E ngineers are smart, hard-working, and often think outside the box. However, when it comes to getting out of the mousetrap and starting their own business, engineers often focus on designing a great product with bells and whistles that make it innovative. Many of them, like myself, start out alone. When you’re focused on the product, or when you’re doing everything yourself, the process gets difficult. In this post I will talk about how to approach business as a designer/engineer, what kind of people need to be involved, and what to focus on when developing your product.
In starting a business, the first step is reaching out. Whether you have an idea, a skill, or even just a desire to be your own boss, chances are you don’t have the necessary guidance.
In starting a business, the first step is reaching out. Whether you have an idea, a skill, or even just a desire to be your own boss, chances are you don’t have the necessary guidance. For engineers and designers, the guidance is extremely necessary. Often, we get caught up in trying to make the perfect product that we forget the importance of how it makes money! To get on track, you need the right resources to pave the road ahead. These can be books, articles, people, etc. that have the experience you need. Many people try to be nice, others can be jerks, so find someone in between that can give compliments on your achievements and progress yet still call you out on your BS. Check out your local chamber of commerce, economic development committee, and work connections. Many larger cities have a “Launch” or “Start” company that helps entrepreneurs get started. Also, a great book for building a business that sells product is Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet. It lays out the process step by step to get you to seed investments.
After you’ve made connections, the first thing is to take your idea, skill, etc. and list out all the potential applications. Then pick out one of those that will be the easiest to launch into; this is your “Beachhead” Market. This market normally costs less to enter, doesn’t have strong competition, and has customers that can pay for your product or service. A large amount of research on the market is required at this stage; figure out what makes the customer tick and apply it to the product or service. Keep this info handy, you’ll need it later.
Once you’ve managed that, it will be time to map out your business. This is the fun part! You get to draw diagrams, mess with spreadsheets, and contemplate “what if” scenarios. The design part of building the business requires critical thinking, which your business connections can help you think through. They’ll ask things like, “How do you plan to sell product?”, “What are critical points in making your product?”, “How fast can you provide your service?”, or even, “What are the important values and goals of your business?”. From my experience, sketching out a diagram of the company makes it clearer to understand sales processes, cash flow, even taxes (gasp!). I can’t answer every question here, but I’ll wrap up with this: be creative, be confident, do your research, make connections, and shift your focus to meeting people’s needs. All of this is required to be successful.
One person running a business is tough. One person running a large operation is near impossible. It takes a team of people with different skill sets to be successful…and to have fun doing so.
This person is often the one who has the skills in the technical field that you need. Often, the field is software or circuitry; such is my case. This person can also have similar skills to yours, just more focused. The ideas here is to have someone on board who is solely focused on the technical aspects of the product, which allows you to keep the focus on the building the business.
As a technical minded person, I’ve never dealt with how to sell the product I designed. Therefore, I need someone on my team whose priority is to focus on selling the product and using different marketing avenues to get our name out there. When you’re ready to launch, or even if you need someone who knows business, look for someone with marketing or sales experience. You also need someone who has the personal drive to succeed. A person with no experience or drive to be successful will only hold you back and cause your business to crumble.
Sometimes you need more than just someone with skills in the technical fields and marketing/sales. It often helps to have someone with a background in finances, such as a CPA. In manufacturing a product, you’ll need someone to manage labor. Although these additions often come later in the process, it is good to start making these connections early on. The better relationship with those you work with, the better the flow of the business.
In designing a product, engineers and designers often come up with ideas of things that would be useful or interesting. I tend to get carried away in what could be added to an original product to make it better or more suitable to the end user. This can be good, but it leads focus away from the main requirements that the product needs to fulfill.
First, take information from researching the market to determine what your product/service needs to do. Sometimes the need is just innovation on an existing product/service to increase its effectiveness. Other times there is a need that a current product/service doesn’t meet. The overall objective is to get something to market; if you spend too much time on bells and whistles, you suspend your time to revenue! So, the next step is to find what the minimum requirement is to meet the needs of the customer.
Your goal is to get to market as soon as possible. If you develop a product, look at developing the minimum viable product (mvp). If you’re offering a service, keep focused on doing one or two things well to start.
The next major steps are showing the idea to potential customers; a physical thing to show is better (prototype, brochure, service example). Be sure to mention the main capabilities and keep the focus on the functions that meet the customer needs. You don’t want to get distracted on other things that the potential customer may or may not need. Also, ask for advice. Your customers will be your future salespeople (consumers talk about products all the time). Developing a good relationship with a potential customer now will lead to an increased chance of selling to him/her later.
The last step before taking the big step toward fundraising or launching your service is to gain market traction. Show the final proposed design to several people. See if any of them are willing to buy a product like yours! If so, you know you’ve got something good. If not, you may need to make changes to your product, your sales strategy, and sometimes your entire launch market.
In using your engineering/designer mind to build a business, it’s important not to get caught up in the things that you think are important. Focus on your customer; they are the ones that will make your business successful. Although you may have the skills necessary to do everything on your own, it wouldn’t be wise to do so. I’ve accomplished a lot on my own, but now I’m at the point where I literally can’t; I need to grow the business internally to get things going. Lastly, when starting out, keep things simple. Focus on the minimum requirements for customer satisfaction. It will save you time and money that you can put toward scaling up and planning for the future. Always remember that your job is to grow the business, but more importantly to have fun doing so!
Article written by Kyle Craig, Fortitude Founder and Founder of Apollo Dynamics