Some industries have been around almost as long as commerce itself. For new companies in markets like clothing and furniture, there are two options: Stick with the time-tested status quo, or take a risk and try something new. These six startups took the latter path and put their own twists on each of their respective, long-standing industries.
The company: Boll & Branch
The industry: Textiles
What do you do when you're going to launch a business in an unfamiliar market and every industry veteran tells you that you're doing it wrong? For the founders of Boll & Branch, sellers of fair trade, organic bedding, the answer was to keep doing it anyway.
CEO Scott Tannen and his wife/co-founder Missy, outsiders to the world of textiles, set out to create an honest company that bucked the unethical labor practices and high markups that are standard in much of the industry. By avoiding importers, exporters and expensive licensing fees, Boll & Branch is able to sell a high-quality product at an affordable price, all while supporting fair wages and sweatshop-free labor.
Tannen said they were told they were overpaying for materials and not building enough profit into their business, but despite the critics' warnings, their self-funded startup flourished.
"We have incredible pride that we've proven that luxury and ethics can go hand in hand," Tannen said. "Watching our business grow so quickly and virally has been incredible validation and a source of pride for us. But most importantly, our customers rightly feel that they are a part of our story and our mission to change this industry." [10 Ways to Know You Have a Good Business Idea]
The company: Comite MD
The industry: Medicine
With the exception of an annual physical exam, most people only go to the doctor when they're sick. This disease-centric model of treating symptoms as they appear has long been the standard, but a handful of visionary practitioners believe that an alternative method called precision medicine (PM) is more effective. This customized, tailored approach treats individual patients based on their genetics, medical histories and lifestyles.
One such practitioner is Dr. Florence Comite, a New York City-based endocrinologist whose precision medicine practice offers proactive, preventative medical care that helps patients remain healthy throughout their lifetimes. Much of this care is based on individual genome mapping, as well as lifestyle and environmental factors.
"Your genome helps figure out how to best predict what path you'll follow on your health trajectory," Comite said. "What happens in [your family's health] is a guide to where you're going, but you can't look at a gene map and say, 'This is your destiny' — it's your life. There are other drivers within your ... environment that cause disease. Wouldn't it be great if we could take control of our own maps, and [therefore] our health and happiness?"
Comite noted that it's been difficult to convince others in the industry to rethink their approach to traditional medicine, but she's hopeful that consumer technology such as fitness trackers and health apps will advance the understanding of and demand for precision medicine.
The company: Fractured Atlas
The industry: Arts services
Technology has revolutionized nearly every conceivable industry in the last couple of decades, from improving the efficiency of processes to keeping consumers and businesses better connected. In the early 2000s, an off-off-Broadway production company called Fractured Atlas saw an opportunity to bring tech into the arts services industry. They saw that this could help artists learn the practical business and technology skills they need to become thriving entrepreneurs.
"Producing theater and dance on a shoestring budget gave me first-hand experience with the obstacles that independent artists face," said Adam Huttler, founder and executive director of Fractured Atlas. "I managed to develop some innovative solutions to a lot of common challenges, like insurance and fundraising. When Fractured Atlas was reborn as a service organization in 2002, we essentially took those solutions and ... made them accessible and affordable to a whole community of artists and organizations."
Huttler said that his national, multi-disciplinary company met with skepticism at first, as arts service organizations are typically specific to a particular discipline or geographic region. But adopting the mentality and attitude of a tech startup has helped Fractured Atlas innovate and thrive, and ultimately help artists make a living doing what they love.
"If we stand still or are afraid to change, we'll stagnate and be disrupted," Huttler said. "We have to listen to the field and be responsive to its needs, while at the same time being creative about solutions that might not be obvious to folks working in the trenches. We can't be afraid to try new things or shut down old things that no longer serve their purposes."
The company: Jack Erwin
The industry: Men's dress shoes
Fashion changes almost constantly, but over the years, a few key designs and styles have continually resurfaced in the public's collective wardrobe. For women, it's the "little black dress" and a pair of pumps. For men, it's the classic dress shoe, and e-commerce startup Jack Erwin is looking to bring that item back into the spotlight in a big way.
"The simple basics we grew up wearing were no longer available," said co-founder Lane Gerson of the inspiration behind Jack Erwin. "Where are the classic, clean men's dress shoes? Everything [in our price range] was stylized and trendy. We can make a beautiful, timeless dress shoe that's affordable [and] accessible."
Gerson and co-founder Ariel Nelson said that by showcasing classic styles rather than trying to make their own statement, their company is able to stand out by bringing tradition back to a market that's become all about chasing trends. As it turns out, the shoe literally and figuratively fit: Just a few short months after Jack Erwin's October 2013 launch, all 3,000 pairs of shoes from their initial batch sold out, and sales have only grown from there.
"Because we're direct-to-customer, we have the ability to own every [customer] relationship," Gerson said. "Men are loyal — when we find a brand that speaks to us, [we want] to re-engage over and over. [Jack Erwin] starts and works [on] that dialogue with customers."
The company: Leesa
The industry: Mattresses
The basic mattress as consumers know it today has been around for centuries. While materials and construction may have changed over the years, the mattress and its function have remained essentially unchanged. So how can a company shake up this industry? As fast-growing mattress startup Leesa will tell you, it's all about the experience.
Leesa was founded with the simple mission to give its customers the best night's sleep possible. The company's American-made, compressed "mattress in a box" uses a unique combination of foams and a design focused on comfort. But what really sets Leesa apart is the hassle-free shopping experience. According to founder and CEO David Wolfe, one of Leesa's goals was to eliminate the awkward, uncomfortable process of mattress showroom sales.
"We make shopping for a mattress very simple," Wolfe said. "You're not dealing with that awful showroom moment where a salesperson is telling you the difference [between mattresses]. It's easy to order [online], and you get 100 nights to try it."
In addition to Leesa's risk-free, no-questions-asked return policy, the company is also committed to bringing a better night's sleep to as many people as it can by offering sleep education resources and donating one mattress to a shelter for every 10 it sells.
The company: Opoli
The industry: Ride share
With the steep competition and legal issues surrounding private-transportation tech giants Uber and Lyft, it might seem nearly impossible to enter the ride share industry successfully. But that hasn't stopped one entrepreneur from trying to not only break into the field, but to do it better.
Rattan Joea, founder and CEO of transportation app Opoli, has put his 20 years of car service industry experience to use by providing a way for consumers to easily and safely schedule a private car service. Unlike its main competitors, Opoli allows you to hand-select a fully insured, commercially licensed professional driver and the specific vehicle (Town Car, BMW, Mercedes Benz or Tesla) to transport you for a fixed price.
"We know how to move people with efficiency ... by optimizing the experience with our technology," Joea said. "Our mission is to replace your car by providing a safe, efficient and price-sensitive transportation option."
Despite the regulatory difficulties of the car service industry, Joea said he is confident that Opoli will benefit both commuters and the environment, as the company is determined to reduce the number of cars on the road and cut down on pollution.