First off, thank you to John Saunders for agreeing to do this interview. John is a busy guy. He runs a CNC Machining and Milling YouTube channel that just reached the 100,000 follower milestone, and is the owner of a top-notch CNC Machining shop in Ohio. John’s shop is putting out some solid aftermarket products that we will discuss later in this interview. So thank you to John!
I hope everyone enjoys reading this interview and look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section. In addition to discussing John’s YouTube channel, NYC CNC and his CNC machining and milling shop, Saunders Machine Works, we also talk about entrepreneurship in today’s climate, why you should take it slow, and how to approach or not approach business partnerships. If you’re starting your own shop, already have, are thinking about it, or just hustling at someone else’s shop, this interview is for you!
Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do for those that do not know you.
My name is John Saunders and I run a YouTube Channel called NYC CNC which focuses mostly on CNC machining, CAD, CAM, Arduino and automation type projects.
On somewhat of a whim I bought a benchtop milling machine when I lived in Manhattan. Not really expecting to ever want to be a machinist, but thinking if I could at least learn some of what they were doing and talking about I could be part of the conversation and help.
When was NYC CNC born and why did you start it?
I grew up in Central Ohio and moved to New York City after college for a day job totally unrelated to machining and engineering. Still, I have no formal experience or training in machining, but was very interested in entrepreneurship and business so I started up a small company to try and bring a product to market. Basically, I hired an engineer and he hired a machine shop to help us make this product.
It was a super fun project, but I knew nothing about what was made or why it was made that way. I wasn’t really able to participate in any of the decision making process. Because of that, I felt very inept so on somewhat of a whim I bought a benchtop milling machine when I lived in Manhattan. Not really expecting to ever want to be a machinist. I thought if I could at least learn some of what they were doing and talking about I could be part of the conversation and help.
I also had a camera and had done some home-type movies with iMovie on my Mac for trips, vacations and stuff with friends. I thought, if I’m interested in this machining stuff there must be some others as well. This was back in 2006 when YouTube was very young. The maker movement that has developed over the last 10 years was just still getting started so it was just kind of good timing.
In what ways has your business grown since 2007?
It was really just a hobby and a side-business until two and half years ago. I left New York and moved back to Ohio. While I was in New York I did have a fairly successful side-business making a machined product that was a camera mount and we made a lot of them, but they got to quantities so large that we outsourced that machining. For a long time I had a Tormach milling machine and we could do 32 at a time on a fixture pallet, swap it out, and just keep going, and it was really fun because you had to buy raw material, tumble parts, get them anodized, laser engraved and all of that.
Starting out, what machines did you first use compared to now, and how has the way you work changed?
I started out with a TAIG CNC Milling Machine. That was a very very small machine. I think the whole thing weighed 70 or 80 pounds and had a 7 or 8,000 RPM spindle, but very little horsepower. It was an ER Collet system so every time you changed the tool you didn’t have any repeatable tooling so that was kind of funny in hindsight to have to re-touch-off every time you changed the tool.
Then we used Tormach milling machines for almost seven to eight years and loved them. I still use them and have a lot of experience and success with them. We’ve got four of their mills now, one of their lathes, and one of their grinders. And that has kind of been my business model. They’re relatively inexpensive machines. I ran my CNC machining business out of my garage for a long time. I tried to stay debt free, and to me that was awesome. We did just buy a brand-new, beautiful HAAS VM3 which I’m going to call the Rolls Royce of machines. I know there are machines that are bigger, better, and more expensive, but for us this is absolutely amazing. Great travel size, 40-tool changer, thru spindle coolant, 16,000 pound machine; super super cool.
There are so many gaps in my knowledge and I’m okay with it. I don’t care because I love what I do. I have fun with what I do and if I don’t know how to do something, I either don’t take the job on or I figure out how to do it.
Are there any things you wish you knew then that you know now about CNC Machining?
Yeah, everything! That is the story of our YouTube channel. It’s about sharing as an outsider. As a self-taught machinist there are so many things I don’t know. There are so many gaps in my knowledge and I’m okay with it. I don’t care because I love what I do. I have fun with what I do and if I don’t know how to do something, I either don’t take the job on or I figure out how to do it.
Take your time, build your reputation and brand through word of mouth. Then I’m not trying to spend money advertising and chasing customers.
Is there anything you wish you knew then that you know now specifically about running a CNC Machining business in today’s industry climate?
There is so much demand for good machinists and it’s tough because I have two conflicting thoughts. One is that we’re super busy and we’re also really small, and and staying busy as a small shop isn’t that hard. But I think for me to grow my business 10-fold, twenty-fold would be very difficult and something I would be pretty scared about doing.
