Step Six of the ten-step Maturepreneurial series How to Start a Business After 40 is about creating, choosing, or discovering the plan and platform you will use to engage with the ideal customer you identified in Step Five.
Wow! Did I learn a lot writing this post. Probably better to say I realized a lot. Not that I expect my observations to come as a surprise to anyone who’s been alive for the past ten years. But looking at them all together, as in the collage of photos above, startled me and gave me a greater appreciation for what an amazing (in some ways) and daunting (in other ways) time we live in for commerce.
Let’s start with the exercise that brought me to the collage and its much more elaborate counterpart, currently floating around in my head.
In organizing my ideas for this post, I decided to go back through all of Elaine’s podcast guests and write down all of the different platforms they are using to reach their customers. Now, customers itself is a tricky classification, because not all engagement is transactional and commercial. I mean, not all of your interactions and most likely few of your interactions with your audience will generate revenue, particularly in the beginning.
Today, social capital is valued even above money. Trustability, reputation, and ethos are becoming for many of us the currency of sustainable relationships, whether or not they generate revenue, not least because such relationships are far more and far more often fulfilling, given their Terms & Conditions.
So let’s agree to use the word customer to mean engagement target even though paying customers may be 1) only a small subset of your engagement targets and/or 2) a brief category of interaction in the lifetime relationship with a single target. In other words, if you sell a widget, one individual can only be a customer for the brief moment when they buy that widget. The rest of the time they engage with you (follow you, tweet you, comment, recommend you, or consume your content, purchased or otherwise), they’re something else. But I’m still going to refer to them as customers.
All the pretty platforms
So, when I started looking at the current list of Elaine’s podcast guests to identify their various platforms, whoa! That’s when I saw how much commerce has blown up. Here are some of the classifications I recognized.
You’ve got your old-fashioned brick and mortar business. And, by the way, I’m going to use the word business to mean activities that generate revenue. Under the heading of brick and mortar businesses, we find product businesses (Michaela Jedinak’s dress studio, Henry Lopez’s ice cream parlor) and service businesses (Dr. Joe Tatta’s (formerly) physical therapy facilities, Phil Houser’s realty office, Henry Lopez’s car wash).
Under the heading of virtual businesses, we find product businesses (Jon Butt’s fire extinguishers, Connie Inukai’s Tip ’n Split®) and service businesses (Bill Belew’s writing, Chuck Gumbert’s corporate turnarounds, Christy Haussler’s podcast outsourcing).
In fact, looking at all of our guests so far, the vast majority fall under this latter category of virtual service businesses. Into this category I would put everyone who is selling coaching, consulting, and virtual products, such as courses, memberships, and interactive media.
Further complicating that category are the physical products that either promote or enhance a service offering in some way. The most obvious example of this would be books. Our authors include Jason Treu, Joel Boggess, Alf Herigstad, Chuck Gumbert, Dr. Joe Tatta and Maggie Huffman.
So far, so good. Even though there is complexity and multiplicity among the offerings, by and large they fit under the old-school categories of brick and mortar or virtual businesses that generate revenue through the sale of products and services.
There’s some new kids in town
Less easily recognized are the newest platforms. I’m still trying to wrap my head around them. The Dishes Delish food blog and this podcast site are two of them. Ultimately, they’re meant to generate passive income. Here is how that happens: if the sites become popular enough as measured by monthly visitors, the micro-value of their visits and clicks will aggregate to meaningful revenue, primarily via advertisements on site pages.
Voilà! Passive income.
That is the plan for many business owners online. Another potential source of income under the “blog” and “podcast” business models include affiliations with commercial entities (vendors of software, products, and services) via hyperlinks to their offerings. Traffic that originates from your site and results in a sale to those vendors brings you a fractional percentage of each sale. (Here you can see why massive scale is necessary to generate a meaningful quantity of income.)
Other income sources might be any number of associated or spin-off offerings that these businesses generate, such as books, video courses, or other products or services that align with the business’s basic purpose or focus.
This new business model seems to be – at its core – about online marketing. It’s about promoting content, expertise, or thought-leadership that leads, often indirectly, to income. So all of our guests who are podcasters would fall under this category: Jon Butt, Bob Nolley, Alan Misner, Tony Woodall, Kevin Craine, Bruce Langford, Alf Herigstad, Henry Lopez, Nicole Holland, Lisa Vogt, Mickie Zada, Douglas Burdett, Paul Johnson, and Dr. Joe Tatta.
But then we come to folks like Lyn Slater and Lise Metzger. Yes, they have websites and blogs, which clearly fall under online marketing. But they also seem to fall under what we might call concept marketing because what they’re offering is more about ideas than about products or services.
In Lyn’s case, her photographs provide a unconventional and beneficial perspective on aging for women. Does that make her platform photography? Social media? Her Instagram account is a significant part of her public face. Recently, Lyn was signed by the Elite Modeling Agency. One assumes this will lead to income from assignments, but the exposure will also elevate her other platforms and the business of those platforms seems to be Lyn Slater herself, aka the Accidental Icon. She’s selling a powerful symbol of cultural engagement throughout the aging process; a very modern role model to women and to men. Online marketing does not seem to be a complete and accurate classification for this business.
Lise Metzger started in photography. She had a very successful brick and mortar service business until the 2008 recession. The recession and its fallout diminished the business and she had to go online. She still generates income from her photography, which is her primary business. But her Grounded Women project is altogether different.
Lise’s Grounded Women photographs promote women in farming and not only by depicting a resurgence in micro-farming led by women. The images and stories she brings online from these women are also very much in service of sustainable, healthy, organic food production.
This feels like marketing in service of mission, not money. Does that make Lise’s business different from online marketing? Should there be a new category for Lise and Lyn? Their businesses don’t feel like online marketing. They feel like hybrids of marketing and mission; marketing as awareness that raises consciousness. Can that benefit be reduced to measurement in dollars?
Your plan, your platform, your business
I haven’t talked so much about business plans. Johannah Barton’s and Chuck Gumbert’s episodes are both good sources of more information and context for creating and using plans. You don’t need an MBA to understand or duplicate what they did. Kevin Craine, on the other hand, did receive his MBA and also talks about business planning and strategy in his episode. His insights are also useful and easily implemented.
The choices of platform are many. Looking around at all the players and the many ways in which they’re operating, the stakes can be low. You can experiment. You can start small. You can change course. The advantages and benefits, on the other hand, promise to be great. If we can figure out the best way for our businesses to engage with customers first, generate income second, and then stay the course to profitability, we’ll be golden.
It would also seem that, for many small businesses, the creation of a platform is an iterative discovery process. This is a consistent theme among Maturepreneurial guests. Lyn Slater explicitly states, “I did not have a plan.”
So while you may ultimately need a platform to promote and further your business with your customers, unless you are starting an online marketing business such as a blog or a podcast that require websites, it may be better for you to start with an offering and a customer and build up the structures of your business through time as you need them and as they best serve you.
You wouldn’t be alone if you took this approach.
All photos sourced from Unsplash.com.