Many of today's most lucrative industries are controversial, disliked by some members of society, or just plain unpopular. Take Ashley Madison, the dating site for cheating married people that's been a lightning rod for criticism and most recently a massive cyber-attack. Or the marijuana industry, which is still illegal under federal law and has been driven out of countless neighborhoods by residents who don't want it around, and yet has grown to well over $6 billion.
There's no question: Launching a company in an unpopular industry is not for the timid. But if you have the guts, the rewards can be huge and you just may find yourself changing the world. That advice comes from Josh Waldron, CEO and co-founder of SilencerCo, which makes gun silencers--an unpopular product if ever there was one, and the target of new regulations as well.
While starting any new business is hard, "the stakes are even higher when the business isn't exactly the stuff of 'Mayberry,'" Waldron warns. Still, he believes the next generation of billionaires will rise from controversial industries. If you think you have what it takes, here's his formula for success:
1. Always be compliant--but push the envelope at the same time.
If you're caught disobeying the law--or you're subject to a privacy breach--that could spell disaster for your startup, Waldron says. But when the legalities are unclear, give yourself the benefit of the doubt.
"Testing the limits and exploiting gray areas not only creates new market opportunities but also helps clarify the law for everyone, putting your business in a position of leadership and trust," he explains. "Walk up to the line of the law and kick it around a little--just don't step over it."
2. Enlist your customers as advocates.
"Creating brand advocates is a critical part of any successful marketing program," Waldron says. "But controversial businesses need an exceptionally high level of support and activism from their customers." You don't just need their help to support your brand, but your entire industry, he explains. They can help get the word out about the benefits of what you do and push back when legal authorities overstep their bounds.
"For us, there's a popular misconception that buying or owning a firearm suppressor is illegal, when in fact, it's perfectly legal in 41 states and counting," he says. "Spreading that knowledge is critical, as is doing our part to protect and expand ownership laws across the country. And we depend heavily on our customers to help spread the word."
To turn customers into advocates, make them feel they're part of your company's culture, and provide them with plenty of educational materials and anything else they need to become effective evangelists for your cause. "By all means, put your own money where your mouth is when it comes to advocacy," he says.
3. Be prepared to counter criticism with fact.
"Naysayers will search diligently for anything--a tiny loophole, the slightest misstep--to use against you," Waldron says. "Your most important weapons are fact and tact."
Dealing with detractors requires a careful balance. You shouldn't hesitate to engage or respond if you're attacked--but do it with courtesy and professionalism, and be strategic about it. Some detractors won't ever change their minds, so once you've stated your position and provided the relevant facts be prepared to walk away from further discussion. "Don't get into a grudge match, name-call, or argue," he says. Customers will see that you take your industry seriously and you'll gain their respect and trust.
4. Don't try to fly under the radar.
Like it or not, if you're in a controversial industry, you're going to be a target, Waldron says. "It might be tempting to keep your head down, keep quiet and avoid arousing any type of conflict. But setting a trend often requires setting precedent. You must be vocal, willing to kick the proverbial hornets' nest and shake things up in order to help foster progress in the industry, the law and society."
Besides, the more you get your point of view out there, the better for your business and your industry. "Education and truth are extremely empowering," he says. "Flood the channel with your message to drive the conversation in your direction and drown out the opposition."
5. Embrace your status as a maverick.
Starting a new business in an unpopular industry will certainly be tough. "But it's also incredibly exciting, exhilarating, and rewarding to challenge the status quo, help change laws, and protect citizens' rights and freedoms," Waldron says. "Detractors may question your morals or motivation and disagree with your business choice, but remember that some of the most influential leaders in history kicked the hornet's nest and changed society in the process.