Ditching your one-product mindset in favour of an organic multi-product ecosystem could be the smartest business move you ever make
A forest isn’t just an assortment of trees: it’s all kinds of organisms working together in a natural ecosystem.
Your product ecosystem is similar.
Maybe a grand old oak tree in the centre with beech trees around it. Underground, a vast network of fungi shares nutrients with the trees. Squirrels live in the trees and eat their seeds, stag beetles burrow into the leaves shed by the trees, bats live in the holes in the older trees pecked out by woodpeckers, and all these animals provide nutrients for the trees in return. Each part is independent, but they all work together and support each other.
Your products are like this forest. Each can be appreciated (and purchased) in its own right, and they work better together, reinforcing the whole system. One product creates the right conditions for someone to buy another, and they’re all part of your online presence, website and other channels, like the emails you send to people who sign up to get your first products — your lead magnets.
Definition: A product ecosystem is a group of products that work together. They’re all related to some degree, but they’re different in how they serve your customers.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading, researching and reverse engineering successful products businesses. And I’ve worked with dozens of clients who have productised what they do. My conclusion? Thinking about your products as part of an ecosystem right from the get-go contributes enormously to your earnings potential.
Whether you’re concentrating on productised services, stand-alone products or a mix of the two, having multiple offerings in the same ecosystem makes sense.
Your product ecosystem means you can help clients at the right level. Planning the components of your ecosystem from the beginning averts the classic mistake of trying to build your signature product first. With an ecosystem mindset, you can make your products in a modular fashion and:
- Reuse your content in different formats
- Add extra parts for the more complex products
- Cut sections out and simplify them for use in the less expensive products.
You can easily create a simple, low-cost product in a particular area to test its potential and see if anyone is interested before investing lots of time and energy in something more extensive.
And most of all, developing your product ecosystem hugely increases your customer lifetime value. Several different products make your customers more likely to repeatedly buy from you. Way more satisfying for you — because you know that you’re actively helping people when they’re coming back for more. And you make more money and increase the long-term prospects for your business.
You can see your products along a line of increasing size, complexity and price and divide them into different types, such as:
- Lead magnets — useful freebies to start engaging with new potential people.
- Tripwires — low-priced tools and guides where people will often make their first purchase from you, knowing that they can check you out for a small, virtually risk-free sum.
- Medium-sized products — usually the ones you want to sell the most of.
- Big products and premium products — a crucial part of your pricing.
Dividing your products this way gets you started, but it’s not in itself an ecosystem. It doesn’t show the relationship between the products, and it doesn’t help us think about them from the customers’ point of view. And we’re always trying to see our products through our customers’ eyes — they’re the essential people in this relationship.
Bring your secret sauce to the table
All of the products in your ecosystem need to be related to one another through:
- Your “magic”– the secret sauce behind how you uniquely help your clients. It might be a methodology you’ve come up with over the years, an aspect of your in-depth knowledge or a unique way of seeing what you do. Everyone has at least one big idea in them, but it can sometimes take a bit of work to excavate.
- All the products are for roughly the same group of people (with varying budgets), who all have a particular problem you can solve for them through your products. Some of these people might have different budgets, but they will all share that problem.
You might have come across the idea of the product ladder or value ladder. I have some reservations about this approach, as you’ll see in a moment, but it can be helpful. We can see how a customer might go up the value ladder, first checking you out through some of your free or low-value products — the lead magnets and tripwires they find helpful — then buying something more substantial in the future.
But not every client starts at the bottom of the ladder. Humans behave in all kinds of ways. I’ve bought $1,500 courses just because I needed to learn certain things, and I’d had a timely email from someone saying, “Hey, we’ve got this cool course.” I didn’t buy a certain number of smaller products first; working my way up the ladder, I just went for what I needed.
The crucial factor for someone buying a medium or big product is trust. Do they trust you to solve their problem?
Trust doesn’t just come when customers experience your products at the bottom of the value ladder. Every possible interaction with your potential customers needs to be about building on their trust in you.
I see people who have never bought from me before going straight for a premium product and spending 10k. Sometimes, this is their first visit to my website; they’re not even on my email list.
When it comes to selling premium products, I have reservations about the idea of the value ladder. When you charge more than 5k for something, you can’t just depend on your ladder to build the necessary trust. You probably need that extra bit of trust-building that comes from enabling them to meet you, at least on Zoom.
The linear value ladder approach is too simplistic and can lead you astray. I believe it’s much more helpful to get your head around the alternative idea of having a product ecosystem.
The product ecosystem approach gives you a much more nuanced and flexible way of working out what kinds of products you want to make. And how you can encourage people to buy more than one — and buy the ones that will earn you good money.
Let’s take a look at some of the possible product ecosystems you might use.
Your basic product ecosystem
This example is fairly typical. You’ve got a bunch of lead magnets to draw traffic to you and encourage people to permit you to start sending them emails. Then you have some tripwire products to generate a pleasant background hum of tiny Stripe payment notifications, bringing you small amounts of cash.
Then there are a few medium products and maybe a bigger one and a premium one. You can see how this is much more nuanced and flexible than the value ladder idea.
