The art of engineering consulting—Part 1: Getting started

Here are three steps to starting an engineering-consulting practice.

By Dr. Frank Owen and Patrick Klima July 11, 2014

Over the course of his career, Cal Poly professor and veteran engineer, Dr. Frank Owen, learned the value of simple, repeatable techniques for promoting his business. He shared his insights and lessons learned from starting his own engineering-consulting practice in an interview with engineering marketing consultant, Patrick Klima.

What follows are useful, easily implemented tips for starting an engineering-consulting practice.

Taking the first steps

“When I started my company, I kind of kept it to myself; I kept it secret,” Owen said. The first steps for starting an engineering business may be obvious, and yet still daunting. The same analytical caution that makes engineers effective in their profession causes them to avoid the many unknowns that come with advertising and publicity.

“Engineers are somewhat timid, and not likely to stand up to beat their chest and say, ‘Look at me!’”

Tip #1: An easy promotional technique, early on, is simply to begin with a newsletter to former colleagues and employers.

To accomplish this, collect addresses for about 50 individuals and commit to at least 10 mailings in a 12-month period. A printed and mailed newsletter will be significantly more effective than e-mail. Divide the newsletter into two sections: professional news and personal developments, with about 500 words of text in each, along with a few images.

“Let your readers get to know you as a person, as well as professional, and add new members to your list each time you collect a business card. Over time, this will become the most valuable asset in your business,” said Klima.

Always a reason not to act

“There are a million things you could be doing. There is always a fire to put out. What I’ve found is that it’s easier to just let the blazes burn until they burn up. See your business as a long-term plan and work on it every day. I’ve learned to ignore the local noise,” including the economy and his current work environment, said Owen.

In starting a business, Owen acknowledged that inertia is an easy trap.

One solution to the challenge of starting from rest while working in relative solitude is to collaborate with other professionals and consulting engineers. In this respect, drawing attention to a consulting practice is also a strategy for attracting potential partners. In addition to improving the final engineering product, Owen sees a second benefit to strategic partnerships with others.

“When people go to my website, I want them to see, not just my resume, I want them to see 10 resumes. And as I continue to build that out, people will see that the company has a wide range of talent.”

Tip #2: To help overcome the difficulties of starting out, look for opportunities to collaborate with others. Publicize a new company in professional circles, as well as the circles potential clients may move in.

Solutions without problems

“Some obstacles should be taken more seriously,” said Klima.

There is a common error that engineers are prone to as they explore their entrepreneurial ambitions. Having arrived at what seems to be a valuable idea, engineers will often launch into development of a solution before truly evaluating the market potential for that idea. In their enthusiasm, they develop a solution for a problem that does not exist or that customers are not willing to spend money to solve.

After investing hours of time and personal funds developing increasingly complicated features for their product or service, these would-be business owners find that no one will buy their product. Unfortunately, there is no rescue for this type of business. The failure occurred at the earliest stages: in appropriately defining the problem that needed to be solved.

Consulting engineers often fall victim to the same error in a somewhat different form by engaging in projects with poorly defined goals. These projects easily drag on with no end in sight, cutting into profit and inhibiting opportunities for new business. In this case, the consulting engineer has failed to effectively define the objectives for the project.

Tip #3: Before entering into a project agreement, the consulting engineer must have a clear understanding of his client’s objectives. Ask early, and often: “What are your objectives?” and “Why are these important to you?”

The more clearly he can position his work to the achievement of his client’s objectives, the more successful and valuable his work will become.

Dr. Frank Owen has been a professor of mechanical engineering for more than 20 years. He has worked in many fields of mechanical engineering, including offshore oil production, marine design, power plant engineering, simulation, software engineering, motion control, and practical control systems engineering. His consulting firm, Alpha-Omega Engineering, specializes in many areas of Mechanical Engineering including Control systems engineering, Forensic engineering, Accident reconstruction, and Design engineering.

Patrick Klima is a consultant, speaker, and published technical author. He is the creator of the Prospect Development System, a proven, four-step process for overhauling the traffic, conversion, and follow-up systems of growing technical businesses. Presently, he serves as out-sourced chief marketing officer to growing engineering businesses where he works directly with owners to optimize their sales and marketing operations.

– Edited by Brittany Merchut, Project Manager, CFE Media, bmerchut(at)