If you’re looking for a great business model, look no further than to the subscription model. The idea of having a customer pay for your product or service on a recurring basis over and over again for all eternity is mouthwatering. Of course customers seldom stick around for that long, but I am sure you get my point; the subscription business model is where you want to land in terms of both profitability, predictability and viability.
But the subscription business model also has its huge risks. And the primary one at that is the obvious risk that some day your customer will wake up and for whatever reason decide that she doesn’t want your product anymore – and then she cancels her subscription and leave. Gone is the ongoing revenue, the nice profit margins, the predictability of your business growth and the viability of your business model. You’re left with wondering what went wrong, a challenge to replace the customer with a new one – and cost you won’t get covered in the short term.
Nevertheless the subscription model works. It has mechanics that works like clockwork; smaller customers love the ability to stay on one month at a time and have the flexibility to say yes and no, when they need to access your product. Bigger customers love the ability to sign longer term deals, so they don’t have to spend time on handling the expense every thirty days. There are winning scenarios for all.
The question thus becomes if there is another way of looking at the subscription model from another angle than one of pure financial mechanics and convenience? Potentially one that lets you work with the model in the context of your startup and enable you to build an offering around your subscription model that will add rocket fuel to the value of the offering, while significantly reducing the risk of customer churn?
It can be little surprise that I think there is. And basically it has to do with framing the model in a slightly different context; moving it from a pure business model to a strategy about creating a sense of belonging with customers.
If you want you could call it a club. I have always been fascinated with clubs and their ability to get people from different walks of life together in supporting the same cause or team. I am especially fascinated when that sense of belonging to and supporting something endures during times of hardship. Times where you might have every reason to walk away, but you decide to stay because you are addament or perhaps just hopeful that better times and success are just around the corner.
Those dynamics have power and real merit, and I think it could make sense to try and work on transforming those into a startup context; i.e. how can you create your own ‘club’ and a sense of belonging with customers, where they will stay with you almost no matter what because what you’re delivering to them is above and beyond the product or service as it is right now.
In order to become a club, you need to define a mission and a sense of purpose that customers will want to buy into. While I realize that most startups – and other companies for that matter – have vision and mission statements ad nauseam, this is different.
This is no afterthought. This is absolutely core. This is what you and your customers need to believe can become true at some point in time that is not too distant out in the future. Where do you plan to take your customer? What’s the promise, you deliver to them? How does ‘the promised land’ look and feel once you get there? Is the attraction, benefits and value of it enough so that customers will buy into it, because they can already sense it now?
Next up you need to figure out what the perks of belonging to this club are, as you embark on your journey together. Just as with any other form of endeavor, you cannot succeed without gas on the engine, so what is your gas? How are you going to keep the engine running and provide your customers something that is more than enough to keep them engaged and believing in the ultimate destination? And, importantly, what is the cost of keeping them happy along the way? Is it at all tenable, and if not what can you do to ensure it becomes so?
It is about creating fans of what you do. Kevin Kelly described the 1000 true fans theory years ago that basically says that if you can find 1000 true fans, who will buy whatever it is, you produce, you’re set. At least as an indenpendent provider. But there is no reason why that shouldn’t be scalable to a startup scenario; consistently building a following that is passionate enough about the quest you’re on that they will be buying into everything you do the path towards the end goal.
When you manage to do that you not only delight fans and retain them for the onward journey. You also have the potential to look into decreasing price sensitivity, aka you can start working with your pricing. Fans are not necessarily that picky – they will support you a long, long way before they start being concerned – and most of them will (at least if you operate in the B2B space) be deploying other peoples money. For them the price concern will be even less important – provided of course that you stay the course and stay loyal to what keeps you together.
That in turn will enable you to get to predictable growth. You will start being able to pretty accurately model the potential of adding new things to the mix and as a part of that also figure out when the timing is right to adjust the price in return for added benefits from the ‘club’ membership. I am not suggesting it becomes easier as such, as these things are still very complex to get right. But I am suggesting that it should be much more fun, since you have got the mechanics of the model working on your behalf.
So with all the above things being said, what do you need to create a ‘club’ feeling around your product or services and give customers the sense of belonging and wanting to belong to your cause? The answer, of course, is the right mix of talent and the financial means to get there.
To address the finances first, I am pretty bullish that if you can come up with a model where you can show investors the predictability, reliability and viability of your model from a financial perspective, they will be keen to support it. Investors are always looking for growth opportunities, and if those come in tandem with manageable risk at an acceptable level, it starts getting interesting for them. So that will most likely not be the biggest challenge.
The bigger challenge is likely going to be to find and attract the talent that will make the model work for you. Because it takes some special skills both within storytelling but especially within customer success and support. Furthermore it also takes a mindset that gives above and beyond the short term optimization one. If you are looking to making this model work and base your startups growth and future success on it, you need to be clear with both the team and your investors that you’re in it for the long term.
That’s what it takes to create a real movement that is above normal considerations for retention and will deliver the predictable growth and bottom line year after year; a club people will feel passionate about.