15 things needed to start a 3d printing business
🗣 Stepan Medvedev 🗓 03-18-2024 🕮 20 minutes read

How would I start a 3d printing business if I had to do it over again. Step by step.

🗣 Stepan Medvedev 🕮 15-minute read

🗓 04-17-2024


I’ve shared my story on how I started a 3d printing business, ran it for 10 years, and remotely sold it HERE.

Now I would like to talk about How I would start it if I had to do it again. Why?

When it was time to sell the business, I discovered, that the most valuable assets were not the 3d printers or production base and that I could've significantly grown and therefore increased business value if I did certain things a certain way.

Knowing that and other things - I would've tried to do things differently from the beginning (oh if only I had a time machine), and I hope it would help those who are thinking about or starting one right now.

This article doesn’t cover everything and simplifies some parts, but I tried to make it as practical and in-depth as possible since the devil is in the details.

Business strategy

First I need to ask myself: what kind of 3d printing business would I like to start? It may be hard to answer right on, but I do know 4 things:
  1. I want it to be service-based (at least in the beginning, then I may consider a hybrid: service+product model. Reasons for that are listed In the Service vs Product article);
  2. I want it to be B2B (higher check, less transactional costs);
  3. I want to gravitate towards making big/complicated models;
  4. I will offer some post-processing (get hand dirty, mot many others willing to do that);
NOTE - your list will be different, just make sure you have one and put a considerable amount of thought into it since it will define how things will go for many years.

Here I may also need to identify, who my target audience is. But It is hard, and may sometimes be harmful in the beginning, so I will stick with 4 general assumptions listed above, and see where keywords lead me.

But I will revisit this very important "list" (let's call it a “strategy”) as soon as I have a meaningful chunk of data and experience.

Research

Then I will conduct research.
For that, I need to pick a place (3dp business is place-bound to a certain degree). Let's say a city - Austin - TX.
Note here - the bigger city, the better.

Now I need 3 lists:
First is a List of keywords with average monthly searches and cost of clicks for different areas:
  1. Austin;
  2. Other big cities nearby;
  3. State of Texas;
  4. Nearby states;
  5. The whole of the US.
One tab for each. You can pick as many areas as you see fit, and the logic behind it is that you want to know the demand in places you will be able to serve.

I need general high-frequency keywords as well as Google suggestions and low-frequency keywords. The broader the scope, the better. There is a free tool called Keyword Planner (it also provides a click cost estimation for Google ads) inside a Google Ads account. If you don’t use Google ads, you can pick any keyword search tool out there.

Now I need to sort it, vet out unneeded ones, and separate them into groups based on intent (informational or commercial). I will also create a list of “minus” words (will use them later).
When it is all done, I need to assemble a “core”: a few groups of keywords united by intention.

If I don’t use keys/groups for commercial purposes, I may use them for info articles (SEO). The most visited (by a long shot) page on the site, which I sold as a part of the business was “The History of 3d printing”.
Research should also include many other “places”, basically one should identify where potential customers hang out, what they need (their problems), and how one can reach them, and as a result will have some potential acquisition channels, and a list of “problems” to form an offer with.

I will only cover the fastest and the one I know best - Google ads (+ a bit of SEO for the long game). This channel corresponds rather well, with my understanding, of where my “target audience” may be (more on that below).
Second is a List of competitors. I will only need ones’ that will compete with me for my target demographic. Specifically, I would like to know:
  • Domain name;
  • Their offer (range of services, materials, unique propositions);
  • Their main (and all relevant landing pages) Title, H1, description, “subtitle”, unique selling propositions, and maybe a screenshot of HERO;
  • Their CTAs (calls to action - do they use online calculators, contact form…).
The list can go on, but those are the most important (probably), the logic behind it - I want to know what has been offered so far, compare it to the demand from list 1, and identify where I can “squeeze in”.

