Help me take over the world
July 19, 2014 7:03 AM   Subscribe

I want to pursue my dream of starting a business but have 2 problems. I'm not an extrovert, and all of my skills are in an industry that is not startup-friendly. What are good businesses for me to start?

My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in aerospace engineering, and I have a few years of work experience - all of it in aerospace engineering. Unfortunately, a typical aerospace project requires massive financial investment and a large labor force. This makes it almost impossible for a small startup to enter the industry.

Also, I have strong technical skills, but I have little experience in business. How do I develop business acumen?

Another issue is that I don't have the personality of a salesman. I'm not an extrovert. I'm not a smooth talker. I can hold conversations, but there's a mild level of social anxiety that I can't seem to get rid of. People generally view me as a nice guy, but I'm not charismatic enough to lead others or win the trust of strangers. I've had years of training in social skills, hired a body language coach, and participated in Toastmasters, but I still can't quickly charm others. As a result, I'm not good at sales and networking.

I still want to achieve my dream of starting my own business. My goal is to achieve an annual profit of at least 80k USD after a few years in business. I've considered:

1. Forming an engineering startup in the aerospace industry
- My education wouldn't go to waste.
- There are few niches in the aerospace industry where a startup could enter.
- The vast majority of startups fail.
- Strong sales and networking skills are required. I would need to be able to pitch my product to potential customers and investors. In addition, I would need to convince potential partners and employees to join my company.

2. Forming an engineering startup in another industry
- There are more opportunities for startups.
- Since all of my technical skills are in a narrow sub-specialty of aerospace engineering, I could provide little value to a startup in another industry.
- The vast majority of startups fail.
- Strong sales and networking skills are required.

3. Working as an independent engineering consultant
- Consultants generally have at least 20 years of experience working in corporate engineering jobs in a high-demand niche before going independent. I only have 5 years of experience, and that experience was not in a high-demand niche.
- Consulting is like working for a corporate engineering job except with no long-term job security and no benefits.
- Strong sales and networking skills are required. Engineering consultants find most of their clients from networking.

4. Opening a restaurant
- A large initial investment is required.
- Almost all new restaurants fail.
- I wouldn't know how to differentiate my restaurant from the other restaurants in my area.

5. Going back to school and getting an education in a field where people frequently start their own practices
- Medicine and dentistry seem promising, although the cost of schooling is astronomical. It also seems that I wouldn't need the personality of a salesman to be successful.
- I've rejected law and accounting due to lack of interest.

6. Investing in real estate
- I'm trying to research this option, but I know almost nothing about investing in real estate market.

What would be the best path for me to follow? What options have I not considered?

I set up an email account at for anyone who'd like to respond privately. Your advice is greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You need a business partner. Someone with possibly less technical and more sales and operations experience. But also someone you like and trust. I know some consultants in my industry who essentially partnered up, one tech person to do the engineering and one Business Development/Management person to find new business and communicate with clients about strategy and project management. In any of these fields, if you want to go it alone, you need both sets of skills. Actually if anything you need the soft skills more from what I've seen.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:14 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh and of the alternatives, do not start a restaurant or real estate business without working in these fields for a decade. Many many disasters are possible in those fields.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:15 AM on July 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

What is it about owning your own business that's attractive to you? It's not the burning passion to fill a void, you haven't even identified a void. You don't enjoy the schmoozing and hob-nobbing that's part and parcel of business ownership.

The positive cash-flow you aspire to is about the regular salary of an aerospace engineer. So there's no desire for crazy-wealth there. Based on the above, you don't have a grasp of how businesses are run, or a particular interest in actually running a business (that I can tell).

If you want to learn business acumen, I suppose you could get an MBA. All it did for me was show me that the Emperor has no clothes, if I'm honest.

