Dec 01 2008
One of the great things about being an information professional, librarian or otherwise, is the wide range of things you can do to (as they say in the corporate world) “create multiple revenue streams.”
For example, in addition to — or instead of — your current job, you might consider using your information skills to do freelance work such as writing or research. Or, you may want to explore becoming an information entrepreneur, someone who creates an information-based product to sell to others.
Product vs. Service
What’s the difference between a product and a service? A service is generally provided to a client, and is tailored to the needs of that client. It’s generally provided “on demand” — in other words, a client asks you to provide a service, which you do in response to that request.
A product, on the other hand, is some type of predefined “package” of information that you offer for sale or license to customers. Your goal is to create your information product once, then sell it multiple times (as opposed to a service, which you offer one-on-one to a specific client). Essentially, you’re “productizing” some aspect of your information expertise.
Additionally, if you’re currently working as an independent, creating an information product allows you to:
- create passive revenue, which allows you to ‘”scale up” your business without having to add more staff
- create multiple revenue streams from one initial effort (ask yourself: how many ways can I sell this information?)
- have less client dependency — if you are selling a product, you are less tied to client ups and downs for all of your income
- separate dollars earned from hours worked — you can be bringing in revenue even if you aren’t working billable hours
- identify potential market niches for which you can create additional, related products
Characteristics of a Product
Think about a product as something that you create once, then sell many times. Some standard characteristics of a product include:
- pre-packaged — you’ve created a standard format for the product that is used for/by all customers
- pre-established pricing — you have a set price for your product, although tiering is a possibility (you can offer more info/features/functionality for more money)
- minimal personal engagement — your goal is to create passive revenue, with minimal “labor” costs
- minimum customization — your goal is to have a single version that you create once, sell multiple times with as little involvement/intervention by you as possible
- focus is on market size (a group of customers) rather than on individual clients
- sale is of an existing, tangible item with immediate benefits that customer either needs or doesn’t; not about relationship-building (as is the case with a service business)
Depending on your area of expertise and your interests, there’s a wide range of information products that you might want to consider. These include, among others:
- market research reports
- workbooks and training guides
- syndicated columns
- self-directed online tutorials
- industry or personal-interest newsletters
- training CDs
- annual market trend analyses and/or forecasts
- weekly/monthly environmental scans
- revenue-producing website
Real-life examples that grew up to be major-market products include the wonderful reader’s advisory database NoveList, which started life as founder and then-public-librarian Duncan Smith’s personal card file, and Trip Hawkins’s Special Issues subscription product.
Mary Ellen Bates, independent info pro extraordinaire, says that the question to ask is “what do I have hanging around my office that I could turn into a product that someone would pay money for?” Or, another approach: what information do I have/know how to assemble that is unique, not overly time-consuming, and has potential interest for a group of purchasers?
Evaluating a Potential Product Opportunity
Okay, you think you may have a cool idea for a product. Now you need to ask some questions, both of yourself and of your potential customers, in order to determine, quite frankly, if it’s worth your effort. Here’s how to get started:
Consider the opportunity. Have others indicated an interest in your potential product? Is this a recurring request or need, or just occasional? Is the information that will make up your product difficult for you to find/update? (If so, are there ways to make your information gathering less problematic?) Does your product fall in the nice-to-have or need-to-have category? (You want to be in the latter, if possible.) If your information product will take a major effort (for example, writing a book), consider whether the return on your investment (ROI) will be worth the opportunity costs (lost evenings, weekends, and holidays for months!).
Consider the market. Who will buy your product? At what price? How big is the market? Can you product possibly be reshaped for another, additional market?
Consider your product. Is it automatable — in other words, can you produce it using technology-based, automatic processing? This will save you time. Is it scalable — can you produce and sell your product to 1,000 customers as easily as to 100? The less manual labor involved, the more scalable a product is. Is your product standardized, so that everyone is buying the same version? (A variation here is that you may want to offer customization for a high price premium, an attractive option if the customization can be done automatically.) If this is a technology-mediated product, how much customer support will you need/be willing to offer?
Consider your infrastructure. Will you be able to fill orders automatically via your website? How will you market and or sell your product? Are there regulatory, licensing, or other legal issues you need to consider?
Consider the impact on your existing work and life. Creating an information product that you then (we hope!) sell for additional income is a great way to add a bit of financial security in these uncertain times, and might also possibly end up becoming a significant part of your career.
But it’s important to realize that you need to be realistic about how much time you have to devote to your info-sideline, so that it doesn’t hijack all of your professional energies, time, and often, budget! When I made a decision to write a book, I naively assumed I could knock it out in about, oh, three months. Eighteen months (and countless broken social engagements) later, I finally delivered the Rethinking Information Work manuscript to my Libraries Unlimited editor. Now, when I consider doing another information product, I’m more realistic about both the amount of time it will take and what I will be giving up during that time.
A Path to Independence?
One of the reasons I decided to create my own information product — write a book in an area where I had expertise — was that I was working in a job in which all of my intellectual efforts focused on supporting my boss’s goals. Nothing unusual about that, and I really adored the CEO I was working with, but I got to a point where I wanted something in my professional life that I controlled.
My “information product” gave me visibility separate from my work as an information advisor to the CEO, and allowed me to begin developing a separate, independent career path while I still had the security of a steady paycheck. (I was, of course, diligent about doing all of my writing outside of my work hours.)
This sort of info-product sideline may offer you the same sort of opportunities. Whether it’s creating an additional revenue stream to support current financial needs or future goals; building visibility for an expertise that may not be part of your regular job but that you’d like to pursue at some point; or just providing an opportunity for you to exercise your information skills in a way that allows you to be in charge — creating information products can be an enjoyable and potentially profitable option to consider.
Keep in mind that being an information entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean ramping up a major business undertaking; it can just as easily mean starting a small sideline that engages you and brings rewards, financial and otherwise.