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Making a Big Impact in an "Ordinary" Industry

Here's one of my dirty little secrets: as a business journalist for more than 25 years (yep, I'm that old), what still gets me charged up is finding entrepreneurial companies that are having a big impact in pretty ordinary industries. If I had to choose between writing about the flashy Silicon Valley software developer and the guy who sells more tires than anyone in Pittsburgh, I'd probably choose the tire guy. The reason: the tire guy's lessons are more likely to be universally applicable to other business owners.

When I began writing about young entrepreneurs (Upstarts, as I call them), I learned pretty quickly that plenty of young business owners are putting their own spin on companies in very mature and fragmented industries -- and gaining a competitive advantage. Here are some of my favorites (they're all under age 30, by the way):
  • College Hunks Hauling Junk. Forget Sanford and Son. This Tampa, FL business, started by high school pals Nick Friedman and Omar Soliman, is a multi-million dollar franchisor with branding that's as slick as its fleet of shiny new trucks. Clean-cut college students in polo shirts and khakis comprise the workforce, and the company pledges to recycle at least 60 percent of what it hauls out of your basement. Great employees + green spin = competitive advantage.
  • Meathead Movers. Brothers Aaron and Evan Steed allow customers to choose their own movers from the "starting lineup" of employees featured on the company's website. The movers are college athletes who post not only their picture but also their height, weight, college, sports, and the number of moves they've completed. The company offers a free "concierge" service to relocating customers: they can recommend landscapers, real-estate attorneys, babysitters, housekeepers, etc. Best of all, Meathead works with local women's shelters to move victims of domestic violence free of charge. Exceptional service + compelling social mission = competitive advantage.
  • Restoration Cleaners. Brian Adams knew nothing about the dry-cleaning business when he started his Houston, TX company. But he did know that restoration of goods damaged by fire, flood, and smoke was an increasingly lucrative niche in the industry. So he assembled a nation-wide peer group of experts to teach him the business and to share best practices. He also tapped into the hotel market and is now the largest cleaner for hotels in Houston. Untapped niche + collective peer group intelligence = competitive advantage.
Have you found your own competitive advantage in a mature and/or fragmented industry? Whether you're an Upstart or an Alpha Dog or both, drop me a line!