5 tips for going from engineer to founder

By Yongxing Deng, co-founder and CTO of At the topa real estate technology startup based in Seattle, WA.

As an engineer, turning an idea into reality can be one of the most fulfilling feelings. For some of us, providing physical products or software solutions might sound great, but we might want to pursue entrepreneurship. How do you go from building a product to building a business?

Embrace strangers.

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

Building a business is all about reducing risk by eliminating uncertainty, but you can only do that if you are able to pursue ideas while leaving room for the unknown. Don’t let the unknowns stop you in your tracks; either delete them or circumvent them.

Find your problem.

In school and in your day-to-day work as an engineer, you might be used to being faced with a concrete problem, so your instinct might be pushing you to find a solution. However, not all problems are created equal, and pursuing the appropriate problem that matches your skill set is often as important to your overall success as your ability to solve a problem.

Take your time to find a business issue that you are truly passionate about. Do you have an idea or experience of the problem that makes you uniquely qualified to solve it? Do you see yourself working on this problem for years or even decades to come?

Learn to sell.

As an engineer, one of the essential skills for building a business that you may not have as much practice in is selling. In addition to selling to clients, you will need to sell your idea to investors to raise capital. You will 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: selling is a learned skill. If you’ve never encountered sales, a good place to start is BANT. Using this framework (or something similar) can help you qualify early and close deals faster. Active listening can also help you understand your speaker’s needs and wants more accurately.

Let others shine.

One of the toughest transitions in your journey from engineer to founder is becoming a manager. Inevitably, your team will encounter a difficult problem, and you may feel like you know exactly how to solve it. Fight any instinct you may have to fix this problem yourself. If you want to build a strong and lasting team, you need to give them opportunities to learn and grow, and don’t forget to give them credit when they do a great job.

Be you.

Finally, don’t forget your strengths as an engineer. For example, analytical skills are very valuable in the business world. Income statements, balance sheets, capitalization tables… although these concepts can be daunting at first, once you understand them you will often find them quite intuitive and useful for understanding your business. A crash course or two on these topics can bring many benefits.

Another potential strength you have is risk assessment. Seeing potential risk all the way helps you and the business better prepare for what’s to come. In these cases, artfully communicating these risks to the team can often help your business navigate more difficult terrain.

Some of the most valuable companies in the world were created by engineers: Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta, etc. If you’re thinking of amplifying your impact through entrepreneurship, remember: you already have it in you.

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