Are You Planning to Sell Boxes or Hours?

All of these are just “in general” points. There will always be exceptions. But still, it’s good to understand the huge difference between service businesses and product business. Selling hours has advantages, but selling boxes does too. And there are huge differences, things I think you need to understand.

My wife and I spent several years working on converting our business planning business to “sell boxes, not hours.” It took a long time, but eventually that worked. But we started with a service business, and it was only after several years of that business that we started to convert it to products. Here are some of the standard tradeoffs.

  1. Service businesses take less capital to start. Particularly professional service businesses, like consulting, graphic design, landscaping, bookkeeping … you don’t have to buy products to sell, or materials to build products. You need credentials, yes, and a computer, and in most cases a website. But you’re not worried about design, prototypes, packaging, inventory, channels of distribution, and all that.
  2. Service businesses are harder to grow. With a product business you sell more and you make more money. Succeed with online marketing, open up a new channel, and you can build more of those things. Product businesses usually – obviously not if a lot of hand labor is involved – scale up. On a classic service business, though, to double sales you have to double your payroll. That’s what investors call a “body shop.” Classic service businesses can be great businesses for the owners and workers, but they’re rarely good investment opportunities for outside investors.
  3. Investors like Product businesses. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking at pitches for our angel investment group, and evaluating businesses for some major business plan competitions. Investors like product businesses because you can lever up, and scale. And you can sell a product business – the whole business – to somebody else. And you can make sales while you sleep. And of course, to make this perfectly clear …
  4. Investors don’t like service businesses. It’s the body shop problem. The assets walk out of the door every night. The assumption is that they don’t scale. Sure, there are exceptions.
  5. Web service businesses act like product businesses, without the inventory drag on cash, or the problems of physical distribution. A web service can scale up, if it’s designed correctly, and go from 100 to 1,000 to 10,000 without needing a lot of hand labor or human intervention.

So what? I think it’s good to know. Service businesses start up all the time with only a few thousand dollars of initial investment. All you need is that first good client, and off you go. There is less risk. It’s easier to get from nowhere to covering costs.

But if you want to go big-time, or if you want to build a business you can sell, build products or web-based services.  Sell boxes, not hours (or a web app).

(Image: Quang Ho/Shutterstock)


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