Here’s a fact: civil engineers go to school to learn civil engineering. So, does it mean you can't make your dream of working for yourself or having your own firm a reality? 🤔 Absolutely not! Today, my guest is Brian Liu, the founder of Archipelago. It’s a professional services network that helps you with all the backend business work needed to keep your engineering practice or firm running. Check it out! 😉
Tune in to Learn:
- What the Archipelago professional services network is all about
- A little-known deficiency in the AEC industry that Archipelago solves…once and for all
- How Archipelago helps civil engineers who want to work as independent consultants
- The business aspects the network helps civil engineers within their private practice
- What types of firms can join the Archipelago?
- Advice for civil engineers who want to start their own firms —and why it’s easy today
The Civil PE Exam Startup Guide
Connect With Brian:
Transcript of Show
You can get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: What's up everybody? Isaac here with Civil Engineering Academy. Excited to be with you on another podcast episode. If you haven't liked or subscribed these things, what's wrong with you? I'm just kidding. But we know and we appreciate those that listen and give us good reviews. We love hearing about your comments and reading those as well. So anyway, thank you for listening.
Isaac Oakeson: I'm excited today. I bring Brian Liu, who is the founder of Archipelago, which is a professional services network for the AEC industry, the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industry, and really aims to connect firms together and providing services to help creativity. So, if you don't know what that means, I'm gonna bring Brian on to explain his mission for his business, what it provides, and why it's good for any civil engineer that goes to the entrepreneurial route or is in a small firm and wants to join a network of like-minded people that can share ideas, take advantages of the resources that Archipelago offers, and really provides a really nice network for people.
Isaac Oakeson: It's a pretty unique business idea that he has entered into into this AEC space. I think it was very fascinating to have this interview. I think you're gonna enjoy it, too. If you have any interest in becoming an entrepreneur or an independent contractor, or you do work for a small firm or own a small firm, this is gonna be something you're gonna wanna listen to.
Isaac Oakeson: Brian is awesome. He graduated in civil engineering. Started his journey in electrical engineering, switched to civil, and he went and got a business degree. During that time, he started really thinking about a business need that was out there in the AEC field, and this is what he came up with. So, anyway, it's really exciting. I think you're gonna enjoy it. My interview with Brian, it's gonna be coming up right after this.
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, I wanted to jump on real quick and let you know about a FREE resource we developed for you. You can find it at civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide, and this will help you to jumpstart your studies for your PE exam. So, if you're in the hunt and you're just thinking about the PE exam, this guide will help you get through the process of figuring out everything you need to do, from the PE exam's prerequisites that you gotta figure out, the must have materials that you're gonna need for the exam, any approved calculators, what groups you should join, exam secrets, and much more. It's all in this guide that we've got developed for you. It's completely free. You can go check it out at civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide. Just put in your email, we'll get you that information as soon as the email comes to your inbox. So go check it out: civilengineeringacademy.com/peguide.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. Brian, we are live and running. Thank you for joining me on The Civil Engineering Academy podcast.
Brian Liu: Glad to be here.
Isaac Oakeson: This is gonna be fun. So, you kind of reached out to me, I know you just started a business, and we're gonna talk all about those details in a little bit. But I always love to ask people that are guests, you know, how did you find yourself in the world of engineering? What led you into that field in the first place?
Brian Liu: Well, it was actually a bit of an accident, to be honest. I was in electrical engineering at first. I got into that program because it required -- Well, it had like a high-grade requirement, so it was like the best program I could get into. And I got into it and I just kind of slacked off because I was like, you know, "I made it." I'm at, like, a really great university in a great program, and I failed out of electrical engineering and I had to do some soul-searching. And after about a year, I went and applied for civil engineering, and that's how I got into civil engineering.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow! Was there any -- I mean, the engineering disciplines seem very similar to each other, you know? Usually when you find yourself at a university level, it's like, "I'm gravitating towards electrical" or mechanical or whatnot. So, was there any topics of interest that got you into civil engineering, or was it just kind of a default to civil engineering?
Brian Liu: It was me exploring, like, what interested me in the past, prior to going to electrical engineering. Because I'm from Canada and we actually have to make the decision, like, without a lot of information before heading into university. And so, after, you know, electrical engineering, I was like, "What did I really enjoy?" And it was like, "I still enjoy math. I'm still pretty analytical." But you know, I was from Toronto. I lived in Toronto and the CN Tower, one of the largest buildings is located there. So I'm like, "I'm so impressed by the CN Tower. I want to be a structural engineer." So that's what led me to civil engineering.
