Blessed are the toolmakers

Posted by Piers Cawley on Dec 12, 2006

My dad drives a vintage Fraser Nash. I say drives, but that’s only half the battle, a large part of his Nash time is spent fettling it. It’s an old car; bits wear out, break or drop off. And because it’s an old car, you can’t just nip round to Halfords and pic up a replacement; nor can you head down to the breaker’s yard and cannibalize something else. So he has a lathe and a milling machine and a bewildering collection of tools. When he needs a part, he will disappear into the machine shop and, after sufficient swearing and/or bleeding, he will emerge with a newly made part. For dad, it’s all part of the fun of running a vintage car. If he weren’t able to do the work, the Nash would have had to remain a pleasant pipedream.

I don’t know my way around a machine shop, except in the vaguest and most theoretical way. The tools I’ve grown up knowing to use are programming languages, editors, fine manuals and the mental tools a grounding in mathematics brings.

So, when I’m putting a new photography business together, and I realise that a couple of the supporting software tools that I had vaguely assumed ‘should exist’ don’t actually exist, I know that it doesn’t matter. I may not know Cocoa programming yet, but I know programming, so I’m confident that, like dad in his machine shop, I’ll be able to knock something up that does the job.

On reflection, I realised that this is probably a good thing. If I can set up and run the business with a combination of off the shelf software, then it’s trivial for potential competitors to reverse engineer the business and do the same (let’s assume here that the business is a success) and I’m left competing on margin in a service industry. No fun at all.

Being able to make my own tools gives me a competitive edge.

Why aren’t there more tool makers?