Squashing the newcomer stereotype is an incredible challenge for every industry amateur. With consumers and competitors questioning your credibility and aptitude, the odds are inevitably stacked against you.

When my partners and I decided to break into the employee benefits and insurance industry, we were facing a highly complex, regulated field full of established players.

Our app handled consumers' personal health information, which made earning trust that much more difficult. And the disparity in insurance and healthcare regulations among countries, states, counties, and even insurance carriers made building our benefits platform wildly complex.

After recognizing how little we knew, we turned the problem on its head by hiring insurance experts who could reveal all of the unknowns and help us build them into our product. Now we have people on our team who've dealt with idiosyncratic benefits strategies and can foresee issues before they arise.

Planning ahead and preparing for potential setbacks put us in a position to experience rapid growth. Here are five tips for succeeding in a highly regulated industry:

  1. Define your brand first. Before writing a single line of code, hammer out the aspects that will differentiate your brand and how you want customers to perceive it. We knew the benefits-shopping experience and industry were flawed and focused on the bigger picture before diving into the details of our product. We wanted to be the friendly, trustworthy, and refreshing solution in the drab insurance and healthcare industry.
  1. Invest in customer development. We talked to countless people in person or over the phone to get feedback about their experience buying and using insurance. Inquiring about specific problems your customers face will help you identify pain points and design a product that alleviates those.
  1. Get out there and learn. Starting out, we had minimal knowledge about the insurance industry or practical experience, so we made every effort to learn firsthand. Four of our team members became licensed insurance brokers to better understand and relate to our broker partners. Hands-on learning can lend incredible insight into the customer experience.
  1. Tap into your networks. We looked to our networks for support, and this small effort turned into meaningful relationships down the road. Investors, advisors, family, and friends introduced us to many of our key team members and first customers. Don't shy away from asking people in your network for connections; you never know what a simple introduction will lead to.
  1. Keep it simple. Although you might want to start with a complex, multi-faceted product to stand out in a highly regulated industry, scope creep can quickly take you off track. Always start with that MVP a handful of niche customers will find valuable. Know your customers, pinpoint a simple need you can deliver, and prove that it works before piling on new features or channels.

Entering the bureaucratic insurance and healthcare industries was surely a gamble. But when unsolicited testimonials and referrals came pouring in and we won a contract with a top broker, we knew we made it.

Startups are often tempted to "disrupt" an industry, but this isn't always the wisest course of action. Instead, focus on internal perfection first. Simplify your product, empower consumers, and learn the ins and outs of your industry. Then others will see you as a worthy contender.

Published on: Sep 22, 2014