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The Entrepreneur's Business Model: Toward a Unified Perspective

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Highly emphasized in entrepreneurial practice, business models have received limited attention from researchers. No consensus exists regarding the definition, nature, structure, and evolution of business models. Still, the business model holds promise as a unifying unit of analysis that can facilitate theory development in entrepreneurship. This article synthesizes the literature and draws conclusions regarding a number of these core issues. Theoretical underpinnings of a firm's business model are explored. A six-component framework is proposed for characterizing a business model, regardless of venture type. These components are applied at three different levels. The framework is illustrated using a successful mainstream company. Suggestions are made regarding the manner in which business models might be expected to emerge and evolve over time.
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The entrepreneur’s business model: toward a unified perspective
Michael Morris
a,
*, Minet Schindehutte
b
, Jeffrey Allen
c
a
Witting Chair in Entrepreneurship, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244, USA
b
Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056, USA
c
University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL 32816, USA
Received 29 September 2002; accepted 6 November 2003
Abstract
Highly emphasized in entrepreneurial practice, business models have received limited attention from researchers. No consensus exists
regarding the definition, nature, structure, and evolution of business models. Still, the business model holds promise as a unifying unit
of analysis that can facilitate theory development in entrepreneurship. This article synthesizes the literature and draws conclusions
regarding a number of these core issues. Theoretical underpinnings of a firm’s business model are explored. A six-component
framework is proposed for characterizing a business model, regardless of venture type. These components are applied at three different
levels. The framework is illustrated using a successful mainstream company. Suggestions are made regarding the manner in which
business models might be expected to emerge and evolve over time.
D2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Activity sets; Architecture; Business model; Strategy; Model dynamics
1. Introduction
Ventures fail despite the presence of market opportu-
nities, novel business ideas, adequate resources, and
talented entrepreneurs. A possible cause is the underlying
model driving the business. Surprisingly, little attention
has been given to business models by researchers, with
much of the published work focusing on Internet-based
models. The available research tends to be descriptive in
nature, examining approaches to model construction,
noting standard model types, citing examples of failed
and successful models, and discussing the need for new
models as conditions change. Yet, no consensus exists
regarding the definition or nature of a model, and there
has been no attempt to prioritize critical research ques-
tions or establish research streams relating to models.
The purpose of this study is to review existing perspec-
tives and propose an integrative framework for charac-
terizing the entrepreneur’s business model.
2. Literature review
2.1. What is a ‘business model’?
No generally accepted definition of the term ‘‘business
model’’ has emerged. Diversity in the available definitions
poses substantive challenges for delimiting the nature and
components of a model and determining what constitutes a
good model. It also leads to confusion in terminology, as
business model, strategy, business concept, revenue model,
and economic model are often used interchangeably. More-
over, the business model has been referred to as architecture,
design, pattern, plan, method, assumption, and statement.
It is possible to bring order to the various perspectives. A
content analysis of key words in 30 definitions led the authors
to identify three general categories of definitions based on
their principal emphasis. These categories can be labeled
economic, operational, and strategic, with each comprised of
a unique set of decision variables. They represent a hierarchy
in that the perspective becomes more comprehensive as one
progressively moves from the economic to the operational to
the strategic levels.
At the most rudimentary level, the business model is
defined solely in terms of the firm’s economic model. The
0148-2963/$ – see front matter D2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2003.11.001
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-315-443-3164.
E-mail address: mhmorris@syr.edu (M. Morris).
Journal of Business Research 58 (2005) 726 – 735
concern is with the logic of profit generation. Relevant
decision variables include revenue sources, pricing method-
ologies, cost structures, margins, and expected volumes.
