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The Essential Guide to Community-Based Business Models for Online Entrepreneurs

entrepreneurs working together

Congrats! You run a business.

Or you offer a service or products that people want to buy (which I’d count as a business, but I’m not here to pressure you into labels). You make a living by offering your skills to other people and I think that’s commendable. Hats off to you.

But what happens when you have followers, past clients or customers, or people who are interested in your unique skills or perspectives… and you don’t know how to really build a relationship that’s mutually beneficial? (Read: How do you make money while also being ethical and human-first?)

Glad you asked. I think it starts by building a community-based business. Now, reading that you might think, “Gee, Megan, I’m not sure I’m ready to start a community or membership just yet.” That’s not what I mean by “community-based business.” Instead, I mean you’ll want to consider how your current business and its offers — or the ones you’re building — will be modeled with community in mind.

A community-based business model is one in which the impact of the business is given utmost consideration. In its simplest form, a business model is the plan/outline for how a business makes money, and a community-based business model is one in which the community is considered with equal weight to profits. It’s not just about how well you can do the thing you do for money, it’s also about how this thing can be a force for good and create positive ripples beyond it. There’s another key difference in a community-based model: referrals are their lifeblood. It’s not that referrals are singular to community-based biz models, but strong referrals and word of mouth facilitate community and foster connection.

The way I see it, there are four community-based business models. I’m going to go over them here (because that would be rude if I didn’t) so you can clearly see how you can leverage the following you’ve built while also being ethical, impactful, and profitable.


Consulting services

Now, I know that when you think of “community-based businesses,” you’re likely thinking of a 1:many model. But consultants and coaches can also be community-focused as well. I stand before you as an example.

Hello, my name is Megan, and I am a Human First, Biz Second® coach. This means that I am focused on finding ways for you, dear reader, to make connections, tell stories, and build community. But what does a community-focused consultancy look like?

Pros:

A community-based consulting business can operate on a 1:many basis. You can offer small group coaching and programs that naturally create and support community. This is also a very interpersonal type of business model, where you have clear conversations, deeper discussions, and interactions that build connections.

Cons:

With a community-based consultancy, it’s unfortunately easy to forget the balance between 1:1 and 1:many. As a coach or consultant who truly cares about the people you service, it’s easy to get wrapped up in their needs. But it’s also hard to scale an offer that takes so much from you, and it may not always be easy to give individual attention in a group setting. 

And then there’s the risk of being a more generalized guide or losing nuance in your advice and your impact. You’ve likely been in a program where certain strategies or tools were recommended that didn’t reflect you as a person or your brand, and that can be frustrating for both the consultant/coach and the coachee.

HOW TO CREATE A COMMUNITY-FOCUSED CONSULTANCY

While there are some things to be aware of (like the risk of losing that individual touch or creating generalized recommendations that don’t reflect what your people want), there are ways to represent this business model well.

For one, you need to understand the psychographics of your ideal client better than any other aspect of your ideal client’s makeup. You’ll want the real inside scoop on their thoughts, struggles, hangups, pop culture references, etc. When you understand what’s going on upstairs you can better serve your community — and let them know that your business is the place where they’ll be honored. 

Another key component to building a community-based consulting or coaching offer? Account for flexibility. Yes hold your boundaries, but consider how you can be flexible with scheduling or how you can provide more 1:1 support so that people feel cared for when they really need you.

Most importantly, know that (with this kind of business), things don’t operate in a vacuum. If major world events are happening and you’ve got a call that day, check in and see how folks are doing. This takes you from a generic coaching program host to a truly community-centered resource for your folks.


Professional services

Most of us in the online business space started as a done-for-you (heretofore referred to as “DFY”) service provider. Whether you were a virtual assistant, copywriter, designer, what-have-you, you exchanged services for le moolah.

Now, though, you may have created a name for yourself, shall we say. You have clients coming to you from word-of-mouth, but you’re also connecting with people more on social media or being asked to speak on podcasts or at summits. You’re becoming more of a well-known (or at least reputable) figure in your space. Go little rockstar.

