I’m an engineer turned entrepreneur. Owning and running my own business has always had an appeal to me, but for a while, I thought that transitioning from engineer to business owner was quite a career jump. Reflecting on my path and realizing the skill sets needed to do both, I now know there’s quite an overlap of applicable business skills that are useful in both fields.
If I had to describe an engineer’s role in only a few words, it would be “we solve problems”. When some mechanical issue arises or that new circuit isn’t working, we engineers are comfortable working our magic to solve those problems. We’ve been trained through school and experience to break down the problem, control variables, measure, test, and verify. Starting, running, and growing your own business is loaded with unforeseen circumstances and problems that need to be solved. As the owner of Mimo Monitors, my day may now be filled less and less with technical issues, but there are always new challenges to navigate.
While this is not an article about how to start the next unicorn(nor was that the path that interested me), I hope this advice provides some insight to fellow engineers interested in following a similar path to mine, or those just looking to learn from someone’s business trials and tribulations along the way.
Please note that this is the first blog in a short series of posts for entrepreneurs or those aspiring to become one. My next, more general blog, will be providing insights as a first time entrepreneur, aimed at those looking to start their own business, in the early stages of their own venture, or simply looking for another entrepreneur’s advice. For now, I’ve attempted to limit this post to be engineer to entrepreneur specific.
Work for a small company first: learning beyond your job title
I took the long road to becoming an entrepreneur and would do it again if I had the chance. I worked for someone else and learned on their dime for more than 20 years before venturing out on my own. My first job was with a 5000-person company, but I quickly learned that it is hard to grow outside your immediate job in a large company due to the need to often only assume your exact role with your specific tasks.
I recommend finding company that is less than 100 people, but growing, and earn a salary while learning from them and challenging yourself. Get to know the owner or CEO with the goal of soaking up as much as you can, and growing while you’re there. The CEO and company leaders at a great small business will appreciate you taking the initiative in having a greater interest in the company beyond your job title.
As an entrepreneur, I can tell you it is hard to find people who are looking for the big picture. Engineers are usually comfortable dealing with the technical details, but gaining a high-level understanding will keep you driving toward the company's end goal, whatever it may be, since that goal is never the problem du-jour.
Understanding the big picture, even if entrepreneurship isn’t your future, will help you with whatever your career path is. You may not have an immediate need to learn the in-depth details of manufacturing, purchasing and planning, finance, sales and marketing, HR, and the rest, but you should get a firm understanding of their role and what they are adding to the bottom line.
Also, I recommend switching job responsibilities every few years. This allows you to constantly challenge yourself and learn new skills. Personally, I worked for the same company for 15 years, but never held a specific job for more than 3 or 4. This flexibility in terms of roles is one of the advantages of small or nimble companies, especially growing ones. There are always new opportunities and new jobs opening up. A good company will want to support your growth and allow you to try on different hats for size as you grow with them.
Another pitfall of being an engineer is that it’s easy to get hyperfocused only on the product. Being successful in business is not only about who makes the best widgets. That is an engineering fallacy. It’s important to remember that there are so many companies doing great things and your business needs to rise above the noise to be successful. To do this, you need marketing, sales, production, and a financial plan in addition to excellent engineering. The better you understand these roles and what goes into them, the more equipped you’ll be to make a transition from engineer to entrepreneur.
Get out from behind the desk and get in front of customers: listening to people
There’s a lot of talk about being customer- centric for a reason. You will never learn as much about a business as when you listen to your customers. Don’t misunderstand, being an engineer can be very fulfilling, however, if you want to take that step from engineer to entrepreneur, you need to get out from behind the computer and in front of customers.
Some jobs at a company you can try to step into to learn more about direct customer interaction are: sales, marketing, business development, applications engineering, technical product specialist, and engineering management. These were all titles I held in my career and all of them helped me immensely because I learned to truly listen to the people we were directly impacting.
It’s crucial to learn how to take a complex situation and communicate it well, and also how to communicate with both engineers and all levels of management within the customers you are trying to land. It’s important to learn that speaking to engineers versus management often requires a different style, and sometimes, only in a nuanced way. By understanding that, you’ll develop strong, agile communications skills and even more importantly, strong listening skills. Understanding your customers needs is an entirely different type of problem solving that is crucial to entrepreneurial success.
