Product or Service?

The one thing I like about writing, and blogging in particular, is that it gives one a chance to air out their thoughts, in public, with the potential for feedback. However, one of the most important aspects that is easily overlooked, and this obviously applies to all journaling and not just blogging, is that it gives one the chance to take partially formed ideas and simply by the act of writing them down, flesh them out into fully formed thoughts. This is what I am going to attempt today. Buckle your seatbelts.

In case you’ve fallen behind in following my life (wouldn’t be hard, I don’t think I’ve talked about it much here in the last few months), I’m currently working for Kirkham Systems and Fireball Media. Kirkham Systems is an established IT services company servicing the Fort Smith, Arkansas metro area offering IT services to small businesses. It’s been very successful, although obviously no business is as successful as it’s proprietors would hope. Fireball Media is an advertising agency, brand spanking new, less than a couple months old, so we really have no expectations or data to suggest whether that one is performing well or not. Time will tell.

Thus far, Kirkham Systems is excelling in its sweet spot of providing services to companies with about 5 to 25 PCs. More than that, most people have decided to hire full time IT help, less than that people generally don’t have the budget to afford our services or prefer to let their kids best friend come in and help them out with those ‘puters. Kirkham Systems also does a significant amount of web design and custom software. It’s a very well rounded company, distinguishing itself not only with its customer service but also in its ability to offer a full suite of services from networking, to custom software, to web design.

However, we haven’t as yet been able to crack the nut that I’d really like to crack. Unfortunately with a company like Kirkham Systems, companies who hire a full time IT staff have usually done so because they feel they’re going to get the best service from having those services in house. If I owned my own business, I can’t see wanting to outsource a full time staff member to waiting in queue at some other company. I know from experience you’d probably get better service than the average person staffing a one person IT shop, but it’s a hard sell. We don’t sell hardware or software solutions, so we really don’t have a lot to offer companies with an IT staff. Like I said, it’s a tough nut to crack.

It’s very difficult to make a service company grow exponentially like a product company can. Take any recent product phenomena like the iPod and you can see what I mean. Rarely can you come up with a service based idea that will catch on like a product can. You can’t hold a service in your hand, you can’t start up its motor, you can’t look at after the salesman has come and gone. You grow a service company one customer at a time, and while you can, and we are, building other existing channels outside of direct sales and standard advertising based marketing, it’s very difficult to find a niche that is wide, has limited competition, and has the potential for growth that a product based company could have.

I’m still looking for the magic solution, but I’m afraid there isn’t one. I think this is largely why service based businesses tend to not be chains, or at least not large ones. Chains require profit margins and scalability that isn’t present in service based businesses. Larger prodcut companies, chains (restraunts, retail, etc) included, require being able to gain effeciencies with the size of the company such that the potential revenue for a given employee grows with the success of the product (or in the case of retail, the mix of products I suppose). Service based businesses, since their revenues are largely based on labor, are limited to revenue per employee based on some multiple of billable hours. Administrative overhead merely cuts into the profit generated by a revenue generating employee, thusly, to grow to the size required to maintain a large administrative staff and bureaucracy as is typical of larger companies becomes nearly inpossible. I believe Brad Feld has written about this. I don’t know what the exact size would be, I think it would depend on the company, but I think every service based business would hit a point where it becomes unprofitable to add more billable employees because the overhead required to manage those employees becomes too expensive.

I think perhaps I’m pondering a problem that I would have learned about in Business School. Perhaps I should go back to college :). I may be writing about a problem that’s been written about so extensively as to make my thoughts seem like a rehash of some famous business writer’s thesis. Maybe someone reading this can point me to it. Am I right or wrong? Am I missing the examples of people who have found the magic bullet and turned service based businesses into large enterprise?

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