This article was updated for 2022.
When you decide you want to build your own business, one of the first questions you have to answer is "what am I going to sell?" You probably already have an idea of what you would like to sell - you have specific interests and skills others could find valuable - but narrowing down on how you're going to package and present your products or service to the world is still not easy. A service business is one of the easiest businesses to start - all you need to do is hang out your shingle (metaphorically speaking) and start selling your services. The downside is that a service business only makes money while you're delivering your services. Alternatively, you could build an app - build it once and sell it a thousand times, passive income at its best. The downside in this case is that you have to spend a lot of time and money developing the app before you can start making money.
But those are only two examples of the kinds of products and services you can sell. In total, there are six kinds of products or services you should be considering - they are:
- apps or tools;
- done for you services;
- teaching a skill;
- consulting; and
There are of course more kinds of products or services you can sell, but I'm focusing here on the types of products and services you should be considering for a smaller business. I'm going to explain what each type of product or service is and the pros and cons associated with each. I hope this will help you get clarity on the kind of business you would like to build.
Before we start
Before we start looking at the six types of products or services you can sell, there are a couple of assumptions I'm going to make:
- First, you have a skill or expertise. It doesn't matter what the skill or expertise is - you can be an interior designer, a personal fitness expert, a web developer or just know a lot about a specific area of business.
- Second, there is a need in the market for your expertise. People want beautiful homes or to look and feel great. Businesses need websites and expertise to get stuff done faster and cheaper.
- Third, you have a passion for what you do. Building a business is hard enough - if you don't have a passion for what you do you're going to find it difficult to stick through the tough times.
So with that in mind, let's look at the six types of products or services and the pros and cons of each.
Business type 1: Apps (tools)
Apps (applications) come in many forms and sizes. The smallest kind of app you can build is a tool that accomplishes a specific task. The range here is huge - think dating apps, fitness tracking apps, spreadsheets or more specific apps like mind mapping software or to do list managers.
The easiest kind of app to build is one that doesn't require post-sales support from you. These are typically tools designed to accomplish a specific task - one of my favourite examples is called Magnet (for Macs) which helps you organise windows on your computer screen. You buy the app, install and configure it and you're done. The developers don't have any back-end work to do outside of continuously updating the app to maintain compatibility with the operating system.
On the other end of the scale there are "apps" that require a lot of back-end work. Think Uber's apps, Salesforce or dating apps. Each of these apps require a large and complex back end that needs continuous maintenance, and there's a lot of marketing required to grow the number of subscribers. These are no longer just apps - they're platform businesses that deliver a lot of value and have huge growth potential, but require a correspondingly large support organisation.
In principle, apps (or tools) are build-once sell-many-times types of businesses. Simple apps don't require a lot of back end support, so in theory you can build your killer app and sit back and watch the money roll in.
More complex apps have bigger growth potential - you can literally build a million- or even billion-dollar business based on ecosystem or platform apps.
The biggest downside of apps is that they require a lot of up-front investment to develop, market and sell. You will also be up against a lot of competition, and especially in the case of simpler apps (that don't require a huge back end) it may be a fad that lasts for a while and then goes away.
If you're heading in the direction of a complex app (most SaaS, or Software as a Service, apps fall in this category) you will have to build a highly scalable back end. Not a task to be tackled without deep pockets or the ability to raise funds.
Business Type 2: Products
There are two kinds of physical products you can build a business around - own (or self-manufactured) products, and curated or sourced products.
Own products are (as the name suggests) products you create yourself. At the smaller end of the scale are hand-crafted products typically found on marketplaces like Etsy. The possibilities here are endless - everything from books to ashtrays to jewellery (and a whole lot more). Depending on the type of product you're selling you can potentially reach a world-wide market. If your product is perishable (all food products are), or is more difficult to transport, your market is going to be more local (think craft beer).
Curated products are products you source from somewhere else and curate into exclusive collections. Again, the possibilities are endless and well suited to your passion. If you love hammocks you could build a business just around sourcing and supplying the world's best selection of hammocks. If you're into model trains you could source hard-to-find parts and make them available to the small (but well-defined) model train enthusiast market.
A products business - whether you manufacture or source - can feed your passion. No matter how small and niche your passion is, I can almost guarantee there is a market big enough to support a business. And there's no stronger motivator than being passionate about something - that passion drives knowledge and expertise which can be translated into becoming the go-to source for that particular type of product.
All products require logistics - you have to manufacture or source, transport and deliver and maintain meticulous control over quality. This will often require substantial investments in equipment or stock; if you're sourcing products your suppliers may want you to order minimum quantities to make their prices competitive.
