Ambition: Building Business Models that Matter

As business people we have a powerful tool in our hands: the knowledge of how to build, run, and manage businesses. Let us be ambitious and put that knowledge to work for things that really matter.

But please don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about so-called "social corporate responsibility". Nor am I talking about "pro bono work" for social projects, or about "giving back", a phrase that so many successful business people like to use. No, what I am talking about is the ambition to build sustainable business models that have a social, environmental and/or development impact written in to their DNA. In other words, business models that make a difference by their "mere" success. Business Models that Matter

Take Grameen Bank, to use a very popular and widely discussed business model with an impact. The Bangladeshi institution makes micro-loans, mainly to women in Bangladesh. This allows the women to build micro-businesses and earn sustainable incomes for them and their families. The success of Grameen Bank's business model has a substantial impact on poverty alleviation and the social status of these women entrepreneurs.

A completely different example is Max Havelaar, an originally Dutch and now pan-European fair trade label. The organization behind the concept has been self-financing its business model since 2001 through licensing fees. Products bearing its label (e.g. coffee, bananas, flowers) are sold through supermarkets at a competitive price. The label provides consumers with the assurance that a fair price was paid to the producing farmers in the South. To make that possible a minimum of intermediaries are used to bring those products to markets in the North.

Another inspiring example is Acumen Fund, founded by Jacqueline Novogratz, the author of The Blue Sweater. The fund invests in business models that generate financial and social returns. It particularly looks at business models that can be effective in reaching the “base of the pyramid” (BoP)—or the billions of poor without access to clean water, reliable health services, or formal housing options.

Real Ambition

Business models of this type is what we should really aspire to build as business people. Trying to tackle business issues of this level of difficulty and relevance, is what I call real ambition. "Difficulty", because it's not "just" about weaving profits into the business model's DNA, but also impact. "Relevance", because I sincerely believe that innovative business models can make a substantial contribution to helping solve some of the pressing global issues of our times (poverty, sustainability, inequality, healthcare...).

Building business models that merely pursue profits almost pale as a hedonistic or pecuniary quest aside the grand challenge of building business models that matter. Let us at least allocate some of our time and intellectual capacity to this quest of designing and implementing relevant business models. I am convinced that powerful innovative business models are one of the major tools (besides regulation, etc.) that can bring systems level change and transformation. Let us take up the challenge

Peepoople - a case study to challenge your creativity

To seduce business people to think about business models that matter, I get them to work on a different type of business model in my workshops. I get them to brainstorm on innovative business models for Peepoople, a Swedish organization that has developed a self-sanitizing toilet bag that is biodegradable and turns into fertilizer after usage. With the right business model this organization could potentially bring toilets to over 2 billion people who lack proper sanitation infrastructure.

Check out the video interview with Peepoople's CEO Karin Ruiz and propose some innovative business models that could help her organization to scale and succeed. I use the video to introduce the case study challenge.

(never mind the video quality - we did this interview over Christmas with Skype when Karin was on vacation in Uruguay / also, please note that I didn't really know how to make a natural-sounding voice-over...)

Last but not least: check out our new project on business models that matter: BusinessModelsBeyondProfit

Obstacles to Business Model Innovation

At each of my workshops we usually discuss what the obstacles to business model innovation are in companies. I thought it could be interesting to open up this discussion to the Web through my blog. Please share your experience rather than just an opinion.

Some of the most frequent points mentioned were:

  • current success - it prevents companies from asking themselves how their business model could be replaced
  • risk avoidance - people are often unwilling to take risks on a personal level, but also as an organization. It is easier to stick with the status quo.
  • organizational structures - because they are not designed for new business models to emerge. They sustain the status quo.
  • lack of customer understanding - of course organizations understand their customers, but not good enough to design new business models that address their emerging needs.
  • required size of innovations - in big companies a potential new business model must immediately demonstrate an opporunity of millions of additional revenue.

These were just some few points to kick-off the discussion. Please share your EXPERIENCE!

You may also want to share your experience from a start-up perspective. What is preventing start-ups from more business model innovation (though many innovative BMs come from that universe...).

There is No Lack of Business Model Innovation Ideas

Currently I am working our upcoming book "Business Model Generation" on a section about ideation: the art of generating innovative business model ideas.