So I put it to you, what is it about business ownership that is so attractive to you? If you just want to be your own boss, I suggest that instead of working for a particular company, that you look into consulting, or doing contract work. This way you're project based, and because you aren't tied to that particular company, or work group for the long term, if there are people or situations you don't like, it's only temporary and you can either fire your client, or stick it out through project end and never work for those folks again.

As for real estate, unless you can afford to buy properties outright, there's an awful lot of risk there, especially if you're not very savvy in that area. Now, that doesn't mean you can't get your real estate license, and start doing the research, in fact, if that's interesting to you, do that. It's pretty cheap to do. I know an awful lot of people who sell real estate on the side. On the side because they can't make it pay full-time.

Until you identify what it is that's appealing about business ownership, there's no point in striking out blind to start one. And for fuck's sake don't bet all your money on something you know very little about.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:22 AM on July 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

I would recommend interviewing for jobs at engineering startups. That way you can get experience with the culture of smaller companies, meet other people who are interested in starting engineering businesses, and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of potential competitors. Interviewing also tests your stamina, stress tolerance, and ability to simulate extraversion, so you might find it good training for business ownership in other ways.
posted by yarntheory at 7:34 AM on July 19, 2014

I don't think "the vast majority" of startups fail. A majority probably. But most startups have an unsexy business model of providing some service or product people are known to pay for, and many of those succeed -- in the sense of stabilizing as going concerns, not in the sense of selling to Yahoo for millions.

Perhaps you are mistaken to think an aerospace startup has to run its own aerospace "project," with the expectations of scale that brings. Instead, perhaps it could focus on providing a service to companies with their own projects. Is there some kind of testing that has to be done often, and that has similarities across projects? Perhaps companies would be interested in outsourcing this to a specialized firm. Etc.

Some people go into business for themselves by simply doing the same work, but as an outside firm rather than an employee.

I'm available for consultations, me-mail me.
posted by grobstein at 7:35 AM on July 19, 2014

Since you list doctor and dentist, I assume you're willing to think of "solo-practitioner" situations as starting a business. So look at other areas where people freelance or are solo-practitioners. Some require more education, though possibly cheaper and quicker. As Ruthless Bunny says, without knowing what it is about having a small business that appeals to you, it's hard to know what kind would be best-suited to you.

Consulting of some sort would be the kind of freelance/independent work best suited to your current education. Note that there is an "enginerers" category on elance.come. There might be work there for you. Including occupations that don't use your engineering or aerospace knowledge:

Those related to those you've already suggested that require cheaper or shorter education:
Nurse Practitioner
Dental Hygienist (allowed to operate independently only in some locations, check out local regulation)

Other occupations in which people work freelance/independent practice:
Graphic design
Hair styling
CHild care
Catering (though many of the same dangers as restaurant)
Landlord-ing /AirBnB Host/Executive Stay Suite Renter
Real Estate
Technical support/computer consulting
Some kinds of construction/contracting
House Cleaning
Truck Driving
Selling things online (ebay, books)
Pet-sitting, dog walking
Personal Trainer
Language Teacher
Paralegal (allowed to practice independently in some locations)
Web site designer
Agents/Business Managers
Home Inspector
Repair (Stuff)
Counsellors (Psychologists/Social Workers, etc.). Requires interaction, but it seems like primarily sales you object to.
Interior Design
Music Teacher
Tour Guides
Uber Driver
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:03 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ambivalent if I should give this a stab, but 1) my personality is very similar to your (ie, the introversion part) and the criteria that you define as wanting, I was able to get and I did make a career change to get to this point.

The way that I am going to try to answer your question, however, is to suggest that you revisit some of your assumptions, however, or try to answer the question in other ways.

These are random questions that I had for you, along with ideas:

• What is the main thing that you are looking for and why does it require self employment/being a business? Asking the question because you can achieve your monetary goal by employment as an engineer. I also did not see great love of another field via your suggested solutions (and more like throwing things against a wall). I had the same questions that bunny did - what do you really want? Do you want to be your own boss? Have a wider variety of projects? Define your own hours?

