Selecting a product is one of the first and most crucial steps in creating a new business. Often, when people think of starting a business, they start by imagining new products – something they wish already existed and could buy themselves. 

People have a fascination with inventors and the ideation stage, and we watch things like Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den, and make movies like “Joy” about single mom-turned inventor Joy Mangano. People like creating stuff. 

The amazing thing is that your initial possibilities are endless, because there’s one core concept at the heart of it all: every business has absolute control over what they sell. Subscription-first entrepreneurs take this decision to a whole new level. They ask, ‘why choose a product that people only need or want periodically or even worse — just once?’

In any case, product selection comes with a host of challenges. We ran a survey a few weeks ago on our Subscription-first Entrepreneurs Facebook group, and the second biggest challenge brought up by our members was sourcing products. With that in mind, we’re here to break it down in plain, simple English. 

What defines a good product selection? 

The key to understanding what exactly makes a good subscription product lies in one simple concept. A good subscription product is something that a customer is ready, willing, and able to buy again, and again, and again, every single time they feel the urge for the value that it delivers – which is an urge that you can create both organically or artificially. You can create that ongoing need by choosing a product that your customers simply can’t live without. Or you might manufacture an ongoing customer need by creating an amazing customer experience, high quality products and service, and branding. However you achieve this, the goal is to integrate your subscription-first products into the lives of your customers to the extent that they want more next month and the month after that. And to do that, you need to show them that there’s an ongoing value. 

Now, if the first couple of things that came to mind were physical goods like coffee and toilet paper… you’re right! Yet, it goes much deeper than that. There’s actually several main types of products that lend themselves particularly well to a subscription model:

  • Essential consumables
  • Systems
  • Collectibles, Passions and Hobbies
  • Memberships

Let’s go through each one in more detail.

Essential consumables

In a nutshell, these are products that the majority of people around the world use on a regular basis. More often than not, they’re disposable or run out naturally, and/or need to be replaced. Like with coffee and toilet paper, most people will have their preferred brand for products in these categories, to which they’ll stay fiercely loyal until… they run out. Ever been to the store to find your favorite plant-based meat substitute is gone? How about your favorite makeup product? Or that one hypoallergenic cleaning product that you physically can’t live without?

If someone could promise you you’d literally never run out of any of these again, I’m pretty sure you’d sign on the dotted line too. Case in point. Although it may seem like the market is saturated with a lot of these products, remember you’re selling the promise of that perfect ‘Goldilocks’ mix of convenience and quality, far better than what a chain supermarket sells – make that shine in your packaging, website, and brand communication, and customers will stay long term subscribers. That’s the recipe followed by one Subbly supported subscription-first coffee shop, Pure Roasters, and they’ve attracted coffee addicts from everywhere.

Examples

Systems

The next broad product type is one centered around a proprietary system. It’s simple: you create a base product (Nespresso coffee machine) that can only be used with a proprietary refill (Nespresso coffee pods), impress customers with quality goods delivered at the perfect interval, and make them feel confident about your brand becoming a long-term part of their life. It’s already a given that customers are interested in your product if they’ve bought into the initial base product, and as long as they’re happy, they will be a very long term subscriber. 

Often, this works best for technically complex hardware products that form a critical part of a customer’s day. Yet there’s a marked difference between a clumsy DIY attempt at a manual espresso machine and the sleek, one-button operation of a Nespresso machine, or a pack of gas station razors vs a smooth, vibrating 5-bladed razor head from Gillette. Subscription-first products like this have been around for so long, many of their users have even passed the loyalty down to the next generation! 

Examples

Collectibles, Passions, and Hobbies

Almost every product over the years has an extremely hardcore fanbase. These are the die-hard fans that collect memorabilia, or they want the same products in every color, they want to connect with other superfans, and go deep on a particular topic. It’s a great idea to create a subscription that centers around a product that has a large and passionate fanbase. In fact, many subscription boxes do exactly that, and our ever expanding subcultural landscape constantly creates new opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs to tap into. 

Many subscription products like this are almost the opposite of “essentials”. They aren’t necessary, but the customer is so passionate about something, that they want an ongoing supply of things related to this niche interest. There’s obvious examples like the comic book fan who wants comics, action figures, limited edition posters and memorabilia, t-shirts, and mugs. But then there’s anime fans, amatuer magicians, celebrity fan clubs, sports fans, and hobbyists like people who build model trains or play cult favorite games like Minecraft or Warhammer. 

There are two really interesting characteristics of these types of subscription products. First, entrepreneurs can be inspired by their own passions to create a business. And second, these products cater really well to building a community which creates really unique opportunities to find and connect with customers.

Examples

Memberships

Another way to explore product selection is to consider building a membership product. Often, membership products are centered around connecting with like minded people to achieve a collective goal, like learning a new skill, accessing exclusive content or products, or exploring a hobby or interest. 

There’s a ton of different ways to approach this, including digital products (like online courses), physical products (like Costco memberships + shopping for physical goods), models that combine the two (like Jenny Craig, which gives access to both ready meals and online resources), and new models for memberships that traditionally exist in physical retail spaces (like gyms and yoga studios), depending on the end goal you’re trying to achieve.

However, as long as your core offering provides access to some kind of content or exclusive material, you’re going in the right direction. If your concept lends itself well to some good old-fashioned community building too, engagement will skyrocket! From educational products to skill-building courses – it’s all fair game. 

Generally speaking, customers who subscribe to these kinds of subscription-first products are already invested in the process (or have their sights set on the end goal) of achieving the end goal you’ve advertised anyway. For slightly more tricky domains, such as learning a complicated skill, the community aspect allows you to let your customers be their own cheerleaders – incentivizing themselves and hyping themselves up to be the most knowledgeable or the most accomplished in the forum that you’ve created, with your products at the core. 

Even if you don’t create the community yourself, people are likely to bond over the shared sense of identity they get from using your products, especially if it’s in a niche space. A great example of this is Neiru, which is focused around Japanese nail art.

Examples

What if the shoe doesn’t fit?

However, it’s good to remember that not every product is made for a subscription model. People only need so many coffee mugs, dog bowls, lamps, etc. Some things don’t break and rarely need to be replaced – so don’t force it. But you can think creatively about how to integrate some subscription element to your business that your customers will love.

It’s definitely possible to pivot into selling subscriptions even if your product isn’t specifically geared towards that. Indeed, subscription-first businesses can be created out of traditional products and services by simply tweaking an existing business model.

On the services side, consider a barber offering unlimited haircuts for a fixed monthly fee, or a laundromat offering subscription-based pickup and delivery services for local businesses with uniforms. On the products side, consider a shoe manufacturer selling limited-edition laces on a subscription basis, or, for a retail store example, look at Pret’s coffee subscription.

Your customers have an ongoing need, and subscription-first entrepreneurs are pros at identifying that and creating products and services around it

So what will you create? 

Once you establish the link between your product or service and the ongoing needs of your customer, turn it into a subscription, start experimenting, and constantly refine it. But most of all, have fun with the creative process that is designing and selecting the perfect product for your subscription-first business! 

By Zaki Gulamani
Сontent creator at Subbly