Kansas City native Jason Anderson wants to turn a wee acorn into a tall oak, and he’s using lasers to do it.
The acorn is Lazerwood Industries Inc., a small business he found for sale online, bought and moved to his hometown last September.
Lazerwood, as its name suggests, uses a laser to make products from wood. Specifically, it makes wooden “skins” for iPhones, each of the keys on MacBook computers, an Amazon Echo and Echo Dot, and Beats headsets.
Each skin gives the rich look and warm feel of wood to the cold, industrial surfaces of modern devices.
Classic Lazerwood skins are plain, emphasizing the grain in the wood. Others bear elaborate engravings, lace and floral patterns or, in one custom phone skin, the phrase “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”
Anderson said he bought a proven business. It came with good designs, operations and finances. What its sellers lacked, Anderson said he has.
“They could run the business, but marketing the business was not something they were enthusiastic about,” he said.
Time to scale up
Lazerwood is older than it seems. Its founders, a husband and wife team, started the company in the Seattle area in 2011.
Anderson said he is confident about expanding his new business even though Lazerwood faces many competitors.
Retailers have access to low-cost imported products from China, where manufacturers easily undercut his prices. But Anderson said his wholesale prices leave plenty of room for retailer profits.
He also emphasizes using domestic wood and doing the laser work himself.
Lazerwood also battles a cadre of domestic competitors. Still, he says, there is room to grow.
“We’re also all small- to midsized, so it’s not like anybody’s dominating market share,” Anderson said about the competition. “It’s just finding the proper marketing channels.”
Anderson wants to find local retail exposure to start, grabbing what he considers low hanging fruit.
Being in Kansas City offers one logical retail partner for Lazerwood. Anderson has not made that call, yet.
“I would love to introduce Sprint to our products,” he said.
Return of the native
Like Lazerwood, Anderson moved to the Kansas City area somewhat recently. For him, however, it was a homecoming.
He grew up in Independence and attended William Chrisman High School. Most of his life since then has been elsewhere.
“I left for college in Massachusetts in ’91 and basically didn’t come back for 20 years,” said Anderson, who is 43.
He became a software engineer, working on bomb detection systems for airports. He moved to California during the dot-com bubble. He has worked in the gaming industry.
Anderson moved back to Kansas City in 2012, in large part for the family support any single parent needs.
For a few years, Anderson ran his market research consultancy, conducting surveys, holding focus groups and analyzing data. He sold it, and then he spotted Lazerwood’s for-sale post on a business exchange.
“I liked the product. I liked the idea of making something physical because my entire career has been spent in this virtual ethereal place,” Anderson said. “And I saw a lot of potential.”
Six months in Kansas City found Lazerwood moving again.
Anderson originally shipped the company’s laser equipment, stock of veneers and product inventory from Seattle to a location on Delaware Street in the River Market. He focused on getting through the busy holiday shopping season.
“It worked well enough, but it was way too small,” Anderson said. “There was a narrow path that you could use to navigate the room, to get from one station to the other.”
Lazerwood’s new digs are in the old Crane Co. building in Kansas City’s West Bottoms. It’s a crude, largely unfinished space on the second floor, above the Hickory Dickory vintage and antique shop. Just right for his light manufacturing shop.
Anderson and his brother Dave spent one weekend toting in yellow shipping boxes, the laser, a 3D printer he uses for prototypes and recently purchased router equipment.
He plans to use the router to carve wooden phone cases out of a single block of wood. He also wants to create a solid wood keyboard and make computer cases from wood.
In modern vernacular, this is Lazerwood 2.0.
One of the first things Anderson did on moving day was set up his laser. He wanted to know it would work in the new digs.
The process works much like an ink printer. The laser’s head runs back and forth across the thin sheet of wood and emits quick, intense and tiny bursts of light. Each burst burns part of the pattern that Anderson selected from a laptop computer hooked up to the machine.
Smoke and fire
The laser’s final step sends a more intense beam around the skin, key cover or other item to cut out the final shape.
Anderson often watches this part closely as the small puffs of smoke sometimes give way to an unwanted flame. He said they’re easy to snuff out, like candles on a birthday cake. But it’s good to have a fire extinguisher on hand, just in case.
The one machine is enough to produce several hundred Lazerwood units a week, which is plenty to cover sales.
“Ramping up from there is not that difficult, if we’re fortunate enough to get to that point,” he said.
At the same time, Anderson knows his new company faces a potential ceiling. Cellphone makers — Apple, Samsung and others — are happy to let others make accessories, but only up to a point.
“If something really catches fire, they are going to create their own version, and they’ll have the manufacturing and distribution scale we’ll never be able to match,” he said.