What is a business model?

Definition:

A business model describes the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers and captures value. It can be described through 9 building blocks: Customer Segments, Value Propositions, Channels, Customer Relationships, Revenue Streams, Key Resources, Key Activities, Key Partnerships & Cost Structure.

Business Model History

Where did the term even come from?

1994

The search to define what a business model is goes as far back as 1994, when Peter Drucker introduced the theory of the business was a set of assumptions about what a business will and won’t do in an article for the Harvard Business Review. He speaks about how companies fail to keep up with changing market conditions, as well as their duty to identify customers and competitors, their values and behaviour. Now considering that we've had businesses for over hundreds of years - it's pretty remarkable we only just came up with the term 'business model' a few decades ago!

2002

In the middle of the 2002 dot com crisis, Joan Magretta  built on Drucker’s business definition to exclaim that business models are “at heart, stories. Stories that explain how enterprises work. A good business model answers Peter Drucker’s age-old questions: ‘Who is the customer? And what does the customer value?'

The shift from a business plan to business model goes hand-in-hand with the rise of personal computers and the use of spreadsheets. Entrepreneurs used to plan their businesses year by year, quarter by quarter, and write it down in a document almost like a book who’s copy is final. The change occurred hand in hand alongside the introduction of powerful new technology such as Microsoft Excel, enabling people to model them digitally and more accurately. Being able to calculate your entire profit and loss for a business was now available to you on a single Microsoft Excel page. This now meant businesses could be modelled before they were actually launched. Products or services could be done ahead of time in terms of calculating the business' recurring revenue, profit, marketing costs, advertising spend etc. in order to model the framework of the business.

2005

This change in approach prompted the likes of Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur to invent the Business Model Canvas in 2005, the first ever visual business tool of its kind. Long gone are the days of having to come up with a long & highly unrealistic business plan,  trying to predict what product or service you'll be selling at the company five years from now! 

What is the Business Model Canvas (BMC) ?

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The Business Model Canvas is a strategic management and lean startup template for developing new or documenting existing business models. It is a visual tool with elements describing a company’s value proposition, infrastructure, customers and finances. It provides an organized way to lay out your assumptions about not only the key resources and key activities of your value chain, but also your value proposition, customer relationships, channels, customer segments, cost structures, and revenue streams.

It assists companies in aligning their activities by illustrating potential trade-offs by comparing them to one another and being able to see the bigger picture of their overall business framework. It's essentially taken Peter Drucker's hypothetical concept of a business 'model' and turned it into something much more tangible, that we can now see visually and use as a tool to consider all the different aspects of a single business model.

The Business Model Canvas explained in a short 2-minute video:

 

Why use the Business Model Canvas?

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Create A Shared Language

This concept can become a shared language that allows you to easily describe and manipulate business models to create new strategic alternatives. Without such a shared language it is difficult to systematically challenge assumptions about one’s business and innovate successfully.

Simple, Visual and Practical

The canvas is perfect for any good discussion, meeting, or workshop on business model innovation and creates a shared language. We need a concept that everybody understands: one that facilitates description and discussion. We need to start from the same point and talk about the same thing. The challenge is that the concept must be simple, relevant, and intuitively understandable, while not oversimplifying the complexities of how enterprises function. 

Discover Opportunities

By going through the process of listing the different parts of your business on the canvas, you begin to visualise and understand the different relationships between the nine building blocks that make up the tool.

Iterate Quickly

Whether you’re using sticky notes on a real life Business Model Canvas or you’re designing your business model on the Strategyzer app, you can iterate on your designs very quickly. The tool enables you to prototype a first version and simply keep iterating until you’ve tested enough ideas to find product-market fit.

Read more: 14 Ways to Apply the Business Model Canvas

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The 9 building blocks of the Business Model Canvas

We believe a business model can best be described through nine basic building blocks that show the logic of how a company intends to deliver value and make money. The nine blocks cover the three main areas of a business: desirability, viability and feasibility. The business model is like a blueprint for a strategy to be implemented through organizational structures, processes, and systems. Let’s take a look into the three different sections:

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Desirability

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Value Propositions

The Value Proposition's Building Block describes the bundle of products and services that create value for a specific Customer Segment The Value Proposition is the reason why customers turn to one company over another. It solves a customer problem or satisfies a customer need.