Of course, there’s definitely capacity for turning your professional service-based biz into a community-based business. Truly. You can offer your services to a particular community (i.e. women entrepreneurs, disabled business owners, etc.). You can create a free community where you provide advice rather than DFY services. You can share your tips on social media, in your email, via sky-writing, and so on.

Pros:

I love a good 1:1 service for a community-minded entrepreneur. That’s because you can have so much impact on an individual or a single business, and that’s extremely gratifying. This sort of “grassroots” community impact can’t be underestimated. 

Cons: 

We’ve all heard the downfalls of service-based businesses, and the same issues can arise for community-focused service brands. Services are dependent on your schedule, there may be pricing competition or challenges, and you may feel like you need to take on more work to make more money.

Of course, with all of that, comes one major downside: It’s easy to forget about community when you’re serving ONE specific client (or even trying to make enough to pay your own bills).

HOW TO CREATE A COMMUNITY-FOCUSED PROFESSIONAL SERVICE

I have a bone to pick with the people who say that service-based businesses aren’t sustainable. I think they are — especially when we really consider the ways we can make it a community-based service. If you are looking to build a DFY service biz with a community based-biz model, I highly recommend that you take the Connection Archetype quiz and understand how you best connect in content.

Regardless of which of the 5 archetypes you are, the results and resources I share will help you understand how your brain makes sense of stories and how you can bring those stories to life in order to connect. 

Another tip for your DFY service brand? Find touchpoints in your service that are necessary for cultivating community — beyond the nuts and bolts of your work. Illuminate how and why they’re important in the world of business and how they impact your clients or customers. For example, you may find that the 1:1 strategy calls that you provide before your services begin have really helped you connect on a deeper level with clients, and take their deliverables one step further. Highlight that!


Product sellers & makers

So you sell products. Maybe it’s a physical product, like some gorgeous hand-tossed ceramic mugs, or a digital product, like some equally gorgeous ClickUp templates. Whatever you sell, this is probably where our brains have the hardest time bridging the gap from “product-based business” to “community-based business.” But I promise you, there’s a way to make it happen.

Pros:

Products are, by their very nature, more likely to allow for passive income. Create something once, and you can sell it again and again (digitally, at least). But the key here isn’t to just sell products, make money, and drink your umbrella drink on a beach while you turn your nose up at other people. Products allow you to clearly demonstrate your values and your mission — and provide outcomes at more accessible prices and mediums. 

You also have the potential to create product lines that really make people feel seen and honored. You can create product lines that speak to different demographics, or even create communities of people who are excited to find themselves reflected in your products. For example, we are DEEP in our design and production phase of launching the Human First® Shop under the Hello, CEO brand (did you know I have a second biz? I have a second biz providing online biz education and community for neurodiverse entrepreneurs! Check us out here).

As we build our first collection, we are constantly thinking about how we want our products to impact folks. The thing we keep coming back to is finding cheeky positivity and meme realism for the neurodiverse crowd.

Cons:

Products are, of course, designed to be more hands-off for the business owner. Because there is less contact with people, it’s harder to see your impact and easier to forget about the overall mission. Instead, product sellers might end up just focusing on the next sale, rather than finding the next member of their community.

When a product seller starts to focus on the bottom line, rather than connecting similar buyers, that’s where a product-based business moves away from a community-based model. Another way product sellers move away from community focus is when they don’t meet the changing needs of their community or audience, and just continue to sell what they’ve always sold. 

HOW TO CREATE A COMMUNITY-FOCUSED PRODUCT BIZ

Products create more community than we think they do. Just look at anthropology and the history of “stuff” —  physical objects have shaped our lives and culture, and they provide a massive opportunity for cultivating community. Similar to a service-based business, the key to creating a loyal customer base lies in the experience. There’s no doubt you’ve got a killer product — be it physical or digital — so the way to stand out and build that community is through the shopper’s experience. 

