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Video: Starting Your Own Machine Shop — the Rewards and Challenges

The owner of Dan’s Custom Machining on the decision to go full-time with his machining business, advice for future shop owners, and whether buying machine tools is fun.

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On a visit to Dan’s Custom Machining in Williamsburg, Ohio, I spoke with owner and president Dan Donaworth. We recently covered his experience as the founder of a startup shop. In this video, we discuss his decision to go full-time with the shop as his sole income, the rewards of owning an independent shop as well as the area of challenge it presents, his advice for prospective shop owners, and whether buying machine tools is fun.

 
 

Transcript

Peter Zelinski, Modern Machine Shop

Peter Zelinski with Modern Machine Shop. We're at Dan's Custom Machining. I'm with the owner and founder Dan Donaworth. This shop, a startup job shop, has been Dan's sole gig for less than a year now. So Dan, how did you know you were ready to go full time with your own shop?

Dan Donaworth, Dan's Custom Machining

We had a certain number that me and my wife created as far as not just customer base, income base, and also machine tools that we had in the shop that I needed to reach before I decided to take the full leap and leave my full time employment.

Peter Zelinski 

All right, so give me a sense of the kind of work you do now. What kind of jobs are you getting, how many active customers do you have?

Dan Donaworth 

The biggest type of work is, we are a job shop, so we do one-off parts, might run five of something if we're lucky. We have six pretty active customers and out of those six, three are probably the biggest players for us. And the biggest industry we serve is aerospace and that ranges from new-make parts for military, hardware to repair and overhaul of aviation for the military and commercial side.

Peter Zelinski 

You thought for a long time about whether you'd go full time as a shop owner, you sort of weighed the factors. Now you're here. What do you know as a job shop owner, now that you've made that decision, that you wouldn't have known otherwise?

Dan Donaworth 

You're so judgmental when you work for someone as a machinist, as far as what goes on. Why aren't we doing it this way? But now that you have to wear every hat, you're more open to what is fully involved in running a shop, from logistics, to tooling, to machine tools, to customers. Just making it all happen.

Peter Zelinski 

You're kind of saying that now that you're the boss, you're not as hard on the boss anymore.

Dan Donaworth 

I guess you could say that.

Peter Zelinski 

Talk about the pros and cons. A lot of people watching this, machinists maybe kind of dreaming of having their own shop. The pros first. What are the real benefits of being a shop owner?

Dan Donaworth 

One, just watching the company grow. That's one of the biggest satisfactory things that you can do is just look back and see what was a struggle a year ago is now no longer a struggle when it's something that you laugh about. Also, the connection I make with my customers. I love keeping a very personal connection and taking care of them like they’re my lifeline because at the end of the day, they are.

Peter Zelinski 

Okay, pros and cons. Let's do cons now. What are the real challenges, difficulties of being an independent shop owner?

Dan Donaworth 

The biggest challenge especially with being a job shop is cashflow. That's the number one killer for small businesses out there. And especially in the job shop market because everything is what comes in the door that week, you don't know what's coming in and you don't know what's going to come in a month from now.

Peter Zelinski 

So part of being a shop owner, you equip the shop, you outfit it. Is it fun to shop for machine tools?

Dan Donaworth 

That's kind of a double-edged sword. As far as shopping around and looking at what new technology is out there, that's awesome to see how technology is advancing. What's all out there, what machines are capable of. But at the same time, it's very stressful, especially being a smaller shop. I mean, I'm buying machines that cost more than my first house did when I bought it.

Peter Zelinski 

All right, so others who work in machining, maybe they're in their 20s too. Maybe they dream of what you have here, owning their own shop. What do you say to them? What's your advice?

Dan Donaworth 

My biggest advice to someone that would want to start a shop is go for it. I mean, you just have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot. It takes a lot of time and takes a lot of financial discipline. And another big thing I would say is to make sure before you jump off, have a good network of who you know, because they can really help you out, especially when you need it the most. Whether it be getting into a place, or even sending you overflow work if they’ve got anything they can send you.

Peter Zelinski 

Yeah, so in machining, you're doing the work and you're here in the shop, setting up, running parts, shipping parts by yourself but in spite of all that it's a people business, isn't it?

Dan Donaworth 

Machining is a very tight-knit family. Everyone seems to know everyone so that one solid connection in one place might lead you to five other places.