Third list - competitor’s prices. Based on my initial ”strategy” (for whom and what I will do) I prepare a couple of inquiries, which I send to competitors to quote.
I would like to know:
  • Prices;
  • Fulfillment time;
  • Conditions;
  • How competitors interact with prospects.
Inquiries may be:
  1. A somewhat complicated “technical” model of a middle size;
  2. Small-to-mid batch of parts (up to 100-300);
  3. A somewhat big model (that will probably require printing in parts and assembly) + separately I would inquire about painting;
As a result, I will understand how I may price and position my services. I prefer to start somewhere in the lower middle of a price range and slowly go up.

I won't try to go for the cheapest price - it is a road to nowhere. I may go for it once or twice to snatch an order, which will be beneficial to my portfolio, but that is it!

3d printing Business plan

With that data gathered I am now ready to set up business goals for 1-3 years, and lay out a tactical (more detailed) plan for a quarter or so.

Usually, the latter shall be detailed like: I need to reach X revenue/per day, to get Y rev per month, and for that, I will need Z inquiries and so on... But as I am just starting, it may not make a lot of sense, since there are no "base" numbers.

But I will use that type of planning as soon as I have those numbers (after 6-12 months).
I also will align the plan with my Strategy, and maybe add some details to it, based on the data I’ve gathered.

I will have a somewhat united note/doc with actionable tasks, equipped with due dates (those are very important), and an overall plan.

I like to unify all of the above (lists, vision, tasks…) as a project in a project management software (by the way, 3DPBOSS has a task-project module, including separate tasks and projects for the owner).
Much easier to manage and keep track of.

Offer and Site creation

Now I can compose my offer.
This offer will be presented on my site, in my ads, over the phone to prospects and everywhere else.
I need to describe CLEARLY what I do exactly, for whom, and why those people should take their business to me (competitive advantages).

I pick a name, and domain name and make a logo. I keep in mind that they are a part of the offer (everything is), and I keep them as short, direct, and close to the point (group of keywords - commercial intentions I decided to go for) as possible.
I squeeze a relevant keyword into the name-domain name if I can (it helps a lot).

Before I decide I type the name into the search and see what pops up (don’t skip that part).

Now I can make a site. I pick one of the No-code options to create it myself or delegate it. I keep in mind that I will need to correct and change the site: an offer (text. headings), portfolio, blog (for SEO purposes), services, etc. The no-code solution will allow me to do that myself or will cost less, and done faster if delegated.

It will be one landing page (in the beginning), and it will include:
  • Title (shown as a first string in search);
  • Description (shown as a second string in the search);
HERO SECTION (first screen - 80% of people won’t go below it)
  • H1 (main “title” shown on the top of the page)
  • Subtitle (text below the H1, usually supports the H1 and includes unique selling points);
  • Clear CTA (Call to action);
  • Foto or video of what I’ve done (the visual representation of services works really well);
  • Unique selling points (not included in the subtitle, or supporting/elaborating on them);
  • Social proof (if I have any);
END OF THE HERO SECTION
  • Unique selling points;
  • All other headers;
  • All other text;
  • Examples (what I’ve done) and/or testimonials - if I truly just starting I may need to make some examples of objects I would like to make (as close to desired nich as possible) and take GOOD photos of them (It can be powerful, that is what I did and people told me many times, that they “came” because of “beautiful” thing that we’ve done (“beautiful” is mostly attribute off a picture, then a thing);
  • FAQ (those shall be questions that your customers ask you the most, I mean REAL questions - they work rather well as objection handlers);
  • Clear CTA (Call to action);
As there is just one page, it should target the chosen commercial keyword + a few closely connected keywords.

NOTE - if you are interested in getting organic traffic, choose a keyword with low competition, but enough search volume (above 100-200/month should be alright), and use tools like Semrush to find that Keyword.

A lot can (and was) sad about the topic, and I would certainly recommend getting more information about it or hiring professionals to help with that - it will pay off handsomely (it did for me, and everyone who did that, that I know).