Each Value Proposition consists of a selected bundle of products and/or services that caters to the requirements of a specific Customer Segment. In this sense, the Value Proposition is an aggregation, or bundle, of benefits that a company offers customers. Some Value Propositions may be innovative and represent a new or disruptive offer. Others may be similar to existing market offers, but with added features and attributes

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Customer Segments

The Customer Segments Building Block defines the different groups of people or organizations an enterprise aims to reach and serve Customers are the heart of any business model. Without (profitable) customers, no company can survive for long. In order to better satisfy customers, a company may group them into distinct segments with common needs, common behaviors, or other attributes. A business model may define one or several large or small Customer Segments. An organization must make a conscious decision about which segments to serve and which segments to ignore. Once this decision is made, a business model can be carefully designed around a strong understanding of specific customer needs.

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Channels

The Channels Building Block describes how a company communicates with and reaches its Customer Segments.

Channels are customer touch points that play an important role in the customer experience. Channels serve several functions, including:

  • Raising awareness among customers about a company’s products and services
  • Helping customers evaluate a company’s Value Proposition
  • Allowing customers to purchase specific products and services
  • Delivering a Value Proposition to customers
  • Providing post-purchase customer support
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Customer Relationships

The Customer Relationships Building Block describes the types of relationships a company establishes with specific Customer Segments. A company should clarify the type of relationship it wants to establish with each Customer Segment. Relationships can range from personal to automated. Customer relationships may be driven by the following motivations:

  • Customer acquisition
  • Customer retention
  • Boosting sales (up-selling)

Viability

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Revenue Streams

The Revenue Streams Building Block represents the cash a company generates from each Customer Segment (costs must be subtracted from revenues to create earnings).

If customers is the heart of a business model, Revenue Streams are its arteries. A company must ask itself, For what value is each Customer Segment truly willing to pay? Successfully answering that question allows the firm to generate one or more Revenue Streams from each Customer Segment. Each Revenue Stream may have different pricing mechanisms, such as fixed list prices, bargaining, auctioning, market dependent, volume dependent, or yield management.

A business model can involve two different types of Revenue Streams:

  • Transaction revenues resulting from one-time customer payments
  • Recurring revenues resulting from ongoing payments to either deliver a Value Proposition to customers or provide post-purchase customer support
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Cost Structure

The Cost Structure describes all costs incurred to operate a business model. This building block describes the most important costs incurred while operating under a particular business model.

Creating and delivering value, maintaining Customer Relationships, and generating revenue all incur costs. Such costs can be calculated relatively easily after defining Key Resources, Key Activities, and Key Partnerships. Some are more cost-driven than others. So-called “no frills” airlines, for instance, have built business models entirely around low cost structures

Feasibility

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Key Resources

The Key Resources Building Block describes the most important assets required to make a business model work Every business model requires Key Resources. These resources allow an enterprise to create and offer a Value Proposition, reach markets, maintain relationships with Customer Segments, and earn revenues.

Different Key Resources are needed depending on the type of business you are building. A microchip manufacturer requires capital-intensive production facilities, whereas a microchip designer focuses more on human resources. Key resources can be physical, financial, intellectual, or human. Key resources can be owned or leased by the company or acquired from key partners.

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Key Activities

The Key Activities Building Block describes the most important things a company must do to make its business model work. Every model calls for a number of Key Activities. These are the most important actions a company must take to operate successfully. Like Key Resources, they are required to create and offer a Value Proposition, reach markets, maintain Customer Relationships, and earn revenues. And like Key Resources, Key Activities differ depending on business model type. For software maker Microsoft, Key Activities include software development. For PC manufacturer Dell, Key Activities include supply chain management. For consultancy McKinsey, Key Activities include problem solving.

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Partnerships

The Key Partnerships Building Block describes the network of suppliers and partners that make the business model work. Companies forge partnerships for many reasons, and partnerships are becoming a cornerstone of many business models. Companies create alliances to optimize, reduce risk, or acquire resources. We can distinguish between four different types of partnerships:

  • Strategic alliances between non-competitors
  • Coopetition: strategic partnerships between competitors
  • Joint ventures to develop new businesses
  • Buyer-supplier relationships to assure reliable supplies

Business Model Canvas Download

Download the business model canvas PDF template and guides. To learn more about how to apply the methodology to your own businesses, please refer to our international bestselling book ‘Business Model Generation’.

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Business Model Canvas

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Business Model Generation

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Types of Business Models

eCommerce

In 2009, Amazon expands from platform to sales by launching Amazon private labels. It copies third-party sellers who created successful businesses by sourcing products absent from Amazon’s platform. Amazon sees this as an opportunity to create its own line of products.

Amazon Business Model

In 1999 Amazon launched its third-party seller marketplace and established itself as an incredibly successful e-commerce platform for other retailers. In 2007 Amazon began to use its platform to sell its own electronic devices (Kindle e-reader) and expanded to private label products under the AmazonBasics brand. While many companies aim to shift from sales to platform, Amazon executed are verse shift from platform to sales. With its private label business Amazon started to compete with third-party suppliers who are also customers of its e-commerce business. Amazon continuously expanded its private label product catalog with a wide selection (from electronics to clothing and everyday accessories) and lower prices.

