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Starting a Business

Skill Bill

Changing fields? Your industrial evolution still relies on your old skill sets.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the February 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

You've spent your whole life working in one field--you majored in it in college, you've worked at it for a number of years, and guess what? You're ready for a change. Perhaps you worked in PR and now you want to run a motorcycle shop. Or you used to be in the food services industry, but you've always dreamed of running an antiques store. The good news is that it's never too late to make a drastic industry change and start a business that's completely different from the work you did before. The bad news? It'll take some serious self-evaluation and some even more serious prep work.

Your first step is to take inventory of your skills to see which ones can be applied to your new endeavor, says marketing consultant and strategist Lois Carter Fay, founder of the Marketing Idea Shop in Massanutten, Virginia. "If, for instance, you worked in a company as an account executive in sales, [knowing how to sell] would be a helpful skill," says Carter Fay. A PR job would have taught you how to be creative in designing the full-scale launch of a product, and such ingenuity would serve you well as a handbag designer. Or you may have gotten your degree in chemistry where you learned how to mix compounds to create something new--you may apply those skills to your newfound gig as owner of a specialty cake bakery.

That kind of personal-skills inventory helped Adrienne Morea transition from her jewelry design business to founding Atlas Homewares, a decorative-hardware manufacturing company in Glendale, California. Though earrings and door knockers don't have much in common at first glance, Morea made the successful industry jump in 1994, and the fortysomething entrepreneur says the transition turned out to be nearly seamless. "It was easy for me to match up my final detail [business] of earrings and necklaces to the final detail of the home," says Morea. Concentrating first on the similarities between the industries, Morea felt her business still involved designing fashionable merchandise--only now it would be hung in consumers' houses. Her previous marketing experience with jewelry buyers and boutique owners helped her gain a foothold with fashionable hardware retailers like Expo Design Center and Lowe's, propelling her company to sales of $8.5 million in 2004.

To make your own transition equally seamless, devour all the information you can about your new industry--especially if it's a night-and-day switch. "Read everything you can about your chosen field--give yourself an experiential master's degree," says Carter Fay. Also try to find a mentor, either in your new industry or in a similar situation, who's further along in his or her business and from whom you can learn.

Finally, you'll want to establish yourself as an expert in this new market. "Niche your business small enough so people quickly see you as the expert," Carter Fay says. Speak about your new industry, write about it, become involved with new professional associations--do anything to get your name out there. And you don't have to forgo your Ph.D. or master's degree from your former life: Even if your credentials don't fit directly with your new field, they still elevate you to the status of an all-around expert, notes Carter Fay.

Can you feel it? Change is in the air.

Time for a Change?

Wondering if you can apply skills from your old industry to a new business? Ask yourself these questions to determine if you're ready for the big switch:

  • Are my background skills somewhat universal? Experience in sales, marketing or customer service would help you transition to a new industry, as new businesses always need those talents.
  • What did I study in college? Did you have a minor or take a few classes in something useful to a new industry? You may have majored in accounting, but those history classes you have under your belt could apply to a new antiques business.
  • If I don't know much about the workings of my new industry, do I know how to find out the necessary information? Your key traits here are willingness and eagerness to improve your knowledge base.

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