About 5 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.
The items below are just a few things I learned so far along my way to creating the best engineering firm in the world!
6 Tips for Starting an Engineering Consulting Firm
1. Use the right tools and materials
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.
Use your Engineering Toolbox
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.
2. 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 skillset.
Nurture your connections
The first thing you need is a good place to store your connections. There are a lot of CRM tools on the market these days but the one I found to work the best is HubSpot. I literally use HubSpot every day. Even better their CRM is free! Our marketing partner Vested Marketing will even set you up for free. (Signup for Free CRM Here!)
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.
Just ask my friend Justin Courville, he wrote about the dilemma here.
Start investing time in hobbies your customers love! For example, golf, fishing, or hunting. Invest in taking your potential clients on a guided hunting trip. I have won more work from spending a weekend with a client hunting than anything else I have ever done. If you need some help on a place to go, check out our friends at Jayhawk Creek Ranch. These guys are rock stars at the entertainment game!
And don’t forget about social media as well as digital marketing, a unique marketing strategy, and especially inbound marketing. I’ve found opportunities through LinkedIn because I have my skills and email address in my bio. Following people on LinkedIn that you meet in real life is an easy way to stay connected with potential clients.
3. Be strategic 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 to be completed.
The reason they have this budget is that 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 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 won't be profitable or won't realistically work. In the end, though the customers usually thank us for our honesty, and while they are heartbroken, they are grateful to not lose their life savings in the process.
Increase your personal bandwidth
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 schedule sounds great, all of us who work in oilfield engineering, manufacturing engineering, coastal restoration, and the energy sectors of the world know scheduling a project based on your bandwidth is usually not realistic. Everyone in the oilfield, especially upstream oil and gas, needs their design yesterday.
The 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:
A group of learners aimed towards redefining high performance of the mind, body, and spirit.
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.
4. 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, especially in a time of crisis.
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.
Show progress and deliverables
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 doesn't 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!
5. Highlight engineering consultant expertise
If you’re not currently working on anything, do side projects or continue your practical skills with side training.
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 wasn't 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.
6. Measure your success
KPIs are the best (and easiest) way to show how your hard work contributes to company revenue. For business owners, knowing the right KPIs can give you an accurate picture of where your company is going and can help you know what to do to control your future.
KPIs are business metrics that track the effectiveness and efficiency of strategic objectives that go hand-in-hand with a goal. KPIs should be monitored throughout the length of a campaign to allow for optimizations to be made, with the intention of reaching your business goals and objectives.
7. Practice makes perfect
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!
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