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Marketing Basics for Engineers

Kirk van Gorkom

Part of Consulting Lessons, Learned by an Engineer

Marketing is probably the hardest part of business for us engineers. Our world is built on the quantifiable and the real. Without being too uncharitable, Marketing isn't like that at all.

What is, is, to us, and misrepresentation is utterly foreign to our brains. The code compiles, or it doesn't. The build is works, or is broken, and there's no confusion about these things. No spin.

Frankly, this disqualifies us from ever being great marketers. As your business grows, hire someone with the right skills to market for you, but don't waste time fighting your nature and diluting your best skills.


There's never been a better time to do this. Demand for software development has outstripped supply for decades, with no equilibrium in sight. That fact means you can survive, even comfortably, while making numerous mistakes that would kill a normal small business in any other industry, and while performing minimal marketing work.

At the same time, it's never been easier to start a software development business. You've already done so if you call yourself a "freelancer" or a "consultant" or an "indie", and that has created a situation where despite enormous demand, it is increasingly difficult to stand out and get noticed among the crowd.

Dismal predictions out of the way, there are a couple things that are important to note about marketing:

Word of Mouth & Portfolio

Parties, trade show booths, direct marketing, etc. have failed to bring in any significant new projects for Forge Apps. The only reliable way we've found good new clients is when they see our work or talk to someone who has worked with us.

Step one for those interested prospects is to visit our website.

The first version of our website was terrible. Eventually we were wise and rich enough to hire a designer, and now our website conveys competence and professionalism to prospective clients. If you're not in a place to spend money on custom site development, buy a theme or use a hosted service. Alternately, just host in plain ascii, but under no circumstances: attempt your own custom graphic design.

 Do not let engineers near photoshop, it can only end in tragedy.

Don't be afraid to cull your portfolio on a regular basis. Quality over quantity.

We've built dozens of apps, but after a few years have passed even our best work looks and feels dated. Remembering the effort it took to build my own incomplete javascript framework only to see it obviated by jQuery a few months later was all I needed to get rid of one old project.


The core of marketing is perception. While marketers will try to build and alter perception, it's important for all of us to be aware of how our actions will be perceived. Cultivate empathy in yourself. The ability to get your thoughts out of your own head and look back at your actions or plans and evaluate how other people will perceive them is critical. Once you are aware of how others perceive you, you're on your way to closing deals, negotiating contracts, and managing projects.

Note: I'd like to dive into my half-baked macroeconomic theories about industry consolidation and inherent instability of some business sizes, but that will have to wait for another post.

Consulting Lessons, Learned by an Engineer

Kirk van Gorkom

I've been a software consultant for the better part of a decade now. First working for the federal government, then smaller governments, then a variety of businesses once I started Forge Apps.

It has been a great ride, largely due to several fantastic bosses who taught me the basics of business while I worked as a software developer fresh from school. Their mentoring set a foundation of skills that over the years has grown into a set that isn't completely embarrassing. At heart, though, I'm an engineer, and while business is definitely my second language, there are techniques that carry over between the two spheres. For example, architecting software will prepare your brain to architect proposals, and testing skills find application in project risk management.

My hope is that the lessons and advice in this series of posts will help you re-examine how you're conducting business and give you new methods to improve the world and your own life at the same time.


For the quick version, see the slides and listen to a talk I gave on this topic in May 2013.


I welcome your questions and feedback via email. I will respond individually as well as in future posts, instead of using comments.
If you think I'm completely wrong about something—or everything—send me a link to your writeup, and I'll post that too.


Inevitably, I'll cloud reality with my own biases and overreactions to painful lessons. Take everything here with a grain of salt and remember that every business is unique. You need to focus on staying profitable while doing what works for you, and don't lose confidence just because other businesses have experienced problems on the same path.

Fresh Start

Kirk van Gorkom

Recently Posterous shut down, and with its departure, I let all of my former blogs disappear.

It wasn't an easy decision, those hundreds of posts represented a few hours of work. Oh.

When I reviewed the old posts, I found very little of value, and almost nothing that was still relevant. A few personal snippets, political rantings, complete reversals of opinion, and other junk that doesn't bring value to anyone.

It's time to clean up and start over. My intention is to write things that are focused, relevant, and as timeless as can be. Political rantings may sneak in from time to time, but the bulk of it should be technical and business blogging.

Thanks for reading.