Freemium

The term “freemium” was coined by Jarid Lukin and popularized by venture capitalist Fred Wilson on his blog. It stands for business models, mainly Web-based, that blend free basic services with paid premium services. The freemium model is characterized by a large user base benefiting from a free, no-strings-attached offer. Most of these users never become paying customers; only a small portion, usually less than 10 percent of all users, subscribe to the paid premium services. This small base of paying users subsidizes the free users. This is possible because of the low marginal cost of serving additional free users. 

In a freemium model, the key metrics to watch are:

(1) the average cost of serving a free user

(2) the rates at which free users convert to premium (paying) customers

Flickr Business Model

Flickr, the popular photo-sharing Web site acquired by Yahoo! in 2005, provides a good example of a freemium business model. Flickr users can subscribe for free to a basic account that enables them to upload and share images. The free service has certain constraints, such as limited storage space and a maximum number of uploads per month. For a small annual fee users can purchase a “pro” account and enjoy unlimited uploads and storage space, plus additional features.

Platform

Multi-sided platforms, known by economists as multi sided markets, are an important business phenomenon. They have existed for a long time, but proliferated with the rise of information technology. The Visa credit card, the Microsoft Windows operating system, the FinancialTimes, Google, the Wii game console, and Facebook are just a few examples of successful multi-sided platforms. We address them here because they represent an increasingly important business model pattern. 

What exactly are multi-sided platforms? They are platforms that bring together two or more distinct but interdependent groups of customers. They create value as intermediaries by connecting these groups. Credit cards, for example, link merchants with cardholders; computer operating systems link hardware manufacturers, application developers, and users; newspapers link readers and advertisers; video gaming consoles link game developers with players. 

The key is that the platform must attract and serve all groups simultaneously in order to create value. The platform’s value for a particular user group depends substantially on the number of users on the platform’s “other sides.” A video game console will only attract buyers if enough games are available for the platform. On the other hand, game developers will develop games for a new video console only if a substantial number of gamers already use it. Hence multi-sided platforms often face a “chicken and egg” dilemma. 

One way multi-sided platforms solve this problem is by subsidizing a Customer Segment. Though a platform operator incurs costs by serving all customer groups, it often decides to lure one segment to the platform with an inexpensive or free Value Proposition in order to subsequently attract users of the platform’s “other side.” One difficulty multi-sided platform operators face is understanding which side to subsidize and how to price correctly to attract customers.

Multi-sided platforms bring together two or more distinct but interdependent groups of customers. Such platforms are of value to one group of customers only if the other groups of customers are also present. The platform creates value by facilitating interactions between the different groups. A multi-sided platform grows in value to the extent that it attracts more users, a phenomenon known as the network effects. 

Let’s take a look into Google’s multi-sided business model.

Google Business Model

As a multi-sided platform Google has a very distinct revenue model. It makes money from one Customer Segment, advertisers, while subsidizing free offers to two other segments: Web surfers and content owners. This is logical because the more ads it displays to Web surfers, the more it earns from advertisers. Increased advertising earnings, in turn, motivates even more content owners to become AdSense partners. Advertisers don’t directly buy advertising space from Google. They bid on ad-related keywords associated with either search terms or content on third party Web sites. The bidding occurs through an AdWords auction service: the more popular a keyword, the more an advertiser has to pay for it. The substantial revenue that Google earns from AdWords allows it to continuously improve its free offers to search engine and AdSense users. 

Google’s Key Resource is its search platform, which powers three different services: Web search (Google.com), advertising (AdWords), and third-party content monetization (AdSense). These services are based on highly complex proprietary search and match making algorithms supported by an extensive IT infrastructure. 

Google’s three Key Activities can be defined as follows: 

1. Building and maintaining the search infrastructure.

2. Managing the three main services.

3. Promoting the platform to new users, content owners, and advertisers.

More platform business model examples: Visa, Google, eBay, Microsoft Windows, Financial Times

Saas

In 1999 Salesforce.com disrupts the customer relationship management (CRM) arena by offering CRM-as-a service over the Internet. Salesforce unlocks a new market and continuously strengthens its business model with new innovations. 

Salesforce.com was founded in 1999 with the goal of “making enterprise software as easy to use as a website like amazon.com.” Salesforce pioneered the software as-a-service (Saas) for customer relationship management tools. The company didn’t stop there and has constantly improved its services and business model. We distinguish between two, non-exhaustive phases: the early business model in 1999 and extensions starting in 2005.

