The feature article “Entrepreneurial Engineers” tells the stories of eight civil engineers who started their own businesses, including several who offer engineering services and two who also advise civil engineering entrepreneurs.
Their reasons for starting their own companies vary from wanting to help a region rebuild after a disaster to wanting to inject contemporary methodologies into a conventional profession. Despite their differences, they report some common experiences, such as serving as role models for others and feeling energized by taking their professional futures into their own hands.
Certain challenges seem to be common too, not the least of which is that they may have known how to do engineering very well, but they may not have known as much about running a business. Financing, insurance, personnel management, sales, and marketing are likely to be as foreign to many engineers as they are to any other professional not in these fields. Some of those interviewed by author Jay Landers —a contributing editor to Civil Engineering and an entrepreneur himself — acquired those business skills before they launched their firms, and some learned as they went along.
And all of them had this in common: they started their businesses before COVID-19 turned so many aspects of the economy and the business environment upside down. Imagine the difficulties and challenges they would encounter if they were to start civil engineering companies during this incredibly uncertain time.
Actually, some experts say, that might not be such a bad idea.
BusinessInsider.com says that right now may be the perfect time to launch a start-up. A July 7 article by Heidi Zak titled “3 Reasons Why It May Be a Smart Move to Start Your Own Business During the Pandemic” makes the point that a business that can start now and maintain its presence would be in a great position to grow once the pandemic ends and the economy returns to something close to normal. Furthermore, entrepreneurs who learn to solve the problems facing pandemic-era businesses will be more likely to know how to creatively handle whatever challenges the market throws at them.
The article also makes the point that, for better or worse, many talented people are looking for work right now. If an engineering start-up requires business partners or expert employees, now is the time to find them.
Entrepreneurs who learn to solve the problems facing pandemic-era businesses will be more likely to know how to creatively handle whatever challenges the market throws at them.
It also stands to reason that certain traditional but expensive pillars of professionalism — business suits, posh offices, slick business cards — can be dispensed with for now. Start-up costs may be limited to home office equipment, reliable high-speed internet, and profession-specific software. And even the software can be purchased on a piecemeal basis, according to one of the entrepreneurs in Landers’s feature.
This moment is also perhaps the one time when traveling for face-to-face meetings is not required. Videoconferencing with colleagues has become the norm, and many companies are interviewing and hiring employees this way. It stands to reason that business owners can connect to customers — or potential customers — virtually as well.
In fact, an article published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on its website recommends doing just that. In “How to Start a Business after COVID-19,” contributor Nicole Fallon recommends that today’s entrepreneurs invest their time and energy in their digital presence. She writes that selling a service now requires “omnichannel sales.” To get clients’ attention, companies need to communicate effectively with an online audience. Does that mean LinkedIn? Facebook? Twitter? Instagram? That would be yes to all the above. “Since you likely will never see your customer in person, you need to find other ways to understand what they are thinking and what makes them tick,” she points out.
Founding a new business is always risky. But entrepreneurial-minded civil engineers who can take advantage of the low start-up costs afforded by this unique moment in time and determine how their businesses can solve customers’ current and future needs may just find that now is at least as good a time to start as any — and maybe even better.
This column first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.