Personal Business Models


As part of a previous role chairing an interest group for the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) I wrote a popular blog post on using entrepreneurship models for supporting careers advice – this is that blog updated for general use.

It’s becoming increasingly vital to talk to young people entering the job market about enterprise and entrepreneurship; more and more of them are likely to be self-employed every year, and often in industry sectors where the students heading their way are the least likely to want to talk about commercial success and business planning. As a Head of Careers between 2014 and 2016 I frequently found myself presenting to Artists, Humanities students, Musicians, and Scientists trying to persuade them that entrepreneurship is something they need to think about… Many simply avoid it, others focus in on what they feel they need to know right now – such as  how to register self-employed, but few initially want to tackle the really meaningful questions for success and failure like – “what are you planning on selling?”, “who is the customer?”, “who or what are you competing against?”, “how do you make enough money?” and so on.

However – I have found one tool that has been really useful in unlocking some of these audiences, however hostage-like they may initially feel. The ‘Personal Business Model Canvas’ (from the book ‘Business Model You’ by Tim Clark) is developed from a really well used tool called the ‘Business Model Canvas’ (from the book ’Business Model Generation’ by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur). It’s a simple one-page visualisation of how a business model fits together and then adapted for thinking about a specific individual might catalyse their skills and interests to develop a sustainable business.

The various canvasses are largely available under creative commons licensing – just search for them online – although all the books are worthwhile if you get taken with the canvasses.

The beauty of the original Canvas is that you can start your planning process from anywhere – by focusing on a specific customer, by harnessing a particular resource or network, by identifying a new customer-attraction or relationship-management model, but usually by identifying a valuable new product or service. Once you start filling in the boxes and drawing relationships you can iterate repeatedly until it all fits together.

The Personal Business Model Canvas (PBMC) start with a focus on the individual – who are you, what are you interested in, what are you good at? (Key Resources). Then it draws out what you know how to do – roles played, professional skills, acquired knowledge and competence (Key Activities). From here you can begin to articulate how you might help others – what kinds of value can you create, what problems can you solve, how do you enhance or mitigate the issues other people or organisations face? (Value Proposition).

This section is critical – the articulation of value – and I think its valuable for me to make clear that its rare that anyone has a particular skill or ability that no-one else has; the art to success is in finding the combinations of skills and experiences that make you a valuable and useful rarity.

From here we move on to ‘who gets helped’ (Customers) – who needs you, to do what, are there enough of them to employ you, will they reward you? This is the great naivety check – can the student identify someone who will pay them (enough) for doing the thing they want to do? Or will they need to modify that offering to find enough customers? For more on this also check out ’Value Proposition Design’ (also by Osterwalder and Pigneur). Customers are linked to the Value Proposition by Channels (‘how do people find out about you?’) and Customer Relationships (‘how you interact with your customers’). These elements represent marketing, communication, distribution, networking, and retail design (online, in person, or through a third-party broker). By now, most groups I’ve presented this to are pretty engaged, starting to ask questions and offer up ideas about how they’ll promote this new business of theirs.

Next up in the sequence is ‘what you get’ (Revenues & Benefits) and ‘what you give’ (Costs) and its worth spending some time here explaining that its not all about cash. Its about less tangible things like autonomy, lifestyle, work-life balance, energy, reputation and more. You do want to end up in profit – or the business is an unsustainable and expensive hobby – but there are opportunities here to think about how to make your business offer more valuable and also ways in which you can reduce costs and thus increase your profits that way. I also make a point of illustrating that if you’re passionate about a business then its less ‘costly’ to you than doing something you hate. That’s why the PBMC starts with who you are – because your interests help identify business ideas that are emotionally ‘cheaper’ for you to run. Likewise if you’re a shy type then a business that involves a lot of networking is going to be comparatively costly…

The final element is a great way to address many of the costs – ‘who helps you?’ (Partners). The sourcing of resources and savings through partnering with others is key – access to equipment and facilities, co-promotion of services, and support and feedback. This also helps highlight to would-be freelancers and self-employed contractors that they need networks, and that they’re not alone!

From left to right the canvasses articulate how resources (interests, skills, networks) translate into a value proposition, which is then communicated (channels and relationships) to a customer – who rewards you for doing it… and hopefully the rewards on the right outweigh the costs on the left!

So far, this tool has never failed me! Its always managed to engaged even the most cynical of audiences because it marries the personal with the professional. If nothing else I always suggest its food for thought.

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