Hence, Stewart and Zhao (2000) approach the model as ‘‘a
statement of how a firm will make money and sustain its
profit stream over time.’’ At the operational level, the model
represents an architectural configuration. The focus is on
internal processes and design of infrastructure that enables
the firm to create value. Decision variables include produc-
tion or service delivery methods, administrative processes,
resource flows, knowledge management, and logistical
streams. Mayo and Brown (1999) refer to ‘‘the design of
key interdependent systems that create and sustain a compet-
itive business.’’ Definitions at the strategic level emphasize
overall direction in the firm’s market positioning, interactions
across organizational boundaries, and growth opportunities.
Of concern is competitive advantage and sustainability.
Decision elements include stakeholder identification, value
creation, differentiation, vision, values, and networks and
alliances. Slywotsky (1996) refers to ‘‘the totality of how a
company selects its customers, defines and differentiates its
offerings, defines the tasks it will perform itself and those it
will outsource, configures its resources, goes to market,
creates utility for customers and captures profits.’’
Among the available definitions, strategic elements are
most prominent. Further, an analysis of models frequently
cited as being well conceptualized (e.g., Dell, Nucor, Wal-
Mart, IKEA, Walgreen) suggests that the elements making
these models unique transcend the architecture of the firm
or how it makes money. More than the sum of its parts,
the model captures the essence of how the business
system will be focused. Accordingly, the following inte-
grative definition is proposed: ‘‘A business model is a
concise representation of how an interrelated set of
decision variables in the areas of venture strategy, archi-
tecture, and economics are addressed to create sustainable
competitive advantage in defined markets.’’
To illustrate the distinction between a business model
and related concepts, consider Dell Computer, a firm that
has grown to over US$32 billion in annual sales in just
20 years. The company’s products include a mix of PCs,
notebooks, workstations, servers, and software products.
Their business concept involves selling customized com-
puter solutions directly to customers at competitive pri-
ces. However, the Dell business model integrates strategic
considerations, operational processes, and decisions relat-
ed to economics. It is designed around elimination of
intermediaries, systems built to order, highly responsive
customer service, moderate margins, rapid inventory turn-
over, speedy integration of new technologies, and a
highly efficient procurement, manufacturing, and distribu-
tion process. Adherence to these elements guides opera-
tional decision making and the firm’s ongoing strategic
direction.
The business model is related to a number of other
managerial concepts. It captures key components of a
business plan, but the plan deals with a number of start-up
and operational issues that transcend the model. It is not a
strategy but includes a number of strategy elements. Simi-
larly, it is not an activity set, although activity sets support
each element of a model.
2.2. What do we know about business models?
Interest in business models is relatively recent, with
much of the research appearing in the past decade, a time
period associated with the ‘‘new economy.’’ The popularity
of the term is evidenced in a keyword search using the
Google search engine and the ABI-Inform database. Results
from these two sources indicated 4,326,812 and 2387
entries, respectively, for ‘‘business model.’
The largest volume of research has come from electronic
commerce (Mahadevan, 2000). Early work focused on
capturing revenue streams for web-based firms. Subsequent
efforts identified model types based on product offerings,
value-creating processes, and firm architecture, among other
variables. For a detailed inventory of these models, see
http://digitalenterprise.org/models/models.html.Asitbe-
came evident that the number of potential models was
limitless, researchers began focusing on model taxonomies.
In spite of this foundation, progress in the field has been
hindered by lack of consensus over the key components of a
model. Table 1 presents a synopsis of available perspectives
regarding model components. The perspectives are notable
both for their similarities and differences. The number of
components mentioned varies from four to eight. A total of
24 different items are mentioned as possible components,
with 15 receiving multiple mentions. The most frequently
cited are the firm’s value offering (11), economic model
(10), customer interface/relationship (8), partner network/
roles (7), internal infrastructure/connected activities (6), and
target markets (5). Some items overlap, such as customer
relationships and the firm’s partner network or the firm’s
revenue sources, products, and value offering.
This lack of consensus has hindered progress on a
number of related issues. Few insights are available
regarding the conditions that make a particular model
appropriate, ways in which models interact with organiza-
tional variables, existence of generic model types, and
dynamics of model evolution, among other questions.
