Do You Know What Type of Business You Actually Run?
Not every business is a startup
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Think of the differences among these statements:
“I make $50,000 each month as a creator.”
“Create your million-dollar framework and wait for the money to roll in while you sleep.”
“How I work: I sit down and write for four hours, spend an hour on LinkedIn engagement, and then my day is over.”
“I make multiple six figures without any social media presence.”
“The kind of clients you would love to work with are only created by having a conversation rather than a sign-up form.”
A major challenge in building sustainable businesses is that advice for founders is lumped together in the same bucket, whether they classify as entrepreneurs, freelancers, creators, influencers, solopreneurs, or small business owners. So while these statements may all seem to describe creator-led businesses, they in fact refer to distinct types, each with differences in how they monetize and spend their time and attention.
As an operations and business strategist, I’ve worked with a range of businesses, including executive coaching firms, consulting agencies, nonprofits, solo graphic designers, copywriters, and podcasters. Before starting my firm, I spent over 15 years analyzing businesses as a consultant at McKinsey, a Harvard Business School MBA, and an operations strategist at Nike.
I’ve identified three broad categories of, and archetypes for, business models for knowledge-based businesses (where you trade your skill or knowledge for money versus selling a physical good or service): the delivery model, the creator model, and the brand model. Figuring out which one fits your business can help you focus your attention, decide your profitability model, and nail down your marketing and sales approaches.
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Delivery model businesses: service providers
Delivery-model businesses focus on delivering a service, either through yourself or through a team. Delivery model businesses have fewer customers with deeper and potentially longer-term relationships than creator or brand models. Sometimes, these businesses can be dismissed as “time-for-dollars” business models because they are limited by the size of the team and the number of hours for each service, and will not be able to scale exponentially. However, they can be profitable and are often the fastest way to generate revenue.
You pride yourself on delivering a craft. You enjoy doing the work your clients hire you for, or perhaps you can’t or don’t want to move that work to an additional person. This can limit how many clients you can serve. Yet, being a true soloist gives you immense flexibility with your schedule and finances. Because the work delivery is hands-on, there may be more recurring client work. Exceptional client delivery is your calling card. You probably work with people you know, like, and trust without having to do much cold selling.
Examples: bookkeeper/tax prep, ghostwriter, copywriter, graphic designer, video editor, virtual assistant/online business manager, web designer
You guide your clients through transformations. You love sharing insights with your clients 1:1 and then supporting them as they execute the plan on their end. You’re probably not doing ongoing production or “in-the-trenches” work for your clients, although you might be producing strategic deliverables like coaching notes, financial plans, marketing plans, or project roadmaps. Because you’re not spending as much time doing production-based work, you can take on multiple clients at a time at reasonably premium price points. As you often work on upfront strategy or discrete engagements, many of your projects have an end date. This requires an ongoing flow of new or renewing clients. You often attract these clients and build your reputation through branded models or frameworks that demonstrate your intellectual property (IP) and expertise.
Examples: financial advisor, 1:1 coach, consultant, marketing strategist
You have—or would like to—bring on a team to do all or some of the client delivery work. You might be involved with day-to-day client delivery, but your role shifts to company and client strategy creation, IP development, and business development to keep the client roster full. You might start as a pure strategist, retaining strategic planning and client relationship management while your team manages projects and produces deliverables. As your firm grows, you can move out of ongoing delivery, bringing on seasoned team members who handle end-to-end project management while you handle business development and partnerships (think: a consulting or law firm’s rainmaking partners).
Examples: consulting firms, financial service or legal firms, podcast production/pitching agencies, public relations or marketing agencies, health-practice owners
Creator model businesses: monetizing content
Creator model businesses focus on creating and distributing content around a point of view. Differences in these models emerge in how you choose to monetize content. This is the business model you’ll primarily see with online influencers, speakers, and content marketers. Compared to delivery model businesses, these models are characterized by requiring larger audiences, because the average revenue per audience member is often lower and the cost of acquisition and marketing is higher. These models are seen as more scalable because the revenue is not tied to delivery hours. Even if you facilitate a community or a group, one of your major—if not your primary—responsibilities is to spread your message and attract new customers.
