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How to Start a Startup (Part 4)

I must admit that when I first started writing this miniseries, I had no idea how much interest it would stir. In Part 1, we considered some fundamental points like choosing your company and website names; also, getting a professional graphic designer to create your logo and templates for things like your letterhead and PowerPoint presentations. In Part 2, we cogitated on topics like the “look-and-feel” of your website, the importance of backing up your company data, the necessity of engaging legal and financial professionals, and the requirements for marketing and networking.

In Part 3, we ruminated on a variety of topics, including creating a business plan, having an exit strategy for the company, whether or not forming the company with partners is a good idea, deciding on the corporate culture you wish to establish, knowing your worth, and the value of setting milestones and expectations.

To be honest, I was going to stop at Part 3, but I’ve received a cornucopia of interesting feedback, some of which I share below. Before we go there, however, there are a couple more topics that are dear to my heart, and that I would like to touch on first.

Think About Your Website

Unless you are a graphics genius, you need to use a professional to create your website for you. We already talked about things like having your website be adaptive or responsive in Part 2. One thing we didn’t mention is giving guidance to your web designer. Note that we’re not talking about the textual content for the website — that’s down to you — what we’re talking about here is the “look-and-feel.”

Take the time to look at the websites of other companies in your market segment and provide a list of the ones you like and — very importantly — the ones you don’t like, explaining your reasons “for and against.”

In the case of my own website at CliveMaxfield.com, my chum Denis (yes, one ‘n’ — it’s the French spelling), the founder of CroDesign.com, handles the overall look-and-feel, while I populate the content. I have no hesitation at all in saying that Denis is one of the best graphic artists I know; he’s my “go-to” for all things graphical and web-related.

Death by Bullets

One thing I hate when visiting a startup engineering website is a “death by bullets” landing page where they try to list the 50 things they think I need to know about their product or service.

It’s hard to generalize about this sort of thing because there are so many possible approaches, but if all else fails, stick to a home page that contains three key paragraphs explaining:

  • Who we are
  • What we do
  • Why we are of value to you

The crisp and concise home page should set the scene and include a “call to action” leading your visitors to want to learn more. As soon as they say, “Ooh, that sounds interesting,” to themselves, you are on the right path.

While we’re on the topic of “Death by Bullets,” this also applies to presentations. If someone puts a slide of text on the screen, I’ve already finished reading it before they’ve got to the end of the first sentence, after which I sit there twiddling my thumbs fuming in frustration.

Once again, it’s hard to generalize because each presentation is different regarding its goals and target audience. In my case, for example, when I’m giving a keynote presentation at a technical conference or an Engineering Theater talk at an Embedded Systems Conference (ESC), the majority of my slides contain only images, which are often enigmatic in nature. These act as reminders to me as to the topic in hand, and they make sense to the audience only after I’ve discussed the related points, thereby keeping them interested and me on my toes.

Where are We?

Returning to the topic of websites, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited some company’s site and found something interesting, only to discover that when I return, I cannot find it again. Once again, I find this to be tremendously frustrating.

Please, please, please work with your web designer to implement a rational, intuitive, navigation scheme. Once a site reaches a certain level of complexity, I personally like to see the use of breadcrumbs (also known as a “breadcrumb trail”), which is a form of secondary navigation that reflects the visitor’s location in the website’s hierarchy, and that can be used to quickly navigate to earlier nodes in the trail.

Create a Style Guide

Even if your company is offering an engineering or technological product or service, someone is going to have to write about it in the form of website content, brochures, presentations, etc.

You have two main choices here. Either you can let everyone in your company write the way they like, or you can establish some simple rules in the form of a style guide that everyone follows.

There are, of course, books on this sort of thing, such as the Associated Press Stylebook (AP Stylebook), but your chances of getting your engineers to read something like this are close to zero. As an alternative, it’s a good idea to create a focused, easy-to-read-and-understand in-house style guide that focuses on the things you will be writing about as a company.

If you are supplying wireless solutions, for example, do you use “WiFi” or “Wi-Fi” in your writings? In this particular case, it really doesn’t matter one way or the other, so long as all your company’s writings are consistent. In other cases, the difference between doing one thing or another can create a strong impression in the reader’s mind — it’s up to you to decide if this impression will be favorable or otherwise for your company.

Love and Hate

Most engineers hate writing in general. The fact that they aren’t very good at it only exacerbates the problem. I know many engineers and engineering managers for whom spelling, grammar, and punctuation will remain forever a mystery.

Contrary-wise, most writers don’t understand engineering. I’ve talked to many companies who have engaged a freelance writer to pen a column on something or other. These are people who could give lectures on the use of the capricious comma and write books on the wiles of the enigmatic eclipse. Unfortunately, the conversation usually goes something like this:

Engineering Manager: We want you to write an article on XYZ.

Freelance Writer: Great! No problem… what’s XYZ?

The engineers desperately try to teach the writer enough to write the article, but this turns out to be a dismal failure. Eventually, the engineers write the article themselves, and they end up using the writer as a very expensive copy editor, speaking of which…

Use a Copy Editor

Once you’ve written something, no matter how good you think it is, please, please, please pass it through a copy editor before you set your work to run wild and free in the world. No one in your company should be immune from this practice. As soon as I finish writing this column, for example, I’m going to send it to EE Journal’s copy editor who will make sure I haven’t used more than my allotted number of apostrophes and exclamation marks!

If you are a small company, you may not be able to afford to have a full-time copy editor on the staff, but there are a bunch of freelancers out there (if you are an engineering company, it’s best to use someone with expertise regarding technical topics). I would be happy to recommend freelance copy editors if you wish.

