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Civil Engineer to Entrepreneur: 7 Fundamental Components to Grow a Civil Engineering Firm

Starting an engineering company is a daunting process. To be successful in the highly competitive field of engineering, it is important to have a range of skills and mindsets, something that sets you apart from the competition.
By Hazel Nguyen | 8 min read
on May 5, 2020
Image credit: HDR

Starting from civil engineer to entrepreneur can be a profitable venture under the right circumstances. Over the last decade, the international construction industry has changed drastically in many ways, including the terms of competition rules and delivery systems for the selection of contractors, financial resource diversity, leading contractors in the revenue rankings, the key products, and new emerging markets.

Civil engineers have a central role in designing, supervising, and constructing the buildings, urban man-made structures, and systems that surround us. These can include buildings, roads, bridges, canals, water supplies, flood defenses, and tunnels, to name a few examples. Their work is central to societal development, as it helps create a safe, robust, and innovative infrastructure within the environmental standards required for modern living.

In this article, we will explore different aspects of civil engineering as a profession. Below are some of the main factors you need to consider first, before deciding to start your own civil engineering business.

1. Establishing Your Niches

Having a passion in life and making it your career is an ideal situation, but identifying a need and making it your passion is just as rewarding. Once you have decided on your niche or specialty, then it is time to establish yourself as an expert in that field based on your years of experience. Having a well-defined specialty, one in which you can set yourself apart from your competition, is extremely important. It does not have to be a unique or original idea; it can be an improvement or twist to an existing idea, product, or service.

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To start your career off right with entrepreneurship in mind, you need to begin to identify potential specialty or niche practice areas in your specific field of practice. A niche can be established in any of the known disciplines, but it should be in an industry in which you have experience and connections from which you can attain specialized knowledge and learn to provide a useful and needed service. The areas that you identify in this chapter will be the foundation for your future engineering business venture. You have to answer the question: What niche can you discover or exploit from within the realm of engineering? Once you have decided on a specific field or discipline of engineering, read this to help determine what specialty or niche of engineering best suits you. If you choose to start with civil engineers, you need to understand this clearly.

The field of civil engineering deals with the design of transportation and site infrastructure to aid inland transportation and travel. It typically focuses on the design of transportation infrastructure, including roadway, site planning, and bridges from a structural and planning perspective. Civil engineers specialize in analysis and design to support structural forces (e.g., dead loads, live loads, wind loads, snow loads, seismic loads, hydrostatic loads, and hydrodynamic loads) associated with such things as the design of roadways and roadway systems, bridges, culverts, foundations, and retaining structures. Potential areas of specialty include the transportation and roadway or bridge industry, with an emphasis on the structural design of infrastructure. The most typical areas of specialty are found within the federal and state departments of transportation and private-sector civil engineering firms.

Karen Jehanian - president and founder of KMJ Consultant, who has been building her company in engineering for 20 years. She has an interesting career path that started with engineering and led her to found a company with an innovative business model. Karen Jehanian said engineers who might be considering starting their own business need to ensure they have a problem that needs to be solved and come to love the problem they’re tackling. “I'm sure there's a lot of ups and downs, so take us inside of your mindset a little bit when you build this company. Which is I'm sure that we're all know how you stay focused through the entrepreneurship.”  When starting their firm, the big things you need is to want your company so bad because of so many obstacles: client pressures, staff pressures, projects. So, finding your path is very crucial and important.

2. Ability To Speak As An Engineering Professional

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A lot of engineers that I sometimes say that “I became an engineer because I don't like writing or speaking”. But those are probably going to be especially in the civil world with presentations and approval boards, stakeholder engagement. Those are very important things that can differentiate you so for those of you listening please consider focusing on those skills.

You can not deny how important your negotiation and speaking skills are as a consultant in engineering. Depending on your discipline and specific job description, you very well could have to deliver multiple presentations per week throughout your engineering career. The quality of your presentations will undoubtedly have a huge impact on your engineering career development, specifically on your ability to advance from engineer to manager.

