A ladder to the launch pad
Cornell professors' book guides engineers who try to build on that light-bulb moment
The Entrepreneurial Engineer: How to Create Value from Ideas.
by Michael B. Timmons and Rhett L. Weiss
Sitting at his desk, a bright young
engineer hatches an idea for
something so clever and useful
that all he has to do is make a
rough sketch, unveil it to the
public, and wait for the acclaim
and riches to flow. That's the usual
path to success in the Internet
Wrong, say Michael B. Timmons and Rhett L. Weiss, lead authors of The Entrepreneurial Engineer: How to Create Value from Ideas, published this year by Cambridge University Press. Engineers who don't understand markets and haven't mastered the fundamentals of launching and nurturing a business are almost certainly doomed to fail — regardless of the brilliance of their ideas, according to the authors.
"Engineers are notorious for having ideas," says Timmons, a professor in Cornell's Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering. "But the reality of turning a great idea into something that's going to make money is a very challenging undertaking."
Timmons and Weiss, who is executive director of Johnson's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, say they decided to write The Entrepreneurial Engineer to give engineers and other novice entrepreneurs a step-by-step guide to starting a successful business. The book covers everything from crafting a mission statement to designing a logo to asking family and friends for money to dealing with lawyers. There are 12 chapters, arranged chronologically, exploring the phases of taking an idea to market.
"A lot of engineers don't have these business fundamentals, and they haven't been able to find them in one package," Weiss says. "That's what we tried to provide with this book."
While Timmons and Weiss wrote most of the book, three co-authors contributed chapters or sections: Daniel P. Loucks, professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Institute of Public Affairs at Cornell; John R. Callister, director of Enterprise Engineering in Cornell's Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department; and James E. Timmons, brother of Michael Timmons and an executive who has managed many large public and private development programs. The Entrepreneurial Engineer is an accessible, jargon-free guide, suitable for use in the classroom or as a desk reference.
Each chapter begins with an "Entrepreneur's Diary" – a first-person account of what it's like to start a business. Most of these are written by Michael Timmons about his experiences starting a tilapia farm using breakthrough technologies. "Although the book is focused on engineering, I wanted to use the example of fish, since it's something everyone can understand," he says.
The authors emphasize key points using boxed type set in a darkened background. Technical terms are explained and highlighted in bold and italics. Also introduced and translated is start-up lingo, including burn rate, funny money, cram-downs, and full ratchet protection.
For several years, Weiss and Timmons have been using the book in draft form in courses they teach. With the book available in stores late last year, Weiss's students used the published version in the Tech Enterprises course he taught at Cornell NYC Tech this year.
At the end of each chapter are relevant lessons on Engineering Economics, a subject engineers need to know when taking the Fundamentals of Engineering test, which is a licensing requirement. Anyone who masters the book's Engineering Economics lessons should be able to pass that portion of the test, according to the authors.
The Entrepreneurial Engineer was a long time in the making. More than a decade ago, Weiss, who has a background in both law and business, met Timmons and gave him some legal advice on a deal related to the fish-farming business. Later, when Google acquired one of Weiss's business interests and he joined Google, Weiss periodically would give negotiations presentations in Timmons's class, and they started to write the book. Much of that negotiations material now is in the book.
"As we got to know each other, Mike and I clearly shared a lot of entrepreneurial interests. After a while, we decided it would be interesting to put a book together," Weiss says.
Timmons received a Clark Professorship from Cornell to develop the book. The text went through many revisions. "We would teach our courses, and when you teach from a book you find out what its deficiencies are, so we kept rewriting chapters," Timmons says.
The book has a point of view that separates it from most other guides for entrepreneurs. According to the authors, startups should tamp down expectations when first raising money. In the book, venture capital and IPOs take a back seat to self-financing, family and friends, and the more patient "angel investors," who are not looking for big and fast returns. "What was frustrating for me was that most of the books on the subject were always related to venture capital," Timmons says. "We are trying to reach a primarily student audience, and students don't start a business that's going to be backed by venture capital."
Angel investors get special attention in the book. "The first angel is really your key to success," Timmons says. "This is an investor who is going to provide you with important linkages. You're going to spend a lot of time with this person. There has to be a personality match."