You curate and facilitate groups for connection and conversation, including communities, retreats, and events. You provide a premise to help people learn, share, and connect, and don’t always provide firm promises or outcomes. You focus on structuring a community, building rituals and rhythms, ensuring engagement, and maintaining a strong culture—all while attracting new members. You may offer courses and recorded content, but the focus of your business is the community. The structure accelerates connection between members, not just from member to leader. The business model focuses on the community’s structure, and whether it can attract, onboard, and engage its members without substantial churn or community degradation.
Examples: interest-based communities, profession-based communities, retreats, events/conferences
You use content, frameworks, and skills to guide your clients to outcomes or deeper learning. You make your money by using content to grow your audience and selling related products (templates, tools, courses, books, self-guided or cohort-based programs). You have to balance three priority areas: content development, student experience, and audience growth. You’ll spend time curating your insights into saleable content as well as designing the learning experience. You might spend your time defining your onboarding, establishing accessible content delivery for different learning styles, managing live sessions, and understanding how your students will actually do something with what they’re learning. You might need to train others to deliver your material. You’ll need a continued inflow of students so you can spend time building your audience, especially if there’s a specific outcome that can be “achieved.”
- Content only: tools, templates, digital or physical books, self-guided or evergreen courses, content-only memberships, curated resources
- Content and interaction: cohort-based programs, course-based platforms with a lightly moderated online group, group programs with live training or office hours, content-based courses with office hours, including David Perell’s Write of Passage, Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain, and Jonny Miller’s Nervous Systems Mastery
This model is the primary public-facing model of many speakers, influencers, content curators, and marketers. You make your money by growing your audience and monetizing through sponsorships, advertisements, affiliate revenue, books, paid content, and speaking. The activity can vary widely: you may take 2-3 keynotes and travel around the country to speaking engagements, or have a podcast or YouTube channel from your studio and create content multiple times a week with sponsors and a podcast network. You may decide to monetize directly with your audience through paid content like a newsletter or subscriber-only podcast. You focus on improving your craft, as well as on reaching those who don’t know you, through means such as an authority-building book or social media channel.
Examples: keynote speakers, YouTube channels, monetized video/audio/written content through ads, affiliate revenue, sponsorships, brand partnerships, or user donations (e.g., paid newsletters, subscriber-only podcast, or Patreon), including Atomic Habits’s James Clear
Brand model businesses: turnkey expansion
Once you’ve refined and “productized” how you work (delivery model) or refined your content and teaching style (creator model), you might start selling the brand. Instead of working with clients or creating new content to sell directly to individuals and companies, you will be training others to deliver your frameworks or selling/licensing/franchising your IP. With the brand model, the transformation and results can no longer depend on the original creator; the material and process have to be turnkey for someone else to work with your IP and expand its impact. You focus on expanding your brand, improving your IP and certification programs, and enrolling new licensees, franchisees, and certification students.
Examples: certification models, licensee or franchise models, like Donald Miller’s StoryBrand certification, Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead facilitator training, and Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play Method
What if you have more than one of these models? Enter hybrid models.
A creator can have a membership, be an advisor, and sell courses. Consultants who primarily make their revenue through delivery can also make money through books, courses, and speaking. Brand-based businesses can make money speaking or with advisory or cohort-based teaching programs.
Still, each model requires different methods. It’s important to remember that there’s a cost-benefit tradeoff when you add or shift models. Each distinct model increases the overall cost and complexity of your business.
I’ve seen businesses that add on business models to generate more revenue. Take, for example, a content-only course that adds a cohort element or group tier, or a creator who adds a VIP level with personal advising. This switches focus from audience building and teaching to moderating a community or establishing more personal knowledge of each client’s work. This also incurs a shift in the cost and time model in your business.
Or perhaps a 1:1 coach decides to move to a group/teacher model. That might add “scale,” but it also comes with the cost/time impact of distilling frameworks into content, thoughtfully architect a group’s engagement with the teacher and with each other, and marketing requirements to increase audience size.
Ultimately, these business models dictate where you spend your time and attention, your profitability structure, and your investment areas. If you understand how these models work together, you can design a stronger, more sustainable business overall.
Jessica Lackey is a strategy and operations advisor who is on a mission to radically disrupt mainstream business culture in an effort to create sustainable businesses with a human-centric approach. Previously she was a consultant at McKinsey & Company and an operations strategist at Nike. A version of this piece was originally published on her website.
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