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Combining Business Model Prototyping, Customer Development, and Social Entrepreneurship

Alexander Osterwalder

      I'm writing this blogpost following another inspiring discussion with Steve Blank. One of the topics we chatted about was how his Customer Development process and the Business Model Canvas fit together.

I wrote these ideas down while visiting Steve's K&S ranch - inspired by its beauty, surroundings, and amazing view on the Californian coast. I'll illustrate the ideas with an example from the field of social entrepreneurship.

In a nutshell, this post shall help entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs develop better business models by designing and exploring multiple alternatives, closely listening to customers and continuously adapting their early models until they find the right business model to scale. I believe a start-up or new venture's quest for the right business model should consist of three rough phases:

  • Designing a starting model
  • Iteratively adapting your starting model in response to market feedback
  • Scaling it when you nailed it

All three phases can be supported by the tools and concepts outlined in Steve's book on Customer Development and our book on Designing Business Models. We provide you the tools to map, design, and discuss a business model. Steve provides you with the mindset and tools to continuously "test" your model and your assumptions with customers until you find the right business model to scale.

Business Model Prototyping and Customer Development V2

The Case Study

Let me outline the three phases above with a case I often use in my business model innovation workshops. It is an example of a Swedish organization that developed a single-use toilet bag, the Peepoo bag for the so-called Bottom-of-the-Pyramid market of over 2 billion people who lack access to proper sanitation.

Peepoople, the company behind the Peepoo bag, is a particularly interesting case because it combines a journey for the right business model with a quest for meaningful impact. No easy task. At this very moment Peepoople is on its search for the right business model: one that is financially viable, and scalable in terms of growth and impact.

Now let us look at the three phases outlined above through the lens of the Peepoople case.

Designing a starting model

Many entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs underestimate that a great new technology, product or service can be insufficient to build a successful and sustainable business. Because of their trust in a technology's, product's or service's superiority they fail to spend enough time exploring alternative business models. They often go with the first model they come up with. Yet, entrepreneurial history is littered with great technologies, products and services that bombed.

Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs could greatly improve their success chances by spending more time with searching and finding an empowering business model. Every technology, product or service can be brought to market by several alternative business models. The challenge is to find the best and most scalable one.

Peepoople, for example, has a proven product/technology that works and was tested - the Peepoo bag. However, the company acknowledges that this is only a starting point. The management team knows that it has to think through several possible business models in order to find one that is sustainable AND has a substantial impact.

So let us use the product (Peepoo bag), its characteristics, and the context as the starting point to develop alternative business models:

  • A single use toilet bag: it is designed to be conveniently used with any type of recipient and it effectively prevents odors;
  • Self sanitizing; it inactivates organisms that produce diseases and are found in faeces;
  • Biodegradable: it is made of a high performance degradable bioplastic
  • Turns into fertilizer: the treated faeces constitute a high value fertilizer with a considerable market value
  • Low production cost (numbers confidential);
  • Aimed at substantially reducing the sanitation problem in the world;
  • In many developing markets people already pay for (limited) access to sanitation (e.g. public latrines in slums)

Based on the above we can map out several different alternative business models for Peepoople's product. Here the emphasis is on "mapping", which means putting a Business Model Canvas poster on the wall to quickly develop conceptual prototypes. Let me just mention a few possible ones:

  • Not-for-Profit Model: Traditionally, an organization like Peepoople would seek donors to fund the distribution of Peepoo bags to beneficiaries. Like myself, the management team of Peepoople doesn't see this as a sustainable business model nor as one that will achieve the most impact.

    Peepoople Donor Model

  • Cross-Subsidy Model: Peepoople could sell the bags to a premium segment (e.g. to hikers in the Swiss Alps, or as military supplies) in order to fund the free distribution of the bags to beneficiaries. Financially this model already looks more robust than the first.
  • Sales/Retail Model: Why not try to sell through traditional retail among the mini-shampoo bottles sold to the BoP market. Sanitation is a basic need and there is already a market for public latrines.
  • Micro-Finance/Micro-Entrepreneurship Model: Another powerful way to bring the bag to the market could be an alliance with a micro-finance institution which would finance micro-entrepreneurs to buy bags. The entrepreneurs would then resell the bags.

    Peepoople Microfinance Model

  • Licensing/Franchising Model: Peepoople could go down a completely different path and simply license its technology to different institutions. Alternatively, it could build a franchise model to quickly scale its growth.
  • Resource Model (Fertilizer): Fertilizer is a very valuable good in BoP markets. Why not give the bags away and even pay people to bring them back full. Revenues would then be come from selling the fertilizer to farmers.

These are just some of the potential business models for the Peepoo bag. Others could include white labeling the technology, building brand alliances (e.g. distribution with mobile phone prepaid cards), advertising on the bags, and many, many more. What is important is to spend some time with quickly mapping out alternative business models before defining the criteria to select the one to go with. Selection criteria can be growth potential, risk, impact, etc.

An essential part of this first design phase is to carefully observe and understand (potential) customers. The business model alternatives you come up with should be informed by deep customer knowledge. Steve Blank nicely describes this as Customer Discovery, the first of four steps in his Customer Development Process

    You need to leave guesswork behind and get “outside the building” in order to learn what the high-value customer problems are, what it is about your product that solves these problems, and who specifically are your customer and user.


Customer Development

Iteratively adapting your starting model to customer/market feedback

When companies have spent substantial time, effort, and money searching for a business model (e.g. for a new product or service) they are often under the illusion that they nailed it. Yet, a "starting business model" is just that: a starting point - based on a number of assumptions and hypothesis. Even with the most elaborate design phase, the smartest people, and the largest budget, it is pretty rare that entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs immediately get the business model completely right.

The Customer Development process assumes that many of the initial assumptions about your business model are probably wrong, which you will find out in the second step of the process, Customer Validation. It is only when you start testing a business model or aspects of it with customers that you will find if your hypothesis were right or wrong. Hence, the Customer Development Process builds in an iteration loop to fix the shortcomings of your business model. Eric Ries, who built on Steve's work, coined this business model iteration loop the Pivot.


Customer Development


The Business Model Canvas powerfully supports this iteration and pivoting process through visualization and structuring. Steve nicely described this as keeping score of your pivots.

Peepoople is just now entering the iterative phase where they are testing business models in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The challenge will be to continuously search for the most powerful business model and only settle when they found a scalable one.

Scale it when you nail it

It is probably only after several iterations and pivots of your business model that you will really "nail it" and find the right one. That is when it is time to scale. In the terminology of Customer Development this is called Customer Creation, when you start "creating end-user demand and drive that demand into the company’s sales channel". Only at the very end should you focus on Company Building "where the company transitions from its informal, learning and discovery oriented Customer Development team into formal departments with VPs of Sales, Marketing and Business Development".


Customer Development

Unfortunately, I've seen too many companies get caught up in this last (operational) step when they haven't even "nailed" the business model.

As to Peepoople, I'm pretty curious to see how the company will manage business model iterations and pivots. It does have a great technology to start with, but only a scalable business model will allow it to have an impact. However, I have great confidence in Karin Ruiz, its CEO. She combines private sector experience, a passion for impact, and the knowledge that only the right business model will allow Peepoople to make a difference in the world.

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Mastering Value Propositions
Mastering Value Propositions

Mastering Value Propositions

Learn how to better understand customers and design value propositions they want.

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