By Yongxing Deng, cofounder and CTO of Aloft, a 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 feel great, but we might want to pursue entrepreneurship. How does one transition from building a product to building a company?
Embrace the unknowns.
When building within the confines of a lab or a computer, it is often tempting to plan everything out before getting started. 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 unknowable.
Founding a business is the process of derisking by eliminating uncertainty, but you can only do so if you are able to pursue ideas while holding space for the unknowns. Don’t let the unknowns stop you in your tracks; either work to remove them or work around them.
Find your problem.
In school and in your day-to-day job as an engineer, you might be used to being presented with a concrete problem, so it might be your instinct to jump to finding a solution. However, not all problems are created equal, and pursuing the appropriate problem that matches your skill set is often as important for your overall success as your ability to solve a problem.
Take your time in finding a business problem you’re genuinely passionate about. Do you have any insight into 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 company-building skills you as an engineer might not have as much practice in is sales. In addition to selling to customers, you will have to sell your idea to investors to raise capital. You’ll also have to sell the vision of the company 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 have never encountered sales, a good framework to get started on is BANT. Using this framework (or something like it) can help you qualify early and win deals faster. Active listening can also help you understand your speaker’s needs and wants more accurately.
Let others shine.
One of the hardest transitions in your journey from an engineer to a 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 great job.
Finally, don’t forget your strengths as an engineer. For example, analytical skills are highly valuable in the business world. Income statements, balance sheets, capitalization tables… while these concepts can be intimidating at first, once you understand them, you might often find them quite intuitive and helpful in understanding your business. A crash course or two on these subjects can reap plenty of benefits.
Another potential strength you have is risk assessment. Seeing a potential risk down the line allows you and the company to better prepare for what’s to come. In those cases, communicating these risks artfully to the team can often help your company 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 impact through entrepreneurship, just remember: You already have it in you.