How To Launch A Startup In An Unfamiliar Industry

Vision alone does not disruption make.

How To Launch A Startup In An Unfamiliar Industry
[Photo: Flickr user JamesZ_Flickr]

Inspiration can strike anyone. But the sorts of ideas that transform whole industries usually don’t–especially if it’s an idea to improve a sector where you have no personal expertise at all. Inexperience unmakes a great many would-be “outsider entrepreneurs.” Translating a new concept into a successful business in an unfamiliar industry is difficult, to put it lightly. But it’s possible with the right approach.


After decades as a frequent business traveler, I knew what it was like to be a regular airline passenger, hotel guest, and user of transportation services, but I had never worked in the travel industry. Still, I had an idea that was inspired by my personal experience as a customer, and, along with my team, I was able to successfully create and launch DUFL, an app designed to make life easier for business travelers worldwide.

While no two innovations are alike, I learned these three lessons that can apply to virtually any entrepreneur looking to build a business in an unfamiliar industry.

1. Acknowledge You Have A Lot To Learn

It’s incredibly important to admit that you don’t fully understand the industry you’re entering. My team and I had plenty of startup experience and know-how in the software and media sectors, both of which helped us when it came to our new startup. But we were open about our lack of travel sector and logistics expertise.

That ignorance could have proved a liability, but it turned out to attract amazingly valuable, unsolicited help from people who did understand what we didn’t. Pointing out your blind spots is one of the best ways to solicit the right help for filling them. We found that simply asking for advice brought in a stream of useful people and information that helped us successfully set up and deliver our service.


2. Hire For Your Short-Term Needs

When you’re launching a startup in an unfamiliar industry, you’ll almost certainly need expert guidance beyond the free advice you receive when you admit you don’t know the ropes. Hiring a team on a full-time or contractor basis can give you the right skill sets for your short-term needs.

Keep in mind that if you can’t clear the immediate hurdles, there will be no later ones. One longer-term upshot to this approach is that it can still help you form a core group around which to build a larger organization as your needs grow and evolve. Maybe someone you hired for an early-stage project has proved their mettle and is a great fit to move forward with.

In my new company’s case, we spent a solid four months gaining an understanding of logistics, warehousing, laundering, and packing practices so we could handle customers’ road-trip wardrobes when we launched. Then, armed with the right team, we were able to manage service delivery down to the smallest detail.

By acquiring talent that could help us get all of that right from the very start, we were able to gain an incredibly deep understanding of the industry early on, despite being new to it. That let us roll out a white-glove service capable of generating the enthusiastic response we needed at launch time.


3. Think Big And Leave Your Mark

While it’s crucial to be realistic about the limits of your industry knowledge when you enter in a new sector, that shouldn’t prevent you from putting your own spin on it. After all, you’re there to improve the industry. As long as you believe in the power of your idea and can back it up with action, don’t be afraid to be bold and assertive about what you can do.

My team and I set out to change the way the world travels, which we realize is a lofty goal. But we’re working hard to make sure that isn’t just an empty promise. We’ve personally experienced the downsides of the old ways of doing things, and we’re determined to change it. That attitude is a prerequisite for true innovation in an unfamiliar industry.

Sometimes it takes a person who’s removed from daily industry operations to see the opportunities for improvement. But vision alone does not disruption make. You also need the humility to admit what you don’t know, the foresight to surround yourself with the talent you need to move forward, and the will to create real change over the long-term.

Bill Rinehart is Chairman, CEO, and founder of DUFL, a premium service that simplifies travel by shipping, cleaning, and storing business attire. At DUFL, Bill drives overall strategy, manages operations, and oversees commercial activities.