Isaac Oakeson: So, you know, buildings and kind of the world around us got you interested to look into it?
Brian Liu: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome.
Brian Liu: Yeah, electrical --
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, sorry. Keep going.
Brian Liu: Sorry. I was gonna say electrical is the hidden world of, you know, electrons. And so that was also very difficult for me to wrap my head around. And civil being visual, being right there, you know, that was a lot easier for me.
Isaac Oakeson: For sure. Well, we love civil engineering, obviously. It's our podcast. But you know, it's in the infrastructure all around us. So I love hearing people's stories just kind of how they fell into this world.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, let's talk about a little bit about the genesis of the business that you're a part of. And that's pronounced Archipelago, if I'm saying that right.
Brian Liu: Archipelago.
Isaac Oakeson: Archipelago. Dang it, I knew I screwed up. Dang it. Okay, Archipelago. Why don't you tell me, how did we come up with that name and what is it all about?
Brian Liu: The name is -- Well, archipelago is a group of islands. So, Japan, for instance, is an archipelago. And the idea behind Archipelago is: we want to bring together a bunch of independent firms, and we want these firms to collaborate with each other. Because, in my career, I've seen that there is a lack of collaboration between firms, between departments, and I want to try to solve that.
Brian Liu: And so, going back to the name, an archipelago like Japan, you know, it's different islands, but they're one country. And if you also think about it, the world is an archipelago, right? Made of continents.
Isaac Oakeson: True.
Brian Liu: So, it's kind of like a nod to, you know, working together.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Do you have any heritage or background from any of these islands?
Brian Liu: I'm from Taiwan, very close to Japan.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome.
Brian Liu: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, let's talk about what the business does. Like, what's the vision for the business? What does it do? How does it apply to the AEC field, the architecture, engineering, and construction industry?
Brian Liu: So, Archipelago is modeled after accounting firms. And accounting firms, a lot of them, especially the big ones, are networks. So, for example, Deloitte, they are a professional services network, and you know, if you use Deloitte for your accounting services, you're actually working with an independent firm in that location, wherever you are. And there's another business with their own, like, operations and owners; they're just operating under this network. So Archipelago follows that established, very successful model, and we're trying to bring that to the AEC industry because there's a lot of advantages to this model.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. And I know we talked about this a little bit earlier, but, since probably our audience is mostly civil engineers, how would the business apply? Let's say I'm a civil engineer, maybe I'm an independent contractor now. I've gained experience and maybe I've left a company and I'm now working on my own, just doing my own projects. How do you see that working for them? What would be the benefit of them joining?
Brian Liu: Yeah. So, you know, engineers didn't go to school for business, right? Like, they went to school to learn, you know, like, civil engineering. So, what we bring to them is the business expertise. So, there are lots of things to consider, you know? Like, how do you market yourself? How do you, you know, create an efficient backend system for managing your projects and your clients. There's so many things to think about when you are running your own firm. So Archipelago aims to lower that barrier to entry for people, either in starting their own firms or scaling established businesses where, you know, their core expertise is in engineering and not business.
Isaac Oakeson: Would there be any opportunity for an engineer to join Archipelago if they are, I guess, working for a smaller firm? Or would it be like, "Hey, maybe it's worth talking to the smaller firm that I'm a part of to see if they want to join Archipelago?"
Brian Liu: Yeah, absolutely. So, if you are part of a smaller firm and you are open to collaboration, definitely, you know, come talk to me. We're trying to basically build a collaborative ecosystem, and there are lots of ways that you can collaborate. You can collaborate on projects, you can collaborate on, you know, gaining knowledge, right? It can be learning new things from other member firms as well. So absolutely, if you're interested in collaborating and you feel like, you know, you could be doing more with your business, especially when it comes to the backend stuff, then definitely Archipelago is a good solution.
Isaac Oakeson: So, this is new for me. It sounds like it's new for the whole, really, industry. There's nothing like this really for the AEC field, is that correct?
Brian Liu: I did research this, and I would say, there are one or two maybe in the architectural world, and they're very new. I haven't found any in the engineering industry. And for accounting and [inaudible], it's like a lot of them.
Isaac Oakeson: Yes. Yes. So if you join Archipelago, it sounds like you have the ability to rub shoulders, to get advice from anyone else that falls under that umbrella too. Is that correct? You're collaborating with architects or construction firms.
