The more experience you have in your industry, the more you know about the products, services, competitors, suppliers, channels of distribution, customers, and opportunities. The less you know about your industry, the more you have to learn things through trial and error, just like we did with our motorhome. And with limited experience, you often burn through your passion, tenacity, relationships, and money before you gain traction. You can only survive so many crashes on White Bird Hill before you self-destruct and become a statistic in the business failure column. Hence, the more you build on what you already know from your own experience, the greater your probability for success.
Below is an example of an entrepreneur utilizing his expertise of an industry to launch a company, followed up by useful tips for aspiring entrepreneurs about leveraging their own knowledge.
Gong from a ‘ski and climbing bum’ to successful retail entrepreneur
Steve Sullivan is the founder of Stio in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The company makes and sells outdoor clothing that is both functional and fashionable—the kind of clothes you want to wear every day. The product line includes jackets, vests, shirts, pants, sweaters, tees, hoodies, hats, and scarves. While Stio has two retail stores, one in Jackson Hole and one in Chicago, it primarily sells directly to customers through ecommerce and catalogs.
Steve moved to Jackson Hole in 1989 to be a “ski and climbing bum.” After working in outdoor retailing for a number of years, he started his first venture, Cloudveil. The company sold outdoor products through wholesale channels to various retailers around the country. The downside to this business model was that the retailers he was selling to were telling the “brand story” to the public, not Steve. After going through several ownership groups, the company headquarters moved out of Jackson Hole.
After a short break, Steve was ready to do it again with a different emphasis and philosophy. He wanted more control over the brand experience, and the only way to do that was to sell directly to customers. His new business model allows him to sell his products to customers all over the world and to tell his brand story the way he wants it told. As a prominent center for outdoor recreation, Jackson Hole is the perfect location for the company. Steve stayed with outdoor apparel after leaving Cloudveil because it’s what he knows best. Not only does he have tremendous knowledge of the outdoor apparel industry, but all his team members are also active users of the products. This is another major source of industry knowledge for the company. Steve explains:
I think it matters that everyone who works in our company is still an active skier, or a climber, or a kayaker, or a mountain biker, or a trail runner. I think there is an authenticity that comes from using the stuff and getting out there on a very regular basis, and that can’t be said of all companies. . . . We get to actively test the products that we are making every day. I can run out from our office and do a tram lap for lunch and check out the fit and function of a new jacket that we’re trying. . . . The culmination of that leads to better products.
In addition to team members who regularly use the products, Steve has organized a group of Stio Ambassadors. These are athletes, artists, writers, moms, and dads who make the outdoors “an integral part of their lives.” They share the company’s values, test products, provide feedback, and promote the brand and lifestyle. With Steve’s background in outdoor apparel, the vast experience of his team members, and regular input from his Ambassadors, the company has access to ample knowledge about the industry, which leads to better products and a strong competitive advantage.
Finding the opportunity to disrupt an industry you know
In summary, a strong and motivating purpose is critical to long-term business success, but a variety of opportunities can help you fulfill that purpose. The important thing is to do something you already know a lot about that is consistent with your “Why.” The questions below will help you explore experiences and opportunities in your given industry, related industries, and industries you understand as a customer from frequent exposure to the products, services, and pain points. Building on what you know will be critical to your success.
1. What specific industries have you worked in during your career?
2. What problems, pain points, or opportunities have you seen in these industries that could be addressed in a new business?
3. What industries are you most familiar with that are related to the industries you have worked in?
4. What problems, pain points, or opportunities have you seen in these industries that could be addressed in a new business?
5. What specific products, services, or problems are you most familiar with due to frequent use and interaction in these marketplaces?
6. Which of the products, services, or problems you listed in the question above could best be addressed in a new business?
7. Of the business opportunities you listed in questions 2, 4, and 6, which ones are you most qualified to address, based on your experience and skill set?
8. Of the business opportunities you listed in question 7, which ones are most consistent with a strong purpose you would like to achieve?