The “art” of creating a Title, H1, and the rest of the text, headings, and attributes is a delicate dance between the need to be different from competitors, the need to incorporate the right keyword, basic SEO guidelines, and most importantly - to present a compelling offer.
An important thing to keep in mind - your HERO should tell, straight and clearly - what services you provide, for whom, and why a visitor should click your CTA, or continue reading.
Last thing - make sure that it looks fine and loads quickly on mobile. More than half of the traffic will be from there.
Research says, that If it loads more than 3 seconds - people bounce.
Check your speed here - https://pagespeed.web.dev/ or by using other tools (just Google "mobile load speed tool").

I also treat that as a project and like to keep all info, assets, and tasks interconnected and in one place (3DPBOSS comes in handy again).

There is A LOT more to that, but it is beyond the scope of this article.

Traffic: Ads and SEO

Now I need traffic.

Google ads.
As I just starting, I need to be as targeted as possible. So I will:
  • Vet keywords carefully, avoid high-frequency ones, and compose them into groups;
  • Start with one or two groups, with a limited number of keywords with clear commercial intent;
  • Limit the location to the city I am in;
  • Add a minus keywords list. If a search query includes one of the words from the list (like FREE, or CHEAP) - ads won't be shown.

Google pushes everyone really hard to use responsive search ads + broad match + AI-suggested keywords, but I won't.
Why?
  1. It will greatly disperse the focus, and therefore results of my campaign.
  2. It is still not working properly, especially for small and/or “complicated” niches. In other words, it will waste my money, (relocate it to Google), without bringing back results (or at least as many).
And I don't want that.

I will use exact and/or phrase match, fix (pin) headings and descriptions, and practically make "an old school" text ad from a responsive search ad. Yes, it will be more work, but results will be better, and controllable.

Just how I like them.

I will also set up conversion tracking.


Now I will compose my "SEO plan", I will:
  • Plan to add new "commercial"/landing pages to the site (one page per meaningful keyword) as I go.
  • Create a schedule: after the main page is up, I will try to “deploy” them in 2-4 week intervals, starting with the most meaningful/impactful.
  • Request indexing in the Google search console after the first publishable version of the site is done. I will repeat the operation with every meaningful page I add, including info SEO pages (below).
  • Form a group of keywords with informational intent, vet wods that align with my direction, and plan an article for each vetted keyword with a separate page on the site with a personal set of SEO attributes.
  • Publish them with the same or longer intervals as for the "commercial" pages.
  • Try to make those articles as valuable for the reader as possible. Everything I do shall be client-oriented (bring value). User behavior is more and more important for SEO.
This “article” is an example of such a page.

I won't cover social media here, since its plenty of info on that topic, and I am not an "expert".
From my experience, if I plan (and I do) to offer 3d printing services to businesses (B2B), social media (except LinkedIn maybe) is not exactly a place for “fishing” (I might be wrong).

Legal+

Moving along to the legal land.

I will not go deep into the business structure (LLCs or sole proprietorships), just say that you need one.
Figure out what works best in your case, but note: if you are planning (envisioning) to sell your business one day (or a part of it) - you will need it to be at least an LLC.
This structure (as stated in the name), also limits your liability, which is not a bad thing.

One more thing that does that, and at times viewed as a formality - is a contract.
I’ve learned to appreciate contracts and pay attention to their "design". The contract sets expectations, protects both you and your client, and serves as an extension to your offer - a clear, correct, and honest contract, that picks up on promises you’ve made will reassure your client that you are a trustworthy professional.
Create a clear, correct contract template (or templates), seek professional help/advice if needed, and try not to overcomplicate it (easier-smaller the better).

Before the contract, expectations are set during all interactions with a client: nuances, limitations, examples, samples, etc. As the number of interactions with clients starts to grow you will notice repetitive patterns in questions and answers.
Create a base with answer templates - those saved me a ton of time and improved the quality of my communication.