While working on this section I realized that ideas were not necessarily the problem. They exist in abundance within a company or an industry. I've experienced this with multiple organizations. The issue is selecting the right ideas, turning them into something implementable and then actually DOING them.

Regarding the first issue, selection, the biggest problem is that today's organizational and management structures don't allow good business model ideas to become visible. Interesting business model ideas can come from anywhere in a company. Operations, client services, finance... Yet, they have to be selected by management in order to maybe become real options. More often than not they stay invisible. I'm pretty sure that there were many smart folks in record companies that had good busines model innvation ideas. However, the management of these companies preferred to stick to the status quo... and ultimately become disrupted by illegal downloads and challenged by iTunes.

A solution to this is to put a multi-disciplinary business model innovation task force together. One that has the sponsorship of top management and the board. The task force should be composed of people from various levels of hierarchy, from different age groups, with diverse levels of experience, from different business units and with mixed expertise. The diversity will help ideas to emerge, to be discussed, improved and then selected for implementation.

The implementation issue is more challenging. It requires the willingness of top management and the board to experiment and allow for bottom-up ideas to emerge. Unfortunately, it also requires taking some risks to play with new ideas in the field. But if you look at the major record companies today, the risk of inaction is even bigger. I would argue for maintaining a portfolio of business models of which some may even cannibalize the existing main business model.

A great example of a business model portfolio can be found within Nestlé's coffee business. While the Swiss multinational became big in coffee with Nescafé it's current growth engine is now Nespresso. Nespresso sells espresso machines and pods to the high-end of the market. What is impressive is that Nestlé is internally challenging its new multi-billion espresso-pod money-making machine. They expanded their business model portfolio in coffee with Dolce Gusto, a Nescafé sub-brand targeting the lower end of the market. Dolce Gusto's business model is quite similar to that of Nespresso with some tweaks. Nespresso sells to the higher end of the market, while Dolce Gusto sells to the lower end. Nespresso doesn't sell pods through third party retail, while Dolce Gusto does. Though they are both targeting different customer segments, Dolcé Gusto is still cannibalizing Nespresso to a certain extent. Respect for Nestlé that they allow for this internal competition!

The Power of Immersion and Visual Thinking

I am currently keeping my blogposts to a minimum, because I am focusing on book writing and delivering a small number of keynotes and workshops. However, I haven't stopped experimenting. During the last workshop in The Netherlands I changed the structure of the workshop and I had the opportunity to work together with JAM, a Dutch company focusing on visual strategy facilitation. It was a big success.

One of the main changes I made to the workshop structure was a new focus for the break-out sessions. I gave the immersion into client issues much more space. The workshop had two "client immersion sessions" before actually thinking of drafting an innovative business model around the clients. The ultimate task was to re-invent the consulting business model. Instead of getting them to start with business model innovation immediately I made them think about how consulting clients really feel and start innovating from there. This worked out really well, notably because JAM made the outcomes more tangible through images.

In the first break-out session I asked the groups to make a simple client profile (based on a method from XPLANE, which they call "empathy map"). The goal of this exercise is to think of the client more holistically.

The next break-out session consisted of sketching out the most important client issues. Wouter (1st image below) and Jan (2nd image) from JAM did a wonderful job of making these client issues more tangible through visualizations.

The groups then had a chance to walk around and look at the other groups' work. In addition I asked them to put stickers on the client issues which they found most interesting. This "silent feedback" gave the groups a direction for the following break-out sessions.

After the client immersion sessions I asked the groups to outline the building blocks of their business models with the business model canvas.

At the end of the busy day each group presented their work and we voted for the best new consulting business model.

By the way, the workshop was kindly hosted by, a company led by Ronald van den Hoff. He is disrupting the meeting space and event venue business with an innovative business model. Workshop participants had a chance to learn about his "lessons learned" when I interviewed him on business model innovation issues during the workshop.

All the other photos of the event can be found on my Flickr page. Big thanks to my business partner Patrick van der Pijl who took the pictures, but more importantly, set-up and managed the event.

Publishers, Update your Business Model!

Book publishers, I think your business model is expiring! If you don't update it now, you will suffer the same fate as the music industry: "cluelessness" of what to do to fight steeply declining revenues!