As an entrepreneur, part of listening to customers involves problem solving in a customer-focused way. As an engineer, you may be able to think of 100 things that should be fixed with what you’re developing, but the customer will tell you about the 5 things they really care about, and 2 of these were not in YOUR list of 100. I know it’s hard, but forget about the rest of the 97. You’ll get to address them later down the line.
It’s also incredibly important to be as transparent as possible with your customers. Engineers desire to be pragmatic and look for the win-win in any situation, skills which translate well to running a business. However, engineers also tend to be overly optimistic on scheduling. Because so much of working with customers is cultivating a good relationship, under-promise and over-deliver. If you win business by agreeing to an unachievable schedule, you could permanently damage a new relationship
Get used to being uncomfortable: uncertainty and growth
This may be a generic life lesson and not specifically tied to being an engineer or entrepreneur, but never stop learning, innovating, and pushing yourself. As soon as you’re comfortable, move on and learn something else. Embrace being uncomfortable.
I know my alma mater, Purdue University, taught me well how to be an engineer. But my learning did not stop when I graduated with a degree in Computer and Electrical Engineering. While I never went back and got a formal education beyond my BSCEE, that does not mean that I didn’t continue to learn via OJT, books, colleagues, and friends. Do not let your knowledge get old.
Of course, the thing that will be the most uncomfortable, should you choose this path, is to leave that regular paycheck. Let me tell you that while I was uncomfortable too, it was the best decision that I ever made, and not just because my company has had success. Leaving my regular paycheck was liberating and I very, very quickly got over being uncomfortable with that decision, because you gain back an overall sense of control you don’t have when major decisions are being made by people above you in the organization. I believe that being an entrepreneur is much less of a risk that you may think. Strangely, it was always the outside people who felt like it was some huge risk. Other than the initial leap, I never felt that.
Since becoming an entrepreneur, I have not made a decision that I wasn’t confident was most likely going to pay off. Despite my confidence in my decisions, I’ve definitely been wrong and made mistakes. Do not be afraid or uncomfortable making mistakes. I have made a lot of them. Expensive ones. You, just like I have, will recover.
Luckily, if you do not succeed and need to start over, there are always jobs for engineers. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates and there is strong demand for your skills. A failed entrepreneurial engineer will be demanded over almost any other skill. And the rewards, financially and personal fulfilment-wise, can be huge if you do not fail.
Win often but lose early: using resources wisely and pivoting ideas
‘Win Often’ is self explanatory, so I want to discuss ‘Lose Early’. Engineers don’t like to lose. Maybe no one does, but for an engineer we are trained to never admit defeat. Maybe what we’re working on doesn’t work as well as we’d like, maybe we just need ‘one more week’, but given the opportunity most of us will work on a problem until it is solved. This is an instinct of engineers that does not translate well to a new business.
When I say ‘Lose Early’ I do not mean ‘give up’. When a business is small, you have very limited resources, so cast a wide net, but do not try to close every account or deal. Sales cycles are longer than you planned, so if you do not get interest from your prospective customer quickly, ‘Lose Early’ and put your resources in more promising areas. Do not spend time convincing a customer to buy something that in your heart you know will never meet their needs. Admit this reality and move on. Also, don’t let the engineer in you get bogged down in developing a solution to every issue you find as there are no shortage of problems to solve.
Don’t misunderstand: ‘Lose Early’ also does not mean ignore that customer forever. While you cannot be actively pursuing all customers, checking in once a quarter with those that were not initially interested is not a large investment in time, and could pay off in the future. You should make your case, show them what you are capable of, and leave them impressed. I cannot count the number of customers we closed years after the first encounter.
Engineers make great entrepreneurs
I hope that the experiences that I have shared above are helpful in your decision making. While my path is surely unique, I wanted to show moving from engineer to entrepreneur is not as big of a jump as you might imagine. You will use much of the experience you have already received, and you can use your engineering skills to figure out the rest. I believe that you do not need an MBA to start or run a business and that the community is better off with more engineers as business owners. I hope these tips, learnings, and mistakes I’ve made will provide insights to those starting their own business, regardless of background. Whatever you choose I hope that it will be rewarding. I know this path has been rewarding for me.
Keep an eye out for my second blog in this entrepreneur series where I’ll talk more broad strokes about my experiences starting a business in hopes of helping others and providing insights, no matter the discipline.