I would be hard-pressed to think of a founder who intimately knew their product before starting their company. More commonly, founders are potential customers rather than industry experts.
The clothing company MM.LaFleur, for example, was founded by a woman who worked in consulting and finance. She wasn’t a clothing designer, rather a customer who noticed a lack of elegant, yet professional workwear for women.
She capitalized on that market need and found success.
Likewise, the founder of the slipper company Birdies previously worked at Facebook. After a long day at the office, she wanted to be comfortable but also fashionable around the house — especially if she was hosting dinner guests. Again, she didn’t have a fashion background, but was able to found a successful company based on identifying a market need.
Most founders start with passion, and learn along the way.
Often, their lack of experience helps them create an innovative product. With sufficient passion about the right market need, you can do the same.
Use your lack of understanding to get a fresh perspective.
If your previous experience is peripherally related to the industry you’re trying to tap into, odds are good you can transfer some skills.
I’d never worked in the intimate apparel industry before founding ThirdLove, but I had worked for a big retail company — Aeropostale. I became familiar with product development, merchandising and production and how traditional retailers operate businesses, which allowed me to identify opportunities for change.
And having little knowledge about a product motivates you to learn as much as you can. You need to really dig into the industry. Who are the big players? What’s the market size? What are the dynamics? Personally, I did a ton of market research, including buying and trying on products from similar companies to figure out what needed to be altered.
It took nearly two years before I fully understood my company’s product. And that was okay.
For example, when my co-founder and I decided to be online only and offer bras in half-sizes, so many people in the intimate apparel industry told me these ideas would never work. But because I was new to the industry, I didn’t know any better. I wasn’t afraid to be different.
This is known as the “Medici Effect”, a term that describes contributions of disruptive innovation from people who have no experience in an industry.
The innovations that come from seeing a product with fresh eyes are often what sets you apart from other businesses. Sometimes, naivety allows for space to think big, act boldly, and not be held back by industry expectations.
Bring on people who know the industry.
When you start a company without a previous understanding of your product, it’s key to loop in people who are familiar with that world.
Early on, I hired a team member who had been designing lingerie for 15 years. She had a deep understanding of the intimate apparel industry, the landscape of different brands, and how manufacturing worked.
She also saw areas of the industry that needed to change, which was crucial to our growth.
You have to ensure that your industry expert isn’t wedded to industry standards. Instead, you want someone who is passionate about the industry, but who can also see the ways in which it’s broken and the possibilities for innovation.
These people are not easy to find, but they’re important for navigating and, eventually, becoming a major player in an unfamiliar industry.
Develop grit to get through tough times.
In the beginning, you can expect potential investors to say that your product isn’t going to work. Proving them wrong is possible, but it requires strength and determination.
Executing your vision will take longer than you’d like. For instance, in the early days of your company you may find that the quality of your product isn’t quite as high as some of your competitors. You lack the resources and scale of a larger company.
Moving beyond this point involves continually testing your product and design with your team.
You’ll likely try a lot of things that worked for others, but they won’t work for you. This can be incredibly frustrating, but it’s just part of the process.
And the payoff is worth it.
I frequently run into investors who chose not to invest early on, who say they’re impressed with the brand and are disappointed they missed the boat. There’s truly no better feeling.
With tenacity and strategic effort, you can conquer an unfamiliar industry. It just takes a lot of work and a little experience.