What I learned from building 5 companies in 5 totally different industries
As teenagers, we are asked to decide which field we would like to pursue—ostensibly for the rest of our working lives. Our college major or the first few jobs we take often become the label that the world uses to describe us. This can be incredibly frustrating for those of us who are seeking new job opportunities and are told we do not have the experience that a new role in a different industry requires.
My background is in accounting and finance; yet, over the course of my career, I have created five different companies (and sold three to publicly traded companies) in vastly different industries, such as technology consulting, gaming, and conversational AI. I strongly believe we should follow our passions rather than our degrees, which is why I created my current company Hypergiant, an AI products and services company that solves the biggest problems of today and tomorrow. This couldn’t be further from my formal training.
In my experience moving among industries, I’ve found there are certain steps that can be taken to make the transition easier and more personally fulfilling. Whether you’re looking to start a company or just find a job that makes you more excited to get out of bed in the morning, big changes are simpler than you think, as long as you continue to pursue new ideas with insatiable curiosity.
Focus on personal discovery
Switching industries requires going on a personal exploration. While it is important to know what you are good at from a skills perspective, the first step to uncovering a more fulfilling career (or ensuring the area you want to move in to is one that will fuel you for more than a few months) is to uncover the issues and topics you care about.
Sit down with a notebook, and write down the issues and areas that spark excitement and an urge to act. Once you have the list, take it a step further by mapping out what is currently being done in each area that you are aware of and where there is still a lack of information or research.
For example, I know some of my top skills are in marketing, branding, capital allocation, and finding the intersection between emerging technology and cultural shifts in how people use tech. I also happen to be incredibly interested in climate change and space. One of the reasons I started Hypergiant was because I saw that my skills could be used in an area that was not yet being addressed—using AI and software to help bring the space industry into the future. Look where others aren’t looking, and clearly articulate your value.
Make taking risks routine
The secret to big change is simple: just go for it. For most of us, however, it takes a bit of practice before we feel comfortable enough to make the leap to change careers, switch industries, or start a new side hustle.
Start by introducing new challenges that feel a bit scary into your everyday routine. This can include something as small as taking a new route to work or volunteering to give a presentation to your leadership team on a new emerging area. The more things you do that feel like a risk, the more comfortable you become in situations where you’re not completely confident in what you are doing.
This will help you become more accustomed to dealing with uncertainty and excelling at whatever comes your way. Successfully switching careers comes from believing in your ability to learn and expand outside your comfort zone. Having a bit of fear in the pit of your stomach is a sign you’re doing something right.
Surround yourself with experts
After you have determined what field you want to enter and figured out how your skill set can aid a current industry challenge, start surrounding yourself with other people who can fill in the gaps. And go broad. Look for technologists, lawyers, marketers, academics, and more who can bring forward a different point of view and open your mind to even more areas of exploration. This can be done through cold outreach, through your personal network, or by becoming part of a community group.
As I was looking to ground myself further in the business of space to come up with AI-based solutions, I joined the Planetary Society, an organization dedicated to bridging the gap between the public and the scientific community. Through this, I met Bill Nye, who serves as the organization’s CEO, and he agreed to become an adviser to Hypergiant, providing us with his unique perspective and expertise.
Becoming part of a community can make any transition less scary because other people within the group have probably gone through similar transitions. By spending time with other like-minded people, you not only round out your skill set but build up a new support system.
Come prepared with new ideas and lots of data
Reaching out cold to new people, especially potential employers, can be made easier (and more successful) by offering new insights or solutions that can help that person and their business. For instance, depending on the area you’re interested in, you could reach out to contacts teasing new business development ideas, best practices, case studies from previous work experience, or an article or study specific to an industry problem. This approach is also more personable and actionable than a general introduction. What research or ideas can you share that apply to where you see an opening in their field for innovation?
Then, take it a step further, and conduct your own pilot. We often think about experiments as something done in a laboratory, but conducting your own market research has never been easier. Pull together a Google Survey, and send it around to your friends, family, and colleagues to uncover potential customer insights or market trend data that might help a future employer rethink their business plan.
You can also use your social media handles to create your own mini focus group that provides directional input on product design, marketing campaign ideas, or new audiences for sales. Use your case study as a way to engage with new contacts and influencers. Publish and promote your findings online. This exercise not only shows your passion but your ability to think creatively and propose solutions to current business problems. It will also help defy any doubts about whether or not you can go beyond what is on your résumé.
Craft your story
Elevator pitches are not restricted to founders. Distill down your interest, expertise, your recent research or ideas, and what you would like to do next into a few sentences that can be delivered quickly and effectively. Start by writing them down and then timing yourself to see how long it takes to get your message across. It should take only a few seconds. Then, start using your lines whenever you get introduced to someone in the field you are interested in.
For example, I might say something like: “My name is Ben Lamm. I create AI-based products and solutions for businesses and government organizations. I am currently tackling artificial intelligence and see my next step as the development of the fastest growing technology company in history—but I won’t stop there.” This introduction helps you deftly avoid any awkward silence that introductions can bring and move right into the broader topic at hand.
Ben Lamm is the Founder and CEO of Hypergiant.