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Skills for start-ups

27 Nov 2018
Taken from the November 2018 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Entrepreneur and physicist-for-hire Volker Türck reveals his tips and tricks for setting up a successful business

Volker Türk

In 2005 I founded my own company, Türck Engineering – a scientific consultancy service. This step was not the result of long-term strategic planning, and I’d never had any strong desire to be self-employed. On the contrary, it was a decision I made in the moment, thanks to the circumstances at that time – and it was likely the best career decision I have ever made.

Today, I am the managing director of the company, which includes five other employees, and we specialize in two areas: optical design and data science. The optical systems we design and develop are used in optical sensors for industrial applications, measurement devices for medical applications, fibre optics for telecommunications, and even light-shaping optics for applications such as railway signalling. A few years ago we began getting involved in data science, when customers who ordered the design of an optical-measurement system came back and asked what they could learn from their measurement data. We also develop strategies and algorithms to analyse data obtained from all types of measurement processes, so that our clients can turn their data into knowledge.

Our customer base is widespread, ranging from medical device development to automotive production, and material and fault analysis. Over the past 13 years, the company has tackled over 100 projects, for more than 50 customers, from 10 countries all over the globe. Our customers range from small start-up companies to big multi-nationals.

But becoming an entrepreneur was never my plan. In 2001, after completing my PhD in semiconductor physics at Technische Universität Berlin, I took on a two-year post-doc at the European Laboratory for Nonlinear Spectroscopy (LENS) at the University of Florence in Italy. There I developed and built a novel confocal laser scanning microscope to manipulate photonic crystals in a controlled fashion. My postdoc was a transition for me, as I went from being a user of optical systems to becoming their designer and developer.

In academia, money is often a problem, but time is abundant. In industry it is quite the opposite

After these two very fulfilling years in academic research, I decided to take a step in a different direction and took up a position as development engineer at Infineon fibre optics in Berlin. This was a very different world from the academic environment that I was used to – in academia, money is often a problem, but time is abundant. In industry it is quite the opposite, as results must be achieved within a limited amount of time. While the latter may appear stressful, I found the work very fulfilling as the projects were smaller, better defined, and, most importantly, people cared about the results.

I would have happily remained at Infineon, but the company decided to sell its fibre-optics business and to lay off all staff in 2004. For me it was the swift end of a job that I had started only 18 months before. During the shut-down phase, every Infineon employee was offered outplacement coaching, and the person who coached me was convinced that being self-employed was brilliant. At the time, I had the vague idea of setting up a scientific consulting service, where companies would outsource their problem-solving needs.

At my coach’s encouragement, I wrote an actual business plan that I could use to apply for state funding for the initial phase of business. At that time, the federal government in Germany provided very generous grants for start-ups. Together with compensation from my former employer, I had enough funds to cover me for a year, even if I never found a single customer, and so decided to go for it and set up my own business. My first actual client was a former colleague from university, who had started his own company about six years before me. He needed someone to carry out optical simulations to optimize laser-fibre coupling for high-power laser diodes.

For the first few years, I was a solo entrepreneur – if something needed doing, I had to do it. I had to learn about things such as finance, bookkeeping, taxes, marketing and communications. Some of this was not as straightforward as you would imagine – as a scientist I was used to communicating my results, but this was usually to people with the same background. In industry, you have to convey your message to people from different backgrounds, who may have no technical expertise, and who may have very different priorities, so you must see their point of view.

For a long time, my marketing and promotion “strategy” was to wait for the phone to ring

Other areas, such as marketing or promotion, were downright awkward. In a one-man enterprise you must shamelessly promote yourself, which can feel very strange. I must admit that, for a long time, my marketing and promotion “strategy” was to wait for the phone to ring. Fortunately, I had a wide and growing network of friends and ex-colleagues, many of whom were my initial clients. Luck also had a role to play: a nerdy chat with somebody at lunch or dinner, and suddenly a new customer was won.

Going for growth

After eight years as a one-man band, I finally reached the point where I needed to bring others on board. Once more, luck and coincidence played a part, as all of my current coworkers came from my network of friends and ex-colleagues. Today we stand as a team of five experts, working in very diverse areas. The common thing that unites all our projects is that we apply the methods of scientific problem-solving, no matter what we are working on. We are problem-solvers, and our skills are those we learned as physicists: a systematic approach, dividing big problems into smaller ones, and solving them one by one. The tools we use are statistics, programming and model-based thinking, all of which a physicist is very well-trained in.

My company’s successes over the past 13 years have been thanks to a good mix of curiosity, coincidence, luck and flexibility. Obviously, without Infineon shutting down its plant, I would not have started my company. But I made the best out of this negative event and created something positive for myself. In one case, a participant in a software training session that I was delivering turned up a day early because of a mix-up of dates. We went for lunch and had a chat – today his company is one of our most important clients. You cannot plan for such events, and I am not a proponent of large, long-term forecasting. Of course, some planning is needed, but grab opportunities when you can, and trust your instincts.

People often think they need a “big idea” to set up a business, in the hope of becoming the next Google, or to come up with something “disruptive”, but it doesn’t have to be like that. It is absolutely fine if you can do something a little bit better or differently from others in the market. The idea of an engineering consultancy was not novel or trailblazing, but our tailored approach was enough to make us stand out.

If I were to summarize my experience and give some tips, it would be the following: take the time to learn how industry works. Thanks to my time at Infineon, I learnt how a company is organized, and what it may need – I could not have done this straight out of academia. Many of the problems that a company faces may appear trivial to the scientist, but they are real problems and they need swift resolutions.

Create and maintain a network – not just one that only exists within the confines of LinkedIn or Xing. To do business, you need to meet and to talk to people in real life. Such encounters form much better bonds and are therefore much more valuable.

Clarity is key

Do not spend too much time planning ahead – though of course you must clearly know the direction you want to take, as well as have a clear idea of your economic situation. Crucially, you should know when to stop. For instance, my red line is that I do not want to run into any financial debt.

Finally, you need focus and dedication. If you decide to become your own boss, be sure to know that it will not be a nine-to-five job, and you will have sleepless nights worrying about how to find the next customer. You will undoubtedly make mistakes, but keep on going. I believe that, in the end, it is worth it.

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