Brian Liu: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, it's not like some sort of, you know, complicated way that you're rubbing shoulders. Essentially, when you become a member firm, you get access to the Archipelago Microsoft teams. And so, every member firm has their own channel, and there's also shared channels that you can, you know, discuss projects, discuss certain topics, knowledge, and then kind of -- Yeah, that's kind of like how everyone collaborates.
Isaac Oakeson: Could you briefly describe, I guess, the list of services this backend stuff that you would be providing to a company that would join Archipelago?
Brian Liu: Yeah. So, one of the first things that we're providing is help with managing your projects. So, you know, the project has a pretty defined life cycle in our industry. It goes from proposals to, you know -- Well, estimating of fees, proposals, and then you have to track your time, you have to invoice the clients. So, we are going to help with that. We have partnered with a provider that will help streamline that entire process. And so, they come into our network with basically like most of what you need to run a successful firm set up for you.
Isaac Oakeson: I mean, it sounds awesome. Is there -- I guess some of the nuts and bolts of that, is there a fee for a company to join? How does that structure look?
Brian Liu: Yeah, so membership is free because it doesn't really cost us anything to have you be in our network in Microsoft teams. And we really want that barrier to entry to be as low as possible. So we're going to make sure that, you know, Archipelago is a good fit, so there's an interview process. But once you join, like, it's free to access the network. For software, for additional services, there are fees associated with it.
Isaac Oakeson: Got it. Man, this is so interesting. I know we talked a little bit about the genesis of this and how companies work together and stuff, but when did you realize this could be a business in this field? Like, where did this idea -- was in school, were you working for an engineering firm already and you were like, "What's going on?" Like, how did this come about?
Brian Liu: Yeah. So, I guess, I've been thinking about -- I didn't know I was thinking about Archipelago, but I was thinking about the ideals behind Archipelago for a long time. So, when I graduated from civil engineering, I was a bit, I guess, naive. I was thinking like, 'OK, I learned a lot from school and I'm now gonna apply everything I learned from school on projects." You know, like, "This company that's gonna hire me is going to just like take me to the next level."
Brian Liu: And it didn't really happen, you know? I didn't see a lot of collaboration that could've happened. I thought a lot of projects were basically done, you know, in a way that was always done. And, you know, people weren't very open to new ways of doing those projects or new solutions for existing problems. And that really was where it kind of got me thinking, like, "How do we change this?" Because it does impact like the project quality, the time it takes to deliver these projects. And so, I, you know, eventually got to the point where I had the the time and resources to start a company to address this problem. And this is Archipelago.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. So how long -- I mean, I'm pretty new to this. I mean, with our introduction earlier and just kind of discovering, but how long has it been in business? And do you have any success stories, let's say in relation to like the business operation in terms of, like, stepping in and doing management support, what you talked about a little bit earlier. Is there any success stories that you have there?
Brian Liu: So we're pretty new. I created the company last year after I graduated from my executive MBA program and have been testing out the concept with a few of my former colleagues. And I'm excited to announce that, couple weeks ago, we onboarded one of them as our first official member firm. And the success --
Isaac Oakeson: Congratulations. That's a big deal. That's awesome.
Brian Liu: Yeah, zero to one, right? That's always the, I think, one of the hardest --
Isaac Oakeson: You gotta start.
Brian Liu: Yeah. Yeah. And we are using that project management system that I was telling you about, and so far it's been really good.
Isaac Oakeson: That's so cool. I'm curious because I'm an engineer, I run Civil Engineering Academy, and it's a business too, and it usually takes a leap of faith for someone, especially engineers, to kind of take that step into jumping into a business. So I guess I'm curious, you know, most engineers they find themselves working as working professionals, they take the steps to get to become a professional engineer, and they kind of, I guess, stay there. They're okay doing the work that they're doing or maybe they move around within that industry.
Isaac Oakeson: What was the drive, I guess, to become an entrepreneur for you and to kind of take this leap of faith? Because it sounds like this is what you're doing full-time, correct?
Brian Liu: Yeah, exactly. I didn't take that step lightly. I went and did a executive MBA just to see if, you know, I was -- Well, first I wanted to be prepared as much as possible, and secondly, I wanted to, you know, just do more research about what it's like to start a business. And yeah, I think you're absolutely right. Like engineers, especially civil engineers, I would say, a lot of them are just okay with, you know, just, you know, practicing their craft.
