How to Successfully Break Into an Unfamiliar Industry
It can be easier to spot a business opportunity as an outsider. But don't make the mistake of thinking you have all the answers.
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Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to come up with a truly innovative idea. But that vantage point can be a double-edged sword when it comes to turning your insight into a business. Starting a company is extra difficult if you're trying to enter a sector you don't know inside out. Every industry has its jargon, practices and pain points that can easily trip up the uninitiated.
But it can be done. I started my company, ProNavigator, in 2016 after a simple call with my insurance provider turned into a 90-minute odyssey. I realized insurance companies were struggling to organize all the complex information they held on clients and coverage — so I created an AI-powered platform that helps staff quickly locate what they need to answer customer queries. But the insurance industry has decades of established practices, and it took time to win my potential clients' trust. Here's what I learned from breaking into an unfamiliar industry:
Get comfortable with cold outreach
Your first priority is to get out there and speak to people. Get comfortable doing cold outreach, and put in the effort to figure out the industry before you even think about building your solution. It's the only way to know whether the problem you have identified is worth solving. I spent months attending trade shows and conferences, reading and listening to podcasts — anything to better understand the insurance sector. I learned that my lengthy call was the symptom of a long-standing issue: Many companies used legacy technology and multiple systems to store information. It was clear to me there would be a demand for a better platform.
But don't make the mistake of focusing only on the technology solution you can build. You must be a student of the industry so that you can speak its language with potential customers. You need to gain an understanding of key business processes and become familiar with the sector's major players. You should aim to get a sense of what the day-to-day operations actually look like in these organizations, not their ideal state. This will help you design something that responds to their needs.
Find industry insiders who will champion your business
You need to build a network of like-minded people in the industry who are seeking solutions. Look at conferences where speakers are covering topics you're interested in, like the need for new technology. They are often keen to talk and may connect you with others. I hit the regional and national insurance conferences hard, and the resulting introductions were vital in getting my foot in the door of an industry where nobody knew my name.
Come from a place of humility
As a founder, it's natural to try to project yourself as an expert. That can backfire. Your outreach can easily become more of a lecture than a conversation. You may think you have the solution to a business's problems, but remember that the people you're talking to are smart. They have a long history of operating in a way that has been successful. The conversation needs to be one of humility. Tell them, "Here's where I'm coming from, and here's my view on the world. Would you agree, and if not, can you help me fill in the gaps?"
Prioritize developing a minimum viable product
Use these insights to build a simple test version of your product quickly. It doesn't have to be perfect, just good enough for you to validate that the problem you've identified is big enough that customers will pay to solve it. I don't come from a software background, so I taught myself some code and hired a few contract developers to create the first version of our product. Was it basic and held together with the digital version of duct tape? Probably. But it was good enough to get us in front of our first customers. When sophisticated buyers with a good understanding of the alternatives were interested in our prototype, I knew we were onto something.
Expect to pivot
As you get to know an industry better, you may stumble across an even more significant problem. Our first product iteration was customer-facing; it took us around two years to realize that there was a much bigger opportunity to solve the information challenge within insurance organizations. We built an entirely new product from the ground up, which was scary. But pivoting opened up better opportunities, and we could see the difference in trajectory and growth curve.
You also have to accept that it's okay to change your view or your direction — or even fail. As an entrepreneur breaking into a new industry, your life can sometimes feel like two steps forward and one step back. Some days, it's three steps back. So, you need to be okay with that and have thick skin.