I am by no means an expert of the book publishing industry. My only qualification is being a huge buyer of books and being an aspiring author with a business model innovation book I am working on. The innovation behind the book: I am not alone in writing this book, but my co-author and I are working with another 250+ 470+ co-authors who paid to be part of the book writing. Oh, I almost forgot, we not working with a publisher... I never even submitted a manuscript to a publisher...

Here four substantial trends off the top of my head that will rock the book publishing industry and their business models (trends which you probably know, but are not taking seriously):

Distribution is a commodity and attention is scarce

Publishers and retailers used to controlled distribution. That gave them the power to promote authors and their books. With, self-publishing sites such as and the rise of e-books that power is gone because anybody can (print and) distribute a book. The name of the game is now capturing attention in a world of abundance and the absence of distribution scarcity. The publisher’s role of the gatekeeper is soon gone. We are entering the ultimate meritocracy. Books will be successful without a major publisher if they can capture the attention of potential readers through the mastery of the tools of the attention economy: blogs, communities, search engine optimization (SEO) and viral marketing. Readers will catapult a book to success if their attention can be captured. We have already seen this happen sporadically in the music industry.

New business and revenue models will dominate the landscape

Traditional revenue streams from selling books are prone to die. Learn from the music industry: Apple is now the dominant force in digital music and has replaced the incumbent players with a completely different business and revenue model. They sell music online, but they earn most from selling their iPod hardware. Or look towards the artist that give away their music and earn their revenues from increased concert sales or special edition albums. They use “free” as a way to capture attention and earn from new revenue streams.

Authors want to be liberated from the handcuffs of publishers

Very few authors get lucrative royalties or a substantial advance from their publishers. Royalties usually run around 5-10% of the book price. You have to sell VERY many books to live from it decently. In addition publishers don’t allow you to do most of the interesting stuff: experiment with new formats, revenue models and online communities. Hence, new authors have little interest to work with publishers and many of the most lucrative successful authors will run as soon as they have the courage: Paulo Coelho is famous for his stance against the publishing industry and their traditional methods.

New experimental formats will emerge

Books will be written by communities, they will come in versions (like software: cf. the unbook movement by my friend Dave Gray), they will have innovative intellectual copyrights (e.g. creative commons) and novels will have multiple endings. They will take advantage of multimedia by integrating online content and they will be delivered to digital readers like the Kindle. There are absolutely no limits to imagination of how the “books of the future” will look like. Sadly, publishers (with notable exceptions) lack the required imagination to exploit the new opportunity space.

: Richard Baraniuk's talk at TED on textbooks: Goodbye, textbooks; hello, open-source learning:

Financial Crisis - an Opportunity for Business Model Innovation?

Innovating during an economic downturn might seem counter intuitive at first sight. However, it is precisely the right moment to do so, as long as you already prepared your company for survival during this extremely severe crisis.

This Monday European and US companies announced a brutal 76'000 job cuts in one single day (cf FT article Gloom deepens as 76,000 jobs go in a day). To focus on business model innovation when you just fired a part of your workforce to bring your company through the crisis might seem very strange. Yet, it is the right moment to do so for a number of reasons.

Business model innovation is difficult to achieve because it affects so many parts of an organization and because it needs the buy-in of so many different people. In addition, it requires the right organizational structures and a sense of urgency to make it happen. All these conditions are, unfortunately, easier to achieve during an economic downturn.

In an economic crisis complacency is gone and everybody feels a sense of urgency to act. People resist change much less when the survival of their company and ultimately their jobs are at stake. We all know how fiercely most people resist change in good times. So when the most urgent issues, such as cash management, are taken care of, a company's management should turn to innovation. This is the best opportunity they will get to position their company for the future of business model innovation.

So what is to be done? A good place to start with is building the right organizational structures that allow for business model innovation. With this I don't simply mean a "traditional" restructuring and shifting of people, but deep structural change. An organization that systematically wants to address business model innovation has the following characteristics:

  • its board explicitly gives the management the mandate to continuously examine business model innovation;
  • it extensively works with multidisciplinary teams across "departments" and across hierarchies;
  • it has mechanisms that allow innovative business model ideas to be evaluated by peers during a first phase, rather than "just by managers";
  • it involves the customer in the process of business model innovation
  • it maintains a portfolio of innovative business models that may even cannibalize the existing business model.
  • it has the right physical space in place to allow multidisciplinary business model project teams to flourish. In other words, it has project/war rooms dedicated to a project during it's entire duration and with lots of whiteboards and walls to post visuals.

