Your guide to building a products based business

Want to grow and scale your business but never have the time?

Let me know if you recognise any of these about your business:

You know that you do good work for clients

You’re already pretty good at what you do, and you’ve invested time, money and brainpower in building those skills

The business is doing okay, but you know that at this stage of the game, you could be doing a helluva lot better

You’ve come up with some unique ways of solving problems for customers along the way

You constantly feel that you just don’t have enough time to work on the business, cos you’re always busy with client work. Or the hustle that’s needed to land the next client.

You know that you can have a significant impact for your clients, and you’d love to be able to do that for a lot more people

You get a good living out of your company, but your earnings never get past a certain point because there are only so many hours in the day.

 

How many boxes did you tick along the way there?

Yup, me too, a couple of years ago. And over the last 20+ years of being one of the UK’s leading business coaches, I’ve seen this in dozens of companies I’ve worked with.

Interested in changing things up?

When you’re in this situation, you have a few options to move forward.

You could:

Build an agency

Start employing other people to do the client work and build an agency. That’s what lots of people do. It makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ve built up a reputation in your area, you get recommended for work, and you simply don’t have enough hours in the day to look after all the client work.

Building an agency is one way through this. Nothing wrong with it at all. And some people love it, creating a team, working with other people, establishing a brand. And a few of those people eventually get to the point where they can step back from the day to do day client work and maybe take a holiday once in a while.

It takes a lot of effort and an appetite for risk. But it’s not right for everyone. After all, you’re the one who’s responsible for making sure that everyone else gets paid at the end of the month.

Increase prices until you hit the next ceiling

Or, you can just put your prices up, do some extra marketing and be super selective about which clients you take on. That’s one way to make sure that you earn a decent living and enjoy doing high-quality work for clients who appreciate you enough to pay you good money.

I’ve written a whole book about how to take this route, in fact, and I’ve advised hundreds of clients on how to increase their prices to what I call your sweetspot price. Check out Sweetspot Pricing on how to go this route.

The trouble with this route is that you can end up hitting another ceiling. Eventually, even with all the Sweetspot Pricing Resource Pack techniques, you end up back where you started. Albeit with some more money in your pocket. I see founders all the time who have pushed their efficiency and their prices as far as they can go, and they’re still ambitious to build their business further. And to create more of an impact for more clients.

Those people are often hungry to learn new ways of working and grow their business more rapidly. Maybe this is when you hit a more expensive stage of life and want to pay off the mortgage and support your children; you need the business to make more profit. Or it’s when you’re ready to move on to a new stage – you want a new adventure.

 

That’s when I start talking about productising.

In particular, I start talking about building your ecosystem of products as a way of creating a whole lot more impact for clients, growing a business much faster than the old models of working on projects or billable days. And, of course, creating a much more secure financial future.

And what I’ve found is that when I start talking about the possibilities that come with creating a product ecosystem, the different ways that you can do this, and how you can do this while still running your services business…well, people lean in and start listening.

Let me tell you what I mean by productising and building a product ecosystem.

Changing to a products based business

It’s pretty simple.

Instead of charging your clients by the day or for the work you do for them, we transform how you work by building products that serve your clients. When you do this, you find that you can cut through all that transactional hassle of traditional client engagements and get straight to solving whatever challenges your client comes to you to solve for them.

Sometimes when I talk about this, people jump to the idea of an online course. And often, that’s a good jump; online courses can be a great way of working with lots of clients. Online courses can fulfil the adage about teaching a person to fish, rather than just giving them a fish you’ve caught. You can put the methodologies, tools and techniques you’ve developed over the years into the clients’ hands, enabling them to solve their challenges without much input from you.

However, online courses aren’t your only option. There are many other ways to productise what you do. Simple guides and templates, one-off taster products like feedback reports, discovery sessions and workshops, which bring in more clients at a higher value to you. And then there are group programmes, audits and dashboards…

It’s all about getting your magic to your clients in a different way

Over the years, you will have built up a tremendous amount of expertise in your specialist subject. You probably take all this for granted, but when I talk to people about how they currently work and how they could change to a products based business, I’m amazed by the depth of knowledge and experience people have. It’s fascinating. Much of this experience can be quickly transformed into products once you look at it with a fresh perspective.