• What are your other "assets" besides training as an engineer? Have you worked as an engineer and if so, how long? Think about things that other people like and might say "wow, I would want to hire that person because they have..." - not a whole lot, maybe a higher degree, a degree from a fancy pants school, skill in another language, just think how you have heard other people present themselves. In addition to assets, what do you LIKE doing? To be honest, I did not hear "love of cooking", but it went on the list because some businesses do X. But what do you like or what are other things you have skills in?

• Are there people at your current company (or other engineering companies) who are self employed? My guess would be that there are IT people who are. I don't know your industry as well, but look around and ask that question. IF they are self employed, ask other questions such as what are they paid/can potentially be paid and what is their background. My guess would be that it would be an easier way to break in if you already do some of what they do, you know?

• What about alternative careers (and ones that can be self employed, too, of course) that use your engineering degree? Right now, your ideas are not building on engineering, they are starting from scratch. Some of those programs require 10 + years of schooling/debt, and you might not like it or even get accepted. I don't know if this will help, but when I changed careers, I looked for books for alternative careers in the sciences. I liked this book, Alternative careers in science: Leaving the Ivory Tower because it described day to day work of different people and I could read it and say hell no (ie, being on the phone or in meetings all day) to sounds interesting. I don't know if this will help you, I found it on Amazon just now, but it is nontraditional careers in science. All I am suggesting is that you build on what you have so you don't reinvent the wheel/spend tons more money on more training if you can't define what you want now.

• IF you do find pockets of people who are self employed, go talk to those people. I did do this early on to see what was their background and if I had a chance or not of doing the same. You would be surprised, I would define some pockets of self employed people as phenomenally introverted, etc., but the succeed for other reasons.Then make a plan as to how to get there. It might be employment at a company doing X for 2 years, or it might be getting training at your current job, etc.

• Revisit your marketing question. Everything seems to be based on your assessment of your personality as to whether you can be self employed or not. There are many, many ways to market, and they do not require shaking people's hands and being captain extrovert. So I get clients by 1) LinkedIn (and they find me), 2) repeat business and clients - seriously, if someone likes what you do, you can work with them for years/ or be referred onward 3) writing a short email to a company that says "I do X, do you need someone who does X?" Now there are other things that a person can do, but it depends on your strengths and industry.I know people who have gotten projects/contracts by picking up the phone, writing blog posts, social media - each person does whatever works for them and that they feel comfortable with. If your industry gets money, it will attract people who will offer to market it for a cut (I know that there are people who will get projects for me but take HALF the money, for doing nothing but a phone call). I don't work with them, but if you prefer to go that route, okay. Just saying that you don't need to only use model A and have that work for all businesses.

• Random ideas that I can think of for you, but you would need to do more research: technical writing (my assumption is that you use special software), education consultant (wide range here from tutoring for the sciences to helping develop science programs)...these are random ideas, but I would do a lot more research first.
posted by Wolfster at 8:39 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you attending the NewSpace conference next week? Looking at the featured speakers and guests, there's sure to be people to give you advice, and possibly a gig.
posted by Sophont at 8:41 AM on July 19, 2014

Indeed you need a partner.

My impression is that actually at least here in Southern California there are thousands of small companies making one particular part or component or sub-system or material for the aerospace industry, so I would think there are opportunities and that it doesn't require massive investment to get started. What you need to do is network among the customers in that industry to find out what niches they think are ripe for further development.
posted by Dansaman at 9:27 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I want to pursue my dream of starting a business but have 2 problems.

Based on the many paths you proceed to detail, I think you have a more serious problem: you don't really dream of starting a business, but you do dream of earning a living (80K) by doing something (starting a business or otherwise) that's different than what you're doing.