Voilà, some "unbaked" thoughts on using the economic downturn as an opportunity to position an organization for the future of business model innovation.

If you have any thoughts to add, please don't hesitate. The forum is yours...

Wikipedia Needs a Business Model not Donations - plead-for-business model

Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, recently made a plead-for-donations for his extremely successful website (hat tip to Victor Lombardi).

Dear Jimmy Wales, this looks really desperate and I think it's the wrong route you are going down! A great website, such as yours, should not have to rely on the mercy of donors. I would suggest you try to find a better business model, because donations are just not sustainable... Look at the lessons of long standing not-for-profit organizations: They are relying less and less on donations.

With your foundation you are hoping to raise $6 million through your annual campaign. With such a valuable and successful website, I think you would better focus on your core competencies rather than fund raising. You have the assets to build a successful business model and still fulfill your vision. 8 years of track record, 275 million monthly visits to your website, 11 million articles in 265 languages and your 150'000 volunteers merit more than the mercy of donors.

Please learn lessons from companies like Google. Based on advertising they have contributed just as much to trying to make knowledge universally accessible than Wikipedia. Ok, you don't want to use advertising, because your volunteers think that could compromise the content. Well, I think you have a much larger range of possible business models to explore than just one built on advertising based revenue streams. I think you should launch a plead-for-business-models rather than a plead-for-donations.

I don't want to give you any recommendations - you and your board are smart enough. However, if I were to find money to fulfill Wikipedia's vision I would look into other business models that are complementary to your overall not-for-profit goal. Examples:

  • Licensing Wikipedia's technology to for-profit-companies
  • Hosting other Wiki's (similar to what WordPress does for blogs)
  • Membership fees like Amnesty International has

Here Jimmy Wales' plead-for-donations:

Personally, I don't really believe in donations. Some of the organizations that I find most astonishing and have achieved a huge social and economic impact are not at all donation-based (some take donations, but it's not at their core). Here I'm thinking of Grameen Bank, Grameen Phone, Kiva or WISE.

Any other suggestions for Wikipedia business models?

Web-based Business Model Innovation Software and Working on the Wall

Boris Fritscher, a brilliant masters student of HEC business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, has picked up on using software to sketch out business models under the guidance of my co-author, Professor Yves Pigneur.

Yesterday he showcased the tool to me and Patrick van der Pijl, producer of my business model book. Boris built a web-based tool that allows the design and description of business models. But Boris didn't keep it there. He extended the tool to allow designing business models live on a projected image on the wall (see picture where Boris works on a business model). How cool is that?

The tool, which is a research project, is still in private beta. We are currently exploring how it can most easily be used to build a database of interesting and innovative business models on the book chunk platform.

I think there is quite some potential in software-based business modeling. Two IBMers, Norbert Herman and Sergey Trikhachev are also working on a tool based on my method. They built a Visio-based tool and are extending it to include business model simulation capacities

Previously I called this Computer Aided Business Model Design (CABMoD), referring to Computer Aided Design (CAD) in Engineering and Architecture. I believe it has similar potential in business...

Business Model Innovation Book - buy early access to raw content now!

In MaySeptember 2009 Yves Pigneur and I will bring a new management book to the market, which will be a beautiful manual for entrepreneurs and executives about business model innovation.

The interest we are getting for the book is staggering, because our business model innovation methods are already in use in companies such as 3M, IBM, Deloitte, Telenor, Logica and more. Our aim is to write a book that is visual & simple, applicable, relevant and full of exciting examples.

If you are interested in the topic you now have the exclusive possibility to get early access to the book content and a community of business model innovators. It is a unique opportunity to participate in the makings of a management book that has the potential to become a global bestseller. Working title: "Crafting Innovative Business Models" "Business Model Generation".