Brian Liu: I think the step for me was, I was complaining a lot. I was complaining a lot about the status quo, you know? I was like, "Why is it like this?" You know, "Why can't it be different?" "Why aren't we," you know, "doing this more efficiently?" And I tried to do as much of those changes within the companies I've worked at before, but I wasn't very effective at that, or, you know, I could be more effective on my own. So that is why I decided to make that leap.
Isaac Oakeson: That's really interesting. So, I mean, in your own experience, it sounds like this collaboration piece is kind of a missing piece of the puzzle. It's really kind of the start of this whole business idea.
Isaac Oakeson: I guess what advice would you have for firms or even individuals to be more collaborative? How can they do that? What advice would you share for them?
Brian Liu: I think you have to be open to collaboration. A lot of people -- Well, everyone, I think, is open to collaboration when you talk to them about it, but whether they actually allow for collaboration, whether they actually do it day-to-day, I think that's where it kind of diverges, right? Like, the idea of collaboration, everybody agrees on, right? Like, you know, if you work together, you can accomplish more.
Brian Liu: But you need to have the resources, right, to allow for collaboration. You have to have, well, time to collaborate. So, if you're always fighting fires on a project and trying to catch up on things, you're not gonna do that much collaboration. So I think there's a lot of things you have to do to get to a point where you can collaborate. And that's, like, having good systems and also, you know, giving time to collaboration, not just thinking about how to bring money in.
Isaac Oakeson: True. You know, I think taking a leap of faith also and becoming an entrepreneur kind of opens the door, I think, for people to want to become more collaborative too, because they need kind of that network of support.
Isaac Oakeson: Would you have any advice to young engineers that maybe want to consider joining the business that you've started and maybe shoot for an entrepreneurial pathway?
Brian Liu: Yeah. I think, for young engineers, I think what they need to do is to see if it makes sense to start your own business, right? Because it depends. It depends on your market, what your skills are. You know, a lot of it is what what do you want to get out of it, right?
Brian Liu: When I went back and did my MBA, I had to do a lot of soul searching because one of the first questions they asked me or asked the class is like, "Who are you?" You know? "Who are you? Where are you going?" You know, "Why?" And honestly, I still think about those questions today. And I think that's where young engineers should ask themselves about, you know, about whether they need to or they want to start a business or not.
Brian Liu: I can say that it's a lot easier today than in the past. Like, in the past, before, you know, all these remote tools and software and companies that will help you establish your business, like, it was a lot difficult. You needed a lot more capital. It's a lot easier today, and Archipelago can help with lowering that barrier to entry.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. I mean, if I was going that right, doing that now, and I have had people and past guests on the show that have gone independent as a contractor for themselves. They maybe have figured out how to do business development and have gotten some projects under their belt, but I don't think they'd have a network and a backing that that's something that you can provide. So I think that's pretty interesting that the tools are all out there for engineers to really get after it and start their own thing when they feel ready to and confident to.
Isaac Oakeson: And would this apply to, I guess, a civil engineering field? Anything in the AEC field goes, or is there barriers to who can come in into this?
Brian Liu: So we're open to architectural firms, engineering firms, and also construction management types of firms. And we're focused primarily on the, you know, professional side of the industry because it's where a lot of the collaboration happens, right? Like, these projects have a lot of infrastructure projects, have a lot of different disciplines, a lot of complexities, and you know, collaboration is really important there. We're also open to, you know, other companies if they think that they could be a good fit. You know, whether they're like a startup with some sort of new technology that's catered for the industry, then, yeah. Absolutely get in contact with us.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Well, this has been a fascinating interview for me. You know, this is a business idea that I really haven't really paid attention to, but I think it's super important for people that are going the entrepreneurial route and need a network that can really get behind them and help them get going.
Brian Liu: Brian, could you let us all know, I guess the best contact information where people can find out more about the business and the services that you're providing?
Brian Liu: I think the best place is, find me on LinkedIn and everything is -- We'll branch out from there.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. Do we have a website set up for this? Was there anything about --
Brian Liu: Yeah! You can also go to our website at acplg.ca.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. Well, we'll go ahead and link all those in our show notes. If anybody has any questions, they'll definitely reach out to you. But I think it's definitely a fascinating business and something that's gonna help people if they're definitely going the entrepreneurial route, and it's really exciting.
Isaac Oakeson: Brian, thank you for joining me. Is there anything else you wanna talk about the company itself or any advice for young engineers pursuing their career in this field?
Brian Liu: I think we covered a lot of ground today, so I'm good.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome. Okay. Well, thanks for doing this and we'll stay in touch.
Brian Liu: Thank you.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. See you.
Brian Liu: Bye.
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