Some people spend their whole career in one field. I've spent my career in four completely different fields: medical devices, telecommunication software, enterprise data analytics software, and now financial technology. If the fields have anything in common, it may be that each opportunity had products that were industry game changers, and I've been attracted to that.
I've always thought of industries as systems, not unlike the nervous system or the immune system. It's essential to learn the components, the forces, and the interrelationships, to enable you to get up to speed quickly and be as effective as possible in the shortest amount of time. The key is in your network.
Here are three steps to make a successful career or business change.
Find a bold face name to talk to for advice.
Industry intelligence is the most critical building block. The sooner you can identify and form a cadre of industry people who have deep intelligence, the better your chances are for success. Find experts speaking at conferences, get names from articles, research the history of the industry and see what names you find. Contact those people.
For example, about two months into the mortgage industry, I read an article in the New York Times about someone who had built an empire in the business and then retired. He seemed to share a similar mission and interest. I googled him, found his phone number, and from a few calls with him learned about 30 years of history that helped me not only become fluent but saved months of time. Certainly, relationships like this are two-way streets, so I try to provide him with interesting information whenever I am able.
The industry experts you uncover will also most likely point you to people who tried to innovate in your industry and failed. Why did they fail? I have found the answers to this question the most enlightening. Especially in entrenched industries that haven’t had a lot of change, there is a treasure trove of necessary information from why other companies--big companies in many cases--have tried and failed. This is often where the biggest and most important insight can come. It can be a challenge to find these companies and people but well worth asking for information and introductions.
Follow the money.
Who pays whom? An industry is an ecosystem and it is critical to know where money changes hands all the way down the line, from one end to the other. Even pieces of an industry that don't seem like your domain are important to know, because competitors or customers may touch them, and you should know for your longer term strategy and to determine where revenue opportunities are outside of your immediate interests. Ask the "dumb" questions to find out who is dependent on whom, what percentages are paid, revenue volume for different parts, and so on. The more info you can map in this area, the more informed you will be off the bat.
In most industries, the route to finding the answer to this question is a real labyrinth. For example, in the mobile communication space, there are handset manufacturers, OEM providers, mobile OS, application developers, massive geographic market differences, and a myriad of relationships--OEMs supplying several different handset manufacturers, various handset release schedules, carrier relationships with application providers, and on and on. Who is affected by your product or service? If you affect the commission structure of a major distributor, how does this affect your own distribution ability? If your service affects a tier of employees in your customers’ organization, how will this impact your ability to sell to them?
Read up on regulations.
Regulations can be difficult to work with. But, they are also can be an important barrier to entry. Regulations are like the rocks that shape a stream. It is critical to understand them to determine the best strategy to take for competitive advantage. Regulations change, and they are moving parts that require knowledge of legislation for which to properly prepare. Joining industry associations and getting on committees is the best way to achieve this--stay close to the regulatory intelligence to anticipate change, and be in contact with those who effect change.
There are countless other factors for success (market identification, competitors, segmentation, customer development, competitive intelligence, etc.) but in terms of getting up to speed quickly in industries that are new to you, these are essential building blocks.
Nicole Hamilton is the CEO of Tactile Finance, a company building software solutions to accelerate the sale of complex financial products, starting with mortgages, while reducing risk to both banks and consumers. Nicole's career has been in technology management in various industries including medical devices, telecommunication software, consumer products, and data analytics software. Follow her on Twitter @nikhamilton