Attempts at model decomposition acknowledge the exis-
tence of interdependencies among components but shed
little light on the nature of the relationships. Limited
progress has also been made in establishing methodologies
for evaluating model quality.
2.3. Theoretical underpinnings of business models
Issues of theory represent another area receiving scant
attention. A notable exception can be found in Amit and
Zott (2001), who approach the business model construct as
a unifying unit of analysis that captures value creation
M. Morris et al. / Journal of Business Research 58 (2005) 726–735 727
arising from multiple sources. They argue for a cross-
theoretical perspective, concluding that no single theory
can fully explain the value creation potential of a venture.
The business model construct builds upon central ideas
in business strategy and its associated theoretical traditions.
Most directly, it builds upon the value chain concept
(Porter, 1985) and the extended notions of value systems
and strategic positioning (Porter, 1996). Because the busi-
ness model encompasses competitive advantage, it also
draws on resource-based theory (Barney et al., 2001).In
terms of the firm’s fit within the larger value creation
network, the model relates to strategic network theory
(Jarillo, 1995) and cooperative strategies (Dyer and Singh,
1998). Further, the model involves choices (e.g., vertical
integration, competitive strategy) about firm boundaries
(Barney, 1999) and relates to transaction cost economics
(Williamson, 1981).
Most perspectives on models include the firm’s offer-
ings and activities undertaken to produce them. Here,
management must consider the firm’s value proposition,
choose the activities it will undertake within the firm, and
determine how the firm fits into the value creation net-
work. Based on Schumpeter’s (1936) theory of economic
development, value is created from unique combinations of
resources that produce innovations, while transaction cost
economics identifies transaction efficiency and boundary
decisions as a value source. Positioning within the larger
value network can be a critical factor in value creation. As
part of its positioning, the firm must establish appropriate
relationships with suppliers, partners, and customers.
Table 1
Perspectives on business model components
Source Specific components Number E-commerce/
general
Empirical
support (Y/N)
Nature of data
Horowitz (1996) Price, product, distribution, organizational
characteristics, and technology
5G N
Viscio and Pasternak (1996) Global core, governance, business units, services,
and linkages
5G N
Timmers (1998) Product/service/information flow architecture,
business actors and roles, actor benefits, revenue
sources, and marketing strategy
5 E Y Detailed case
studies
Markides (1999) Product innovation, customer relationship, infrastructure
management, and financial aspects
4G N
Donath (1999) Customer understanding, marketing tactics, corporate
governance, and intranet/extranet capabilities
5E N
Gordijn et al. (2001) Actors, market segments, value offering, value activity,
stakeholder network, value interfaces, value ports,
and value exchanges
8E N
Linder and Cantrell (2001) Pricing model, revenue model, channel model,
commerce process model, Internet-enabled commerce
relationship, organizational form, and value proposition
8 G Y 70 interviews
with CEOs
Chesbrough and
Rosenbaum (2000)
Value proposition, target markets, internal value chain
structure, cost structure and profit model, value
network, and competitive strategy
6 G Y 35 case studies
Gartner (2003) Market offering, competencies, core technology
investments, and bottom line
4 E N Consulting
clients
Hamel (2001) Core strategy, strategic resources, value network,
and customer interface
4 G N Consulting clients
Petrovic et al. (2001) Value model, resource model, production model,
customer relations model, revenue model, capital model,
and market model
7E N
Dubosson-Torbay
et al. (2001)
Products, customer relationship, infrastructure
and network of partners, and financial aspects
4 E Y Detailed
case studies
Afuah and Tucci (2001) Customer value, scope, price, revenue, connected
activities, implementation, capabilities, and sustainability
8E N
Weill and Vitale (2001) Strategic objectives, value proposition,
revenue sources, success factors, channels, core
competencies, customer segments, and IT infrastructure
8 E Y Survey research
Applegate (2001) Concept, capabilities, and value 3 G N
Amit and Zott (2001) Transaction content, transaction structure,
and transaction governance
4 E Y 59 case studies
Alt and Zimmerman (2001) Mission, structure, processes, revenues,legalities,
and technology
6 E N Literature
synthesis
Rayport and
Jaworski (2001)
Value cluster, market space offering, resource system,
and financial model
4 E Y 100 cases
Betz (2002) Resources, sales, profits, and capital 4 G N
M. Morris et al. / Journal of Business Research 58 (2005) 726–735728
Models implicitly or explicitly address the internal com-
petencies that underlie a firm’s competitive advantage. This
is consistent with resource-based theory, where the firm is
viewed as a bundle of resources and capabilities (Barney et
al., 2001). Competitive advantage can emerge from superior
execution of particular activities within the firm’s internal
value chain, superior coordination among those activities, or
superior management of the interface between the firm and
others in the value network. Also, where the model has
proprietary innovative elements, resource advantage theory
holds relevance (Hunt, 2000).
