I recently went one on one with Jenn Donahue, a U.S. Navy Captain and the President of JL Donahue Engineering.
Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Jenn: Adam, thanks for having me. I wear many hats in my life: an engineer, entrepreneur, and Naval officer. Over my 24-year military career, I have built a bridge across the Euphrates river in the midst of the Iraq war, commanded an 800-personnel Battalion in Afghanistan, and constructed combat outposts in the middle of deserts filled with insurgents. I have led earthquake and tsunami reconnaissance missions in places like Samoa and Japan; designed the seismic plans for a bridge over the Panama Canal; and built roads in the coldest climes of Ketchikan. Today I run JL Donahue Engineering, Inc. and lecture at UC Berkeley and UCLA.
I started at Texas A&M as an Ocean Engineer (just think Civil Engineering but add water). After graduating, I joined the Navy as a Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officer and had the opportunity to travel the world. CEC officers work on expeditionary construction for the US Marine Corps, US Army, and other nations. For instance, when I was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, we would drive out to the middle of nowhere, circle up the vehicles and point the guns out. Then we build a basecamp, water well, or even a school in the middle.
After leaving active duty, I remained in the reserves and joined the corporate world before going back to school to earn my master’s and PhD in Geotechnical Earthquake Engineering (just think Civil Engineering, but with lots of ground shaking). After working for larger corporations, I struck out on my own and started my company in 2017, specializing in seismic hazard analysis.
But to get where I am today has not been all rainbows and unicorns. Along the way, I have had great opportunities for leading, and often I fell on my face. My first miserable failure was attempting to lead 12 people as a junior officer in my first battalion. I didn’t know how to lead so I looked to the more senior officer. They were yellers, and I thought “oh, this is how you are supposed to lead; you yell at people to make them do what you want.” So, I yelled at my team…and it felt awful. I shattered the trust I had begun to build and had become “one of those officers.” Luckily, I got a second chance. I was assigned to drill and blast a road for the Metlakatlan native American tribe. Here I was, a 26-year-old, in charge of 18 men on a remote island off the coast of Alaska doing something I had never done before. I was excited, but a bit apprehensive after my previous failure. Luckily, they paired me with a seasoned, crusty Chief (the rank of E7). He took me aside and helped me understand not only the principles of leadership, but who I was as a leader. Those 6 months on Annette Island, where my men practiced their craft, was my leadership training grounds. I’ll expound a little more in the following questions.
Adam: How were you able to cultivate relationships with large brand name organizations and turn them into clients? What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs on how to win business from large companies?
Jenn: For me, it has always been about organic connections. My first big win was with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, one of the largest electric utilities in the United States, representing 5.2 million households. A friend from graduate school, who worked in their Geosciences Department, mentioned that they were understaffed and needed help. It started small, mainly with projects that they either did not have time for or were not that appealing to them. These were not the glamorous, high-dollar projects, but I saw the opportunity. Meticulously I completed the work on-time and at/under budget. I got to know more members of the staff and understand their requirements and shortfalls.
Over the course of the first six months, the department staff realized I was also capable of assisting them and larger, more technical projects became available. Soon, I was fully engrained in their organization and a trusted member of the staff. They even set up a desk for me. It started small, but they have been my largest client for the past 7 years.
But that’s not where it ends. I developed a reputation with PG&E not only as a technical master, but as a “good person to work with.” All of the major utilities converse on a regular basis and when one of them needs someone for an assignment, my name would come up. I’ve learned that it’s not just about being the best technically—most companies want someone they will enjoy working with.
For fellow entrepreneurs, if you don’t already have a network of friends and allies, begin immediately. One of the best ways to do this is to join and get involved in a professional organization or two. Attend the monthly local meetings, either in person or virtually these days, and start to cultivate relationships. Submitting an abstract and presenting at the yearly conference is a requirement because it shows that you are an expert in your field and are contributing to the profession. Plus, it gets you up in front of 200 people who now know your name. Research which potential clients might attend the conference and go visit their booth. Spend time with the people manning that booth; they will appreciate it and remember you.
And lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for referrals. Chances are, you know someone who knows someone at a major corporation. As you grow your network, you will begin to notice how many people want to see you succeed and will assist you where they can. Develop the courage to ask for an introduction.
Adam: More broadly, what are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs?
Find a mentor(s): As entrepreneurs, we have that mindset that we are going out into the world, alone and unafraid. And that’s a great mentality to have, but there is room for mentorship. Find someone who has gone before you. They lived the same trials you will encounter and can help you avoid the pitfalls that may await you.
Have a clear vision: You can’t be everything to everybody. Generalists are typically overlooked because clients already have them in-house. You know your specialty but research the client’s needs and “what keeps them up at night.” If you can make your specialty fit their shortfall…perfect. If not, don’t stretch it to something that it is not just so you can get the job. Clients will see through you and your credibility will suffer.
Cultivate relationships, not impersonal partnerships: The business world is more intimate than you think and the degrees of separation between you and potential clients is small. Ensure you have a good reputation that will proceed you. Create allies that will sponsor and stand by you. And whatever you do, don’t burn bridges.
BONUS: Understand what you can’t do well. For me, I know that I need a good accountant. I tried to do my own business taxes the first year, and let’s just say, it did not go as well as I would have hoped (don’t worry, I’m not being audited). There will be certain aspects of your business that you can’t do or will require too much of your time. Learn when it’s best to subcontract these tasks out to make you more productive or keep you out of jail.