Planning on Hanging Your Technical Shingle?

If you are like most engineers, you may be frustrated with the day-to-day grind of the office place.  No one seems to listen to ideas and concerns.  No one seems to have the energy or drive to take things to the next level of excellence. Promotions and opportunities never seem to come your way.  The extra work and effort are hardly appreciated, if at all.  Management seems to be making a lot of money without doing much or even bothering to understand what’s being done.

From that line of thinking comes an idea.  “Maybe it is time to move on, to strike out on my own, to be my own boss, to make my ideas come to life.”  Why not?  With the internet and a home office, it is easier now than it has ever been.  No more bureaucracy, no more carrying the weight of others.

The reality is that many engineers who venture into their own design consulting business are unsuccessful only to return, defeated, to the 9-to-5 workforce, if not relegated to the life of part-time work.  Design services differ from software services.  Once a design is completed, it can be replicated with little or no modification thereafter, whereas, the software allows for opportunities for improvement, enhances, and modifications long after the hardware has been designed and manufactured.  For the purposes of this commentary, the focus will be on design consulting services.

Nine Dot Connects is in a niche market carved out by knowing the PCB industry and supplying training and design services that the industry is lacking.  It also happens to be founded by an individual who could no more stand the corporate work environment.  However, Nine Dot Connects is an anomaly.  The opportunities and circumstances which allowed it enough runway to take off and make it what it is now are irreplicable.

In a niche community like PCB design, Nine Dot Connects interacts with many individuals who have hung their own shingle in the hopes of making it out on their own.  All too often, it is not longed lived.  Consistent patterns have emerged from these observations.  It can be boiled down to three key factors necessary to be successful.  Even then, there is no guarantee of success. Even the successful entrepreneurs, who are considered to be big risk-takers, did not blindly jump into their idea.  They kept their day time job until they felt the risk was manageable –  A 15-Year Study of 5,000 Entrepreneurs Finally Answers the Question: Is It Better to Quit Your Day Job or Keep It? – Data doesn’t lie

The first key factor – you must be an expert in what you do.  No one is going to pay you to learn and they are not looking for an average-skilled consultant.  Companies make use of engineering consultants due to the company’s lack of necessary skills and knowledge within their employee base.  For example, maybe they can layout printed circuit boards; however, they do not have the skill set required for a DDR4 memory or 2000 pin FPGA component board layout.  Therefore, they are going to seek consultants outside of the company only when they lack the knowledge within the company.  Expect the jobs to be tough and complex.

Along with their expertise, a consultant must have a high level of confidence in themselves and must portray this confidence to the customer.  Internal confidence is the whole-hearted belief that the knowledge you possess will get you through tough, difficult, and sometimes downright ugly projects. As a consultant, your resources are limited to your knowledge, experience, and ideas, the books you may have, what can be gleaned from the internet, and the ability to think outside of the proverbial box.  Above all, technical hurdles cannot be a source of extreme stress.  If you are constantly fretting every time a tough issue comes along, keep your day job.  If you are stressed at work, you have a consolation that at the end of the week there is a paycheck and a two-day weekend to regroup, rethink, or simply recoup.  As a consultant, you are not getting paid until it’s done.  In the consulting world, ‘Weekends’ is simply defined as being the end of one week and the beginning of another.

Confidence must be external as well.  It is known that body language plays a very important role in personal communication.  Yes, words need to be expressed with confidence, but body language, voice, and tone make up 92% (Elements of Personal Communication by Dr. Albert Mehrabian) of the presentation.  We must put ourselves in the shoes of our customers. How can you be confident in someone’s skills when they are not confident in themselves?  Why would you expect a potential customer to be any different in their scrutiny when offering your services?

The second key factor – business acumen.  Unfortunately, most engineers are not business savvy, nor have they been taught any business skills.  They do not know the true value of their services and generally underbid the job.   Even if there is some business savvy to be found, it is extremely difficult to focus on two things simultaneously.  If you are working on a project, you are not working on finding new business.  If you are working on a new business, you are not making money on a job.  At the end of the day, you only get paid for what you do for a paying customer. And that assumes that they are honest.  In the heat of a project, they may add requirements to the project with a verbal promise that they will compensate, only to conveniently forget when the time comes to pay.

The consultant must intimately understand the relationship between the project’s time, its complexity, its risks, and most importantly, its monetary value.  But before all the previously mentioned factors, the consultant must be able to determine if the job is even viable, to begin with.  It happens all too often – the consultant underbids the job and puts so much time into the job in order to deliver and get paid, they work for less than flipping burgers at a fast-food place.

Of course, there is no guarantee that what is being proposed will be accepted.  Unfortunately, depending on the level of job complexity, there are others who will underbid you because they are THAT desperate for a buck.  In the end, the customer does not care.  They want it done as cheaply as possible.

The consulting business is a service business.  With few exceptions, there are no royalties or other post incomes for the services performed.  For example, when the plumber or electrician or mechanic is paid for a service rendered, there is no exception that additional payments or fees will be requested thereafter. Engineering consulting is no different, regardless of the complexity or skill necessary to perform the task.  Engineering services are usually on a per-project basis. There is no guarantee of any follow-on work, let alone a follow-on project.

The third key factor – Marketing.  The business factor assumes that you have the attention of a customer who is asking for you to bid for a job.  All too often, many engineers who start out as design consultants hit the ground running because they have a good skill set and they have a “long term” customer.  However, in the tech field, that relationship is usually limited to two or three years.  At some point, the customer may pull back on design work due to general economic conditions, decide to hire someone in-house for design work, get into designs that are beyond your skillset, merge with another company that has no interest in outside consultants, etc. In short, the well goes dry.

Marketing is all about ensuring future business.  For a single individual, social media has made this more viable than ever before, but the results are not immediate.  As a consultant, marketing consists of convincing potential customers that you are the right person for the job.  Therefore, you must convey this knowledge, and in many cases give some of this knowledge away.  This is the investment trade-off – the money saved on advertising using traditional media platforms (i.e. mailing lists and printing) is exchanged for providing knowledge on social media platforms.

This can be done through YouTube, which many people and companies use to show their skills.  But, one video is not enough. This is the old university professor mantra “publish or perish.”  The material must constantly flow from you to show your knowledge.  In this information-hungry world, everyone wants to be constantly fed with new information.

And it goes beyond a bunch of useful videos.  A website and mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that the website will be found in the search engines (SEO).  The site needs to look professional.  If it looks like a one-person show, it will turn people off. Even small things like e-mail addresses play into your marketing.  A Yahoo, Gmail, or similar free e-mail address not only makes your business look small, it automatically gives the customer seeking your business the upper hand in negotiations.  They are not going to be pushed around by a ‘one-man’ band.

There is certainly something to be said about word of mouth; however, that only comes from successful job completions and happy customers.  That is only earned over years of time.  This also includes the need for networking, which is a viable way of marketing.  Again, this takes time over a period of years.

When it comes to design consulting, there needs to be strong confidence in your skillset along with some business acumen to ensure this is economically viable, and marketing savvy to attract customers.  If anyone of these factors is missing, rethink the value of your 9 to 5 job and grin and bear the hassles of the workplace.  At the end of the week, there’s a paycheck, compliments of the people in higher positions that drive you crazy.

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