hipmunk [hip-muhnk], 1. verb: To bring sexiness and simplicity into an existing industry with a fresh approach that delights people. Example: The real estate mortgage industry really sucks. Someone should hipmunk it. 2. noun: Startup funded by Y Combinator that makes it easier to find flights.
The word disruption is thrown around way too much. It's often used to describe ideas that are not disruptive. Recently though, I've noticed a trend of YCombinator backed startups that follow a similar theme: Go after an industry or process that is excruciatingly painful and make it better. Sure all startups are about solving a pain point, but in the case of Hipmunk and others, the pain is chronic and unbearable.
Find Something Tied To A Process That Consistently Sucks
Some things are just a pain and never ever change. The industries that can be hipmunked are ones that you repeatedly ask yourself "Why hasn't anyone made this better?" It can't be a temporary cure either, it needs to be a full blown relief of pain. In the case of HelloFax , it seemed like a silly idea at first to most. Fax machines are a thing of the past it would seem, but in reality they aren't. With all of the innovation we've had, trying to send a fax is still a pain. EFax is cumbersome and real fax machines are far worse. Every blue moon, there is no way to do anything other than send a fax. It's still horrible. With HelloFax, they took a process that consistently sucks and made it just work.
Simple And Clean Interfaces Come First
One of the best ways to make a product enjoyable and easy to use is with an interface that is simple+clean. Give the user what they want, the bare essentials, and make the information easy to digest. It's not about being the prettiest either. I love the hipmunk interface, but it's not whiz bang beautiful. It's clean, simple, and organizes information well. The flow of information should come first and foremost in a clean interface. Problematic and painful industries usually have a high amount of friction between the customer and information. They usually want to access or deliver information in a fast manner, but it often takes way longer than they would like.
It Will Probably Be Unsexy...So Make It Sexy
The industries most ripe for disruption are usually the unsexy ones that no one wants to touch. That's okay, look at it like the startup version of the popular teen movie "She's All That". Find the ugly one and turn them into something absolutely beautiful. It's not in the DNA of unsexy industries to think about everything else in this article. That's why they're unsexy and people despise them. The travel industry? Absolutely boring. Look at email. Everyone thinks that email is long dead and gone, but at the end of the day it's still widely used. Companies like Groupon and Thrillist are growing faster than any other company before. They figured out how to leverage an unused, unsexy asset and make it work for the user.
Take a look at Square. Payment processing is a sleezy, unsexy, and just headache of an industry. Square took that and turned it on its head. They added a beautiful interface and made it frictionless for real world merchants to have a payment processing engine without the headaches involved.
Call Out Your Competitor
Don't be afraid to call out your competitor and wage war. You should be respectful of course, but it's okay to stir the pot. Look at Salesforce. They proclaimed the end of downloadable desktop software and Marc Benioff was no stranger to letting the world know the companies that are his enemy. His spat with Microsoft is supposedly one of the greatest things that ever happened to the company!
Deliver Great Support
Most unsexy industries don't have a love for customer support. It's not that they deliver bad customer support, it's just that they don't deliver GREAT customer support. Zappos for example... they sell shoes. Who would have ever thought that a shoe retailer could be an iconic company? Well, Zappos is really a company with great customer service that happens to sell shoes. If you have a passion for support that mirrors Zappos, you can extend the great experience you deliver with your application to the real human interaction you may have with customers.
Look For An Industry That Rarely Changes
I've always believed that those who get comfortable and think they are immune to disruption are the most likely to be disrupted. Having a large customer base makes large incumbents feel like they will never leave. In actual reality, they will, but they just need a great solution... your solution. Problems don't make people change. Problems make people search for a solution. Until a good solution exists, they stick with the current one. It's like a do while loop of seemingly neverending pain. Do deal with pain while looking for a better solution, until you find a better one.
Work Towards Building Fanatics
The hipmunk mascot is barely a year old I believe, but boy do people love that little critter. Some have even created fan art! In a short period of time, Hipmunk has created valuable brand equity and fanatical customers. Some companies never get to achieve that. If you're able to resolve pain, finding fanatical customers will happen a lot faster.
Be Disruptive, But Respectful
It's fun to shake things up, call out your competitors, and make a lot of noise, but always be a gentleman or a classy lady. Have logic and let people see the rationale behind your argument. You should always have an answer that is more than "just because". Show those trapped in the Matrix why your solution is better and will free them from the pain that currently exists. Use a loud mouth and PR to get the world's eyes on you, but deliver sound logic. There is a thin line between being passionate and just being insane. Rationale is usually the difference.
Focus On Power Users
Not every solution should do this, but I noticed that it worked very very well for Hipmunk. A lot of the people that I know who are Hipmunk users, travel VERY often. Sometimes you just want to focus on the normal users, but you can get fanatical users and strong advocates by solving the pain for those that have it the most often. A person that travels multiple times a month with long flights is much more likely to want your solution when you first launch/unproven than a person that travels a few times a year, often for vacation+light work travel. Hipmunk, padmapper, hellofax, and others are just the start. The number of processes that are beyond painful run deep and present a world of opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs. What other industries are ready to be "hipmunked"? My vote: the domain purchasing industry. Someone should "hipmunk" Godaddy :).
Originally published on OnStartups