If you're curating products it may be difficult to find a supplier that can deliver the same quality consistently - especially if you're using drop shipping (the supplier or an intermediary delivers the product to the buyer - it doesn't go through you). Because you don't have eyes on the product, quality can vary and you may have to deal with sub-par products, return shipping, refunds and customer complaints.
And if you're manufacturing, you may have to invest in raw materials, equipment and staff - sometimes substantial amounts that you will only recoup over a longer period of time.
Business type 3: Done for you (DFY)
This is one of the easiest and fastest ways to build a business - you do something for your clients they can't or don't want to do themselves. Think building a website, or bookkeeping or accounting, or doing social media marketing for your clients.
Businesses (your clients) need a lot of stuff done that they don't have the time or skill to do themselves. When you offer to do it for them you can do it faster and better than they can, and if you do it right this can be a lucrative business.
Some DFY business types deliver the product of their work once and you're done (think building a website). There may be some future income from that work - after all, websites need maintenance. Other kinds of DFY businesses are based on repeat activities - think bookkeeping or accounting.
DFY businesses is one of my favourite types of businesses. You have a skill or expertise to deliver something your clients need, and they don't want, or need, to build the skills in-house so they can do it themselves. For example, a fractional CFO provides high-level financial skills for multiple small businesses at the same time to reduce the cost to each.
A DFY business is also very well suited to productised services. Sell your services as well-defined, fixed-price "products" and you make it easy for your clients to select the option best suited to them.
Depending on your skill and how you choose your market niche, you may have to deal with a lot of competition. Building a website, for example, is a highly competitive market and the DIY (Do It Yourself) options are getting better and better. You will have to choose your niche very carefully and stand out from the competition in some very specific ways.
The biggest downside of a DFY kind of business is that when you stop working, your revenue stops as well. Unless you can capture a very specific, lucrative section of the market you may end up competing on price, and that's a no-win for everybody involved.
Although it's not a "con" I would like to mention that you will have to get very good at marketing your expertise. You can make a good living from a DFY kind of business, but getting clients to find you and justifying a premium price can be a challenge.
Business type 4: Teach a skill
Teaching people how to do something can be a great business and there are lots of tools and platforms to give you a fast start. To see how popular the "teach a skill" kind of business is, just visit Lynda.com or Skillshare for examples of the kinds of courses available, and Teachable or Thinkific to see what the learning platforms can offer (there are many more).
Teaching a skill is attractive when your clients need (or want) to do a task themselves, and the task has to be done repeatedly. Many businesses want to do their own social media marketing but don't know how, so teaching them how to do it themselves can be a great business.
Info products are another way of teaching a skill or helping people solve a problem. One of my most popular info products is Productised Services - an info product that helps solopreneurs and small business owners package their services so they can work less and earn more.
Of course, teaching people a skill requires that you know enough about the topic to be able to teach it. But more importantly, you have to have a knack (or skill) for teaching, and not everyone is good at that.
There are at least two big advantages of teaching a skill. The first is the pure reward when your students are able to do something themselves. There's nothing more gratifying (at least for me) to see someone's eyes light up when they realise they are now able to do something they couldn't do before.
The second big advantage is that teaching a skill is highly scalable - if you turn your course into something that can be delivered online. You may start off teaching your skills to individuals or groups. Once you have your material stable you can turn it into an info product or online course - and in principle you now have passive income.
You will run into at least two major obstacles if you build a business around teaching a skill.
The first is competition. Unless you're teaching something really esoteric, chances are there are similar courses out there. It's easy to become discouraged when you see how "polished" the competitors' courses look (at least from the outside). You will need to stand out in some way, and finding that difference can be tough.
The second problem appears when you want to turn your live teaching into an online course. Creating a quality course is not a trivial task, though platforms like Teachable and Thinkific (and others) make this a lot easier. And once you have the course, your next problem will be marketing. It's not that easy to attract thousands of students to your online course, but if you can do it you will have a great passive income.
Business Type 5: Consulting
Consulting is effectively selling your time and expertise. You have a high level of competence in a specific area, and you're selling that competence to help clients solve a problem.
Most consulting engagements turn out to be a combination of advising and doing. For example, if you are a mechanical engineer and you help small manufacturing businesses improve production quality, your advice may help them improve the quality of their products. But it's only when you actually start showing them how to do something they get the full benefits of your expertise.
You can turn almost any competence into a consulting business - if there is a market for it and provided you can sell the value of your services. Film makers will use lots of "consultants" or advisors to make sure their film is at least somewhat true to life.
A consulting business - especially as a solopreneur - is relatively easy to start. There's relatively little you have to do up front to start out and most of the time no special equipment or tools.
Many consultants are forced into the role. The 2015-2016 oil price downturn saw huge layoffs in the oil and gas industry, and many highly-qualified engineers were forced into early retirement or had to fend for themselves. Many of them became consultants to the same industry they worked in before.