Whether you are preparing a design for a new project or overseeing the construction of an existing one, it is important to communicate with the clients as well as the end-users of whatever you are designing or constructing as early on as possible. For example, if you were designing a new park for a community, wouldn’t it be helpful to find out from the citizens in the community what their vision of that park is? Not only will it make your job as a designer easier, but it will also ensure that you are meeting the needs of the community members who will then be on your side.

The clients and end-users have every right to offer input on a project because they will be the primary users for years to come. Be sure you remember this fact because many engineering professionals just want to design, design, design, and they forget the impact that their design will have on communities.

3. Seek For Mentors: To Boost Your Career Getting Ahead

It is essential if you want to start your engineering firm one day to find a mentor from whom you can learn, someone who will guide you in the right direction. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and make many mistakes along the way. Find someone who has been there and done that, and pick his or her brain. A good mentor helps you avoid major pitfalls and is a great resource. Ideally, that mentor works in the same company and is readily available to answer your questions.

Finding the right mentor is not always easy. There are plenty of them out there, but you need to find the one that works best for you in pursuing your career goals. Most engineering schools have programs available for their alumni, or if not, you can simply reach out to an alumnus for guidance on your own. An important first step in finding a mentor is setting and/or reviewing your goals and understanding where you want to go in your career. Once you are comfortable with your career plan, then you can go ahead and try to find a mentor that matches up well with your vision.  This mentor could be someone either within or outside the company who would be interested in mentoring a less experienced engineer. Don’t be afraid to ask supervisors for help.

Select a mentor who has achieved goals similar to those that you are pursuing. The only person better to help you than an experienced engineer in your discipline is one that has already achieved the goals that you are striving for.

For example, civil engineering is a very broad engineering category that is filled with many different disciplines. Civil engineering includes, among other subjects, structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, transportation engineering, environmental engineering, etc. If your career is focused on the environmental engineering realm, it would be best to select another environmental engineer as your mentor, even though a transportation engineer is also considered a civil engineer. Selecting a mentor closely related to your specialization is a benefit because no one will know how to advance in the environmental engineering field better than an environmental engineer.

4. Building The Right Team

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Entrepreneurship is only successful when the entrepreneur has a good team. You cannot start your own business without the help of a group of people with the same passion and ideas. Maybe you have good ideas and brilliant products, but without a good group, the entrepreneur will fail. It is a lesson learned from businesses in the country. Therefore, teamwork skills are very important for people starting in technology.

According to current studies, 50% of all new companies fail because the team did not fit together. Founders must, therefore, attach particular importance to this detail. Even if many people find it difficult to get a team up and running at the beginning, it is rarely advisable to bring family or friends into the company. Only in rare cases does such a relationship work as well in the professional field as in private life. There is a risk that business partners feel inhibited to address problems because they do not want to endanger their relationship with their relatives or friends. This can be a salvation for the social relationship, but a death blow for business.

Your team must reflect the same quality and standard of service as you. You are tasked with creating a team that must be an extension of you concerning the quality of the end product and the service needed to complete your work. Your team does not have to share all of your ideas, but they should share the same goals and trust and follow your directions. In the beginning, you must constantly supervise until the standard and quality are to your satisfaction, and then you must step back and delegate with trust. A successful team works well together, and it is up to you to notice any issues and resolve them or make adjustments before those issues become problems. You cannot be lenient or soft with mistakes, especially if they become repetitive.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as an entrepreneur is to work too hard. You need to learn to delegate and trust that your staff will adhere to the same quality and standards as if you were doing the work yourself. This method may require many turnovers until you find the right mix, but that right mix is critical. And then you must do whatever you can to keep the core group happy. You must remain flexible enough to maintain the same quality even after key staff members leave to pursue other opportunities.