The economics of the venture is featured prominently
in business model research. An effective model encom-
passes unique combinations that result in superior value
creation, in turn producing superior returns to the firm,
consistent with Schumpeterian theory (Schumpeter, 1936).
At the same time, the growth and profit aspirations of
entrepreneurs vary considerably. Aspirations reflect the
firm’s relationship to the entrepreneur’s career and life
and influence enterprise objectives. Business models will
differ for ventures with more moderate versus more
ambitious aspirations. Various theoretical traditions have
implications for entrepreneurial intentions regarding the
nature and scope of the venture. Self-efficacy theory is a
case in point, with its emphasis on role of an entrepre-
neur’s cognitive capabilities and skills assessment in
determining outcomes. Alternatively, the theory of effec-
tuation suggests that entrepreneurs make conjectures about
the future, determine what can be done, and goals emerge
over time (Wiltbank and Sarasvathy, 2002).
An additional theoretical perspective approaches the
business model as interrelated components of a system that
constitutes the firm’s architectural backbone. With systems
theory, the business is viewed as an open system with
varying levels of combinatorial complexity among subsys-
tems and bounded by the environment and open information
exchange (Petrovic et al., 2001).
3. Model development: an integrative framework
Building on these conceptual and theoretical roots, it is
possible to develop a standard framework for characterizing
a business model. To be useful, such a framework must be
reasonably simple, logical, measurable, comprehensive, and
operationally meaningful. In seeking generalizability, the
extant perspectives tend to oversimplify a firm’s model. The
challenge is to produce a framework that is applicable to
firms in general but which serves the needs of the individual
entrepreneur.
Accordingly, a framework is proposed that consists of
three increasingly specific levels of decision making,
termed the ‘foundation’, ‘proprietary,’ and ‘rules’ levels.
Further, at each level, six basic decision areas are
considered. The need for three levels reflects the different
managerial purposes of a model. There is, at the foun-
dation level, a need to make generic decisions regarding
what the business is and is not and ensure such decisions
are internally consistent. Because the foundation level
addresses basic decisions that all entrepreneurs must
make, it permits general comparisons across ventures
and the identification of universal models. At the propri-
etary level, the model’s purpose is to enable development
of unique combinations among decision variables that
result in marketplace advantage. At this level, the frame-
work becomes a customizable tool that encourages the
entrepreneur to focus on how value can be created in
each of the six decision areas. The usefulness of any
model is limited, however, unless it provides specific
guidance and discipline to business operations, necessi-
tating a third level in the model. The rules level delin-
eates guiding principles governing execution of decisions
made at levels one and two.