We will float and discuss the book content as it emerges on www.businessmodelhub.comThe content is already done, but you can get your name into the book until August 14th. Access will only cost you $US 24.- $US 36.- $US 54.- $US 81.- $US 121.50 $US 243.- (the price increased because we exceeded 100 200 300 400 450+ subscribers and are now near publishing)


By joining you will have the following privileges:

  • first & exclusive access to raw book content as we write it on
  • FREE digital version of the full book when it is published
  • opportunity to influence authors and join content discussionsthe book is done by now
  • personal mention of your participation (names of participants' in print version in order of sign-up... so you better hurry this is your last chance ;-)
  • about 8 19 installments of book chunks (in a non-linear order as they emerge)
  • 50% discount off the FREE final book
  • access to templates and exclusive PowerPoint slideshows
  • being part of the business model innovation community

When you buy access for $US 243.- we will invite you to the book chunk platform within 48 hours. There you will be able to access everything that is going on. The first "book chunk" is due mid-December and is currently in the making. Already now there is a discussion on the book platform about examples, book format etc. 13 All book chunks are online now. This is the last opportunity to participate and get your name into the final print version book of this amazing breakthrough project.

Don't miss out on being part of a potential management book bestseller. You will even be able to prove it because your name will be mentioned in the print version!

On Monday January 19. 2009 at 17:00 (CET, Zurich/Geneva) we will hold a free webinar to explain how the book chunk project works.

Good PowerPoint Design - a strategic business tool

Have you ever "sold" a business project to your management or a venture to a financier? Did you ever happen to use PowerPoint or a similar presentation tool? Probably yes. Well, how much time did you invest in your slide deck? Were your slides beautiful?

Those are questions I now always ask my audiences in my keynotes and workshops on the topic of business model innovation. And most often people do not take PowerPoint seriously. However, they should. PowerPoint is a powerful weapon if used correctly! If used wrongly (as is the case for 90% of presentations) it is rather suicidal.

I attribute a substantial part of my success in my keynote speeches and workshops to my PowerPoint presentations. In fact, the design of my slide decks eat up a big part of my preparation time.

Here my learning as to "Good PPT-Design", which I recently presented at a business incubator in Switzerland

Google Book Search - first issue of my new business model innovation example series

During my d"aily lecture of the Financial Times I usually put on my "business model glasses" when it comes to the business section. Every week there are some very exciting examples of business model innovation. I decided to not only share these examples in my workshops, but also on my blog - hence the new "business model innovation example series"...

Enjoy the first issue on a deal that Google struck last week:

Book Chunk Project - prototype

Yves Pigneur's and my book on the topic of "Crafting Innovative Business Models" (working title) is only due in May 2009 (approx.). That is way too long to wait. Many people asked us for early access. Hence, I thought it could be a good idea to distribute the book content in separate chunks before.

The slides below outline the draft of this idea of giving interested people early access to our writing for 24.- $US (or maybe a little more). By subscribing to this so-called "book chunk project" you will get several things (suggest more...):

  • first & exclusive access to raw book content
  • influence authors
  • x installments of book chunks (in a non-linear order - as we write them)
  • 50% discount off the final book (approx.)
  • participate in exclusive book chunk webinars
  • access to templates
  • being part of the business model innovation community

I would be interested in your comments on this and if you would be willing to buy such an early and exclusive access. Do you think the pricing is too low? Any suggestion is welcome. In the meantime have a look at the slides that outline this idea that I would launch very soon if I feel an interest from your side:

Book Chunk Project - prototype
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: book project)

Business Models with an Impact beyond $

We are living in exciting times. Some entrepreneurs involved in business model innovation are not only seeking for financial returns, but are also aiming at achieving social, development and environmental returns. In other words, money and fame are not their only motivators. They want to have an impact. What is interesting is that they are aiming at combining financial AND social success. These entrepreneurs try to prove that these two are not necessarily contradictory.

There are are a couple of interesting business models out there that I follow with quite some fascination. Grameen Phone is a telecom company founded by Iqbal Quadir, that has brought connectivity to rural areas in Bangladesh. What is interesting about their business model is that they partnered with the world famous micro finance institution Grameen Bank to exploit synergies.

I also very much like the business model of MyC4, which allows you and me to make loans to small businesses in developing countries. This means that I can diversify my investments away from the unstable global equity markets towards uncorrelated small businesses in developing economies. I make a return on my investment, while helping boost development. Really exciting.

I am very much a believer in the fact that you can do good while doing well. This is not about "giving back", but about creating value while making a difference. Since this is an area that I'm interested in I decided to help run a workshop on the topic in London this coming Thursday. Check out "Disruptive models: The art and science of VISUAL BUSINESS MODEL DESIGN for breakthrough social innovation" if you are curious (or sign-up if you are in London).