You might also have a problem having to do with whether you are temperamentally well suited to prosper in and enjoy one of those functions or fields, but they are too diverse to generalize about.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:35 AM on July 19, 2014

I know a lot of people who aren't extraverts and started aerospace engineering companies. Your most viable option is to start a consulting/staffing company that provides engineers to one bigger company; ideally you leave Friday as an employee of GE (or whatever) and walk in Monday as employee of YourCo contracting to GE. You work as a staffer because you don't provide enough engineers to live on the margins, and you pick up more work by being inside the company. You're basically being paid to develop your business.

Another good option is to know a system or software (like IBM software) forwards and backwards and offer training and support consulting at a fraction of IBM's gigantic price.

Another good option is to have a business performing R&D work as a government contractor.

Any of these paths will eventually lead to an opportunity to develop a product or win a more lucrative primary contract.

Whatever you do, you'll need 1-3 partners and some capital, or at least some credit cards you and your partners can max out.
posted by michaelh at 11:49 AM on July 19, 2014

- Consulting is like working for a corporate engineering job except with no long-term job security and no benefits.

I have not found this to be true. Job Security because you're at a big company is an illusion. Cutbacks, a manager who doesn't like you, company going out of business, etc.. I find more job security in being self employed.

Starting a company can be risky (You might fail or you might make it big) but as others have pointed out consulting / freelancing / sole practitioner is a good way to secure yourself a steady income and is lower risk. It usually doesn't scale to being a millionaire, but it lets you do work you want to do, control your schedule and be your own boss. You can also achieve your salary goal quicker and it will require less up front money than starting a big company. It is still helpful to think of this as running a company, but it won't involve as much business sense that starting a company and having a bunch of employees will have. An 80k year salary is certainly possible to achieve in many fields.

As far as no benefits: I am a one person IT company. I do pay for retirement, health care etc out of pocket. As I've more than doubled my old salary this is okay with me.

You will need to learn the skills to run yourself as a business so you'll need to be skilled at the thing you're going to do and have the reputation, contacts, etc to get it started.
posted by ridogi at 2:30 PM on July 19, 2014

Living, as I do not far from Sikorsky, I have see headline confirming that aerospace can be a boom/bust business. They get a contract and hire. When the project is done, they fire.

It sounds to me like you don't have the knowledge yet to start your own business. You have to learn how the real world is different from the academic world.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:06 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

You have already made a significant investment in yourself - and you're sort of already in business in that sense. If your goal is to make $80k a year, then you've already made the appropriate investments in education to get there. If you're not currently making the amount of money you want to make, apply for a job somewhere else. Sometimes that's really the only way to get a significant bump in salary. If you have a motivation beyond your annual salary requirement, it isn't clear from your question.

The reality is that work kind of sucks, period, and that "being your own boss" can suck way worse than "working for the man," depending on the situation. There are definitely ways you can start your own business (michaelh, Dansaman, and grobstein above have good thoughts on this), but you should try to work from your strengths. Figure out how to put the education and experience you have to work for yourself.
posted by jeoc at 8:16 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's an update from the anonymous OP:
Thanks to everyone for all the great answers! I've thought about why I want to start a business. I'm trying to achieve the following goals:

1. I want my hard work to translate into rewards. I've worked for large and medium-sized companies. When working for someone else, if you don't finish your work by the end of the day, you have to stay late. However, if you finish early, you can't leave early; you have to ask for more work. There's no incentive to work harder or invent innovative solutions. Additionally, the work environment is high-stress, and aerospace engineers frequently work 50-60 hours a week. The annual salary is 80k USD and slowly increases (but usually not enough to beat inflation and cost of living increases) - I'm pretty sure there are careers where I can make much more money for the same workload. Furthermore, I was rarely given credit for my accomplishments, but managers claim their employees' achievements as their own. I also frequently hear "You deserve a raise, but there's not enough room in the budget to pay you more" at my annual performance reviews. Working harder benefits the management but doesn't help me. Simply changing jobs wouldn't change the power imbalance between employer and employee.

