Service-based Business

by Brian on July 24, 2014

Sometimes I forget that the term “business” has a bad name in some circles. For lots of people, “business” brings to mind squeezing a buck, slimy sales tactics and profits over people. That stuff certainly exists in the world of business (far too much), but I try to steer clear of it and work with people that look at business differently. I always try to surround myself (and work with) people that view business as an opportunity to serve others, rather than an opportunity to just make money.

And lucky for me, I keep finding more and more people that view business as an opportunity to serve. Here are a few examples:

Escape From Cubicle Nation

My friend Pam started the business Escape from Cubicle Nation. Pam and her team help corporate employees start businesses. EFCN has helped countless employees start business that they love, and has built a thriving, supportive community. Pam started EFCN to serve a group of people that she cared about: entrepreneurial corporate employees.

Creative Mornings

Tina Roth Eisenberg has started lots of amazing projects, including swiss-miss,  tattly, and teuxdeux (to name a few). My favorite projects of hers is Creative Mornings. It’s a free lecture series for the creative community. And it’s gotten big…Tina started it in New York, but today Creative Mornings talks are held in cities around the world. She mentioned in her 2013 SXSW talk that people often tell her she should start charging admission to the lectures. Tina’s response: I’m not going to charge, that’s not why I started Creative Mornings. Period. Tina started Creative Mornings to serve a group of people that she cared about: the creative community.

The Phoenix Project

Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford wrote a book called The Phoenix Project. It’s a novel…about Information Technology. (and by the way, it’s fantastic). Their goal for the book (and ITRevolution Press which they created to publish it) is to improve the working lives of the people that work in IT DevOps (you should read their manifesto to find out more). Gene, Kevin and George wrote The Phoenix Project to serve a group of people that they cared about: the IT community.

A Definition of Service Businesses

The examples above are what I call Service Businesses. They are setup with the primary intention of serving a particular group of people, not in order to make money but to serve. That might sound like a subtle distinction, after all, lots of traditional businesses talk about serving their customers. But in practice, profit driven businesses have a very different *feel* than service based businesses. Listing out the differences between profit based and service based businesses is probably it’s own post, but I think Tina’s SXSW talk captures the *vibe* of service businesses perfectly.

Service Businesses are still businesses

Even though Service based businesses exist to serve, they still need profits. I learned from Pam that if your business isn’t making any money you’re not going to be able to serve anyone in the long term (and the only way to serve is over the long-term, nothing meaningful happens in the short term). Money is a tool for service. Or to put it another way there’s no mission without margin.

An aside: One of the lessons from last week’s WDS was that some of the service business owners I know are also some of the most bad ass business people I know…They’ve got some serious business chops.

A story about guy I met once

Earlier in my career I worked with a recruiter in order to get a gig. I had a chance to chat with him about his business and he made it clear to me that matching up workers with employers was just a numbers game to him. He didn’t get to know the workers and he didn’t get to know the employers. It was all about how many people he placed and how much he earned in commissions.

He was a good guy. He had a good sense of humor. And he was very transparent, which I really appreciated (there are people in the recruiting industry that aren’t). I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a great co-worker or a great boss. But his business was setup for profit, not to serve anyone in particular. There’s nothing wrong with having a profit based business, but it’s not the same as service.

The Purpose of this Post

And that brings me to the purpose of this post. Three points:

  1. Profit based businesses and Service based businesses are fundamentally different.
  2. The traditional world of business is all about profit based business. And even in today’s business world, profit based businesses are the *default* choice. But they’re not the only choice. There are lots of people who are choosing the path of service…
  3. …and so can you.



I had an awesome time at WDS again this year. Just like last year it was a fantastic experience. Here are a few takeaways:

  1. Sometimes you need to go with your Gut: I have a tendency to try to rationally analyze situations. This can lead to me getting stuck overthinking. A key theme throughout the weekend was that imperfect action beats inaction every day of the week. It was a great reminder that even after I gather up all my data, I still need to make a decision from the gut. (H/T to Jadah Sellner for the “imperfect action” meme.)
  2. Go Big or Go Home: Sometimes I take on a number of different projects and suffer from spreading myself too thin. One of the questions that I asked myself throughout the weekend was: what would happen if I picked a single project and went *all in* with it? We might find out the answer to that question soon enough…
  3. Picking the Right Customer: John Jantsch said that developing customer loyalty is about picking the right customers. So the question for me is: Who do I want to serve? Who shares my values? Who has a problem that I can readily solve? It’s much easier to focus on helping these people than to try to serve everyone under the sun. (this one is similar to #2, they’re both about *choosing*.)
  4. You’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with: The people that we spend time with have a huge impact on our direction and our ideas about what’s possible and impossible. For example, I have a friend that loves working in the startup world because every time he mentions a new side project to his colleagues, they just assume he’s going to complete it. There’s social pressure for him to take action because it’s the norm in his community. On the flip-side, I’ve heard people complain that their bosses and co-workers discourage side projects…the social pressure is stacked against doing the project. If all the social norms around you are going against your project, it can be extremely hard to be successful. Make it easier on yourself, surround yourself with people who are on a similar quests as you.
  5. Learn from people who’ve already been there: Lesson #5: If you are trying to do something you’ve never done before, it’s critical to find people who have already done it. Reading books and articles is fine, but there’s no substitute from talking with people who’ve been there. I was lucky enough to chat with a bunch of long-time indie consultants this weekend, and they (very generously) gave me an unbelievable amount of information and support. At times I felt like this weekend was a master class in business. (Note: the corollary to #5 is: be wary of advice from people who have never done what you’re trying to do. Don’t take marathon advice from someone who’s never run one.)

I’d love to hear your lessons learned from WDS! Drop me an email or leave a comment below.

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