3d printers and a place

Well, and yeah, I need 3d printers to start a 3d printing business.
If you plan to start such a business, you may already have some, and/or possess the needed knowledge on the subject, but I still going to say a few things. No specific models, or vendors though, since there is a lot of printer-related content out there, and the scene is rapidly (wink) changing.

I would try to pick one type of printer (or at least a vendor) and stick to it. Benefits:
  • Somewhat stable overall quality;
  • Same spare parts;
  • Same repair and maintenance procedures;
  • Same working protocols;
  • Same slicing…
I also will (at least in the beginning) look for stable machines, that would not require a ton of maintenance.

Note here: your choice shall also be based on your perceived goal (niche you want to end up with/customers you want to serve), and you may need different types of printers for that.

Depending on my situation, I may not need an office/working space right from the start (at least not until the idea has been validated). If I do, I would get something with a space to grow (aligned with my plan/goals), but I would try not to jump over my head with it.

Business management software

There is one more thing that I will need right from the start (because I don’t want to replicate my own mistakes) - a software suite to manage the business. Getting it from the start will provide the most leverage and set me up on the right path. I will need:
  • CRM - all work with prospects and clients: pricing, offers, deals, followups, deadlines, docs…
  • ERP - control and management of all resources: materials, printers...
  • Production scheduling/planning;
  • Maintenance, Repairs, Spare parts, and materials control;
  • Team (eventually) + Docs + Files storage + Contractors + Spending + everything else.
I couldn't find one like that so I’ve made my own.

Management software and CRM might not be obvious must-haves, but they are if I want to make it into a controllable and growing business (and I do).

There is no other way - look at any business that made it - they all without exception use such systems.

One more thing - all business decisions shall be based on data: how would I know, for example, if my ad campaigns are making (and how much) or losing money, without knowing what my average check, margin, or LTV is?

Summary and Q&A

There is a lot more to that, but it is already too long.
So I’ve got:
  1. List of keywords;
  2. List of competitors;
  3. Price research (and base price level as a result);
  4. A plan;
  5. An offer;
  6. Name and logo;
  7. Website (with offer and good photos of done jobs on it);
  8. Google Ads campaign (or other acquisition channel, start from one you know best/where your customers are);
  9. SEO plan;
  10. Legal entity;
  11. Contract templates;
  12. “Sales templates” base (those collected on the go, but you may already have something since you talked to people before);
  13. Printers;
  14. Some physical space;
  15. Management system/software (or at least a bunch of spreadsheets);
3 BONUS reminders for myself:
  • To get paid in advance. ALWAYS, at least partially;
  • To do extra for customers. If I can, when I can;
  • To be patient - business is a marathon, not a sprint;

Some Q&A:
  • Is the 3d printing business a good business to start?
It is not a get-rich-quick scheme, and it is not particularly easy, but all things that are worth doing are hard.
If you like it/are passionate about it/good at it (the most important factor in my opinion.) - it certainly might be.

I’ve planned to go with the B2B service model (on-demand manufacturing), and that trend will only grow over time.
Since we talked about the US, let's take a look at this article and specifically the chart of Construction spending on US manufacturing https://www.businessinsider.com/us-building-factories-census-data-chips-act-inflation-reduction-act-2023-6?op=1 + big new “infrastructure rebuild projects” might be somewhere around the corner.

What does it all have to do with a small 3dp service? The economy is an interconnected system. All of those “big projects” will require a lot of smaller contractors/suppliers, and they will need smaller ones…and that is where I come in.

  • Why the service model?
2 reasons:
  1. I know how to do it (done it for 10 years), the data above backs the idea up, and I still see a lot of upsides and opportunities there (aside from the data).
  2. It is a lot easier to “search” for product ideas - they come to you (for that you will have to have a B2C “department” though). I’ve recently talked to a few 3dp business owners (and read a few stories over the years), and almost all of them had their product ideas brought to them by clients.
More on that is the Service vs Product article.

  • Is it profitable?
If you create a system (management software can help with that) with processes in place, create and maintain customer acquisition channels, and price correctly - it will be.

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