It usually starts with a daydream.
“What if instead of working for my boss, I was the boss? What if I was the one making all the decisions? Maybe I could start my own company.”
For 99 percent of civil engineers, the daydream remains just that – the stuff of imagination.
Mike Howell, on the other hand, turned that dream into reality. After nearly 15 years of work for structural engineering companies in the eastern United States, Howell struck out on his own in the summer of 2019, opening Arrow Engineering in Morgantown, West Virginia. Throughout a series of articles for ASCE News, Howell will give his fellow civil engineers a firsthand look at what it takes to start your own business and how to make it work.
This is “StartUp.”
In a year of big decisions, Mike Howell found true satisfaction in the smallest choices.
“I was making some letters of introduction to folks about my company and laying out the letterhead,” Howell said. “And it was like ‘Wow, that’s my name up there.
‘OK, so how big do I want the logo to be? How do I want the title block on a drawing to look?’
“I never even realized that I had a way that I liked to see a drawing look. And now I have the ability to do that.
“It was a cool moment.”
Howell launched his own structural engineering firm, Arrow Engineering, in August, drawing inspiration for the name from the passion for archery shared by his children, Wyatt, 8, and Corilyn, 4.
It’s a momentous decision, obviously, leaving the stability of more than a decade working at established firms. And one that Howell hasn’t taken lightly.
“I think I’ve always had this itch,” Howell said. “It was kind of the classic thing of, ‘Eh, it’s too expensive. There’s no way you can afford it.’
“But I started looking into it, and there’s not as much upfront overhead as you would think. I started looking at the billable hours, and doing some cost analysis, and I was like, ‘If I can get the phone to ring, I can probably stay pretty profitable.’”
The power of people
Howell’s philosophical approach to his own business goes back nearly a decade, to when he started in the master’s of business administration program at West Virginia University in 2012.
“It forced me to think about the engineering world as a business,” Howell said. “What is the business we’re in? What are we really selling? How do we make money doing what we do? And ultimately, how are we really serving our customers? What does it really take to earn their business in this industry?
“Business school taught me that it wasn’t really about me, it was about the client. That’s when the wheels started turning, and I came up with a lot of ideas around the concept that the value of an engineering company really comes from the value of the engineers who are working for it. We don’t create products and we don’t have profit margins on them. It’s really about the value of the person who’s doing the work.”
That core principle – simple as it may sound – is the essence of Howell’s business model. Connect with people, do good work and then turn those connections into more connections.
“So many engineering companies think that they’re hired because they design beams and columns better. And that’s not the case,” Howell said. “They hire you because of who you are. We forget that, ultimately, we are in the people business. The more people you can meet and help out, the better you will do.
“I had a friend who told me, ‘You don’t need business cards, you don’t need a sign, you don’t need an office. You need a client. When you get one client, get two clients,’” Howell said. “Really putting the focus on how you need to work hard for your clients. You owe them that. At the heart of an engineering business, it’s the relationships that clients have with your engineers that matter the most.”
For the last three years, Howell has done side-work in the Morgantown area on residential calls – new homeowners looking for an expert structural engineering opinion about a cracked foundation or a red flag on their home inspection; things like that. The work gives Arrow Engineering a nice springboard, while also creating those positive one-on-one connections Howell is striving to make.
It helps, too, that Morgantown has a strong culture of entrepreneurship. Howell joined a local group for entrepreneurs, which gave him advice – both practical and motivational – as well as connections to an accountant, lawyer, financial adviser and marketing team.
And one of Howell’s first projects for Arrow? It’s a significant pipeline project for a local power plant. Howell booked the job in part because three years ago he designed a garage for the man who is now the project lead.
“There’s tremendous power in meeting people,” Howell said.
Sky’s the limit
Morgantown is home and will serve as the business base for Arrow, though Howell, through his connections from previous work in Richmond, Pittsburgh and D.C., intends to take on projects around the country.
The trick now is staying the course.
“I have another colleague who owns a small business, and I was talking to him right before I took the leap and stepped off. I was pretty scared. I was like, ‘This is crazy, does this fear ever go away?’” Howell said.
“He said, ‘No, it doesn’t. I’ve been in business for 10 years, and I still wake up today kind of anxious.’ He goes, ‘But I’ll tell you this, the scariest stuff will become the most exciting.’
“And I can see that already. Yeah, putting the letterhead together was cool. But just thinking about the excitement that tomorrow I could get a project in that sets my entire next year down a different path than I even thought was possible. I’ve put all the pieces together to be able to do that. So, tomorrow the phone could ring, and it could be that massive project.
“It’s just a cool feeling to be like that could really happen. That’s the most exciting part – the recognition that it is the sky’s the limit right now.”