share their designs, he says. His own site, aside from being one of the largest on the Internet devoted to machining, also serves as a jumping-off point that sends users to a number of specialty sites for mini lathes, mini mills and home machine shops.
“That’s been growing exponentially on the web over the last few years” he says. “People have machine shops for all different reasons. Some of them do it because machining is their hobby, but some just like to fix motorcycles and that’s their hobby. The Internet is where they all meet, and it’s only going to grow.”