You must be a good businessman as well as a good engineer.

Four Essentials on Working for Yourself

Nov 2, 2021

by Michael Abrams

As engineers plug away, day after day, year after year, working hard on projects that bring profits to the companies for whom they work, there comes a time when they might wonder if they should take their hard work and accumulated skills and try to make it on their own.
 
Obviously, such a jump into greater autonomy comes with substantial risks. When, if ever, should engineers make the leap from being under a boss to being their own boss? Here we talk to career coach and engineering recruiter Pat Batchelor about the challenges of starting your own business.
 
“There are four things to do,” he said. “Find the work, do the work, invoice for it, collect the money. If you miss one step, you’re out of business.”
 
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Doing the work is the part that comes easy to most engineers. The other three are business skills that the typical engineer is not likely to have developed while working a job.
 
“Lots of times engineers are good engineers, but they may not be good managers of themselves or their time,” Batchelor said. “You have to be relationship oriented; business is relationships. If not, you’re probably not well suited to be an entrepreneur and hanging out your own shingle.”
 
Finding work is the first, and arguably the most important, step to make before walking away from the grindstone.
 
“You have to find your unique sales proposition, where people go, ‘Oh. He gets it. He knows what we’re looking for, he can solve our problems,’” he said. “And then, Is there enough demand in the market for that? And is it something you have the bandwidth to cover?”

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Clients that you’ve developed over your career can be brought with you, as long as there’s no conflict of interest with the steady job. But ultimately, as a new business owner, you’ll have to find new work. And that means turning to the same tool used by any job hunter.
 
“You have to have to have a fantastic LinkedIn profile,” Batchelor said. “I can’t tell you how many poor LinkedIn profiles I’ve seen week in and week out. They are shooting themselves in the foot every time. Make it look fabulous. Make the photograph and banner catchy or sticky, so when someone pops on your site, they know that you are a mechanical engineer, and you do design on cooling towers for plants, or centrifugal pumps, or whatever. You want to speak to your niche.”
 
With or without clients, a new business must be prepared to chart a potentially rocky start and survive when jobs ebb. “Can I go 6 months to 12 months without an income? Can I bring in clients immediately? Can I start billing next week? These are all good questions,” Batchelor said.
 
But no matter how much work has been lined up, a new business won’t turn a profit if it doesn’t do the work of collecting.

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“Engineers, we tend to be so client oriented. We really want to solve their problems and help them. But then a lot of engineers shy from calling up a client or sending a text message and saying, ‘Hey can you check on this invoice? It’s a week is overdue,’” Batchelor said. “Invoicing is crucial. If you don’t invoice them, they won’t pay. And collecting money is absolutely crucial.”
 
Even if the clients are pouring in, they are being billed properly, and paying in a timely fashion, a new business is no guaranteed thing. Roughly 45 percent of new businesses fail in the first five years.
 
Said Batchelor: “Until you can say, ‘I have six months of work in front of me. If I quit today I can call someone and within a month have billable hours,’ I would say don’t do it. If you don’t know for sure, then the answer is no.”
 
Michael Abrams is a technology and engineering writer in Westfield, N.J.
 

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