A lot of the guys I know that are good machinists that take really great pride in their work are super busy as well. That being said, would I tell somebody to just go start a job shop on your own? It’s a lot of work, it’s really hard, and it’s a lot of time. So I guess I did do one thing that is cheating. I spent six or seven years learning for fun and enjoying, saving money, and staying out of debt.
So to start a job shop today you go out and buy 2, 3, $400,000 worth of new or even used machines, tool up in a space, and payroll for other people. That’s a very challenging biz in my opinion. That also goes back to my strategy of take your time. Build your reputation and brand through word of mouth. Then I’m not trying to spend money advertising and chasing customers.
I would get home from my job at 5:30 or 6 and work ‘til 11 or midnight a lot of days and on the weekends and that was just awesome because it’s how I made my dream real.
What type of specific advice do you have for all the machinists, CNC machining programmers, knife makers and gunsmiths out there hustling, whether it is full time or just as a side hustle?
I’m a huge fan of the side-hustle because I’m a very conservative entrepreneur which is kind of an oxymoron, but I just am. I’ve always been a fairly conservative person.
Now, we do pretty well, but I also have a family. A wife and two kids, and for me I love my version of the story. I busted my butt for seven or eight years on the side. And I realize some people aren’t interested or willing to do that. I want to make sure it’s clear that that doesn’t make you a better or worse person for not wanting to basically work two jobs. But for me, that was what I wanted to do. I loved it, it was super fun and we didn’t have kids yet. I’d get home from my job at 5:30 or 6 and work ‘til 11 or midnight a lot of days and on the weekends and that was just awesome because it’s how I made my dream real.
The biggest mistake I made was a bad business partnership. Certainly no regrets on where life has gone since then, but don’t partner with someone is my short answer period.
Are there any critical mistakes you made early on that you can share for others to learn from? Is there anything you would recommend not doing?
The biggest mistake I made was a bad business partnership. It’s tough because everyone likes to ignore the reality. I am just not a huge fan of business partnerships. One of the reasons is buy-sell agreements. To propose an analogous to a prenuptial agreement like with marriage is very awkward thing . If you’re not going to divorce me then why do you want a prenup? I had the business I mentioned earlier that went south. I learned a lot of good lessons for relatively cheap out of it. Certainly no regrets on where life has gone since then, but don’t partner with someone is my short answer period.
I don’t always do it perfectly, but be honest with yourself and be honest with deadlines. Be honest with expectations, and treat people well. Just take pride in what you do.
You are an example for many entrepreneurs out there. What have you learned along the way about marketing yourself and your product in this industry?
If I’ll say one thing, there’s a book called How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. That book was life-changing for me. I did go to business school with a focus on entrepreneurship so I probably have a better business background than your average machinist. That book though, was the one that made me realize something. It’s absolute, drop-dead honesty, in what you are and who you are and how you handle yourself. It’s very difficult to get mad at somebody who is brutally honest.
I don’t always do it perfectly, but be honest with yourself and be honest with deadlines. Be honest with expectations, and treat people well. Seriously, just take pride in what you do. That’s why I say grow slow. If you become something you don’t enjoy, it’s a big transition when you go from your part-time job to your full-time job. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it because you’re not going to be happy. You’re not going to love making parts for people and that’s not a good recipe.
Are there any solid CNC Machining resources out there that would recommend to readers?
There are some great guys on YouTube. I don’t believe there is that much bad information about CNC machining or milling out there. Guys like Tom Lipton and Adam Booth… YouTube has got a wealth of information CNC machining and milling.
Please tell readers about Saunders Machine Works. It’s definitely worth plugging!
Saunders Machine Works is my job shop. We do Lathe CNC Machining and Milling. I wanted a different name for our brick and mortar machine shop, but YouTube doesn’t let you change your name so I had to keep the NYC CNC name when we moved to Ohio.
I’ll be honest, we’re trying to take less job shop and CNC machining work on now as we start rolling out some of our own products. We’ve got a really awesome after-market fixture plate for Dewalt aluminum and steel cutting saws. It’s called the DW872. They make great saws, but their factory sheet metal stinks so we make a really nice after-market fixture plate and we’ve started to come out with some machining related products. You can see more and buy them at www.saundersmachineworks.com. So that’s what we are pushing in 2017.
And that’s not to say you can’t have any fun in life. For me though, fun was I wanted to have this machine that would make me money. Then I could enjoy these things. So my drink of choice after a long day is a glass of water.
Lastly, do you have a drink of choice after a long day? If so, what is it?
I don’t really drink much. I have nothing against drinking, vacations or eating out, but if you want something, focus on it. I bet you if you summed up beer, booze, vacation, and dining out everyone reading this would be able to afford a pretty nice machine. And that’s not to say you can’t have any fun in life. For me though, fun was I wanted to have this machine that would make me money. Then I could enjoy these things. So my drink of choice after a long day is a glass of water.