Instead of just selling your time – a finite resource that, for a service-based company, limits your ability to grow and earn more – you can build products that serve your existing clients equally well but can be sold over and over to clients old and new. Here I offer my guide to transforming your business in an achievable way and without interrupting your earnings.
You’ll want to read on, if this is you
- You provide great services and you’re pretty good at what you do:
- You know you do good work for clients.
- You’ve invested in building your skills and come up with some unique approaches along the way to solving clients’ problems.
- Your business is going OK but by now you should be doing a lot better:
- You don’t have enough time to work on the business because you’re always in the business, working for clients and landing the next client.
- You make a good living but you keep hitting a ceiling: there are only so many hours in a day.
- Your work has a significant impact for your clients and you’d love to be able to help a lot more.
Over the last 20+ years, as one of the UK’s leading business coaches, I’ve seen these realities in dozens of companies I’ve worked with. Indeed, this described my own business until a few years ago.
So I changed my business. And now I’m talking here about how I can help you to change yours: to grow your business or the bottom line or both, in a highly achievable way.
Let’s talk about your future products-based business
The concept is pretty simple.
Instead of charging your clients for services, by the day or by the deliverable, you build products. They’re just as effective for your clients, they solve the same problems and challenges, they still deliver your unique skills, experience, insights and approaches … but you can sell them more than once, simultaneously, to existing clients and new ones, and reach many more clients than you could when just selling your time.
Your products can be off-the-shelf or tailored to individual clients; most often, they’re a combination of the two – as personalised (or not) as you wish.
My job is to guide you through the transformation, choose the right products, market and implement them.
So that’s productising?
That’s the starter concept. But there’s more. When I talk about productising, I also talk about building an ecosystem of your products. I talk about creating a lot more impact for clients and simultaneously growing your business much faster than following the old models of working on projects or billable days.
Also, of course, I talk about creating a much more secure financial future for you.
And I’ve found that when I talk about how services can become products, the kinds of products people might create for an ecosystem, how to create them and how you can do it while still running your services business…well, people lean in and start listening.
How can services can become products?
Over the years, you will have built up a tremendous amount of expertise in your specialist subject. You probably take it all for granted but when I work with people I’m often amazed by the depth of knowledge and experience they have. It’s fascinating.
Much of this experience can be quickly transformed into products once you look at it with a fresh perspective.
When I talk about creating products, I encourage people to take a new look at what they do and recognise which parts of this might be called their magic. You might see it as the standard tools of your trade, the experience of working with dozens of clients to refine your approach – but because you’ve taken what you do to a new level and made it your own, to the rest of us it’s magic.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
At the moment, your clients essentially just want you to solve their problems. They may not realise you’re using your magic to do it – they just rely on you for the end results.
When you build products, you’re still using your magic to solve problems for clients but you’re presenting the magic in a form that the clients can use themselves, so they need less of you. If you put enough know-how into the products, maybe they don’t need you at all: they can just get on with it.
It’s all about getting your magic to clients in a different way.
And it takes a shift in how you think of success. For your whole working life as a service provider, you’ve wanted your clients to need you. You were selling you. Now your end goal is a situation where they don’t need you at all. You want them to need your products.
Productising your services means taking you (at least partly) out of the equation. No more hours and hours solving individual clients’ problems for them. Which, of course, gives you the bonus of finally being in control of how you spend your time. You decide when you work and how you work. And productising allows you to create those results for a whole load more people.
What kinds of products can be created?
When I talk about productising, people sometimes jump onto the idea of an online course. It’s not a bad idea. Online courses can be a great way to work with lots of clients – they fulfil the adage about it being better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish. Your clients can learn the methodologies, tools and techniques you’ve developed over the years and then solve their challenges themselves, on their own.