See you there!

45 min Keynote Video on Business Model Innovation

Below a free goody: A video of one of my latest keynote talks in the Netherlands at Media Plaza. 45 minutes on business model innovation. The audience was from the media industry, which is undergoing quite some transition.

Enjoy the video (and sorry for the sound problems...):

Drawing your Business Model: cooperation with XPLANE, the visual thinking company

I've always been an admirer of the work of XPLANE, the visual thinking company, and its founder Dave Gray. So I'm quite excited to announce that we are now collaborating on visualizing business models. I will speak about the topic at a workshop organized by XPLANE on September 30th in London. The overall theme is "Thinking Visually to Tackle Business Challenges"(flyer).

Find the first XPLANE sketch of how a visualized business model could look like on slideshare:

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: dave xplane)

The XPLANE workshop in London promises to be very interesting. They will apply a creative and innovative approach to problem solving with participants. Personally, I am a firm believer in visual thinking and apply it in all my work. If you want to start learning about this I think the XPLANE event is a good place to start. Workshop goals are:

  • Understand the meaning and value of visual thinking
  • Use a creative and innovative method to solve business challenges
  • Use visual tools to help you generate, evaluate and organise ideas
  • Learn how to use them to contextualise, prioritise and harness change
  • Extend these new techniques and methodology to your team

Find out more about the event in their flyer and if you're interested subscribe on eventbrite.

On XPLANE's website you can also find a multitude of examples of their work. Below just one case study (pdf) that illustrates what they do:

Up-coming Business Model Innovation Workshops & Events

The next few weeks and months I will give some open workshops and will be participating in a couple of events. It would be a pleasure to meet you there! Besides that I am doing a series of private events for corporations (don't forget you can hire me ;-)

Open Workshops

  • 24 Sept. 2008: Amsterdam, Netherlands. Venue: ULURU. Business Model Design & Innovation Workshop (sign-up / few seats remaining)
  • 10 Oct. 2008: New York, US. Venue: Center for Architecture (sign-up)
  • 29 Oct. 2008: Amsterdam, Netherlands. Venue: ULURU. Business Model Design & Innovation Workshop (sign-up)
  • 8. Oct. 2008: Toronto, Canada. Venue: Rotman School of Management. Business Model Design & Innovation Workshop (sign-up) & separate 1h conference talk (sign-up)
  • Nov. 2008: Kigali, Rwanda (to be confirmed).
  • Nov. 2008: Cape Town, South Africa (to be confirmed).


  • 10. Sept. 2008: Utrecht, Netherlands: Media Congress (web)
  • 11 Sept. 2008: Dublin, Irleland: Innovation Forum 2008 (web)
  • 16 Oct. 2008: León, Mexico: Innovation Event Tecnológico de Monterrey

Unfortunately, I am not present in Asia in the next couple of months. Maybe a local entrepreneur with a strong network sees this as an opportunity to invite me there...

Slideshare Contest: Why Business Models Matter

I finally succeeded to submit a powerpoint presentation to the "world's best presentation contest" on, after some initial problems with the submission options (they simply disappeared before the end of the deadline...).

Please have a look at my slides below on "why business model innovation maters". If you like them please click on the link and go vote. Thanks! As a Swiss I believe in your democratic opinion - but vote "thumbs up" anyways ;-)

East African Business Summit – Business Model Session

The last two days I had the great pleasure to speak about business model innovation at the East African Business Summit, a gathering of over 150 CEOs from the region. It is not everyday that I speak alongside Professor Michael Porter and a head of state, President Museveni (hopefully that will become more frequent).

Slides I presented at the event, unfortunately without the animations... (or pdf download):

The most important thing I retain from this event is that East Africa features many remarkable business leaders, whom I had the opportunity to talk to extensively. Remarkable, because these CEOs and entrepreneurs are successfully building and growing businesses in a business environment that lacks the very things many of us can take for granted: sound infrastructures, reliable legal systems and relatively accountable politicians.

