Forum

Entrepreneurship in YPs: What Does It Take?

TWA editors M. Taha and J. Dragani interview Maria Nass, FlowAssure Engineering, and Komal Walsh, Independent Consultant

Entrepreneurs are intelligent and innovative, driven by the desire to offer a unique product or service within a certain market. In the oil and gas industry, entrepreneurship has flourished and given us many of today’s important inventions and technologies. A few examples include the development of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) by Roger M. Butler beginning in the 1970s while employed at Imperial Oil in Canada; the use by companies such as ProSep of electrostatic grids to treat oil and water emulsions in treating trains; and the development of various artificial lift technologies including research on beam-pump slippage and gas lift valve performance.

Entrepreneurs have also started some of the largest companies in the world, including the largest public energy company in the world by market capitalization, ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil and many other Standard Oil subsidiaries were started by arguably the most successful entrepreneur of all time—John D. Rockefeller. Other examples include Leon Hess, who founded the Hess Corporation in 1933, and Erle P. Halliburton, who founded Halliburton in 1919.

But let’s be real. Successful entrepreneurs don’t only come up with great inventions, they also solve market needs.

Two excellent examples of today’s young professional entrepreneurs are Komal Walsh, an independent consultant and mechanical engineer in Calgary, Alberta, and Maria Nass, founding member and flow assurance engineer at FlowAssure Engineering in Houston, Texas. Walsh and Nass agreed to speak with us to share some insights into their life as young professional entrepreneurs.

Question: How would you define entrepreneurship in the oil and  gas industry?

KW: Entrepreneurship is about opportunity. For me in particular, Alberta’s oil-sands construction sector has been steady over the past few years and offered a number of people including myself the opportunity to take on the risk of starting their own business venture.

MN: Being an entrepreneur is in general about taking risks and finding new solutions and improvements to challenges with a service or a product, while understanding that nothing is scripted or laid out for you. With entrepreneurship there is no secured career plan, no proven method or recipe for success, but rather a constant and daily desire to find solutions to a variety of problems. This is valid for any industry, but the difference with the oil and gas industry is that it involves solutions that apply over a multi-year or even multi-decade timeframe.

Another difference is that errors within our industry could carry catastrophic consequences for humans, the environment, and assets. For these reasons, innovation, led by entrepreneurs in the oil and gas industry, is more gradual as stakeholders are more conservative and make decisions more slowly compared to other industries.

Question: Do you have any specific role models or reasons for wanting to be an entrepreneur?

KW: I’ve always focused on continued development of my hard skill sets so I look to industry-leading subject matter experts as my role models. Many of these specialists are very successful career freelancers who consult with a number of the major oil and gas firms and are invited to participate on industry boards and committees. Although some of these “hired guns” may have never expanded their companies in terms of manpower, I do consider these individual experts entrepreneurs since they are able to successfully market their services and are actively sought out within the oil and gas community.

MN: Wanting to be an entrepreneur is about creating something new where nothing existed before. It is more about the journey than about the destination as one goes through the different phases from concept to execution. I also like that I have more control over my career and what I want to do. I have better control of my schedule (although I confess that I now work more than I did before) yet I have freedom to pursue the things that I am truly passionate about.

Question: In your view, what value do entrepreneurs provide the industry? Do you see a difference between young professional entrepreneurs (say, with under 10 years of experience) and so-called experienced entrepreneurs (say, with over 10 years of experience)?

KW: Highly technical subjects are oftentimes best handled by outside subject matter experts. There is value added for organizations that may only require these professional services periodically unlike some other full-time employee roles that are required day-in and day-out to run a business.

There is no shortcut to gaining experience. It’s important for younger entrepreneurs to understand the maturity level of their business and then tailor their services to suit. Younger entrepreneurs need to continually seek out more seasoned professionals and be prepared to work with an open mind-set. This is a time-tested formula that has seen many young professional entrepreneurs successfully mature their businesses.

MN: Entrepreneurs participate in the creation of new products and new services (not to mention the creation of jobs too!). Having a healthy pool of entrepreneurs in this industry enhances competition which in turn fosters innovation. I don’t believe years of experience play a deterministic role in entrepreneurship, but what I can say is that it takes a lot of energy, stamina, and effort to embark upon an entrepreneurial activity; based on that, probably the most important thing is the level of passion and commitment, more than age and years of experience.