One useful tip is to read your prose aloud. You would be surprised how many misspelled words, duplicated words, incorrect words, and punctuation errors this will reveal.

Another tip is to employ multiple pairs of eyes. There were three of us in our first company. A lot of what we did involved writing for other companies, including creating the text, graphics, and layout for brochures. The very last thing we did before sending something off to the printshop was for us all to sit around the table with a copy of the final work. One of us would read it aloud, while the others would follow along checking everything with an eagle eye.

Yet another tip is to NOT trust the person performing the layout of your website or print materials to perform a copy-editing function for you. It’s been my painful experience that layout folks will simply take your words and “pour” them into the target. Even if they spot glaring errors, they won’t make any changes. I once taxed a layout guy on this, and he responded with a well-reasoned argument that he had to assume that the text provided to him had been checked and approved — he wasn’t going to make any changes in case he messed something up and the blame fell on his shoulders. You can’t argue with logic like that.

One final point here regards multiple languages. If you are creating prose in a language that is not your own, please, please, please get a native speaker to perform a copy edit for you. If I’m visiting a website or reading a brochure whose content was created (or translated) by a non-native-English speaker, it doesn’t take long before I get hung up on spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and completely lose track of why I was reading this piece in the first place.

And now, I will bid you adieu. But turn that frown upside down into a smile, because below is some feedback on my previous “Start a Startup” columns from Ken Wyatt of Wyatt Technical Services LLC.

Feedback from Previous Columns

Hi Max, all good points. I’d especially like to chime in on breaking the work into reasonable chunks and charging what you’re worth.

Four of us within the IEEE EMC Society have led a “Consultant’s Tool Kit” workshop at their annual Symposium on EMC. The upcoming one in Reno in July 2020 will be our tenth anniversary. We each have our contributions, patterned much like your ongoing (I hope) series, and each year we invite one guest speaker. Several years ago, our guest was Keith Armstrong, one of your UK colleagues. He advocated breaking up your statement of work into manageable chunks — each chunk leading to the next, each charged separately, and with client approval for each step. This has worked well for me, as well as for the clients, because we each have a better idea of the progression of work effort along with the estimated costs and deliverables.

For example, if a client calls me with a product failure for radiated emissions (this is very common in the EMC world), then rather than jump on a plane and work for days trying different mitigations, I’ll suggest a stepped strategy, starting with performing a design review (giving specific recommendations for improvement (1-2 days). If this doesn’t lead to success, then I’ll jump on a plane and provide hands-on help (1-2 days). This can be followed up with future training for their designers (2 days), plus possible consultation on products currently under development.

By breaking the task up into “chunks” and offering a stepped strategy, the client feels they have more control over the outcome, especially if they and I work as a team to achieve the goal.

The other point I’d like to add has to do with how one values one’s time. If you’re currently working as an engineer for a large corporation, you might be making a take-home pay of $50 to $70 per hour (let’s say). So, you decide to leave the company and work as an independent consultant and you figure, “Well, I’ll double or triple what I was making at XYZ company.” Wrong.

You actually cost your company 4-5X your “take home” pay, due to taxes, insurance, 401K, stock purchase plans and other overhead costs like floor space charges. When you go independent, you’ll need to do the same, and even more. There’s bookkeeping, CPA, legal, insurance for your company vehicle, umbrella policy, business insurance (including “errors and omissions” insurance for some), federal and state taxes (plus withholding), social security, worker’s compensation tax, business licenses, health plan and insurance, etc. As you stated, this should all be a part of your business plan.

You will also need to estimate how many jobs you think you’ll have each month and how long each job will take on average. Of course, this will likely ramp up and you’ll be able to estimate more accurately with time. But you’ll need to account for the “down time” in estimating what income you’ll need to keep “the home fires burning and food on the table.”

Let’s say there are about 2000 “work hours” per year (40 hours x 52 weeks). How many of those days will you actually be working and making an income? I find I typically work one to two weeks per month, and I use the remaining days for family time, writing, and promoting my business (actually just announcing new articles and training videos on LinkedIn and on my quarterly newsletter). I average 50 to 100 clients a year with an average job length of 2-3 days. But that’s after working this business for over 10 years. It certainly didn’t start out that way, but I digress…

The bottom line is that you need to charge a lot more than you think. The IEEE does an annual “consultant’s survey,” which includes, among other things, a survey of the hourly charge versus “service category,” such as software engineering, hardware engineering, and — in my case — electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) consultation. The range of hourly charge is generally $150 to $350 per hour and is slightly rising each year.

What you charge depends somewhat on what others in your field charge as well. This means you need to ask various colleagues (usually privately) what they charge to get a ballpark idea where to start. As you [Max] suggest in your column, don’t start off too low or you’ll regret it with the real potential of failure in the long run. You need to decide whether your consulting (or business start-up) is a “hobby” or a real business. I rarely have a client bat an eye when I tell them my hourly rate (it’s admittedly high) and find most clients are just happy to know what the total estimated cost will be so they can budget for it.

Customers don’t mind paying for value received — it’s much cheaper for them to use an expert than to go it alone in an area with which they are unfamiliar, ill-equipped, or having problems. But you have to be good at what you do; “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it,” as the old saying goes.

2 thoughts on “How to Start a Startup (Part 4)”

  1. Regarding everything we’ve covered in this mini-series, I’m happy to offer consulting services on any of these topics, such as creating an in-house style guide or recommending a copy editor, for example. Please feel free to contact me at max@clivemaxfield.com

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