What is an Entrepreneur?

In 1986, I left my comfortable job with a Fortune 500 company and ventured into the great unknown of running my own business. Now, 23 years later, I am glad to offer my views from outside the box.

Look around for inefficient and wasteful systems. Engineers are educated to change the physical world and we have a responsibility to change it for the better. Improvements that can be characterized in fundamental engineering terms—kinetic vs. potential energy, first law of thermo dynamics—produce long-lasting successes.

Someone may tell you, “We have been doing it this way for 30 years.”  Statistically, this system is ready for an engineering improvement. Large companies work on small, incremental improvements in technology. Entrepreneurs work on big, radical improvements because they are less constrained by historical capital and because large-scale improvements provide entry into sustainable markets for small organizations.

Start with hypothesis, organization, and data collection. Nothing beats a written account of something you feel is grossly inefficient or if you believe something can be done significantly better. Take your time and observe the events in question multiple times.

Test your theories against your engineering education. Purdue alumni are well-equipped to analyze and compare observed “state of the art” conditions against theoretical improvements.

Be on the lookout for and collect all factual, printed information about your area of interest. Proceed with caution as you evaluate this form of media and apply engineering principles as a test of legitimacy.

If, after withstanding the test of time and data-gathering, all of the indicators are still positive, it is time to prepare an analytical business model focused on fully developing and marketing your unique innovation. Treat this study as another engineering problem; focus on what makes your offering unique and why a customer would select your product, method or service over others on the market. If you are looking to pitch a significant change to established businesses or markets, be prepared to first educate your target audience. It is very important to have identified your niche; unique products tend to grow unique markets and you should not expect to be everything to everyone.

Prior to seeking the necessary capital and arranging for the financial, legal, and technical support necessary for opening the doors to mybusiness, I spent two years gathering data, developing a business plan, and evaluating the market.

What advice can I offer to you? Take advantage of your engineering education. Purdue offers a superior education that is also practical. Seek out post-graduate educational opportunities including seminars and conferences. People with years of real-world experience are an invaluable resource. Read everything you can get your hands on—professional periodicals, Web articles, science and technology magazines—and think about the big picture implications of other people’s research and innovations.

Make sure you select an area for which you have a passion, because you may end up living it for 30 years. When someone asks me what it is like to be a successful entrepreneur, I answer that for me it is like being an engineer blessed with the opportunity to run my own, successful company. 

- John M. Storm (BSMetE ‘77)
is from a rural, central Indiana farming community. His early career took him to US Steel and General Motors. In 1981, while working at GM, Storm conceived, developed and put into production a unique multi-frequency heating system that rapidly and uniformly heats gears and other finished components to levels at or above 1600˚ F. This technology is the basis upon which Contour Hardening, Inc. was founded in 1986. In 1996, Storm was selected as the Indiana Entrepreneur of the Year (Advanced Manufacturing). Today, Contour has systems and products in eight countries on four continents.