Salesforce Business Model

 

Subscription

In 2006, Spotify launches a free online music service to compete against freely available, pirated music. Its main revenue source comes from users upgrading to a premium subscription.

Spotify is a music streaming platform that gives users access to a large catalog of music. It uses a freemium revenue model that offers a basic, limited, ad-supported service for free and an unlimited premium service for a subscription fee.

Spotify relies heavily on its music algorithms and its community of users and artists to keep its premium experience delightful. Its premium subscriber base has grown from 10% of total users in 2011 to 46% in 2018.

From the start Spotify saw itself as a legal alternative to pirated music and paid song purchases on iTunes. Spotify pays a significant portion of its revenue in the form of royalties to music labels. It has paid close to $10 billion in royalties since its launch in 2006.

The company accelerated the shift from music downloads to streaming and disrupted Apple iTunes in the process. For the first time in company history, Spotify made a profit in 2019.

Spotify Business Model

 

What is business model innovation?

Business model innovation describes the innovative processes and rationale of how an business creates, delivers and captures value as opposed to how to create a new product or service. It's about fundamentally rethinking your business around a clear, new customer need, and then realigning your key resources, processes and profit formula with this new value proposition. 

It’s not easy approach to take when making decisions as it pushes people out of their comfort zones. But the results can be dramatic, providing a real competitive business advantage - and we're seeing this sort of disruption a lot more often. Internet technology giants such as Amazon as world-class at demonstrating this kind of business acumen, where the founder Jeff Bezos even describes his company as 'the best place to fail in the world', referring to his company's approach to coming up with new business ideas.

Take Amazon Web Services for example: A project grew out of the company's need to improve their own tech stack performance. The American company went on to create Amazon Web Services to offers customers reliable, scalable, and inexpensive cloud computing services, paying only for what they used. Within 5-years would go on to totally dominate the cloud computing market and make Amazon over $10bn.

Read the case study we put together for Amazon Marketplace, using the business model portfolio to tell the story of how they validated their business idea: Patience is a Virtue: An Amazon Case Study in Three Parts. Otherwise you can read about the differences between organizations such as Amazon and Nestle.

Business Model Patterns

In the following section we outline a pattern library that is split into two categories of patterns: invent patterns to enhance new ventures and shift patterns to substantially improve an established, but deteriorating business model to make it more competitive.

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Invent Patterns

Design and de-risk new Business Models

Codify aspects of a superior business model. Each pattern helps you think through how to compete on a superior business model, beyond the traditional means of competition based on technology, product, service, or price. The best business models incorporate several patterns to outcompete others.

Shift Patterns:

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Codify the shift from one type of business model to another. Each pattern helps you think through how you could substantially improve your current business model by shifting it from a less competitive one to a more competitive one.

Applying Business Model Patterns

Understand patterns to better perform the following business model activities:

Design and Assess

Use patterns to design better business models around market opportunities, technology innovations, or new products and services. Use them to assess the competitiveness of an existing one.

Disrupt and Transform

Use patterns as an inspiration to transform your market. In the following section, we provide a library of companies that disrupted entire industries. They were the first to introduce new business model patterns in their arena.

Question and Improve

Use patterns to ask better business model questions, beyond the traditional product, service, pricing, and market-related questions. Regardless, whether you are a senior leader, innovation lead, entrepreneur, investor, or faculty, you can help develop superior business models based on better questions.

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Frontstage Disruption

 

Market Explorers: Unlock Markets

Develop innovative value propositions that create, unleash, or unlock completely new,  untapped, or underserved markets with large potential.

Be a pioneer and unearth new revenue potential through market exploration.

 

Channel Kings: Access Customers 

Radically change how to reach and acquire a large number of customers. Pioneer innovative new channels that haven’t been used in your industry before.

 

Gravity Creators: Lock In Customers

Make it difficult for customers to leave or switch to competitors. Create switching costs where previously there were none and turn transactional industries into ones with long term relationships.

A great product isn’t enough to bring a flock of customers to your door. You must design a superior business model to attract and retain customers into your ecosystem. Switching costs have enabled industry leaders such as Adobe, Salesforce, Microsoft or Rolls Royce to lock customers in and outcompete other players.

Backstage Disruption

 

Resource Castles: Build Moats

Build a competitive advantage with key resources that are difficult or impossible for competitors to copy.

 

Activity Differentiators: Better Configure Activities

Radically change which activities they perform and how they combine them to create and deliver value to customers.Create innovative value propositions based on activity differentiation.

