How can a designer build a stable customer base before spending money on equipment?
Some people get into the awards and engraving industry from the point of sale, then expand laterally. For example, let’s say your forte is in design and you create a series of unique, trademark-worthy designs that look fantastic laser engraved onto a wide variety of substrates, but you don’t have the right equipment. After showing the concept to several prospective customers, they express a strong interest in placing an order. You take sizeable orders from several clients, have the pieces produced by a contractor, upcharge the job, and pocket the profit.
After several iterations of such transactions — and the gradual building of a stable customer base — you should have enough seed money to backward-integrate and tool up to produce the pieces yourself. I know this is easier said than done, but the advantage here is not having to shell out a large sum of money from the get-go.