Tweaking language upon checkout, customizing confirmation emails, checking in on purchases, following up abandoned carts, sharing real life folks who are using your product on social media. None of these are necessary per se to setting up and running a product biz, but they are essential for that product-biz to grow with a focus on community.


Influencer

This business model is probably one of the closest to the community-based business model by nature. You can’t be an influencer without a community (but you can try, honey). Of course, shifting from a simple affiliate-based business to a community-based business means choosing partnerships that honor your audience, your values, and your story.

Pros:

Influencers! Friends! You have an exceptional ability to directly impact your community and the brands/people you partner with. Your services are inherently built on trust with your community (which begets community) and it’s a much more personal business model than many of the others.

You can easily share your personal experiences and values, because this is a direct part of your brand and your work with other brands. This means you can see the impact your partnerships have on your audience, and get real-time feedback or have conversations with the people in your community.

Cons:

The term “influencer” definitely has a bad rap in today’s Instagram world. There might be concern that your services or offers are “superficial,” or that you’re only looking for a sponsorship rather than to make an impact.

There’s a balance that influencers need to find — between making money and finding partnerships that stay true to your brand values and mission. It demands a level of commitment to your community, requiring you to avoid a forced collaboration or a relationship that isn’t aligned with your values.

HOW TO BE A COMMUNITY-FOCUSED INFLUENCER

If you’re an influencer or partner with brands but don’t call yourself an influencer, you’ve already got a leg up on the community-based business model. Of course, to make sure you’re really community-focused, it helps to acknowledge your followers authentically and frequently. This doesn’t have to mean hosting a “100k followers!” milestone giveaway, but rather thanking folks regularly and being generous with your time on whatever app you influence on. This goes a long way to making folks feel like they’re not just another number — and it’s the key difference between building a fan base and building a brand fam.

Another way to curate community? Answer comments and DMs regularly and set expectations for how/when you respond. If you’re tagged, thank them; share followers’ wins to stories regularly; focus on their wins as much as your own! You can also share stories beyond your influencing niche — show what happens behind the screen and in your life. Naturally, consider what’s private, personal, and public information, and share accordingly.

And of course, be upfront with ads and sponsorships. This will maintain the trust you’ve built and show people that you’re being transparent with your business.


Crafting your community-based offers

Community, story, connection — they’re all the rage lately. With good reason, too. This is how brand loyalty is built, and brand loyalty begets profits. Focusing on community can be just as profitable as focusing on, well, profits.

But this likely means you need to revamp an offer or create a new offer suite. And there are plenty of folks ‘teaching’ how to launch that new service, product, or program.

Unfortunately, they don’t guarantee that the offer is the right way to show up for your people and create an offer that’s actually rooted in community, service, and impact. 

Your community-based business requires a Human First, Biz Second® approach, a deeper look at who you are, who you’re serving, and where their need and your skills intersect. You also deserve 1:1 attention to your particular strengths, experience, and past efforts to help you figure out exactly what kind of offer to create.

And I want to help. BOY, do I want to help. And it turns out, I have just the offer to extend.

Meet The Offer Architect Intensive

My Offer Architect VIP Intensive is an exploration + development of the best offer for your business and your people. Together, we will get clear on exactly what your offer is, how to build it, and how to integrate into your current offer suite. 

During this intensive, you’ll bring your vision and the current state of your business model and offer suite to the table — and I’ll translate it all into a sustainable offer that blends service, community, and impact.

Over the course of one (1) 4-hour call, we’ll pinpoint the right offer for your community-based business, your people, and your bandwidth. Then, you’ll receive your Cultivate & Curate Blueprint: a full offer guide with your “Offer Orders,” outlined by yours truly to make sure you bring this new offer to life in the easiest way possible. 

If you truly want to shift to a community-based business model that puts people and profits on the same pedestal, I’d love to help. Apply here and let’s chat about what’s the next best step for you and your biz.

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