Starting and running your own business is seen by many as the height of professional accomplishment. Here are snapshots of other engineers who've done it.
When the bug bit: In engineering school at the University of Wisconsin. A professor said plastics was one of the few fields where someone could start a business. After graduation, the only companies serious about hiring me were plastics companies. I worked for two small companies, but got disenchanted with the way they treated people. In 1964, I co-founded Phillips Plastics, an injection molding company with broad capabilities.
Personal strength: Engineering education, experience, ability to get people working together.
Toughest hurdle: Blending family life with commitment to the business. You have to decide how much time you can take away from your business family to spend with your family at home.
Biggest satisfaction: Creating security for people and giving them the opportunity to grow.
Biggest disappointment: Relying on leaders who don't respect their employees.
Advice: The biggest mistake in starting out is to have too much money. Without it you get creative and develop good habits. When we started, we had little money and were forced to rotate tasks. You get to know other people and all their tasks, and you develop respect for them.
Control Technology Corp.
When the bug bit: I always knew I wanted to own my own company. I started Control Technology with my brother, who was a controls engineer for a machine manufacturer that was moving from electromechanical relay controls to a more sophisticated system. My brother and I said we would design a control system for the company and form our own company to build it. That's how we started.
Personal strength: It has evolved with the growth of the company. Initially, personal engineering skills were important. Today, with 50 employees, organizational skills are important. Now I need to be able to stand outside and look at the company objectively. It's hard to pull away from day-to-day operations, but you need to be flexible and willing to change.
Toughest hurdle: When the customer who helped us start the business and represented 70% of our sales sold his company. The newowners had their own strategy and we weren't part of it, so we lost their business. We learned to diversify our customer base and product line, and today no customer represents more than 15% of sales.
Biggest satisfaction: The continual experience of learning more. When you run an organization, you are immersed in the process of learning how the world works.
Biggest disappointment: Losing that first customer. There have been no disappointments in terms of my expectations of what it would be like to run a business.
Advice: Be eager to learn and be flexible. Watch your cash flow and profitability, and watch your customers. You have to work hard, persevere, learn all aspects of business, including finance, legal, marketing--they're all professions and you should respect that.
Allan Stephan President
When the bug bit: I always have been a leader. My dad told me I'd never work for anyone. I broke out on my own to control my own environment, and that's why I started Stratos, an engineering firm that does turnkey designs for computer products and peripherals, medical products, and others.
Personal strength: Team leadership and technology risk assessment. I have a higher threshold for risk than others.
Toughest hurdle: Changing yourself and relying on others. An engineer accomplishes things daily. A manager's rewards depend on others. You have to learn to measure your success by how happy your team is.
Biggest satisfaction: Constantly learning.
Biggest disappointment: Spending so much time on non-engineering issues.
Advice: Before going out on your own, do something financially risky and see how comfortable you are. See how you respond to stress.
Chris Stergiou President
Global Design and Procurement
No. Andover, MA
When the bug bit: In the mid-1980s, when I worked for both Wang and Sun, I began to think I could do something on my own. It was gradual, but I eventually founded my own engineering consulting firm.
Personal strength: Analytical skills, ability to see the big picture.
Toughest hurdle: Persevering and working through mistakes. You have to deal with failure and move on.
Biggest satisfaction: The extent to which people rally around you when they see what you're doing as exciting.
Biggest disappointment: Lack of recognition, and not being able to go the extra mile with an idea because of lack of resources.
Advice: Put the enterprise first and yourself last. Be willing to fail.