But online courses aren’t your only option. Other ways to productise what you do include simple guides and how-tos, in writing or on video (or podcast) or as flow-charts or infographics. They can include templates, maybe offered as one-off downloads for a flat price or as part of something more substantial. To entice in more clients at a higher value to you, they might be one-off taster products like feedback reports, discovery sessions and workshops. And then there are group programmes, audits and dashboards…
(Keep reading for more ideas.)
Your magic can be exhibited in many ways – and whether products are sold individually or as packages or subscriptions, the result becomes more powerful as a whole ecosystem.
Some ways you can move to this new business model while still running your existing services business
You could productise the repetitive elements of your existing services. This is often the quickest way to get going.
To productise your existing services, start by identifying the processes you use over and over for clients. Usually, there are some operations you do for just about every client. You may not even see them as such: they’ve probably become second nature.
For example, as a business coach I’ve had a conversation with every client about what they wanted their future to look like, then a second conversation about how much income would make them feel financially secure. I could have set up a way to have those (and many more) conversations without me being in the room, saving the clients and me a whole lot of time. And I would probably have got better, more profound answers as well.
By streamlining those processes – getting the client to do a lot of the work under your guidance or setting up a foolproof way for someone else to do this part of work for you – you can cut down the amount of repeat work you have to do for each client by up to 70%. But you can (and should!) still charge the same amount for the end result.
I’ve been through this process with hundreds of people now. I’ve developed a set of tools to break down and re-engineer processes in almost any business. And I’ve seen the results people have got from this almost straight away. The most frequent comment is “Julia, I wish I’d done this years ago.”
Those tools are some of the products in my product ecosystem.
You could codify and productise your knowledge
The next step for many of us is to build even more scalable products and a transformative business model. This is where you move right away from client-by-client service delivery to developing products that can help hundreds of clients at the same time.
To achieve this, you need to be able to codify your knowledge: get it out of your head and into a product that solves clients’ problems. Capture your magic so that it can be passed onto many more people
I’ve already talked about online courses and suggested a few other ideas. You might also use your expertise to develop:
- Worksheets for your clients to use
- ‘If X then Y’-type decision trees, based on your experience of a particular decision process you’ve historically guided your clients through
- Decision-making tools and widgets
- Audit frameworks
- Spreadsheet-based tools
- Real-time dashboards
These could be online, web-based tools or downloads, sold individually or as packages, or available as part of a subscription-based offer.
Why not start with baby steps?
Think about those documents, spreadsheets and tools you often use: maybe some are already sitting in your drive. Or maybe you have a process you use all the time at a critical point in many client projects. Which of those could become your first product?
- One of my best products is a spreadsheet I formulated from a matrix diagram I originally drew in my notebook for a client. Something I once devised for a single client can now solve a particular problem for any number of clients.
- I worked with someone who wrote down a particular marketing process of hers as an eight-page pdf. That was her first product. In two years, she’d earned 65k from sales of that pdf alone. Once she saw what was happening, she quickly developed some other products to go with it and gave up her hourly-rate business entirely.
What do you have that you could turn into your first mini product to get you started? How many mini products would you need to sell before you could replace some of your billable hours … and therefore free up time to work on even more creations for your product ecosystem?
Create products that enable you to look after many clients at the same time
Your aim may be to create a product that provides for many clients, concurrently, yet uses less of your time and effort than just one project does at the moment.
It means you can get your expertise, your magic, out to the world on a much larger scale, creating a bigger impact and helping more people. Isn’t that what you’re here for?
Here are a few examples I’ve worked with people on creating:
- ALEX had been a specialist health coach for 12 years, helping clients change their mindsets and bodies. He was successful, usually booked out for his one-to-one work.Alex changed to offering group programmes; that way he could work with a group of twelve people at a time. By doing this, he could help more people and they enjoyed the additional support from the group. Alex ended up tripling his profits and gaining time between programmes to go on holiday and recharge his batteries, which he’d never been able to do properly before.