Of course I also retain the tremendous interest of the participants in my session on “Competitiveness Through Business Model Innovation”. It is becoming clearer and clearer to me what CEOs and entrepreneurs around the world find interesting in my business model canvas approach to describing business models. Here a couple of points:

  • The ability to describe the business logic of a company on one page: none of the individual elements of the business model canvas are new to business people. But the simple and yet holistic look at a business on a single page is surprisingly new to most of them.
  • Customer centricity as a business model kernel: the ability to understand the relationships between customer segments and all other business model building blocks has attracted a lot of attention. Apparently, few other approaches allow for this as straightforwardly as the business model canvas.
  • The (physical) visualization of the entire business model to foster sounder discussions: In all my workshops I now print out large posters with the 9 building blocks of the business model canvas [link]. Then I get participants to stick post-it notes on these posters to either describe their existing business model or more interestingly, a possible future business model. Experience shows that this process is extremely efficient and also very focused.
  • An approach that allows to easily think out-of-the-box: It seems that the business model canvas combined with the poster-based approach makes it easy for people to sketch-out and explore new ideas.

The East African Business Summit, which took place in Kampala, Uganda, was a very inspiring event in many ways. As some of you know, I have a very personal relationship to Africa, because my wife who grew up in Switzerland, comes from Guinea Bissau - a tiny country on Africa’s west coast.

For me the Summit was inspiring because it is contributing to changing (East) Africa’s image in the world. It showcased the dynamism and experience of business leaders who are overcoming difficult obstacles every day. The summit shows that East Africa is a place of opportunities, where growth rates are very real despite the various macro issues that hold back foreign direct investment (FDI). If the region can tackle some of the most urgent infrastructure and governance issues there seems to be a sound basis for long-term growth.

One thing I sincerely hope will change rapidly is that the voice of business leaders should be better heard and taken into account more seriously. After all it is the companies that contribute to long-term wealth creation and better living conditions. Unfortunately, the state still seems “almighty” in many East African countries (for various historical reasons). This is not to say that the state doesn’t’ have a role to play – the contrary. Yet, it’s role should be the one of an enabler of wealth creation…

Finally, I would like to thank Michael Mithika of J.M. Mantle for his trust in my competencies and for convincing the Summit conveners to invite me.

Design Thinking & Techniques

I’m just back from a 2-day business model workshop I gave in Medellin, Colombia, with a local telecommunications company. For the first time I really elaborated a bit more on the design-thinking component of sound business model development. I pointed out that business people must display a particular design attitude and use design techniques in order to come up with good new business models.

The participants of the workshop, mainly from engineering backgrounds, responded really well to this message. They seemed to enjoy the co-creation, visual working on the wall, etc., which I got them to do during the break-out sessions.
Here some of the designer’s technique’s that I highlighted for use in business contexts:

  • Observation of clients to understand them, identify needs and design a corresponding business model
  • Co-creation with clients and among multi-disciplinary teams within companies to integrate different perspectives
  • Brainstorming and ideation to achieve break-throughs and come up with new business models
  • Visualization to connect concepts, foster joint understanding and run focused meetings
  • Prototyping to explore several ideas simultaneously and test business models

Initially, I wanted to show the participants the famous IDEO video where they design a new shopping cart in order to illustrate the above design techniques and design attitude. However, since the DVD I had was broken, I had to find some other videos on the Web or from my video library.

After some searching, I finally decided to show two excerpts from “Managing as Designing” from the Weatherhead School of Management. They highlight some interesting thinking on the relationship between design & business. I also showed a very short excerpt (because the whole thing would have scared them) from Philippe Starck’s talk at TED to show that design is not about making “nice” products, but about creating value for the user of a product. Philippe Starck, as many of you certainly now, is a celebrated star designer…

After these thoughts on design I would also like to stress how impressed I was by the workshop participants and the city of Medellin in general. Formerly known as a hub for narco-traffic the city has completely transformed over the past years. There is beautiful architecture everywhere and the economy is booming. Definitely a place I will enjoy to come back to. This is certainly also related to the outstanding hospitality I enjoyed by the persons who invited me.

What is a Business Model?

Update: Based on the overwhelming interest this post got, I updated and republished the version from 2005

A business model is nothing else than a representation of how an organization makes (or intends to make) money. This can be nicely described through the 9 building blocks illustrated in the graphic below, which we call "business model canvas".

Insight: In addition to this post check out the business model design template

The business model topic is very popular among business people today because in various industries we can see a proliferation of new and innovative business models (i.e. new ways of making money). In several industries new business models are threatening or even replacing established companies and conventional ways of doing business. Just have a look at the music or airline industry.

