When Som Boualaphanh’s St. Paul company Victus Engineering landed a contract for a major years-long remodeling and expansion of the NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in north Minneapolis, it was a big moment.
“We went up against a huge firm that is very established in town. Just to be selected for an interview, I thought, ‘I’ve made it,’” recalled Boualaphanh, a mechanical engineer who, with three colleagues, left jobs at established engineering firms to launch Victus in 2018.
For Boualaphanh, the NorthPoint contract was more than a professional milestone signaling the arrival of the fast-growing start-up.
In 1979, after he and his family came to Minnesota as refugees from Laos, via Thailand, they first settled in north Minneapolis. NorthPoint (then known as Pilot City) was the family’s clinic—a destination for check-ups, he said, but also the source of grocery and gift giveaways.
“I understood how important that clinic was to the community,” he said. “And I got gifts there a few times as a kid.”
Boualaphanh, 52, traces the origins of his professional journey to a career day at Hopkins High School, which he attended after his family moved to Golden Valley. As a kid, he had a passion for muscle cars. And so he was intrigued when an engineer gave a presentation about automotive design.
After high school, Boualaphanh enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he got his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering before moving on to the University of St. Thomas for a master’s degree in software engineering.
Over the course of his career, Boualaphanh has specialized in the design of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and plumbing systems. He spent nearly two decades in the trenches, working at engineering and architectural firms around town, before he and his three partners decided to take the entrepreneurial leap.
Victus’ main clients are government, health care institutions, and commercial and industrial facilities.
“We’re a full-service firm. We do electrical and mechanical. We started with four people. Now we have a staff of 18,” he said. “I love this industry. I meet a lot of people, I get to travel, and I constantly learn new things.”
In an interview with Sahan Journal, Boualaphanh shared a few of the lessons he has learned along the way.
When you launch a new venture, pay attention to people skills: “I would say, Get your technical skills down and make as many connections as you can. Network. Get to know the clients. Ask questions. People skills are huge. Technical skills can be taught, but people skills are tough. It has to come with experience.”
Always keep a close eye on the bottom line: “Starting the firm was a huge leap. We had a shoestring budget, and we all had to make sacrifices, like not getting paid for the first six months. We rented a coworking space because there were only four of us. Our chairs were back-to-back.
“The first year was a struggle. We had to mind the bank very closely. But we were fortunate. We have a lot of friends and advocates in the industry because we’ve all been doing it a while. It helps to know people, especially architects. People remember you if you do good work.”
For some businesses, COVID brought more opportunities than challenges: “It was the opposite of what I thought was going to happen. When people hear that you’re launching a new company during the pandemic, they say, ‘Isn’t that kind of risky?’ But to my surprise, COVID really helped in our industry, especially with health-care design. We deal with a lot of air change to mitigate COVID. Business is booming right now because everybody wants to upgrade their HVAC system.”