Go big or go home

There are myriad opportunities to change the face of engineering.

By Mike Walters, PE, LEED AP, Confluenc, Madison, Wis. June 17, 2015

Several years ago, I started a new consulting firm with a couple of partners. This was arguably a suspect thing to do. Not, as you might guess, because our focus on energy systems and large-scale sustainability efforts was misaligned with market needs or economic timing, but rather because the individuals involved had already achieved success and were, by all accounts, comfortable.

Personally, I had spent the previous decade building a career at a national mechanical, electrical, plumbing (MEP), and fire protection engineering firm, and had become a principal in the firm just 2 years prior. Over the years, I had contributed to the development of an information technology practice inside the firm, and then created a sustainable design practice that grew from a single person to a group performing consulting work throughout the country and internationally.

My partners have broad experiences at Fortune 500 companies and niche consulting practices, and are well-respected consultants. We each had well-established networks in our respective roles that helped us secure and deliver business in a repetitive, high-quality manner. Why throw it all away to pursue a new business? Didn’t we know about all the statistics suggesting likely failure?

We knew. Heck, one of us has an MBA with a focus on new ventures. Maybe we didn’t care about the risks.

The fact is we really enjoyed working together and all wanted more. In this case, “more” becomes a word with a complicated definition. Our business is for-profit; thus financial success is certainly a component. Beyond that, however, we each have a penchant for pushing boundaries, continuous learning, and collaboration. These became cultural components of “more.” Finally, and most important, our desire to develop a service that meets a real, growing need and can have broad, social impact was what led us to bet the farm. Maybe you should too—there are myriad opportunities to change the face of engineering.

In 2008 a committee formed by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) released a set of 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century. The worldwide academic community responded with serious deliberation that helped shape the final list of grand challenges. They are “grand” because they are technically difficult and directly address crucial issues facing humanity. They also represent a set of leadership opportunities for the engineering profession.

For many practicing professionals, busy with everyday efforts, these went largely unnoticed; but market forces have made us increasingly cognizant of the needs. Take the NAE challenges “provide access to clean water” and “restore and improve urban infrastructure” as examples. These challenges are both seen in the daily news cycle (read: California) and are directly in the wheelhouse of readers of Consulting-Specifying Engineer. Whether you are regularly optimizing, commissioning, operating, evaluating, developing, integrating, testing, or performing some other activity in the realm of building design and construction, you likely have uncommon technical expertise relevant to these challenges. If you’d rather tackle energy or health issues, nearly half of the grand challenges are dedicated to those areas.

Of course, the mechanics of starting a company can be difficult. Addressing legal requirements and establishing working capital, benefit plans, company name and logo, procedures for payments, invoicing, and general accounting take time you’ll struggle to find. However, leveraging evermore present cloud-based or virtual services such as Dropbox or Ruby Receptionists can make many of the day-to-day business activities simpler or even unnecessary.

In brief, our startup process involved securing more than 6 months of working capital and agreeing with a business services company on a support plan to manage our payroll, benefits, legal, and accounting. While initially working from a mix of rented office spaces, the entire staff now works from various home offices and collaborates via Web conferencing or during onsite client visits. Our biggest expense—an external development team—was slowly brought in-house over the course of a year via negotiations with the owner who is now a partner in our firm.

Yet our success—and even survival—is still uncertain. We’ve chosen to confront a set of complex issues with our core services, and have taken our lumps along the way. Regardless of the future, the process to date has been the most significant learning experience of my career.

To me, that is worth risking a lot. Even failure.

Mike Walters is a principal with Confluenc Inc. and provides consulting to clients who contend with the complicated decision-making inherent in large-scale, campus environments, often focusing on maximizing the value streams of efficiency and conservation. He is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board.