Don’t worry if you look at this and think, “Gosh, Julia, how many products do you think I can make?” You don’t need all of them to start. Begin with a couple of lead magnets — but with the ecosystem image in mind.
While creating these lead magnets, you’ll be delightfully challenged by the need to explain your complex knowledge to others. Concentrating on the lead magnets and tripwire products first, before you tackle the more extensive products, enables you to start building your audience, your tribe of fans. And it allows you to develop your thinking about your specialist area.
Your ecosystem is not just the products themselves. When someone grabs a lead magnet, they’re giving the thumbs up for you to send them more helpful insights, so you can regularly send emails imbued with your brand personality. You can open a dialogue with them about how you solve that central problem for clients. And maybe send a smattering of invitations for them to engage with you through surveys, quizzes or just by hitting reply. That builds trust, so when you’re ready to promote your pricier products, your tribe is happy to buy them. Well, some of them, anyway.
An ecosystem for an audience with smaller budgets
You’ll see that this product ecosystem has many more tripwire products and no premium. You could easily make a good living from this — a collection of low-priced tripwires and one medium product. I’ve reverse-engineered many of the brands that work this way to learn from them.
This setup can be an excellent place to start because all the time you’re selling those tripwire products, you’re building your relationships with your tribe through your follow-up emails.
If your audience has a small budget, you can still help them through your lower-priced products. But this approach needn’t just be for people with limited cash. You can use this model because you enjoy making tripwires. Some people spend most of their time on a productised service and then devote Fridays to inventing tripwires that bring in more potential clients.
My favourite — the recurring income ecosystem
The recurring income product ecosystem has a few lead magnets to draw people in and maybe a tripwire or two to encourage initial purchases. But the primary offering is a membership or subscription with a monthly fee. This fee might be for continued access to a library of resources or a new piece of content your members get every month.
You can see why I love this product ecosystem so much. Regular cash flow is every entrepreneur’s dream. Once you’ve brought a customer in and keep solving their problem, they automatically send you money each month.
And, of course, you can have multiple recurring income products all working together and add in some medium products to increase customer lifetime value.
We’ve talked about how humans don’t necessarily jump up the next rung of your value ladder. But there is one area within the ecosystem where you can encourage people to make a little jump, and that’s with upsells.
I once tried on some clothes at Hobbs and walked out with some rather beautiful but unsuitable boots as well as the new dresses I’d picked out because the salesperson brought the boots into the changing room. I’d been upsold a £200 pair of boots.
Within your ecosystem, you can work out what goes with what. If one of your medium products is a benchmarking report, you might upsell your client an annual subscription to all future reports. With a mastermind programme, you might sell a continuation of the programme for a lower monthly fee at the end of the initial programme.
When someone is in the process of buying one thing from you, they’re open to purchasing something else, either at the same time or very soon after their initial purchase. ASOS have studied this in-depth with all their millions of purchasers and discovered that people are most likely to buy again from them within six weeks of their initial purchase while basking in the feelgood glow of their positive experience with the company. If you ever buy anything from the online fashion giant, you’ll get a whole stream of emails from them in that six-week window, suggesting all kinds of other purchases.
The true genius of the product ecosystem approach
Now the product ecosystem approach gets clever. You can add upsells and downsells (where you offer a less expensive alternative product to people who haven’t bought your medium product) and encourage people to move around the product ecosystem until they find something right for them. And encourage them to come back.
At this point, the product ecosystem starts to give you, and your customers, a lot more choices.
Get your priorities straight but be flexible
To seed your product ecosystem, I suggest starting with your initial list of product ideas, brainstorming a whole lot more and then choosing a shortlist of the ones you’re initially committing to work on.
Then start to work out how these might fit together as an ecosystem.
But just because you planned your product ecosystem in a certain way doesn’t mean you have to stick to that plan. If a particular product in a niche area of yours becomes super popular, you might want to reframe everything to concentrate on that niche area. Maybe someone else will ask you to resell their product for them, and there’s a simple addition to your ecosystem and profits right there. Or you might come up with a fantastic new product idea six months from now and include that in your ecosystem.
These are all great ways for your product ecosystem to evolve and mature.
It’s worth being mindful of the way ecosystems can potentially change, especially if you’re like me and tend to stick to the plan once you’ve made it. But bear in mind…
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy”
— Helmuth von Moltke
You might want to retire or hide some of your products after a couple of years. Either they don’t sell that well, they become out of date, or you prefer that people buy something else. When you’ve made a tripwire version first and then dug deeper to create a more in-depth product, you might find that the tripwire cannibalises sales for the big one, so you kill it off. Or maybe you end up with such a massive product list of products that your prospective customers find it challenging to decide what to buy … and end up going away with nothing. And you need to de-clutter your ecosystem.
Sure, along the way, you can expect a few stumbles. You may also sometimes feel like you can’t see the wood from the trees as you find your way around the product ecosystem that’s right for you. But remember that it’s a worthwhile endeavour because you’re ultimately learning how to be of more use to your tribe. And that’s truly the holy grail of successful product sales.