Yesterday was the 7th anniversary of the founding of Pterra, LLC. The original team of 5 who started this journey remain, with some worthy additions. All have grown somewhat older, hopefully wiser, and after all the contingencies encountered through the years, more resilient and united as ever.
Our core competencies remain the same: power engineering analysis, new technologies, modeling and simulation. But service applications have grown, from the initial focus on transmission planning and interconnection of new generation, Pterra now offers distributed generation studies, solar photovoltaic and wind power modeling, applications training, assessment for high voltage direct current transmission, expert witness, among others.
No seven-year itch here. Just some wistful reminiscing and cautionary tales for the next 70 years. Overall, one can say that it is possible to follow the dream, to have a workplace adopted to family, health, faith, other life situations. Or, to use an electric power analogy: to be like a lightning arrester, withstanding the normal and continuous challenges and allow all other extraordinary surges to flow.
The concept of Pterra came about from private discussions amongst the eventual founders in the summer of 2004. It was decided that the first principle for the new company was to focus on technical skill. Hence, the foundational concept was to form a company independent of manufacturing, software and other commercial interests. The value proposition to potential clients was the engineering skill of Pterra’s people, as a contrast to a software company that offers consulting services derived from their software, or a manufacturing entity that consults in order to market equipment and products. (Not a knock on the aforementioned, but just a different business model.)
The concept of the independent consultant was first offered as a business model in 1969 when several staff of General Electric left and founded Power Technologies, Inc, known more commonly as PTI. PTI’s founders, including the peripatetic Lionel Barthold, sought to establish a consulting business based on the broad skill, knowledge and experience of the seven PTI founders.
Since the founders of Pterra all came from the former PTI, it is no surprise that Pterra would bring the same approach to its consulting practice.
Another issue for the nascent company was the name. Rather than follow the practice of naming the company in terms of what it does, such as Power Technologies Engineering, or as a description of the founders, such as Richard and Raymond Associates, the choice was made to start with a new name. Latin for ‘peace on earth’ gave the name ‘pacem in terris,’ which was shortened to ‘p-terra.’ Later, when articles for incorporation established Pterra, LLC on June 29, this gave rise to another meaning to the name — ‘Peter (the) Rock.’
Marketing a consulting business without prior history is like trying to sell hotdogs without condiments. Buyers are not sold on pictures and descriptions shown via the web, print media, mail, etc, but rather on the capabilities presented by direct communication. For electric power consulting, it helps that everyone is within 2 or 3 degrees of ‘linked-in-ness‘. But it still requires doggedness, patience and provenance to find the right client with the right project at the right time. For Pterra, though we did engage in advertising campaigns, it was clear that our first clients would come from people we already knew. In all of the first year, we had one client who provided just enough work to get us to Year 2. That is what amounted to a successful launch.
Most of the adversities that a company faces in the early going are of the “win or go home” type. If the situation overcomes you, that probably means the end of the dream. Barthold relates that when PTI got its first client, a utility in New York, the whole company (all seven? we are not exactly sure) drove down to the city to make sure their first job, which was to teach a class in power engineering, went without a hitch.
For Pterra, its earliest challenges came from the actions of the circa-2004 PTI (prior to the purchase by Siemens). With several of its staff departing to join Pterra, PTI managers initiated what seemed an overly aggressive campaign to dissuade each one from doing so. Some of the actions were of a nature which those affected can only now recall with ruefulness. In one case, Pterra found it necessary to initiate legal proceedings which, to great relief, was settled amicably. However, on the negative side, Pterra was refused access to certain software.
Not exactly a “win” but not enough to quit and “go home.” What mattered was that Pterra gained the capable staff to form the core of its consulting business.
The boutique approach to consulting requires that you offer something unique, or to state this as an aphorism, “To boutique is to unique.”
At Pterra, the boutique uniqueness aimed for was doing quality work. No matter how hard or how long it took, the products given to clients had to be of prime technical content. All it takes is one bad report to lose a client regardless of prior good history.
It is harder to maintain quality over an extended period of time, let alone in perpetuity, than it is to do so for only the early years of a new business. It takes attention to detail, devotion and commitment, and a company structure that doesn’t emphasize quantity over quality. Pterra was blessed with founders and eventually new staff who believed in the importance of quality, and who were willing to put the effort into every project, job or task.
In the past seven years, we’ve seen how being in a business can overwhelm you. The hours are not your own, they are the clients’. You take vacation when you can. And when deadlines are near, working weekends and all-nighters are the norm. But like an engine, you can overload for short durations but risk breakdown if extended. Plus, all the wear and tear is cumulative after a certain age. After the 50,000-mile check-up, everything just starts to slowly fail.
The challenge is to maintain balance between work and all other aspects of life. To do this, one should seek a work environment and culture that does not assume work is the paramount factor in life. Liking the people you work with helps. And minimize the other business stresses such as data filing, job tracking, recording of minutiae, letting only the job of delivering product as a source of stress; i.e., managers manage the work as a whole and not just the workers.
It is not possible to reach this milestone without a lot of help and luck (or for those of faith, divine provenance). There are many to thank, most especially spouses and families. But this is not the end of the story, or the blog. There is more we want to do and to then write about. So for now, just thanks. CU in 70.