Updated: Sep 4, 2018
In my first blog I discussed change in the industry and some key areas where change may influence business evolution. I would like to revisit the Charles Darwin quote mentioning, "It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change." Another quote which often arises with regard to the same topic is "change or die." I think this quote creates more sense of urgency because it drives the point home. The reality of adapting in business is very apparent when looking at simple numbers, only 71 companies remain of the list of companies which made up the Fortune 500 in 1955. While you may not see the relevance of this information, business is business; we are here to offer a product or service to a market based on demand; in our industry it happens to be custom 1911 pistols and related services. So how do we adapt in the Custom 1911 industry? We start through focused efforts to best utilize our time.
Many Custom 1911 shops are one-man operations where time is of the essence. We all wish there were 48hrs in a day, or that there were two of "me" working, but the reality is that we often have long days full of distractions. Long lead-times or service turnaround times have long been a norm in the industry. I conducted a simple survey at the beginning of the year asking what people value more, waiting for a custom 1911 to be built to their specs, or buying an equivalent quality 1911 built on speculation that is available for immediate delivery. The outcome of the survey was close, but a majority of people favored a custom quality gun that is available for immediate delivery. This is not surprising at all because society as a whole is much more oriented on instant gratification than ever before. When I was in the retail pharmacy business I remember a meeting where we covered customer service satisfaction ratings of major retailers, the retailers with the highest ratings were not the ones who offered the highest quality service, it was the retailers who offered the fastest service. Nobody in the custom 1911 industry fills this demand. In-fact, I was surprised to learn that some builders even inflate their lead-times to create a false sense of demand for their product... YES, this does happen! So how does a custom 1911 builder meet these changing demands while wearing so many hats in their day-to-day operation? The answer to the question is simple, take off some of those hats and focus your efforts to better utilize your time. Focused centric business models, automation, and process efficiency are what I consider the key points of evolving with the changing market demand.
First, a focused centric business model is extremely important. Do you want to be a custom gunsmith, or do you want to be a gun builder? When I started my business, my goal was to build my own brand of premium 1911s, but there was no demand for my brand in the beginning so I started off by gunsmithing. I worked on everything that walked through the front door. I learned a lot about how other platforms worked and ultimately, I believe it gave me a better understanding and appreciation for the 1911 platform. As I grew my business, (I still have a long road to travel,) I came upon many cross roads, one which I am still in the process of crossing today. In order to focus on your goal, you have to limit your focus on other things which distract you from said goal. If you want to be a custom 1911 builder, it is my opinion that you cannot be a gunsmith, you have to choose what you want to be and focus on that. The problem with trying to be both is that there is only enough time in the day to be mediocre at both, it is better to excel at one of them. As demand for my custom 1911s increased, I started to limit other services which distracted me from my goal. First I stopped doing gunsmithing on anything but 1911s, then I stopped cerakoting and refinishing, lastly I stopped gunsmithing on 1911s as well so I can focus specifically on my original goal, building my own brand of custom 1911s. While transitioning to a more focus centric business model can be difficult, the result of this approach will allow you time to excel at what you do and reach your goals.
Secondly, it is my opinion that automation will play an integral role in the future of the custom 1911 industry. If you have not read my first blog, I mentioned how external factors such as politics are changing the way we conduct business and driving up costs associated in operating our businesses; this combined with the market demanding instant gratification, creates an environment where time becomes a factor in meeting demand and profitability. We can scoff and recite the Good, Cheap, Fast pick only two model all we want, but the reality is the world is changing around us, if we do not adapt to these changes, we will certainly get left behind. Automation is not to be viewed as the death of a craft. Automation simply means that you employ your knowledge to building a gun in a manner which utilizes advanced technology and methodology to produce the same result or better, in a more consistent and efficient manner. I implemented my first piece of automation to my business this year and quickly realized the benefit to the business. I have to stress, automation does not mean cutting everything to a generic model and slapping it together like a production gun. For example, many builders use a Weigand jig on their milling machine to cut the lower lugs of the barrel. I modeled the lower lugs in a CAD program, use a gauge pin to verify how much material needs to be removed from the lower lugs, and then offset the program accordingly to remove that exact amount. Since the machine can interpolate the cut, there is no need to use a flimsy rotating fixture which can cause a poor surface finish and inconsistencies in cut dimensions. My Bridgeport milling machine is a fine machine, but at one ton, it is still nowhere near as rigid or accurate as my CNC milling machine. Even manual milling with the CNC is faster and more accurate with 3 axis motion/DRO, ball-screws, increased rigidity, and a tool offset database in the controller. Again, automation is not the enemy of the craft, it is simply a process improvement to implement your knowledge of building a premium 1911 while utilizing your time more efficiently; with a result of increased accuracy and consistency.
Lastly, process efficiency is huge focus factor in evolving the business. Since much of our focus is placed on better utilizing time, we have to explore the many ways in doing so through becoming more efficient in basic processes. Automation as mentioned earlier is a huge component to processes efficiency, but process efficiency can also be found in other tasks such as purchasing, inventory management, accepting purchase orders, and hand-work; and even some of this can be automated. Purchasing is very time consuming. Labeling yourself as a custom gun builder opens yourself up to the perception that any and all parts should be a viable option for your custom guns. Working with multiple vendors, paying shipping on small orders from multiple vendors, never reaching minimum orders to increase margins, definitely have a negative impact on our businesses. Not only is it more time consuming and costly for purchasing, using parts from multiple vendors also changes the process of fitting each part, sometimes complicating or delaying the build process. Streamlining this process can be a considerable benefit to your custom building or gunsmithing business. As you build relationships with fewer vendors, you can have them help manage inventory by setting up purchase release dates to keep you stocked based on your future purchase orders. Implement an order-form on your website that allows customers to build a gun and choose their desired options at their own leisure, allowing you more time out to be on the shop floor and not attached to a phone... in-fact, build a better website which highlights more information to answer many of the basic questions your customers may have. Find ways to speed up hand-work by using better tools to do specific tasks. One of the best process improvements I made without a large capital investment was going from hand sanding to surface sanding with a surface grinder. In my opinion, hand-sanding and polishing adds little to no value, it is hard on your hands and elbows, and will never look as nice, flat, and consistent as surface sanding. Like many many of the other process improvements, surface sanding not only utilizes your time more efficiently, but the byproduct is a more superior and consistent result.
Focused centric business models, automation, and process efficiency as I mentioned before, are what I consider the key points of evolving with the changing market demand. Whether you narrow your business focus, add automation, or search for ways to improve process efficiency, the outcome of each are multifaceted. Each one of these help us utilize time better, and each one will often do so while providing better results, and help us evolve in a dynamic marketplace. And just to add one more thing... do not be afraid to invest in yourself, your business, or your goals, you and your customers are worth it.