2. I'm seeking an avenue for career advancement. I'm an achievement-oriented person and feel motivated when there are meaningful goals to work towards. Money alone is not enough to motivate me. Designing a product that makes more money for my company's CEO is not a meaningful goal. On the other hand, starting a business would present me with a series of challenges that I would be motivated to overcome. Going back to my current career, working as an engineer doesn't provide enough opportunity for growth. There are 2 career paths in engineering - technical and management. Following a technical career path means working as an engineering designer or analyst for the rest of my career. I've become bored by technical engineering work but will tolerate it if it helps me reach my goals. Staying on a technical path also means placing myself in a low status position where I'm answering to managers younger than me. I could try to follow the management path, but I don't have the looks (you need to be tall to move up in management) and extroverted personality.

3. I want control over my day-to-day life. Corporate employees follow strict schedules, often work unpaid overtime, have to suck up to their boss, and have to go on business travel at a moment's notice; I hate canceling all my weekend plans just to attend a boring meeting on the other side of the country. I've shadowed dentists who own their own practice. They control their schedules, live low-stress lifestyles, and answer to no one. They also get to help people directly. Due to the downsides of dentistry (expensive and time-consuming schooling, no guarantee I'll get accepted to dental school, massive investment needed to start a new practice), I'm considering other business options. Being my own boss would allow me to live my life on my terms.

4. I want control over my future. Layoffs are frequent in the aerospace industry. I've seen many of my friends get laid off. I've been laid off before, and a senior engineer with 20 years of experience (who also got laid off the same time) told me that an aerospace engineer should expect to get laid off at least 5 times during the course of a career - there is no job security in this field. I lost my job because company management made mistakes that cost the company a large contract. I had to pay for someone else's mistake. Even with degrees from prestigious engineering schools, it took me almost a year to find a new job. During my job search, I discovered that there was a surplus of aerospace engineers and that the hiring managers could choose to be extremely picky; the hiring managers held all the power. Even worse, age discrimination is common in engineering, as hiring managers view older engineers as expensive and hard to train. If I were to get laid off in my 40s or 50s, a job search could take years. The long-term outlook seems bleak if I continue working as a corporate engineer. I want to be in charge of my career; owning a business would give me the power to do so.

Am I mistaken in believing that starting a business will allow me to achieve my goals? Are there ways to achieve all my goals without starting a business?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:43 PM on July 20, 2014

I have a few additional thoughts based on your (very helpful) update.

My husband is an aerospace engineer, but he works in general aviation. It sounds like you might be at one of the big defense contractors/commercial airline manufacturers. He's been laid off once, and was snapped up with multiple offers. In 2008. He's great and everything, but it wasn't about him being some world-class hotshot. His first job was in an aviation startup, and many of his colleagues worked at other GA startups at one point or another in their careers (Adam Aircraft, Eclipse, etc.). You can't exactly run it out of your basement, but you can definitely get aviation/aerospace projects off the ground without a Boeing-sized operation.

I also think you may just be working in some places with weird and potentially toxic cultures. Some of the stuff you describe matches my husband's experience, but some of it just sounds strange (you need to be tall to move up in management - I don't think this is typical).

All that said, he has thought about striking out on his own for some of the same reasons you describe. It sucks to feel like you don't own your life.

I don't know if running your own business is really compatible with a low-stress lifestyle per se, but you could consider a franchise if you can float the initial investment. A well-run franchise will help you with the development of business acumen in the form of identifying business opportunities, marketing, etc.

Frankly, I'm kind of dubious that dental practice is as awesome as the dentists you shadowed say it is. Or to be more precise, I think that may be a factor of being (a) monied before entering practice, or (b) being old enough that education was cheaper and didn't result in lifelong debt. I also think dentistry is maximum 5-10 years out from undergoing a lot of the changes that have fundamentally altered what it means to be a physician in the past 20 years. They are kind of in a bubble now, but it won't last.
posted by jeoc at 7:30 PM on July 22, 2014

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