daily articles for founders

Running a startup in the UK (or with a UK subsidiary)? Get in touch with my company, GrantTree. We help with government funding.

Productised services: #1: Product companies

One of the most fundamental decisions when deciding to start a company is whether you will sell a product or a service. Most people will immediately pipe up that products are the best, but that's not so clear. It's not even clear that the devision is so binary. There is a third alternative: productised services.

In this series, I'll explore the difference between products, services, and productised services, and offer some tips for how to productise a service (or service-ize - sorry for the butchery - a product).

Product companies

Classic product startups are things like Basecamp. Sure, it's sold under the moniker "Software as a Service", which muddies the discussion a little, but the key product property of a product has is that additional sales require a minimal amount of additional skilled time to deliver. There are support costs, server setup costs, etc, but those are marginal compared to a specific sale. On average, each sale has a fixed delivery cost associated with it and requires no human interaction to deliver the benefit to the customer (though the sales process maybe very time-consuming, but that's another discussion).

The benefit of selling products is that if you build the right kind of product, and particularly the right kind of technology product, it scales tremendously well. If 37signals gets demand for a million new basecamp accounts at once, they should be able to ramp up the server infrastructure pretty quickly and capture that business, rather than turn them away. Services companies can't do that. A services company with business than they can handle will either turn away customers, or ask them to wait, or raise their prices (same as turning away customers), or even just take the business on and deliver a poor service.

Another benefit is what I call the "making money while you sleep" paradigm. Since there's little or no human element in the delivery of the product, you can go to sleep, wake up, and find that you earned money while you were sleeping. That's a great feeling, not to be underestimated as a feature of products - although in theory, once a services company gets big enough, you will essentially arrive at the same point: others work and earn you money while you sleep.

The big downside of product companies is that it can be very hard to validate demand for your product, and until you've done that, you don't know whether the product is worth building. Many people skip the validation step (because it's hard) and end up building worthless products that don't sell. Others take too long to build the product (can especially be the case for web startups), or fail to build it quite right, or are beaten by strong competition. Many of the best product markets are winner(s)-take-all markets, where one or a few large successes will reap most of the business, and the rest will be left with crumbs.

Another big problem with products, particularly intangible products like your typical SaaS app or music track, is that people don't value those very highly compared to physical products. App developers rightly bemoan the fact that people will spend hours deciding which of three 99 cent apps they will buy, and then walk into a Starbucks and spend $5 without even thinking about it. So another problem with intangible products is that it's hard to get people to pay a high price for them, so you need to sell to lots of customers to make a profit. These two factors rule out direct sales methods and mean that you need to be able to market your product to large numbers of people cost-effectively to stand a chance. By comparison, a high-price item only needs a few sales a month (or even a year) to be profitable, at least when the business is small.

So, basically, products have a lot of uncertainty in terms of whether anyone will want to buy them, and can have a fair bit of upfront expense before you find out whether your effort so far was a waste of time and money (even with lean methodologies, there will be some waste and dead-ends).

Tomorrow: service companies.

More from the library:
Taking responsibility
A startup escape path
Notes on raising seed money