Parent Category: Big Blue Saw Blog
Created: Wednesday, 04 August 2010 00:00
Written by Simon Arthur
I've told this story many times to customers, friends, and business associates, but I've never posted the full story here on the Big Blue Saw website itself.
The story really begins in the mid 1990's. Marc Thorpe was a a guest at the Dragon*Con science fiction convention. He was showing videos of an event he had produced in San Francisco called Robot Wars. It featured robotic gladiators with names like The Master and Thor fighting to the death in a hazard filled arena. Robot Wars was a game of destruction and brawn, true, but it also featured elegance and beauty as well, and required brains to win. As a bonus, Dragon*Con had been running a fighting robot of its own for several years: Robot Battles. In summary, my mind was blown and I was hooked on making fighting robots.
Being a computer programmer, the closest I had ever come to building my own robot was making a mutant R2D2 with the Star Wars Droid Factory when I was a kid. Eventually I became interested not only in the robots themselves, but in the tools and techniques I needed to make them.
I eventually learned that many of the things I wanted to create were well beyond the capabilities of my simple home workshop. Often, I found myself reaching out to fabrication and machine shops to create the designs I had envisioned. Dealing with these types of business was incredibly unsatisfactory. Their sales teams, such as they were, usually consisted of one surly fellow who seemed like he desperately wanted to be anywhere but his rusty office chair. I would find myself calling repeatedly to check on the status of an order or even just to get a quote. E-mail communication was non-existent. Most commonly, I found that they simply did not want to deal with a hobbyist ordering just a handful of parts.
One incident in particular sticks out in my mind. I contacted one of the largest machine shops in Georgia to weld a robot frame for me from my pre-cut parts. The finished piece 3 weeks late and the welding work was shoddy. To add insult to injury, I later learned that I was charged 4 times the going rate. When I picked up the part, the man who wrote up my receipt had to ask for my help spelling the name of the city where the shop is located.
I knew there had to be a better way to get custom machined parts, but I couldn't find it.
In 2005, I was facing a life-changing prospect: becoming a father for the first time. I had been making a living as a freelance computer consultant for the past 5 years, taking on clients as it suited me and making enough to earn a good living. I loved the variety of the work and the ability to take long chunks of the year off if I chose to. But I knew, in order to create a stable future for my family, I had to do something that was independent of both the labor market for freelance software engineers and my ability to work billable hours. I'm not really cut out for corporate jobs; I get bored just thinking about it. I know, I thought, there's nothing more secure and stable than starting a new business; that'll bring in the steady cash! (No, it didn't work out that way, but more on that in a moment.)
Graphic from an early version of the Big Blue Saw website
Based upon my experience building robots and my background developing software for the web, I decided I could make a website that made it easy for people to order high-quality parts online, custom made to their specifications. There would be as little friction as possible in the ordering process, making it as easy to order 1 simple part as it is to order 1000 complex ones. My eventual goal was, and still is, to allow engineers, artists, hobbyists, crafters, designers, and makers of all kinds to turn a concept or idea into a real thing.
There were (and still are) a few websites out there that attempt to make the whole process of ordering custom machined parts easier. For example, the first one I looked at in 2005 required you to download and install a Microsoft Windows-only client program just to get a quote. The prices they gave for waterjet cutting when I started Big Blue Saw were 2-3 times higher than what I charged (and still are, the last time I checked).
After having created the great way to order waterjet and laser cut parts online, I was thoroughly shocked that I didn't get an immediate flood of grateful customers. Instead, it's been a slow and deliberate process of regularly improving the website, making buying from Big Blue Saw more pleasant, and building relationships with customers. I still take on consulting work from time to time to make ends meet. But sales keep going up, and this year is on track to be the most profitable ever. My wife has been very understanding, even when I need to work long hours or when the sales have been slow. We now have two little rugrats.
Big Blue Saw continues to grow because of you, our customers. Without your visions for what we can do with raw material, Big Blue Saw wouldn't exist. Thank you.