I encourage you to take a new look at what you do and recognise which parts of this might be called your magic or your superpowers. At the moment, you see it as the standard tools of your trade, the experience of working with dozens of clients to refine your approach, but to the rest of us, it’s magic because you’ve taken what you do to a new level.

 

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C Clarke

At the moment, your clients just want their problems solved, and they rely on you to help them do this. They probably don’t even realise that you’re using your magic to do this – because they’ve come to rely on the end results.

When you build a products based business, you’re still using your magic to solve problems for clients. But you’re getting that magic into a form that the clients can use themselves, so they need less of you. Maybe they don’t need you at all because you’ve put enough know-how into the products that they can just get on with it.

Let’s think of how we work with clients in a different way

 

They’re human beings, right? Every single client you work with has a whole set of challenges and problems. Even the folks in the procurement department of the biggest mega-corporation are human beings with a bunch of challenges and issues.

When you work with a client, even those clients who you’ve done repeated work with for years, they want you because you can help them with a sub-set of their human being type problems.

If you’re a copywriter, your clients don’t want your beautiful copy. They want help with their challenge. Whether that’s having some copy to fill up a particular page on their brochure or having some copy which will sell their product, they have a problem they need to solve.

If you’re a technical consultant, such as an SEO expert, a web developer or an accountant…your customers don’t want “search engine optimisation”, or your “flawless integration of WooCommerce and Mailchimp.” And they didn’t get out of bed this morning thinking, “WhoopyDoopy, today’s the day I send off my beautiful Corporation Tax to HMRC.” Or whatever it is that you do for them.

Sorry.

What they want is for potential customers to find their website on Google. Your clients want their website to do its magic without them having to think about it. And for the tax nonsense to be all dealt with so they don’t have to worry about it.

Even with the closest, most confidential services such as therapy or coaching, your clients don’t want the process you offer them. They don’t want to sit for hours talking to you – they want to feel better.

Productising your services means taking you (at least partly) out of the equation. It means sorting out your clients’ challenges and problems in a different way. A way that doesn’t involve you spending hours and hours doing it 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.

Interested?

Some ways you can move to this new business model

The most obvious way is to just productise some or all of your existing services. This is a good starting point and is often the quickest way to get going with productising your business.

To get started with productising your existing services, you need to first identify the processes you do over and over for your clients. Usually, there are some operations which you do for just about every client; they’ve probably become second nature for you. As a business coach, I have a conversation about what they wanted their future to look like with every client. And a second conversation about how much money they would need to make to feel financially secure. I could have set up a way to have those (and many more) conversations with clients without me being in the room and saved myself and my clients a whole lot of time. And I would 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 work you have to do for each client by up to 70%.

I’ve been through this process with hundreds of people now. And 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.”

Codifying your knowledge and getting it into a product

Some people are happy to dramatically reduce the amount of time they spend on each client assignment, especially when they realise that they can (and should) charge at least the same amount per client.

But many of us want to take the next step and build products that are even more scaleable. And move to a business model where our work changes from client 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. To get it out of your head, and into a product. By writing and recording your magic, you can pass it on to many more people. And be able to solve their challenges and problems.

You might make an online course where you teach others how to do what you’ve spent all this time and effort learning the best ways to do whatever it is that you do. There are a bunch of different formats and ways you can serve your clients’ needs in a better way than just doing the work for them. What about using 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
  • Online decision-making tools and widgets
  • Audit frameworks
  • Templates
  • Spreadsheet-based tools
  • Real-time dashboards

There are many options for taking the work you currently do for clients and making products which enable them to get the same results, without you having to do it for them. You can choose which ones would get the best results for your customers and then build it so they can get going. They don’t need you to hold their hands.

Baby steps to productising with what you already have

Once you start thinking about this, you often remember those documents, spreadsheets and tools you use in your work. Sometimes these are already sitting on your hard drive. Or maybe you have a process you use all the time at a critical point in a client project. One of my best products is a spreadsheet I formulated from a matrix diagram I drew in my notebook for clients. And I worked with a client who wrote down an eight-page pdf of a process she’d used herself in marketing. That was her first product. In two years, she’d earned 65k from sales of that pdf alone. Once she saw the sales coming in from this, 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? Which then frees up your time to work on the next ones in your product ecosystem?

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 cash flow and paying the bills.