 

Scalers: Grow Faster

Find radically new ways to scale where others stay stuck in conventional non-scalable business models.

Profit-Formula Disruption

 

Revenue Differentiators: Boost Revenues

Find innovative ways to capture value, unlock previously unprofitable markets, and/or substantially increase revenues.

Recurring Revenue – Generate recurring revenues from one-time sales. Advantages include compound revenue growth (new revenues stack up on top of existing revenues), lower cost of sales (sell once and earn recurrently), and predictability.

Bait & Hook – Lock customers in with a base product (the bait) in order to generate recurring revenues from a consumable (the hook) that customers need recurrently to benefit from the base product.

Freemium Providers – Offer basic products and services free of charge and premium services and advanced product features for a fee. The best freemium models acquire a large customer base and excel in converting a substantial percentage to paid users.

Subsidizers – Offer the full value proposition for free or cheaply by subsidizing it through a strong alternative revenue stream. This differs from freemium, which only gives free access to a basic version of products and services.

 

Cost Differentiators: Kill Costs

Build a business model with a game-changing cost structure, not just by streamlining activities and resources, but by doing things in disruptive new ways.

Resource Dodgers – Eliminate the most costly and capital-intensive resources from your business model to create a game-changing cost structure. (Examples: Airbnb, Uber, Bharti Airtel)

Technologists – Use technology in radically new ways to create a game-changing cost structure. (Examples: WhatsApp, Skype)

Low Cost – Combine activities, resources, and partners in radically new ways to create a game-changing cost structure with disruptively low prices. (Examples: EasyJet, Ryanair, Trader Joe’s)

 

Margin Masters: Boost Margins 

Achieve significantly higher margins than competitors by focusing on what customers are willing to pay for most, while keeping your cost structure in check. Prioritize profitability over market share.

Contrarians – Significantly reduce costs and increase value at the same time. Eliminate the most costly resources, activities, and partners from your business model, even if that means limiting the value proposition. Compensate by focusing on features in the value proposition that a well-defined customer segment loves and is willing to pay for, but which are relatively cheap to provide. (Examples: CitizenM, Cirque de Soleil, Nintendo Wii)

High Enders – Create products and services at the high end of the market spectrum for a broad range of high-end customers. Use these to maximize margins and avoid the small size and extreme cost structure of a luxury niche. (Example: iPhone)

 

Business Model Examples

Tesla

Tesla was founded in 2003 with the goal of commercializing electric vehicles, starting with luxury sports cars and then moving onto affordable, mass market vehicles. In 2008,Tesla began selling its Roadster. Its first breakthrough was in 2012 when it launched the Model S. 

Tesla’s first “affordable” car, the Model 3, was announced in 2015 and produced in 2017. Prior to Tesla, the market for electric vehicles was relatively insignificant and was served by utilitarian and unremarkable models. Tesla was the first car manufacturer to view the market for electric vehicles differently: Tesla saw a significant opportunity by focusing on performance and the high end of the market.

Tesla Business ModelLearn more about Tesla’s business model by downloading your free copy of the 100-page preview of our bestselling book: The Invincible Company.

Ikea

IKEA, the popular furniture company, also relies on customers as their free workforce but in a different way. Hundreds of thousands of IKEA customers assemble their bookshelves, tables, and other furniture at home after buying big boxes at big stores. 

This was unthinkable before IKEA made it popular, because people used to expect furniture manufacturers to perform the assembly task. There’s a reason why customers are willing to do the work and it's because IKEA’s model of boxed furniture offers a larger choice, immediate delivery, and all at a lower cost. 

Ikea - Business Model

Read more about how Facebook, IKEA, WhatsApp, and Uber's business model make billions.

Dollar Shave Club

Dollar Shave Club (“DSC”) disrupted the market for shaving products by selling directly to consumers through its online store. Because they cut out the middleman (retail), they can pass on savings to customers. DSC makes up for the lack of established brand and distribution reach by harnessing the power of viral videos and internet marketing.

Could you access your customers in an unprecedented and scalable way? How could you cut out the middleman and create direct access to your end-customers?

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Apple

Apple is one of the leading smartphone manufacturers in the world. But their product doesn’t do it all; in fact, you could argue that there are better smartphones out there. But Apple’s business model has moats that make it extremely difficult for others to overthrow them. 

Apple - iPhone - Business Model

For example Apple’s app store connects its millions of iOS users with countless software developers that supply hundreds of thousands of apps searching for an audience. It's this ecosystem that's hard to copy, not the technology. Even with the best technology it is very hard to gain market share. Only Google with its Android operating system has managed to create a competing ecosystem.

 

Mastering Business Models

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