3.1. Foundation level: defining basic components
At its essence, a well-formulated model must address six
key questions (see Table 2). These questions have been
derived based on commonalities among the various per-
spectives found in the literature, including those summa-
rized in Table 1. Moreover, each has a foundation in the
theoretical work discussed earlier. The most consistently
emphasized components concern the value proposition, the
customer, internal processes and competencies, and how the
firm makes money. To these four, a competitive strategy
element has been added, reflecting the need to translate core
competencies and the value proposition into a sustainable
marketplace position. Finally, a useable framework should
apply to all types of ventures, reflecting the design consid-
erations necessary to accommodate differing levels of
growth, time horizons, resource strategies, and exit vehicles.
Thus, the sixth decision area captures growth and time
objectives of the entrepreneur. Let us examine each in more
detail.
3.1.1. How will the firm create value?
This first question concerns the value offering of the
firm. Decisions here address the nature of the product/
service mix, the firm’s role in production or service
delivery, and how the offering is made available to
customers. There is no business without a defined value
proposition, and the creation of value provides a justifi-
cation for the business entity. Its inclusion in the model
is supported by the work of Afuah and Tucci (2001),
Chesbrough and Rosenbaum (2002), and Rayport and
Jaworski (2001), among others.
3.1.2. For whom will the firm create value?
This question focuses on the nature and scope of the
market in which the firm competes. To whom will the firm
sell and where in the value chain will it operate? Customer
types, their geographic dispersion, and their interaction
M. Morris et al. / Journal of Business Research 58 (2005) 726–735 729
requirements have significant impacts on how an organiza-
tion is configured, its resource requirements, and what it
sells. Failure to adequately define the market is a key factor
associated with venture failure. Support for the role of
customer considerations in delineating a firm’s model can
be found in Gordijn et al., 2001, Markides, 1999,and
Timmers, 1998.
3.1.3. What is the firm’s internal source of advantage?
The term ‘core competency’ is used to capture an internal
capability or skill set that the firm performs relatively better
than others (Hamel, 2001). Hence, Federal Express delivers
a benefit of on-time delivery based on its competency at
logistics management, and the organization is configured
around this competency. Development and enhancement of
this competency solidify the firm’s role in the external value
chain and become the focus for the internal value chain.
These competencies lie at the heart of the business model
(Applegate, 2001; Viscio and Pasternack, 1996). A firm can
attempt to build advantage around one or more competen-
cies, with general sources of advantage identified by various
observers (e.g., Siggelkow, 2002).
3.1.4. How will the firm position itself in the marketplace?
Core internal competencies provide the basis for exter-
nal positioning. The model must delineate how the entre-
preneur intends to achieve advantage over competitors
(Amit and Zott, 2001). The challenge is to identify salient
points of difference that can be maintained. The entrepre-
neur attempts to define a unique, defensible niche enabling
the firm to mitigate ongoing developments in the environ-
ment. Given the ability of firms to quickly imitate one
another, the entrepreneur seeks a positioning basis that is
more than transitory.
3.1.5. How will the firm make money?
A core element of the firm’s business model is its
economic model (Linder and Cantrell, 2000). The eco-
nomic model provides a consistent logic for earning
profits. It can be approached in terms of four subcompo-
nents: operating leverage or the extent to which the cost
structure is dominated by fixed versus variable costs; the
firm’s emphasis on higher or lower volumes in terms of
both the market opportunity and internal capacity; the
firm’s ability to achieve relatively higher or lower margins;
and the firm’s revenue model, including the flexibility of
revenue sources and prices.
3.1.6. What are the entrepreneur’s time, scope, and size
ambitions?
Entrepreneurs create different types of ventures, ranging
from lifestyle firms to rapid growth companies. Differences
among venture types have important implications for com-
petitive strategy, firm architecture, resource management,
creation of internal competencies, and economic perfor-
mance. As such, an integrated business model must capture
the entrepreneur’s time, scope, and size ambitions or what
might be termed the firm’s ‘investment model.’ Examples of
four such models are subsistence, income, growth, and
speculation. With the subsistence model, the goal is to survive
and meet basic financial obligations. When employing an
income model, the entrepreneur invests to the point that the
business is able to generate on ongoing and stable income
stream for the principals. A growth model finds significant
Table 2
Six questions that underlie a business model
Component 1 (factors related to the offering): How do we create value?