- PAULA offered a series of group training sessions in her specialist area. She set this up as a lower value trip-wire product, intending that this would just be a marketing exercise to find clients for her high-value bespoke training services.Instead, she found that the group sessions were so popular and created so many promising leads that she had to create an online course to cope with demand. Nowadays, Paula does only a handful of bespoke training sessions because she enjoys doing them – but only if she doesn’t have to do them every day.
- MICHAEL was running a digital branding agency. With six people on the payroll, he was always worried about feast or famine.He originally wanted to have some recurring income products just to balance out his cash flow … but once he started productising, he got into it and now runs his whole business on a recurring income model. His clients feel they’re getting a bargain because they know what they need to pay each month. And staff enjoy being super productive because they have repeating tasks for each client. Michael told me that he hadn’t had to even think about cash flow this year, despite taking out a big chunk of retained profits to buy a new house.
You can create group programmes, accelerators, masterclasses or one-to-many training sessions. More tech-oriented people can build automated dashboards, benchmarking reports or software products. Data specialists can develop audits and, with simple to use, 21st-century low-code tools, even the not-so-technical among us can build assessment tools and trend reports.
Create recurring income from your existing clients
When you’re stuck in the traditional consultancy model, you know exactly what I mean by feast or famine. It’s always the same. There’s either too much work coming in all at once, so you don’t have time to think, or there’s nothing at all and you start to worry about cashflow and paying the bills.
So consider creating products that bring in recurring income from your existing clients. There’s a clear business case for developing these products first. You probably already have clients who will buy them and you will continue to solve their problems over time.
It’s an easy way to start getting your head around building products. It can give you the fast reward of some extra income without having to do extra billable hours. And it will give you ideas about more products and about how they can replace your services.
Some practical examples
Here are a few recurring income products I’ve seen people successfully add to their existing businesses.
- LAURA, an executive coach, took some of the slides and handouts she’d produced over the years and created a resource library. She offered it as an add-on for her coaching sessions and made it clear that people would need these resources for years to come.
- TOM, a business process expert, devised a specific toolkit for each of his clients. It was based on a template that he tweaked slightly for each client and then offered as an online reference, charging a small annual fee for access.
- DAVID, a GDPR consultant, productised his service offering by writing up his expertise as a series of templates. These made his life much easier, as each client assignment could now be done from the templates rather than creating all the documents from scratch. He then offered a recurring fee guarantee to update the documents every time there was a change in case law about GDPR.
Why I love the recurring income model so much
These three examples show a way of working that becomes more powerful with each new product because the financial effect on your business is cumulative. Even if each client pays only a small monthly fee for each product, you can start to build up a tremendous recurring income line in your accounts.
There are many formats, permutations and possibilities. Each one can be moulded and stamped with your magic.
Is productisation the only way to grow a service-based business?
Productisation isn’t the only way to grow. There are other options.
- You could put up your prices and get more selective about your clients. I’ve advised hundreds of people and written a whole book on how to achieve what I call your sweetspot price. Check out Sweetspot Pricing.But you can nevertheless hit a ceiling, albeit a better paid one, because your commodity is still your time and you still have only so many hours in a day.
- You could build an agency, creating a team, establishing a brand and going after commissions you can’t fulfil on your own. Some people who do this eventually reach a point where they can step back from the day-to-day and maybe take the odd holiday.But you need an appetite for risk (the wages bill!) and often investment or capital to get going. Some people love it but it’s not for everyone. And a fair amount of time may pass before you see decent rewards.
Or you may want to grow your business more rapidly but only reduce your current income stream when you’re ready. Building products and developing a product ecosystem can do this for you.
So why isn’t everyone productising, Julia?
To be completely transparent, there are a few dangers you should be aware of, not least an initial period of even harder work than you’re doing now.
It isn’t for everyone
Some people will give you some story about immediate “six figure launches”, how you just need 20 people to sign up to your £200 per month membership programme, explosive customer growth…blah blah. I’m sure you’ve seen these stinky devils and their nonsense.
