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Reflections on Starting an Energy and Sustainability Consulting Firm

Sept. 8, 2015
On the five-year anniversary of launching his energy and sustainability consulting firm, Larry Clark shares challenges and rewards he has experienced.

This week is a milestone for me: five years since launching my firm and becoming a full-time energy and sustainability consultant. For those of you considering going into business for yourself, I want to take this opportunity to share some of the challenges and rewards I have experienced.

Right out of the gate, I faced a huge hurdle: convincing my wife that, despite my wanting to quit my job—with its direct-deposit paycheck every two weeks—in the midst of the Great Recession, I was not completely insane! Because she was going to have to take on the responsibility of providing our health-insurance benefits (fortunately, she has a great job as a university human-resources manager) and provide some cash flow, she needed to be fully onboard (otherwise, I would not have done it—I’m not that crazy!).

As with any startup, and notwithstanding the dismal economic conditions at the time, I knew I would have to quickly find business, preferably before we drained all of our cash. As it turned out, I was half right. I found the business, but my first major (in terms of dollar size) client turned out to have 120-day payment terms, which didn’t help the cash situation. In fact, in many ways, it hurt more than it helped. My first epiphany: Finding clients was the easiest part of the business! We are 100-percent referral-driven, and the phone has been steadily ringing the entire five years, thanks in large part to support from local design professionals. In fact, our first large international project resulted from a South Florida city engineer’s referral. The challenge for me was not in finding the projects, but in finding ways to accomplish the work in a superior manner, without overloading our limited human and financial resources. The even larger challenge was—and continues to be—the timely collection of receivables.

My second realization was, surprisingly, the need for a good website. Although, as I expected, clients typically do not find us via Internet search, I learned a good Web presence is important for many clients’ pre-interview vetting process. When I started, I had what I thought was a better-than-usual startup website. It was done on a shoestring by a friend, and I thought it served its intended purpose. As our client base grew, we were driven by them (and by feedback from trusted colleagues) to improve our Web image, which we finally did two years ago.

The rewards of having your own business can far outweigh the challenges, however daunting they may seem. That certainly has been the case for me. My advice to entrepreneurs looking to take the leap: Don’t look back (much). Just like driving a car, it’s OK to occasionally glance in the rear-view mirror, but most of the time, you should have your eyes on the road ahead. And try not to burn any bridges.

Blogging for HPAC Engineering also presents both challenges and rewards. The best reward has been the satisfaction that comes from sharing information and ideas and, occasionally, making a difference by having those ideas accepted by others. The two biggest challenges: having thick enough skin when my ideas are not accepted by others—some are not shy about letting me know it—and the discipline of writing to deadline. We all did it in school (term papers definitely had due dates), and many of us have to provide letters, reports, etc. on a schedule, but it still sometimes is a challenge for me to get a draft to the editor when it’s due. (Editor’s note: For the record, and to his great credit, Larry has yet to miss a deadline.) My mother was an English teacher, so I inherited from her a love of writing, but she never really told me about writer’s block! Sometimes, until the day before a post is due, I have no idea for a topic! If you have suggestions for future posts, please e-mail them to me ([email protected]), and maybe I can meet deadline for another two years!