KTM Solutions celebrated 15 years in business on April 21, 2020. Although COVID-19 impacted our celebration plans, this milestone gave me pause to reflect on 15 years in business and the life lessons learned. I would like to continue to share those with you as maybe they will help other business leaders.
I’m sure it happens to everyone who has started a business at some point. Or maybe it just happened to me and a few others that I’ve encountered along the way. Prior to founding KTM Solutions, I enjoyed a successful corporate career in engineering management.
I was very comfortable running large engineering groups and working with cross discipline teams. In the aerospace industry, unlike the small business world, my work and success were not directly influenced by an aircraft sale.
In fact, I knew very little about aircraft sales and marketing campaigns. Although I knew how to manage a work statement and control budgets and costs, company profit and loss impact was far removed from me most of my corporate career. That all changed when I decided to start my own business.
I found that running a successful engineering group did not necessarily mean I would be a successful businessman. I had to learn about contracting, employee benefits, professional liability, cash flow, marketing, and sales. I also had to make decisions about product and service offerings. In some cases, product and service choices were easy and came naturally. At other times, the options were less clear and caused stress, pain, and discomfort. At times, I felt like I was fighting a dragon of unbalanced uncertainty, doubt and fear.
These times usually resulted from an unclear view of the future and lack of sufficient business experience. Engineers have been known to make good decisions using little technical information, usually by applying conservative assumptions to cover the risks. However, I soon observed that buying patterns, sales forecasts, and marketing plans don’t necessarily follow scientific logic.
What happens when facing the dragon of unbalanced uncertainty, fear, and doubt? Here are a few examples,
- How do you respond when your core market appears to be slowing?
- What happens when your biggest customer or industry segment is decimated by economic downturns?
- How do you decide when to pivot and move away from things that have previously brought success?
- When do you commit to a path that is largely unknown but may have promise?
- When offering a new product, one that requires investment, where is the assurance that will you recover your investment?
Although the recent pandemic certainly drives its share of uncertainty, I’ve learned over 15 years that these dragons are always there. I’ve also learned that we are fooling ourselves if we think that uncertainty isn’t part of life in general.
There are things that a business owner can control, but there are many more things that are out of a business leader’s control. It’s important to understand these limitations and to develop a strategy to handle what can be controlled and leave the rest in the hands of God.
Some of the dragons I faced over the last 15 years have taught me lessons I would never have learned inside the corporate world. I learned in 2008 that as our largest customer went into bankruptcy, we were able to expand our services outside of the aircraft industry.
In 2016, another large customer abruptly changed their business strategy, moving away from outsourcing engineering, leaving us with a large void. However, within 6 months, we filled that void with an entirely new business stream that was much more diverse. Now, as we face a market slowdown due to the COVID virus, many of our traditional clients are faced with furloughs and work slowdowns.
To survive, once again we find ourselves entering an unfamiliar market, one where we have little to no experience. However, the opportunity is large and we have enjoyed some early successes. In all of these times, we had to face the dragon and expect that our efforts would be rewarded. We had to understand what we could control and work diligently in those areas with expectation that we would get the intended results.
I would be remiss if I left out where the real credit is due. Personally, I am not able to face these dragons on my own. I find a lot of strength and comfort in my faith, fully recognizing that our engineering business and the life of a farmer are not significantly different. The farmer can follow all the right mechanics (plow, fertilize, plant, weed, and cultivate). But the farmer does not control the weather and other natural conditions that play into a successful yield. Likewise, I have little control over the end decision of a potential customer, that the customer and I will actually find each other, and that any message our company delivered will be received appropriately. In the case of both the farmer and our business, those actions and results are in the hands of a higher power.
The first step is to stare down the dragon. Find wise counsel, surround yourself with good people, and make the best decisions that you can make within the areas that you can control. Then, leave the results to the only one who can make the rain and other blessings happen. In the end, I believe you will find that the dragon will be defeated
Paul V. Kumler, P.E., is president of KTM Solutions, an engineering company that services the aerospace and large-scale manufacturing industries. In addition to aero structures engineering services, KTM Solutions designs and builds tooling supporting a broad clientele and various industries. (www.ktmmechanical.com) The company is headquartered in Greer, South Carolina, with remote offices in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Kumler serves in several volunteer roles including the SC Aerospace Advisory Board. Mr. Kumler, a professional engineer, is licensed in Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington. He is married to Ginger A. Kumler. Together, they have two grown children and three grandchildren