How to Succeed in an Industry You Know Nothing About
There's nothing about a lack of industry knowledge that some directed learning, judicious hiring and trust building can't fix.
Some of the most notable billionaires, from John D. Rockefeller (America’s first) to Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few, have proven that you don’t necessarily need a diploma to be a successful entrepreneur. You don’t even have to be particularly well-versed in the industry you wish to enter. As Joe Gardner, founder of VentureDevs, points out, “Understanding the nitty-gritty details required to build and maintain a tech product isn’t a requirement to lead the company selling it.”
If you think that only technology experts like Bill Gates can be at the helm of a tech company, you’re wrong. Steve Jobs and Michael Dell didn’t have formal backgrounds in tech and still managed to build billion-dollar businesses in the industry.
They prove that you can succeed in any industry you choose -- as long as you know how to develop a plan and follow through. When launching a business in a new-to-you industry, combine your good business sense with these three strategies for supplementing your expertise, and your startup will be well-positioned to thrive:
1. Do an industry deep dive.
You don’t have to know how a product is built to sell it. However, to succeed, you do have to have your finger on the pulse of the industry. Understanding what your consumers want, what current industry leaders aren’t providing, and what you can do to disrupt the status quo.
If you’re new to it all, or feeling behind the technological advancements, then build up your knowledge base by finding a mentor, attending workshops, or joining professional organizations to take advantage of their training resources and conferences. For instance, when Patrick Weiss decided he wanted to make a switch from IT and management consulting to user experience design, he researched this new industry to determine how his skills would transfer. Through his university alumni network, Weiss found a mentor who ultimately helped him secure a job in design.
As you learn, be persistent and don’t accept surface-level answers to anything. You’re not earning a degree, but you do need detailed answers that give you more than just a casual understanding. For example, if you’re diving into fashion, learn all you can about supply chain logistics, material sourcing, and best manufacturing practices.
2. Hire people who can do what you can’t.
Doing your homework on the industry will give you a much better idea of just how much you don’t know. From a business perspective, you know you can deliver what consumers want. Yet, from a technical standpoint, you’ll need to find people who understand how to make a product or design a service that delivers the quality you promise.
Fill the skills gap in your startup by making a list of what you excel at and what you can’t do alone, or at all. Speak with your mentor or online community to identify what skills and qualities you should hire for in order to succeed in your new industry. In a recent CareerBuilder survey, nearly 75 percent of managers admit to hiring the wrong people and suffering for it, so due diligence is especially important.
Depending on how much help you need, you can outsource specific tasks to a freelancer or a team of experts. Or you can find a business partner to permanently take over the technical side while you focus on things like sales and marketing. Whatever you choose, be persistent and patient. It’s important to hire someone who not only has the necessary skills, but is also a good match for you and your company.
3. Trust your experts to tell you what’s possible.
In addition to making your working relationship easier, being able to trust your partner or team of experts is vital to your startup’s success. You have to have faith in them when they say something is possible or isn’t possible, or that there’s a better way to approach something. If you push for the impossible because you don’t believe your experts, then you’re destined to fail.
Volkswagen’s notorious emissions cheating scandal was one of the most notable examples of what can happen when a company’s leaders don’t trust the experts on their team. It all started when Volkswagen leaders set specs for a vehicle that were impossible for its engineers to live up to. While not all instances of company leaders lacking trust in the experts on their team will lead to fraud, trusting those who are more knowledgeable than you in a specific area will benefit your company. You need your experts to provide the expertise you lack.
Trust them to do so while proving that you have what it takes to make their expertise profitable. This can be done through open and frequent communication. Explain the why behind your big decisions and ask them to explain the why behind theirs. If your team says a project will take six months to complete, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask what, if anything, can be done to speed up that timeline. But shy away from demanding they complete the same project in three months instead.
4. Get in with the in crowd.
As both a new business, and the new kid on the block, building your social circles within the industry can build your own business intelligence and boost awareness of your venture. Join industry organizations, attend events, and volunteer for committees. To become more well-known and respected in your new industry, you need to gain the respect of leaders and influencers whom others in your industry trust.
Being connected to these individuals will bolster your own reputation because your prospective customers and business partners will value a third party’s endorsement of you and your work. This approach is especially vital on social media. When reaching out to a new audience, brand association can take you a lot further than your offering having to stand on its own.
So how do you choose a brand or influencer to connect with? Try to identify a company or business leader with values similar to your own. If you share values and priorities, it’s likely you’ll have an easier time building a natural rather than a forced relationship with them. A philosophy to live by, stop asking what they can do for you — explore what you can do for them. Make friends, not connections.
You’re an entrepreneur because you love breaking new ground, so it makes sense to want to transform an industry that you may not know much about. Follow these tips to make sure you understand what you’re getting into, what knowledge and expertise you lack, and how best to fill those gaps with people you trust. No matter what industry you break into, these strategies can help you find your recipe for success.