(select from each set)
.offering: primarily products/primarily services/heavy mix
.offering: standardized/some customization/high customization
.offering: broad line/medium breadth/narrow line
.offering: deep lines/medium depth/shallow lines
.offering: access to product/ product itself/ product bundled with other
firm’s product
.offering: internal manufacturing or service delivery/ outsourcing/
licensing/ reselling/ value added reselling
.offering: direct distribution/indirect distribution (if indirect: single or
multichannel)
Component 2 (market factors): Who do we create value for? (select from
each set)
.type of organization: b-to-b/b-to-c/ both
.local/regional/national/international
.where customer is in value chain: upstream supplier/ downstream
supplier/ government/ institutional/ wholesaler/ retailer/ service provider/
final consumer
.broad or general market/multiple segment/niche market
.transactional/relational
Component 3 (internal capability factors): What is our source of
competence? (select one or more)
.production/operating systems
.selling/marketing
.information management/mining/packaging
.technology/R&D/creative or innovative capability/intellectual
.financial transactions/arbitrage
.supply chain management
.networking/resource leveraging
Component 4 (competitive strategy factors): How do we competitively
position ourselves? (select one or more)
.image of operational excellence/consistency/dependability/speed
.product or service quality/selection/features/availability
.innovation leadership
.low cost/efficiency
.intimate customer relationship/experience
Component 5 (economic factors): How we make money? (select from each
set)
.pricing and revenue sources: fixed/mixed/flexible
.operating leverage: high/medium/low
.volumes: high/medium/low
.margins: high/medium/low
Component 6 (personal/investor factors): What are our time, scope, and
size ambitions? (select one)
.subsistence model
.income model
.growth model
.speculative model
M. Morris et al. / Journal of Business Research 58 (2005) 726–735730
initial investment, but also substantial reinvestment in an
attempt to grow the value of the firm to the point that it
eventually generates a major capital gain for investors. In a
speculative model, the entrepreneur’s time frame is shorter
and the objective is to demonstrate venture potential before
selling out.
3.2. Proprietary level: creating unique combinations
While the foundation level is adequate to capture the
essence of a model for many firms, sustainable advantage
ultimately depends on the ability of the entrepreneur to
apply unique approaches to one or more of the founda-
tion components. Having determined that the firm will
sell some combination of goods directly to businesses or
will sell in consumer markets at high margins and low
volumes, the entrepreneur identifies novel ways to ap-
proach such decisions. This is referred to as the propri-
etary level of the model, as it entails innovation unique
to a particular venture. Where the foundation level is
generic, the proprietary level becomes strategy specific.
The foundation level model is fairly easy to replicate by
competitors; the proprietary level is not. Replication is
especially difficult because of interactions among the
proprietary-level components. In the earlier Dell Comput-
er example, the ‘Dell Direct Method’ results from pro-
prietary approaches to defining the value proposition and
organizing internal logistical flows.
3.3. Rules level: establishing guiding principles
Once implemented, a model’s success can be tied to a
basic set of operating rules. These guidelines ensure that the
model’s foundation and proprietary elements are reflected in
ongoing strategic actions. Eisenhardt and Sull (2001) discuss
the concept of ‘‘strategy as simple rules’’ (see also Nelson and
Winter, 1982). They discuss ‘‘priority rules’’ that determine
how Intel allocates manufacturing capacity and ‘‘boundary
Table 3
Characterizing the business model of Southwest Airlines
Foundation level Proprietary level Rules
Component 1:
Factors related
to offering
Sell services only
Standardized offering
Narrow breadth
Shallow lines
Sell the service by itself
Internal service delivery
Direct distribution
Short haul, low-fare, high-frequency,
point-to-point service
Deliver fun
Serve only drinks/snacks
Assign no seats/no first class
Do not use travel agents/intermediaries
Fully refundable fares, no advance
purchase requirement
Maximum one-way fare should
not exceed US$___
Maximum food cost per person
should be less than US$___
Component 2:
Market factors
B2C and B2B (sell to individual travelers
and corporate travel departments)
National
Retail
Broad market
Transactional
Managed evolution from regional airline
to servicing to 59 airports in 30 states
Careful selection of cities based on fit
with underlying operating model
Specific guidelines for selecting
cities to be serviced
85% penetration of local markets
Component 3:
Internal capability
factors
Production/operating systems Highly selective hiring of employees
that fit profile; intense focus on
frontline employees
Do not operate a hub and-spoke route system.