Question: Do you view your business as a success? Why or why not?

KW: Yes, I consider my business entirely successful so far. I’ve managed to stay focused on a formula I believe will yield great professional and personal satisfaction over the course of my career. In the grand scheme of things, my business is still in its infancy but I consider myself very fortunate to have found something I genuinely enjoy and excel at. Running a business is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, so it’s very important to find a niche where you can stand out in a field where you enjoy the work, since you can potentially be running that business for a very long time.

MN: Yes we view our business as being successful. As a newly founded company, we have established a set of milestones to help us keep our development on track. At the moment we have exceeded our expectations in terms of revenue and growth. We were on track throughout 2013, leading to a solid delivery for the year.

Question: What were the three biggest challenges starting as an entrepreneur? Do you have any advice for newcomers?

KW: (1) Coordinating opportunities so the overlap between jobs is manageable can be a challenge. A young entrepreneur will always be eager to take on new work but I would strongly advise anyone starting out to be realistic about how much work they can handle at any given time. It’s resource management 101 which can be difficult to apply in the real world where the bottom line is a real consideration. Sometimes this may mean passing up good opportunities that do not fit efficiently within your schedule without the risk of diluting quality of service.

(2) Fostering and maintaining a strong professional reputation and delivering quality work is fundamental to the success of any professional; however, as an independent consultant, these elements are also instrumental in building your company brand in an environment where your professional network and professional reputation are keys to securing future work.

(3) Select a field that will bring you professional success only in addition to personal satisfaction. Understand your aptitudes and choose something you enjoy! As the face of your business, it’s important that people are able to recognize your enthusiasm towards your work. Remember, running a business isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon; but by picking the right field, it won’t feel like one!

MN: (1) Dealing with insurance, taxes, and legal aspects of the business—you want, need, and have to get it right from day one. (2) Get a client before you quit your job to become an entrepreneur. (3) Love what you do or what you plan to do as an entrepreneur. You will be working on it all the time.

Commentary

Walsh and Nass are excellent examples of young professionals who have recognized an opportunity and sought out competitive advantage by becoming leaders in their sectors and offering services that apparently are scarce and/or specialized. Undoubtedly, there are many other examples of successful young professional entrepreneurs like them, who have taken a similar course of action in their field of growing expertise.

For any aspiring young professional entrepreneurs, there are some key pieces of information to take from our interview subjects and the research they have completed.

First, all successful entrepreneurships must offer a product, service, or business that meets some real market demand. The term “creative destruction,” adapted and popularized by renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 classic book, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, may be used to elucidate success in entrepreneurship. New successful start-ups have the ability to destroy established conventions of business and escalate economic growth by offering new ways of doing business, new products, or new services.

In addition, understand and research your market before deciding to embark on a new business venture. As Nass mentioned, get at least one client before you quit your job to become an entrepreneur.

Second, as both Nass and Walsh highlighted, all entrepreneurs must love what they do. Entrepreneurship is a learning experience for all first-timers and setbacks are common, even for those who feel they are doing everything right. However, entrepreneurs with a passion for their work will be prepared to put forth the additional time and effort to ensure their services are excellently delivered and their business remains a success.

Third, do some research and seek out advice from experts before embarking upon the journey of entrepreneurship. Talk to a lawyer, accountant, and insurance agency to understand the legal, tax, and insurance implications of running a business. Both Nass and Walsh mentioned the importance of these professional services to their business.

And, last but not least, talk to other successful entrepreneurs. They are the real entrepreneurship experts and can likely offer the best advice.


Maria Nass is a founding member of FlowAssure Engineering, headquartered in Houston, Texas. She earned a BSc in chemical engineering at Universidad Metropolitana in Venezuela, an MSc in petroleum engineering and project development at the French Institute of Petroleum (Institut français du pétrole, IFP), and an MSc in petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University. Nass is a registered professional engineer (petroleum engineering) in the state of Texas.

Komal Walsh is an independent consultant with his own construction and facility engineering consulting firm, headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has been running this business for over 2 years. Komal is currently working with Cenovus Energy as a facilities construction engineer in the oil sands sector. He earned a BSc in mechanical engineering from the University of Ottawa and holds a professional engineering designation in the province of Alberta.