5 tips to go from an engineer to a founder

By Yongxing Deng, Co-Founder and CTO of Alofta real estate technology startup based in Seattle, WA.

As an engineer, turning an idea into reality can be one of the most satisfying feelings. For some of us, it may feel good to offer physical products or software solutions, but we may want to do entrepreneurship. How do you go from building a product to building a business?

Embrace the unknown.

When building within the confines of a lab or computer, it’s often tempting to plan everything before you begin. Unfortunately, that is often not possible when building a company; in business there are too many variables that are either out of your control or unknown.

Starting a business is the process of de-risking by eliminating uncertainty, but you can only do that if you are able to pursue ideas while making room for the unknown. Don’t let the unknown stop you in your tracks; either work to remove them or work around them.

Find your problem.

At school and in your day-to-day job as an engineer, you may be used to being presented with a concrete problem, so it may be your instinct to jump to finding a solution. However, not all problems are created equal, and pursuing the appropriate problem that matches your skills is often as important to your overall success as your ability to solve a problem.

Take the time to find a business problem you are truly passionate about. Do you have any insight or experience with the problem that makes you uniquely qualified to solve it? Can you see yourself working on this problem for years, if not decades to come?

Learn to sell.

One of the core competencies for business building that you, as an engineer, may not have much practice in, is sales. In addition to selling to customers, you need to sell your idea to investors to raise capital. You also need to sell the company’s vision to your potential teammates; for many founders, recruiting is one of the most time-consuming parts of their job.

The good news: Sales is a learnable skill. If you’ve never been in sales, BANT is a good framework to get started with. Using this framework (or something similar) can help you qualify early and win deals faster. Active listening can also help you understand the speaker’s needs and wants more accurately.

Let others shine.

One of the most difficult transitions on your journey from engineer to founder is becoming a manager. Inevitably, your team will encounter a challenging problem, and you may feel like you know exactly how to solve it. Fight the instinct that you might have to solve that problem yourself. If you want to build a strong and sustainable team, you should give them opportunities to learn and grow – and don’t forget to give them credit when they do a good job.

Be you.

Finally, don’t forget your strengths as an engineer. For example, analytical skills are very valuable in business. Income statements, balance sheets, capitalized tables… while these concepts may be intimidating at first, you may find them quite intuitive and useful once you understand your business. A crash course or two on these topics can reap many benefits.

Another potential strength you have is risk assessment. When you see a potential risk afterwards, you and the company can better prepare for what is to come. In such cases, artfully communicating these risks to the team can often help your business navigate tougher terrain.

Some of the world’s most valuable companies were started by engineers: Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta, etc. If you’re thinking about amplifying your influence through entrepreneurship, just remember: You already have it in you.

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