I’m constantly amazed at the ease with which I, as an engineer, have been able to create interesting new product ideas and map out a pathway to production—something my friends and colleagues in marketing, administration, sales, finance, and law simply don’t know how to do. Nor do they have any interest in doing it. Fortunately, in most instances I’ve come across for any tech-related business, engineering expertise is the keystone. It is a hard-won skill that took lots of work in college and during the day-to-day routines of developing an engineering career.
That’s not to say the specialized knowledge and skills of lawyers, accountants, and others aren’t important. But I haven’t found those backgrounds to be as central to early success as engineering. They can help decide whether an idea is a good one (market size and opportunity), set up the right legal framework if you decide to go ahead, help with patents (if you decide Pro Se is not right for you), craft a marketing plan once you get to that point, or help track cash and taxes. But coming up with the idea itself, digging into the details of how to solve a nagging problem that would help mankind, and developing ideas for constant improvement—that’s what engineers do, and it’s usually at the heart of everything else.
I don’t just believe that to be true: I’m living that story. Today, at a time when I should really be thinking seriously about retirement, I’m busier and happier than ever, doing just the kinds of things I enjoy, all of which are centered around product development and operating small businesses. I’m a co-founder of three LLCs, exploring everything from dispensing beverages to developing materials for baseball bats to a biomedical device that helps athletes train. I founded a fourth LLC that designs and makes firearms. And I help my wife with her small business. It takes a lot of time and energy, but if the alternative is playing golf, it’s no contest.
It’s also a pathway to a greater level of independence (hopefully financially), as well as for time and control of your life.
If it sounds attractive, my advice is as follows:
Don’t quit your day job. It takes a lot of time and effort to get something started, and unless you have a pretty good-sized nest egg you’re willing to risk, you need some means to keep paying the bills. Most employers, however, don’t expect much more than 40 hours a week. That leaves a lot of time on nights and weekends to pursue personal goals.
Plan to set up an LLC as a framework for your new venture. It doesn’t have to be done immediately, but it will provide important protections to your personal life and family if (and when) things begin to develop. And it also adds a greater level of credibility to your discussions with others as you develop an idea.
Meet with your employer and discuss your plans to start up a side business. All my former employers have been willing to let me carve out some time for my endeavors if I could convince them that 1.) I would generally do the work on my own time and always put their work first; 2.) they could continue to count on at least 40 hours a week from me; and 3.) I would not work in a competing area or industry.
This is very important. If you can’t do this, you risk your employer being able to place a legally valid claim on any ideas or patents you eventually develop. Your agreement should be in writing, and you should feel comfortable discussing your outside work with your boss from time-to-time so there’s no misunderstanding later about what you’re doing.
Figure out how to minimize expenses until the new business can pay for itself. Again, these things take time and nothing will kill an opportunity faster than having expensive leases or other out-of-pocket expenses you lose control of. You may need to get special zoning allowances, but nothing beats operating out of your home for as long as possible.
Teach yourself how to do as much of the non-engineering work as possible until growth and time demands you hire someone to do it. Learn to use QuickBooks or some other accounting software to keep track of finances and manage taxes more easily. Really get to know your way around the Patent Office’s website to search out existing patents, file provisional patents, and mine a wealth of information developed over the past century just for people like you.
Think about acquiring a personal license for SolidWorks or a similar design program so you can work at home and rigorously develop ideas in private. Check out website development sites like Wix.com and learn more about programs such as Kickstarter. You may decide these are not right for you, but they can inexpensively open pathways to marketing and commercialization.
And think about using some government resources. For example, as you get closer to where you might think about leaving your day job, you may find that one of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program solicitation contracts would provide the perfect opportunity to develop an idea using someone else’s money without taking on debt or investors.
Slowly acquire the tools needed to create one-offs/prototypes and generally explore design possibilities. True, you can always subcontract this work, but you will find that the cost, time delay, loss of control, and issues of confidentiality argue strongly for having a few basic tools of your own. One side benefit to owning and operating your own milling machine or lathe is it quickly teaches you to be a better designer.
High on the list of equipment you’ll want is a 3D printer. You may already appreciate its value if you’re using one at your company. You may not appreciate how rapidly the technology is developing, however, and the low cost of an entry-level machine. The Fabbaloo website is a superb place to track developments. They also offer a daily newsletter that is worth signing up for.
It's not an easy undertaking, but neither was earning that engineering degree and acquiring all those skills. And it’s not for everyone. But if you like the idea of working for yourself—at least part of the time—and have a dream you’d like to pursue, this is a way you can do something positive without betting the farm or putting your family at excessive financial risk.