Fly into uncongested airports of small cities,
less congested airports of large cities
Innovative ground operations approach
Independent baggage handling system
Use of Boeing 737 aircraft
No code sharing with other airlines
At least 20 departures per day
from airport
Maximum flight distance should
be less than ___ miles
Maximum flight time should be
less than ___ minutes
Turnaround of flights should be
20 minutes or fewer
Component 4:
Competitive strategy
factors
Image of operational excellence/
consistency/dependability
Differentiation is achieved by
stressing on-time arrival, low fares,
passengers having a good time (spirit of fun)
Achieve best on-time record
in industry
Airline that love built
Component 5:
Economic factors
Fixed revenue source
High operating leverage
High volumes
Low margins
Short-haul routes and high frequency of
flights combined with consistently low prices
and internal efficiencies result in annual
profitability regardless of industry trends
Maintain cost per passenger
mile below US$___
Component 6:
Growth/exit factors
Growth model Emphasis on growth opportunities
that are consistent with business model
Managed rate of growth
M. Morris et al. / Journal of Business Research 58 (2005) 726–735 731
rules’’ that govern the types of movies Miramax decides to
make. Girotto and Rivkin (2000) explain how Yahoo! adheres
to a set of guiding rules in the formation of partnerships, a
critical part of the firm’s business model. At Dell Computer, a
rule might involve turning inventory in 4 days or less. Rules
are important at the level of execution of the business model.
Consistent adherence to basic principles can distinguish two
companies having otherwise similar models.
3.4. Applying the framework
Southwest Airlines has a robust business model that has
sustained company growth for 30 years, including the
aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist tragedy that devastated the
industry. Not surprisingly, the Southwest model has been
copied in whole or part by others (e.g., JetBlue, RyanAir,
United Express). While some have achieved achieve note-
worthy performance, none of these firms has achieved the
level of success as Southwest, especially in head-to-head
competition with the firm. Southwest’s superiority in
exploiting this model also makes it clear that a well-
conceptualized business model affects and is affected by
such organizational variables as culture and leadership
quality.
In Table 3, the Southwest model is first captured at the
foundation level. Here, the focus is on what the firm is
doing, as opposed to how. This level is concerned with
basics of the firm’s approach in terms of a standardized set
of questions. Next, at the proprietary level, Southwest’s
model reflects innovation that has changed the ways in
which other airlines operate, while reflecting an approach
that is difficult to replicate. From Table 3, it can be seen how
the model components are exploited for advantage in an
innovative yet internally consistent manner. The proprietary
model centers on Southwest’s core competency, its unique
operating system. This operating system (e.g., employee
policies, airport and route selection, no code sharing,
independent baggage handling, standardization of aircraft)
makes possible a unique value proposition (short haul, low-
fare, direct service that is on-time and ‘fun’). Finally, it
would be easy to deviate from this model given competitive
and regulatory pressures. However, a number of ‘rules’ help
management avoid strategic or tactical moves that are
inconsistent with the model. Rules regarding maximum
fares or flight turnaround times effectively delimit appro-
priate courses of management action, while reinforcing the
strategic intent of the firm in the minds of employees.