Here in the real world, product development takes time. But many of us can’t afford six months off to make the first one: we have mouths to feed and mortgages to pay. So there’s no overnight change. But there are clear processes.
If you need a monthly income from your services business, yet you yearn to get away from the trap of trading time for money, you have three options.
- Work very hard and put enough money away for you to step back one or two days a week, to work on products.
- Start by building some very simple products, to give you a proof of concept, and build or buy into the basic e-commerce infrastructure. That way, you can use the starter products to “buy back your time” from the business to spend on building bigger products. Then you’ll feel justified in investing more time developing more complex products, and the simple products will have helped you build a list of engaged, qualified customers who trust you and are ready to buy the next thing from you.
- Identify rapid development techniques for building multiple products in your ecosystem.
I’ve worked out such rapid development techniques over the years of creating my own products – usually by doing things the wrong way round and then realising there was a much quicker way. We cover how to do this in detail in Pivot to Products and Productise Your Expertise.
You can combine all three options, of course. With some clever scheduling, you can be on course to develop three or four products in six months without having to lose any income.
Pivoting to products involves new thinking
Most people don’t want to be old dogs learning new tricks. They love what they do, they’re comfortable with how they do it (even if it isn’t the “best” way) and they enjoy gradually improving.
I get it. Changing your business model, investing time and money in learning how to develop products, talking to clients differently, taking a step back to work out the best way… it can be very uncomfortable. It’s not uncommon to experience some doubt about whether it’s all worth it. And, to be 100% transparent again, it’s not uncommon for people to start planning a product with great enthusiasm and then to lose momentum quickly.
That’s precisely why I’ve worked on rapid development techniques and positive feedback loops to support people while they change the way they work – to make sure that you can maintain momentum and get the products out there so that people can buy them.
It also gives you a natural competitive advantage
Most service-based people don’t want to learn how to build products. Or they start with the infrastructure and quickly get bogged down in endless choices about which tech platforms to use.
This means that most of your competitors aren’t doing it. 99% of businesses will never make even a simple lead generation product that would maybe take a day to set up, let alone invest time in building a series of related products which work together as a product ecosystem.
And if 99% of businesses will never do this, it means your competitors are very unlikely ever to do it. And if there’s something that will make you more money, help you generate more leads, be more efficient and stand out from the rest, and it’s something your competitors will never do…well maybe that’s the signal that you should be doing it.
“When the world zigs, zag”
The first steps in building your products
I strongly advise you to resist jumping straight into writing down all the shiny, exciting products you could make. I know how tempting it is but let’s hold off for a moment.
I’ve got some questions to help you do a little soul searching first. These are the questions we seek to answer at the beginning of the Productise Your Expertise programme.
- Who are my customers and what do they truly want from me to make things better for them?
- Are these the customers I want to continue to serve?
- Would I be selling products to my existing or former customers, or do I need to attract a whole new tribe of people? Or both?
- What is my Zone of Genius? And how do I want to spend my time differently in the next 10 years to how I’ve been spending it in the last 10 years?
- What changes do I need to make that will give me at least one half-day a week to spend on this?
- If I started my transition to building my product ecosystem now, what meaningful differences would I want this to make to my business and my life?
- What help and support do I need to make this happen?
Oh yes, help and support in making this happen
Fortunately, you’re in the right place, and you’ve done the right thing by reading this article.
At this point, you’re probably thinking either:
“Yes. Yes, I need to do this or nothing will ever change around here.”
“Well, this sounds like me, and I’ve had a think about those questions, but I don’t know how to get started and I don’t want to mess this up. How do I get some help with this?”
The fastest route to getting help with changing to a products based business
Join the next group of people on the Productise Your Expertise course. This six-month programme takes you all the way through the journey of building (and selling) your product ecosystem. Here are full details of Productise Your Expertise, including the next dates.