StartUp: A Firsthand Look at Starting Your Own Engineering Firm

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.

headshot of Howell

This is “StartUp.”

Part 1

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.

The Arrow Engineering titleblock, as designed by Mike Howell: “It’s a copy of a titleblock my grandfather used when he was a draftsman.”

“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.

Howell described the simple process of designing his new company’s letterhead as a special moment.

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.”

Learn more about Arrow Engineering.

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  1. I have often thought of this and would really like to know more of the side work endeavor and how you were successful in that. Was this work outside the standard jobs and out of conflict with your current employer at the time?

  2. What an inspirational article. I studied civil engineering and worked in the field for a short time because I decided that being a mom and a caregiver of our family was more important. However, my eldest son started his dream to be a civil engineer at the age of 3. He is now a junior in high school and his dream is still there. He has focused so much into that area that he has started his ASCE chapter in his high school. His next goal is Berkeley Civil engineering program. He is also dreaming of starting his own company. He got its name printed on a paper and posted in his room. I’m so glad I came across this article. I have forwarded to him and I’m sure he will be sharing it with his club members. There are at least 12 kids who signed up to join his club and they will also volunteer at the Habitat of Humanity and help build homes. I hope they can find companies around the Bay Area, California, where we live and, be able to get some internship experiences as well. I’m so excited for their future and I wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences.

    • Maria – I’m very excited by your son’s dream! I’ve always believed the most successful people are usually the biggest dreamers. So it sounds like he is off to a great start. Thank you for taking the time to read the article and pass it along. If he ever has any questions about the profession, or I can help in any way, please let me know!

  3. Congratulations on your new venture! For sure we are in the people business, even as engineers.
    Wishing you great happiness in your business!

    • Hey Rogelio…thanks for reading the article. I’ve learned a lot so far … had some wins and some losses! ASCE news just did Part 2 of this series which you should check out. But if you have any specific questions I can help you with, please feel free to get in touch with me at [email protected]

  4. Hi Michael.. I’ve graduated as a structural engineer in 2018 from the uni of Sheffield and now I’m willing to start my own structural design consultancy firm without getting the technical knowledge myself as I’m quite enthusiastic about the entrepreneurship and also I do firmly believe that there’s a big difference between learning the technical skill and running the business just for example you don’t need to be a good cook / chef to start your own restaurant.

    So, would it kindly be possible for you to edify me a little regarding the basics of how to start and convince any experienced technical person to join me keeping in view my personal experience and age and most importantly a little about the business model i.e. on what basis do structural engineering firms charge their clients etc..

    your kind response would be highly appreciable and mean a lot to as it’d help me leap towards my dream just like you.

    Many Thanks!

    • Syed, thanks for checking out the article. Congratulations on your graduation and welcome to the brotherhood of structural engineers! I admire your enthusiasm to make your way into this wonderful profession.

      I guess my first piece of advice would be that as a new engineer, you really would gain the most benefit from learning from some experienced engineers in whatever field you decide to go in. Most universities here in the states do an excellent job of educating a young engineer, but even the best are very limited. This is especially true in Structural….you’ve really only just begun to learn what you need to know in order to serve your clients in a good way. So, while I admire your optimism, you may want to consider a period of apprenticeship before venturing out on your own.

      That said, you don’t have to lose your entrepreneurship mentality! There are plenty of opportunities even at established firms to contribute to the improvement of processes, find efficiencies, and reinvigorate your work flows….all while you gain the knowledge and experience you need to finally make the move!

      If I can help you at all though with more specific information, don’t hesitate to reach out to me!

  5. Great article and I appreciate Mike’s point about being hired for who he is. Mike’s very personable, caring, and committed to the work he does. Kudos on the article Mike!

  6. Goodluck Mike!
    I am a structural engineer as well, that just graduated from the University of Illinois and working his first job in Atlanta. My goal is to one day own a business. This article has really inspired me and I would like to talk to you a bit more about how you got the business started. Thank you!


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