I invite you to think about creating products that bring in recurring income from your existing services business clients. The wonderful part of this is that it can be a straightforward way to start building your product ecosystem, as you probably already have the clients who will buy these products, so there’s a clear business case for developing these first products. Your clients love you even more because your products carry on solving their problems over time, so there’s even more impact.

People who take this approach find it an easy way to start getting your head around building products. And one which gives you the fast reward of some extra money coming in without having to do any additional billable hours. Soon after this, you’re likely to want to launch more products and think about how these can replace your services.

What kind of products might be helpful for clients and build a recurring income revenue stream?

Here are a few 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 made a resource library for her coaching clients. She made this an add on for her coaching sessions, making 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. Each one was a slightly different version of a template he made, so he still had to spend a little time tweaking each one. He made this into an online reference for his clients and charged a small fee for annual 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 then could 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 this recurring income model so much

This way of working becomes more and more powerful each time, because the financial effect on your business is cumulative. Even with a small monthly fee for a recurring income product, you can start to build up a tremendous recurring income line in your accounts.

  1. Make products that enable you to look after many clients at the same time

You’ve tried the traditional consultancy model, working for one client at a time and, when things are going well, juggling several at once. But that leaves you exhausted.

Why not 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?

That’s the way to get your expertise, your magic, out to the world on a much larger scale. It’s the way to create a much more significant impact, helping more people, changing the way they live and work. Isn’t that what you’re here for?

You can package up your expertise, know-how, techniques and resources into all kinds of products.

Here are a few 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 it more because they got additional support from the group. And of course, Alex ended up tripling his profits but had space in between running the 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, Paula found that the group sessions were so popular and created so many promising leads that she had to make an online course to cope with demand. Nowadays, Paula does only a handful of bespoke training sessions and only does those 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 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 that 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.

There are many formats, permutations and possibilities. Each one can be moulded and stamped with your magic.

That sounds brilliant. Why isn’t everyone doing this, Julia?

To be completely transparent, transitioning to a products based business and building your product ecosystem isn’t for everyone. There are a few dangers you should be aware of before starting on this journey.

When you need cash now. Many of us, myself included, delay our change to pure products because we need our business to produce money to live on right now. We don’t have the luxury of taking six months off to make a product because we have mouths to feed and mortgages to pay.

Some people will give you the 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.

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 a couple of options.

  1. Work very hard and put enough money away that you can step back a couple of days a week to work on products.
  2. Build some simple products first and develop a proof of concept and the basic e-commerce infrastructure first. That way, you can “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.
  3. Identify rapid development techniques for building multiple products in your ecosystem.

This last set of techniques is something I’ve worked out over the years of developing my products – usually by doing it the wrong way round and then realising that there was a much quicker way to do this. We cover how to do this in detail in Pivot to Products and Productise Your Expertise.

You can combine these 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, and they enjoy gradually getting better at it. And they’ve got comfortable working in one particular way, even if it’s not the best way, it’s the way they do it.

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 from what you do to work out what the best way to do the work is…these are all supremely uncomfortable. It’s not uncommon for people who start thinking about a products based business to experience a degree of existential doubt about whether this is all worth it. And, to be 100% transparent again, it’s not uncommon for people to enthusiastically start planning a product and then lose momentum quickly.

That’s precisely why I’ve worked on these 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.

That’s where the instant competitive advantage comes in

Most people either don’t want to learn how to build products or become uncomfortable and bogged down in endless choices about which tech platforms to use. And this means that your competitors aren’t doing this. 99% of businesses will never even make 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, we know that your competitors are very unlikely to do this. 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, that your competitors will never do…well maybe that’s the signal that you should be doing this.

 “When the world zigs, zag

Barbara Noakes

First steps with building your products

I strongly advise resisting instantly jumping into writing down all the shiny, exciting products you could make. I know how tempting that is, but let’s hold off on that for a little moment.

I’ve got some questions for you to do a little soul searching first. These are the questions we seek to answer at the beginning of the Productise Your Expertise programme.

  1. Who are my customers, and what do they truly want from me to make things better for them?
  2. Are these the customers who I want to continue to serve?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. What changes do I need to make in how I work right now to have at least one half-day a week to spend on this?
  6. 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?
  7. 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, otherwise, nothing will ever change around here.”

Or

“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?”

Note – for later – add this as a product block

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. Full details of Productise Your Expertise, including the next dates.