How do you grow a professional services business with intellectual property?


“You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”

― Shirley Chisholm

Just about every professional services business owner I know, especially coaches and consultants, express frustration at describing to their relatives what they do at holiday gatherings.

“You just talk to people on the phone and they give you money?” Aunt Gladys says skeptically.

“So you are a writer? Like where is the money in that?” College buddy Tim says condescendingly.

The world of professional services can be confusing for those who are not familiar with it. And it can be frustrating for people who are in the field who can get exhausted by simply trading time and ideas for money. It is easy to get stuck in a loop of flat income growth as you hit the constraints of raising rates and working more hours.

But there are many ways to provide value, and earn income, that do not require just trading time for money.

Professional services: a definition

According to Indeed: “Professional services are nonphysical products or services that individuals or companies provide to customers to help them manage or improve a specific area of their businesses.”

Categories can include Computer Science, Marketing, Finance and more.

The common thread is that most value in the business is derived from the ideas and experience of the people delivering the service.

And that experience can get stuck in your head for a long time.

The fulcrum of scaling for professional services: intellectual property

There can be a lot more to a professional services business than just trading time for money.

Your intellectual property, according to the definition from Investopedia is:

“a broad categorical description for the set of intangible assets owned and legally protected by a company or individual from outside use or implementation without consent. An intangible asset is a non-physical asset that a company or person owns.

The concept of intellectual property relates to the fact that certain products of human intellect should be afforded the same protective rights that apply to physical property, which are called tangible assets. Most developed economies have legal measures in place to protect both forms of property.”

Examples of professional services scaling through IP

Mike Michalowicz has made a business of building scalable assets from his books through developing partner programs, like the Profit First Professionals certification from Profit First, or Run Like Clockwork, a partner program run by Adrienne Dorison based on the book Clockwork.

Audria Richmond has a rich and beautiful library of helpful tools and checklists for business owners marketing their business in her Uncloned(TM)  online store:

Susan Cain found an interesting way to scale through the ideas and research in her book Quiet: she partnered with Steelcase to create Quiet Spaces, office furniture customized for the needs of introverted employees. (For her great new book Bittersweet, I am thinking about a collaboration with a dark chocolate brand perhaps?)

Creativity expert Denise Jacobs has built a powerful set of courses for LinkedIn Learning including her very popular Banish Your Inner Critic.

What are the steps to scaling through IP?

Step 1: Determine the most valuable thing you do for your clients

Of all the advice and support you give your clients, what is the thing that everyone finds the most valuable?

This can be the service that people buy with no resistance, or the one that gets great, consistent results, or the tool that everyone asks you if they can use outside of your engagement.

If you do a lot of things and don’t know what is most valuable to your clients, ask them! You can have individual conversations or do a more extensive survey.

Step 2: Shape the idea into a concrete model or method

If you have not already done so, you need to build a clear model and document it with clarity and detail.

Remember that to have intellectual property that you can protect and license, it needs to be your own ideas and methods. If you use someone else’s framework or tools in your work, you will need legal, written permission to use them in your model.

You also should also name the model or method in a way that will resonate with your audience.

Step 3: Protect the idea

Before getting too far down the road, you want to do a trademark and copyright search to make sure you don’t use a name that is already trademarked.

I highly recommend working with an IP attorney to do this, since there are often hidden considerations that can trip you up when you get down the road. Your IP attorney will also be a partner when you develop any licensing or certification elements as part of your strategy.

Step 4: Analyze your market and select a strategic focus

My friend Michael Bungay Stanier once advised me that “the best way to build a new program is to partner with a paying client to do it.”

If you are selling Business to Consumer (B2C), you might want to gain interest by releasing a sales letter to sign up your first clients before spending the time and money building out an entire program.

If you are selling Business to Business (B2B), you might want to partner with a real client to build a program or license material as a pilot before building out your whole product.

Step 5: Build your marketing and sales plan

When you have an ideal customer segment chosen, you want to do an ecosystem analysis (like in The Widest Net Method) and set up a strategic sales and marketing plan. It often takes a lot of commitment and patience to build out a scaleable program, and you want to build robust marketing and sales operations around it.

Step 6: Secure partnerships with legal agreements

After a lot of seeding and sales conversations, you will begin to ink your first deals. Make sure you have solid and clear legal agreements and protections in place, for the benefit of you and your partners.

Once again, your IP attorney will be a great partner in this process, developing standard agreements and working with you to set up profitable licensing deals.

It will take sustained time, investment and energy to scale your business through IP. But if you want to diversify income streams and even eventually sell your business, it can change your life.

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