About two years ago, I left my job as a salaried mechanical engineer because I didn’t have as much ownership in my projects as I wanted.....well maybe that is not how it happened. For those of you who know my story, know that my loss of a salaried position was not a mutual decision. So in other words, I was kicked out of the plane with no parachute.
Lucky for me, that is how I operate best! I am one of those guys my brother likes to call a Journalist. I do best when the stakes and pressure are extremely high. And if the normal day to day operations are not risky, I create the risk myself. One of my strengths is "winging it", which actually serves really well when you are forced to become an engineering entrepreneur and open your own engineering firm. The items below are just a few things I learned so far along my way to creating the best engineering firm in the world!
Engineering Consulting Requires the Right Tools and Materials
I’m a professional engineer, which means that I make my clients’ ideas into physical things, such as a new downhole tool or a beer caddy for a drone. (See video below) In addition to ideation, I design, model, and prototype, so to complete projects, I need access to a modeling program and a 3D printer. By joining a co-working space, I have had access to those tools whenever I need them. The Opportunity Machine here in Lafayette, La has been an amazing launching pad for the success of StoneWall Engineering.
Think about the tools you need in your engineering toolbox and whether you have access to them. A few up-front investments in time or money can help you out in the long run.
Because I also make prototypes for clients, I need materials. Through my network of makers, I’ve discovered many raw-material suppliers and manufacturers (mostly local!) that are already vetted. Never underestimate the power of your network. You can also use the Internet; the Internet has everything.
Make Connections, and Follow Up
Knowing where to find opportunities is one of the biggest struggles for engineering consultants. In my co-working space, I’m surrounded by people with ideas for physical products, so our needs often match up. But uncovering those needs requires interacting with people or—gulp—“networking.” Networking doesn’t need to strike fear in your heart. Going to industry meet-ups in your area is a great way to start. Look for meet-ups with people of various backgrounds; that way, you’ll connect with more people who may need your skill set. A great place to start would be Young Professional's of LAGCOE. This organization has played a vital role in the success of StoneWall.
Sending an email the day after meeting someone is probably the hardest thing to remember for me—but it’s critical. Be sure to include what you talked about and what a next step could be. Efficacious communication is a staple in engineering consulting. It is also something our millennial generation struggles with. Just ask my friend Justin Courville, he wrote about the dilemma here.
And don’t forget about social media. I’ve found opportunities through Twitter because I have my skills and email address in my bio. Following people on Twitter that you meet in real life is an easy way to stay connected with potential clients.
Connect with us to become a part of the conversation:
Be Smart About Quoting and Scheduling
Quoting a project for the first time is difficult, but asking people who have done similar projects is a good place to start. The best thing you could do for your customer is to meet them where they are. Most of your customers are going to be business owners who already have a specified budget for the work they want completed. The reason they have this budget is because they know how much money they will have to spend in order for their project to be profitable. If they have to spend more than their budgeted amount then the project is not worth doing. Something we do at StoneWall is actually help our customers figure out if their new tool, or project, is worth their investment. We are not just engineers being used for our valuable skill set. We are businessmen who understand that the only way a project is worth doing is if it makes the owner succesful. We have actually "killed" more projects that we have started. While this can hurt the short term gains for our company, we value the long term relationship over the short term money. It is not easy telling an inventor who has spent half of his life thinking about his idea that it currently wont be profitable or won't realistically work. In the end though the customers usually thank us for our honesty, and while they are heart broken, they are grateful to not lose their life savings in the process.
Scheduling a project depends on your bandwidth. It benefits no one to have more work than you can handle. If you quote for more time, your client will be delighted when you deliver early. Scheduling later due dates also gives you a buffer if you find more work or something unexpected comes up.
While all of this talk on scheduling sounds great, all of us who work in oilfield engineering and the energy sectors of the world know scheduling a project based on your bandwidth is usually not realistic. Everyone in the oilfield needs their design yesterday. They best way I have found to meet this demand is to increase your personal bandwidth. You are much more capable of Higher Performance than you give yourself credit for. The little engineer in you tells you that you need to be perfect so you stifle your performance with your perfectionism. Remember that 120% perfect does not exist. You only need to be 100%. And if you are really good, you can make your 80% be better than other's 100%.
If you are looking for a place to start with increasing your performance, check out HP3. HP3 is a learning group defined as:
Put simply, we are a group of learners aimed towards redefining high performance of the mind, body, and spirit.
What HP3 will accomplish:
We aim to continue structuring and nurturing a fellowship whose aim is to improve daily performance and competence in all of our "chosen" roles by developing a learning, accomplishment-oriented mind, a healthy body, and a virtuous spirit.
Communicate With Your Clients
Speaking of the unexpected, be sure to update your clients often regarding any complications or delays. What I have learned from past projects is that the more you communicate the better the outcomes of the project. There is a lot of ambiguity in new design and engineering projects. Everyone has their own assumption of what is intended to be accomplished. The goal of your communication is to disambiguate the intended accomplishment so that you and your customer are on the same exact page.
The frequency of in-person meetings you have with a client depends on the project. I’ve had some clients who wanted to meet every few days and some who wanted to meet every few weeks. Regardless, your client wants to see that you’re making progress. During your meetings, have something that shows what you’ve already done and what you’ll be doing next. Deliverables are key to successful meetings. Spend more time on your deliverables and less time on what you "did". Your client most likely doesnt care, nor will they understand, how you solved your Finite Element Analysis or hand calculation. They just want to see the results and know when it is going to be ready to produce.
Some clients will want to hire you again, so before the project is over, start talking about next steps and future projects. The best time to get new work is when you already have work. Most engineers miss this opportunity. What we do as engineers to support our clients is not always as evident to our potential customers. Having the opportunity to be involved with a client's day to day operations, or the opportunity to meet with the engineering manager on a weekly basis does not come often. Use this opportunity to see where you could offer additional value to their company. And for goodness sake, just ask them how you can help!
Work on Side Projects to Highlight Engineering Consultant Expertise
If you’re not currently working on anything, do side projects! As engineers, we are always inventing and innovating new widgets for others but deep down we really want to do this for ourselves. Spend your downtime honing your skills by inventing, designing, and engineering one of those ideas you had back in college or when you were working for someone else.
I had the opportunity to do this when I was fresh out of college and it has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life. Not only was I able to receive my first patent, it taught me some extremely valuable lessons about business and engineering consulting that I still use today. Honestly, I really do not think I would be a consulting engineer today if it wasnt for that project. Oh and I also got the opportunity to not only meet one of my idols but become his business partner through the process. For those of you who are not baseball fans, this is Hall of Famer Craig Biggio putting the ball on the tee for me as we test out out training bat we designed and patented together.
Engineering consulting can be great, but it’s definitely not the same as having a salaried job. Sometimes you’ll have a lot of work, sometimes none. It’s just like riding a bike: It’s really hard at first, and then once you figure it out you experience a peace and freedom like nothing else!
I would love the opportunity to support you in your walk if you are considering becoming an engineering consultant. Feel free to reach out to me. I will buy you a cup of coffee or let you join me for a workout at Reds!