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Think Like an Engineer

Engineers and other technicians-turned-business owners are frequently advised to think more like entrepreneurs: Take risks and dream big. Sasha Gurke, 60, takes the opposite tack. Entrepreneurs, he says, sometimes need to think more like engineers.

Gurke, senior vice-president and co-founder of Knovel, has been on both sides of the startup equation. Trained as a chemical engineer in his native Russia, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1978 and worked for the American Chemical Society before venturing into entrepreneurship. Knovel, founded in 2000 and based in New York City, is a Web-based, interactive application delivering engineering information to more than 600 subscribers worldwide. With 70 employees and close to $30 million in revenue, the company counts 300 universities and nearly 100 of the largest American corporations among its client base.

Here are four skills that Gurke believes entrepreneurs should borrow from the engineer's toolbox:

1. Analyze customer feedback. Entrepreneurs often start companies that solve problems they experienced in their own careers. But as their businesses grow, they lose touch and must regroup.

"At a certain point, you must stop relying on your internal expertise and bring in others. And you must learn from the customers you serve. What I learned as an engineer 20 years ago is no longer applicable. When I was an engineer, we were doing calculations with a primitive computer and a ruler and piece of paper," Gurke says.

Make sure that customer feedback does not come solely from haphazard anecdotes. Design a process for soliciting customer input, understanding it, and probing for more information. "Power users want everything in the world, but they are not the majority of your customers," he says.

2. Calculate risk. Entrepreneurs must take risks, but they should do their best to calculate them and all their repercussions before they make big decisions. "Take in all the information, study it, learn how much money and effort is required to realize this," Gurke advises.

He made the mistake of leaping before thoroughly analyzing when co-founding Knovel, he says. He and his partners were living in upstate New York and located the company there by default. They had not realized how difficult it would be to find specialized employees in a lightly populated, semi-rural area. "We made a commitment for five years [on a building lease] and it cost us a lot of money to get out. But we had to move our headquarters to New York City, because we simply could not attract the right talent to this area," he says.

3. Be savvy about technology. Keeping up with technology is paramount to today's successful companies. But it is unwise to buy new technology without doing cost and risk analyses. "Entrepreneurs usually don't understand technology, so they rely on other people's advice on what to choose and how to use it," Gurke says. It's better for business owners to get at least a rudimentary understanding of technology products themselves before they invest in them.

Sometimes entrepreneurs fall into the dangerous trap of following every technology trend. "Technology, when properly leveraged, could give you a huge competitive advantage as a business. But you need to ask questions, be analytical, and don't be extravagant," he says. "Often you can accomplish more with proven, existing technology than people can who adopt the latest technology, which is always likely to be fragile."

4. Keep things simple. Engineers always say the best design is the simplest design, Gurke says. The more complex a product becomes, the more difficult it is to use and the more prone it is to breakage.

The same principle applies to business. "Be sure to know when enough is enough. If you have initial success, it's hard for an entrepreneur to stop and assess," he says. He let himself get carried away with his own success early on, he says, when he became convinced Knovel should add an offshoot service for chemical engineers.

"It turned out to be unnecessary; customers were not expecting it so were not ready for it, and it was already being done much better by others in the market," he says. "We spent time and money, and lost momentum, on pursuing that idea instead of doing something that would really benefit our business."

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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