When Small Changes Lead to Big Impact
Getting a new business off the ground and running is no small feat. Sometimes it's the little changes that can have the greatest impact. That's exactly what happened for PNC customer, WBQ Design & Engineering Inc., an Orlando-based civil engineering design firm.
We spoke with Jennifer Quigley, founding principal and vice president of WBQ about the roadblocks she faced and lessons she learned along the way.
What were the early days of launching your business like?
Quigley: They were exciting but also nerve-wracking. We started with four employees and one client, a home developer. We were chasing one of our first city government projects, which was a roadway design. We went to one of the largest firms nationally and asked them to be on our team. They told us we didn't "stand a chance" of winning that project.
That just inspired us to try harder. We did a preliminary design and made sure our team was really strong. That was our first government win. It allowed us to start hiring other people. Once you have your first contract, it makes it a lot easier to get additional contracts.
What were your strategies for getting off the ground?
Quigley: It's really important to know your competition. Research and find out who your competition is, what do they do well, and what don't they do well. For us, we knew there were a lot of national firms that did civil engineering, but there weren't that many small startup local firms at the time. We had done enough research to see there was a niche there.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in your early days?
Quigley: You might think you have enough work for the year, but you always have to be prepared for the next job. I think the biggest challenge anyone faces, especially in a services industry, is that you always have to be alert and chasing the next job. That can be tiresome, but it's essential.
What early moves helped you get your foot in the door?
Quigley: One key small change was that we applied for a minority certification. We knew a lot of firms that would put us on their team simply to fulfill that minority quota that government agencies had. That gave us a foot in the door for other firms. When we did good work for those other firms, it gave us leverage to go after projects as a prime versus a sub-consultant. Since then, we've done a great job and we keep getting repeat business.
What's most helped you secure new clients?
Quigley: Doing your homework is important. We research every project that's coming up, get existing plans, meet with local agencies, and talk to people about what their goals are.
What helped you build a strong team?
Quigley: We formed a partnership with one of the local universities and started hiring students as interns. Those students were so advanced in technology. It really helped us develop a strong team that understood the latest software development. That took us to the next level. Over half of our employees are former interns that now work for us. It's been an outstanding business decision for us.
Other small moves you made that made a big impact?
Quigley: In startup mode, you have to do a lot of cold calling. When you make those initial introductions, it's not for any purpose other than to say, "I wanted to meet you. We know you're really important in the community and if there's an opportunity for us to partner with you, we would be grateful."
You want to start that relationship off on the right foot. Don't go into a cold call and ask for something.
What's your advice to others facing road blocks in their business?
Quigley: Surround yourself with strong, intelligent people. Even if that's not a co-worker, it could be your banker, a mentor, or a peer. Have someone you can bounce ideas off of who understands what you're trying to do. Sometimes somebody from the outside looking in can give you advice to get you through that roadblock. Especially if you are trying to go at it alone, you're going to need a really great support system.
Have any advice for entrepreneurs wanting to break off and start their own company?
Quigley: Build your relationships, don't be afraid to ask for help, and never burn a bridge. When you ask people to help, a lot of times the answer is going to be: Yes.
The other thing is, if you have employees who leave, always let them leave with grace and dignity. You never know where that employee is going to end up. One day he or she could be your client.
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