The following is an interview with Glen Cooper, performed by one of our guest writers, Menno Gazendam.
Glen Cooper is currently an engineer turned entrepreneur. He recently released a happiness-and-positivity app via the App Store called HappiJar. The app is designed to help us store our happy moments all in a single place, share them with our close relatives and friends and shake a random one free to inspire us each day.
I usually write articles for EngineeringCareerCoach, but this week I had the privilege to interview the very enthusiastic and business-savvy Glen Cooper, a structural engineer from the UK, on what it is like starting and running your own engineering business.
Tell me about your company. What do you do and who are your clients?
We are Avatar Engineers, and what we do for our clients is very simple. We solve problems.
Our clients are home owners, developers, builders and architects looking for pragmatic and economic engineering solutions. The reality is that we are often called in as troubleshooters. A client who needs an alternative to demolishing half their home. An architect who needs a speedy response or a builder who wants a solution which caters to their skills and materials.
How long have you been doing this?
Avatar engineers? Three years. Engineering, 18 years.
What is your background? How did you start in engineering?
I started as trainee design engineer in a design-and-build contractor’s. After a year’s worth of training, I had the opportunity to train further as either a structural engineer or an architect. I chose engineering, because the engineers in the company were far more inspirational as mentors.
I studied at Norwich City College for four years part time, then Nottingham Trent for four years part time. I worked in Norfolk for the first 10 years and then in Bristol, Oxford, Milton Keynes and finally St. Albans, where I set up on my own.
What prompted you to go out on your own?
I worked for a small consultancy in Milton Keynes, who intended me to help run their business. What happened was that I found that business was one of my latent talents, and I quickly grew out of the position they offered me.
I decided the only way to proceed was to start my own company.
Did you need any funding to get started?
I had one month’s salary, no clients, and a single idea. That was it.
Would you say that, in a way, that was a good thing? Throwing yourself out there—without the safety of funds—you just had to make it work?
I wouldn’t recommend it. But it forces you to do some very strange things to make it work!
What does your typical week look like?
Monday: Phone up clients and colleagues to thank them for all their help the week previous, and then I get cracking.
Tuesday–Thursday: Office or site work. I tend to save up all my site visits for one day.
Friday: Play day. I open up my book of ideas and either blog about them or think of new things and ways to do stuff… Anything.
How do you win new work?
Word of mouth. Impossible to beat.
I like how you take time to call clients and colleagues to thank them—very few engineering companies I know do this. So the connections and relationships you form are crucial to your marketing? Crucial to you winning work by word of mouth?
Yes, crucial. It’s the only way to differentiate ourselves. We are a technical resource. We speak engineer and no one invites us to parties. We gotta show some kind of personality.
How important is a digital strategy?
It’s great, but not essential to every business. You can lose yourself, days at a time, doing nothing on Twitter. Avoid that. The way to use social media is to decide what you need from it first. Don’t say everything! Chose one or two goals and follow through with them.
So, develop a strategy first—keep it small and realistic—and follow through on just that. Do you feel too many engineering companies try to do it all, and then they end up doing it half baked?
Some people love Twitter, but it becomes a social news feed then. Not enough time is placed on getting the basics right. Completing profiles. Writing original content. Talking with people.
Do you prefer to grow your business, or do you want to keep it a sustainable one-man show?
I did grow to about eight subcontractors after eight months of work. Unfortunately, I imploded under the weight of the work. I learned a lot from that experience. I am gunning to build a business this year which is capable of supporting my workload and that of another. I am also actively searching for a partner.
My aspirations are quite big.
What has been the hardest part of going out on your own?
Time management. Keeping control of what you do and when you do it. People believe that being a business owner means that you only have yourself to answer to. Wrong. You have clients. They don’t give you second chances.
So do you reckon soft skills are almost as important as technical skills, if not more so, when launching your own engineering business?
Forgive me, but any engineering tech guy can design a beam or badly specify a concrete pour. What firms don’t teach are soft skills. They expect engineers to simply have them, or not. Or buy in staff who can talk with clients without confusing or alienating them.
Is there anything you wish you had known before you started?
The journey to understand and challenge yourself is like gold dust. Yes, take advice; yes, ask questions; but experience as many of the highs and the lows as you are humanly able. Owning a business is not just about doing the engineering work you want to do… it’s about spreading the good word that we engineers are really advantageous people to know.
We must prove to a wider audience that we are enthusiastic problem solvers, not petty gatekeepers of knowledge.
So lack of business knowledge should not hold you back from getting going? If you have the willingness to learn quickly, then you will be okay?
Don’t get me wrong. You have to reach out and be willing to learn. Go networking, be seen on LinkedIn groups as a helpful resource. Ask for favors and build relationships.
Are you intellectually and creatively satisfied working for yourself?
There is always stuff to do and to dream about. Being in control of your own destiny is a big responsibility. But boy is it invigorating too. When things go wrong, you only have yourself to blame. As soon as you begin blaming others for your mishaps, it’s time to give up and move on. You can do yourself some real damage if you lament on bad luck.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success