5. Make Personal Contacts  - Understand What Our Client Needs

Although the adage of “the client is always right” does not always work in the practice of engineering, ultimately, we are in the service industry, and the client is the one who pays the bills. A business owner must walk a tricky tightrope when dealing with clients, especially the more demanding and eccentric ones. You must never compromise integrity to please a client, no matter how vital he or she may be to the firm. Finding the right balance is the key, and being consistent and honest are ways to handle such clients. Find ways to reward your more consistent clients while not alienating the others. Keep tight reins on those who consistently deviate from agreements, but always stay professional and try to keep negative emotions in check.

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Establishing a good rapport with clients, especially at your first job, is about planting seeds, seeds that can one day grow into clients of your own. You need to create and nurture good relationships with everyone you work with along the way. The personal contacts that you make while you are growing as a young engineer may be useful to you when you decide to open your firm. Don’t just focus on your immediate contacts or the supervisors and project managers or lead architect and lead engineer or contractor.

Pay close attention to and offer the same level of respect to their subordinates and the assistants, because these are the individuals who will be in charge when it comes time for you to start your firm. Answer your clients’ calls or return them on the same day, if possible. Follow up and show concern over their predicaments. Be flexible and understanding when they find themselves in a tough situation. It could be tempting to neglect the clients or not to go the extra mile when you are working at someone else’s company, but this attitude is dangerous for the successes of a future entrepreneur, and it could come back to haunt you in the future.

Never hide behind the fact that you are not the boss and say that if a client is unhappy, then it is not your business. It is, especially if you plan on being a business owner yourself one day. Learn to go the extra mile, and be considerate to the client when you can’t. If you want to be an entrepreneur and have your own business and clients one day, you have to find a way to make an impression with clients and stand out from the crowd. This is a good way of doing so and establishing good rapport for the future.

6. Networking As A Professional

When you become an entrepreneur, networking remains important, but most of the focus of networking shifts to marketing and originating work for your company. Some graduates or professionals network halfheartedly or use networking as a social exercise. However, if entrepreneurship is your goal, you must learn to network with a purpose. That purpose should be to secure work or to establish personal beneficial contact with a potential client. This networking not only helps and impresses your current employer, which may lead to bonuses and promotions if you originate work for them, but it is also great training for when you have to network for your firm in the future.

Successful people love talking about themselves and their companies or projects. Make that your point of emphasis, and start them talking about themselves; then see if that leads to a mutual connection, contact, hobby, or interest that can lead to further contact in the future. Unlike with student networking, you can certainly make your intentions are known immediately, which is to collaborate on future work. You can present it as helping one another out and sell it as a mutually beneficial working relationship.

7. Marketing Strategy To Enhance Your Entrepreneurship

Before your business can start operating, you need to set up your marketing strategy. Expenses can include advertising through avenues such as a company website, business cards, and brochures at a minimum. You can find many avenues of free advertising using social media sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and online business listings. Some social media sites include a paid option for expanded advertising purposes and may be significantly more affordable than using a conventional marketing company.

If you are unsure of how to reach your target audience, some lead-generating vendors can provide you with industry-related contact information at a cost. In this era of social media and the Internet, a comprehensive and effective marketing plan can be implemented internally and accomplished relatively inexpensively.

The Bottom Lines

The path to becoming a successful engineering entrepreneur is seldom a straight one. The beauty of entrepreneurship is that it isn't a one-size-fits-all career path. You – the owner has to decide how things are done when they are done. These notices above have helped you to learn about how you can embrace your entrepreneurial mindset and take your career from civil engineer to entrepreneur into your own hands.

Knowing your business goals is one thing. Making sure that your digital marketing efforts reflect those objectives is another. Plus, building your online presence isn’t as easy as creating a website, signing up to different social media platforms, and developing content materials for you to call it a day. You need to keep watch of your target audience and build your marketing campaigns around them. Establishing your online visibility is a lot of work. If you need help with your brand’s online engagement and online presence, get in touch with us to learn more about this.

This article is also credited to Engineering Management Institute

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