Consulting usually has a high price and can be difficult to sell. Depending on your expertise you may also have to cope with lots of competition, so your marketing and selling skills need to be above average to succeed.
One phenomenon that I see often in the consulting world is the whale client. You start out as a consultant, land your first engagement and it seems to keep going for months or even years. When you lose the client (as you inevitably will) you have no sales funnel, no marketing and you effectively have to start from scratch again.
Knowing that all clients come and go, and that you have to market your services to be able to land the next one, is critical to ensure you don't end up with dry spells.
And of course, when you stop consulting your income stops as well. No paid holidays here if you are a small business.
Business Type 6: Coaching
Coaching is about helping individuals perform better. You can be a life coach, a business coach, a fitness coach or any of a wide range of coaching disciplines, but it all boils down to helping people perform better.
I know executive coaches who earn high 6-figure incomes. These coaches have been doing it for a long time (20 years or more) and for the right clients they can make a huge difference in performance. Pro sports players usually have multiple coaches, each focusing on a specific performance area.
Because there are no regulations around coaching, the barrier to entry as a coach is very low. You can literally create some business cards, perhaps build a website and you're a coach.
Because of this low barrier to entry, some types of coaching can have a bad reputation. Most reputable coaches are certified by some kind of organisation, which also gives them the frameworks, tools and knowledge they need to deliver high-quality coaching.
If you're considering coaching as a business, you will have to deal with a lot of competition. Selling your services will also be tough - because this is about personal performance, your sales cycles will be high-touch (you have to spend personal time with each potential client) and can be long.
Coaching is a discretionary expense and is often one of the first things that gets dropped when your clients are under financial pressure. Unless you target a high-end market, you will have a high client turnover. Continuous marketing will be key to eventual success.
Other kinds of businesses
So far, I've listed six kinds of products or services you should be thinking about when starting out a business. There are other kinds of businesses of course:
- Buying a franchise can be very lucrative but usually requires a high up-front investment. On the upside, you get detailed how-to guides (manuals) on how to run the business and your supply chains are set up for you; on the downside most franchises are incredibly hard work and long hours and require a substantial up-front investment.
- Real estate is another potentially lucrative business, ranging from property development through to starting a real estate agency. Your up front investments may be high and you will have to cope with local and global economic shifts.
- Personal services, such as a hair salon, are a variation of the DFY (Done For You) business type, but in this case your target market is the consumer rather than a business.
But you don't have to stick with just one type of business.
Mixing and matching business types
You can turn a DFY (Done For You) type of business into a teaching a skill business quite easily. If, for example, you develop websites for businesses, you can use your expertise and skill to create self-study courses for business owners who can't afford your individual services and want (or need) to develop their own.
One of the methodologies I use with my clients to brainstorm how you can expand your business potential is called the 3-Prong Strategy. The strategy looks at three ways you can deliver your products or services to your clients:
- The first prong is 1:1 - you deliver your product or services personally to one client at a time. You (the 1 on the left) work with one client (the 1 on the right) at a time. DFY, consulting and coaching businesses fall in this category.
- The second prong is 1:n - you deliver your product or service to multiple clients at the same time. If you're teaching people a skill in a workshop setting, you're delivering a 1:n service. Very often, you can take an expensive 1:1 service and turn it into a less expensive (but still lucrative) offering.
- The third prong is 0:n - you build a product once and sell it many times with little or no time spent with individual clients. Apps and info products fall into this category.
Using this strategy you can take almost any business idea and see if there is another way to create revenue, or perhaps even start your business in a different way. Teaching a skill to a group of clients can be a relatively fast way to start your business, while turning that into self-study courses can take a lot longer but potentially open up the opportunity for passive income.
So what kind of product or service can you sell?
You now have at least six different kinds of business types you can consider. Some you will discount immediately - for example, if you have no desire to create your own physical products. Others may be immediately obvious - for example if you have a particular skill you can turn into self-study courses.
While competition can discourage you from considering a particular product or service, there will always be competition in any market. My recommendation to aspiring entrepreneurs is to niche down - find a particular niche that is under-served by current offerings and specialise in that niche. For example, selling web development services is likely to run into a lot of competition, but if you specialise into web development for dental practices you immediately stand out from the competition.
Think carefully about what your clients need:
- do they need to be able to do it themselves (in which case you need to teach them a skill)?
- If they just need it once, you can do it for them.
- If they need a tool to do something faster or better, an app is the better way to go.
- If they need to improve how they do stuff, you may want to offer consulting.
- and if they need to get personally better at something, you may want to offer coaching in some form.
I hope that this article helps you think about the endless possibilities for building a business. Finding the right balance between your skills, passion and a market need can be tough, but there are enough successful small businesses out there to prove it can be done.
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