Hence, the interest in business models comes from two opposing sides:

  • Established companies have to find new and innovative business models to compete against growing competition and to fend off insurgents
  • Entrepreneurs want to find new and innovative business models to carve out their space in the marketplace

Within this context the business model concept is a particularly helpful unit of strategic analysis tailored to today's competitive business environment. It helps executives as well as entrepreneurs increase their capacity to manage continuous change and constantly adapt to rapidly changing business environments by injecting new ideas into their business model.

But what actually is a business model?

In management meetings the question of what a business model is (even what “our” business model is) often remains relatively vague. The main reason for this is because business people have an intuitive understanding of business models. Normal, since the business model is about how an organization makes money, which is a manger’s job after all. However, there is often a lack of a more precise and shared understanding of what a business model is. Yet, such a common understanding is required if we want to have high quality discussions of one’s business model and make important business model decisions.

Therefore we have come up with the 9 building block approach to describing business models. It has the characteristics of any other type of model (e.g. in architecture or engineering).

Like other models it is a simplified description and representation of a complex real world object. It describes the original in a way that we understand its essence without having to deal with all its characteristics and complexities. In the same line of thought we can define a business model as a simplified description of how a company does business and makes money without having to go into the complex details of all its strategy, processes, units, rules, hierarchies, workflows, and systems.

Based on an extensive literature research and real-world experience we define a business model as consisting of 9 building blocks that constitute the business model canvas (readers of this blog will realize that this is an updated and slightly adapted version of the model):

  1. The value proposition of what is offered to the market;
  2. The segment(s) of clients that are addressed by the value proposition;
  3. The communication and distribution channels to reach clients and offer them the value proposition;
  4. The relationships established with clients;
  5. The key resources needed to make the business model possible;
  6. The key activities necessary to implement the business model;
  7. The key partners and their motivations to participate in the business model;
  8. The revenue streams generated by the business model (constituting the revenue model);
  9. The cost structure resulting from the business model.

Origins of the term business model

The term business model became popular only in the late 90s, which, personally I think is related to the rapid erosion of prices in the IT and telecom industry. The roots of my assumption lie in Transaction Cost Economics (TCE). Because it became so cheap to process, store and share information across business units and other companies all the way to the customer, many new ways of doing business became possible: Value chains were broken up and reconfigured; Innovative information-rich or -enriched products and services appeared; New distribution channels emerged; More customers were reached.

Ultimately this lead to globalization and increased competition, but, as described above, it also led to new ways of doing business. In other words, today there is a larger variety of how companies can make money: this means new in terms of what they do, how they do it and for whom they do it...

For managers and executives this means that they have a whole new range of possibilities to design their businesses. This results in innovative and competing business models in the same industries. Before, it used to be sufficient to say in what industry you where in, for somebody to understand what your company was doing. All players had more or less the same business model. Today it is not sufficient to choose a lucrative industry, but you must also design a competitive business model. In addition, increased competition and rapid copying of successful business models forces all players to continuously innovate and adapt their business model to gain and/or sustain a competitive edge.

Companies that thoroughly understand their business model and know how the building blocks relate to each other will be able to constantly rethink and redesign these blocks and their relationship to innovate before their business model is copied.

Business Models & Innovation

The term business model is also closely related to innovation. As I mentioned, the business model concept is related to a whole new range of business design opportunities. There are examples of business model innovations in each of the 9 building blocks described. The most obvious is innovating in the value proposition. When mobile phones appeared in the market they offered a different value proposition than fixed line phones. In the early days of the Internet popular indexes like Yahoo! helped people find information on the Web. Regarding target customer segments, low-cost airlines like EasyJet have brought flying to the masses. Dell became really successful by exploring the web as a distribution channel. Gillette has made a fortune by establishing a continuous relationship with customers based on its disposable razors. Apple resurged based on its core capacity of bringing design to computers and electronic gadgets. Cisco became famous for its capacity of configuring activities in new and innovative supply chains. Intel thrived for its capacity to get partners to build on its processing platform. Google tapped in an innovative revenue streams by linking highly specific search results and content with text ads. Wal-Mart became dominant by its ability to slash cost throughout its business model.

For conference or workshop engagements on the topic of business models, please contact me at and consult my speaker's profile (pdf)