4. Business model fit, evolution, sustainability
4.1. The issue of fit
Sustainability requires that model components demon-
strate consistency, as in the Southwest example. Consisten-
cy can be described in terms of both internal and external
‘‘fit,’’ where the former is concerned with a coherent
configuration of key activities within the firm and the latter
addresses the appropriateness of the configuration given
external environmental conditions.
Internal fit includes both consistency and reinforce-
ment within and between the six subcomponents of the
model. An economic model with high operating leverage,
low margins, moderate volumes, and fixed revenue sour-
ces may, by itself, be untenable. Further, the economics
must fit with the other components of the model. A
given economic model might not be workable when
selling in a regional b-to-b market where significant
investment in customer relationships is required or when
selling a value offering involving extensive customiza-
tion. If the economic model calls for penetration pricing
with low margins and high fixed costs, this may imply a
value proposition that centers on medium to low quality,
a target market that is fairly broad and relatively price
elastic, competitive positioning based on cost leadership,
and a growth-oriented investment model.
Ultimately, each component affects and is affected by
the other components. While each is vital, the firm’s
investment model effectively delimits decisions made in
all the other areas. For instance, a speculative business,
with its shorter time horizon, may require a cost structure
with lower operating leverage and a customer focus that
is not predicated on long-term customer relationships.
Alternatively, if one is building a lifestyle business, the
firm is apt to have a more narrowly defined product and
market focus, may be more dependent on customer
relationships, and is likely to require an economic model
that includes lower volumes. With the lifestyle venture, it
may not be necessary to invest as much in the model’s
proprietary elements.
External fit is concerned with consistency between
choices in the six areas of the model and conditions in
the external environment. As environmental conditions
change, the model may require adaptation or wholesale
change. Rindova and Kotha (2001) describe the ‘‘morph-
ing’’ of Yahoo’s business model from provider of search
functions to supplier of content to source of interactive
services. When confronting highly turbulent conditions, a
strong internal fit can undermine the firm’s adaptability in
the face of a poor external fit. Companies must work to
disrupt their own advantages and those of competitors.
Adaptability may require models with loosely fitting
elements or introduction of new elements that change
the dynamics among existing elements.
4.2. Emergence and evolution of models
Although some entrepreneurs have a clearly formulat-
ed model when undertaking a venture, many start with
partially formed models and incomplete strategies. A
process of experimentation may be involved as the model
emerges (and a viable model may never emerge). Lessons
M. Morris et al. / Journal of Business Research 58 (2005) 726–735732
are being learned regarding what is required to make
money on a sustainable basis. As competencies are
developed, keener insights may result regarding sources
of innovation or advantage as they relate to those
competencies. The entrepreneur is also likely to become
more strategic in his/her view of business operations over
time.
In terms of the proposed framework, a firm’s model
might be expected to evolve from the foundation level
toward a more complete articulation of the proprietary and
rules levels. Initially, the entrepreneur may have a fair
picture of the foundation level and limited notions about
some components at the proprietary level. As the firm
develops and learns, it is able to flesh out more compo-
nents at the proprietary level, furthering its advantage, and
develops rules that guide operations and ongoing growth.
Model evolution can also be linked to the type of venture
being pursued. Models for survival, lifestyle, growth, and
speculative ventures might be expected to vary in formal-
ity, sophistication, and uniqueness. For instance, the pro-
prietor of a lifestyle business may have an implicit model
in mind at start-up, and the model may never develop
beyond basic decisions at the foundation level. He/she
might develop a set of rules of thumb that support the
basic model, such as how much inventory must move at
certain times of the year. This entrepreneur may periodi-
cally deviate from the model, introducing elements that are
inconsistent with existing elements. Alternatively, a more
formal, comprehensive, and potent model is needed to
provide direction and attract resources to a high growth
venture. Decisions at the proprietary level become vital for
sustainable advantage.
Conceptually, it is possible to envision a business model
life cycle involving periods of specification, refinement,
adaptation, revision, and reformulation. An initial period
during which the model is fairly informal or implicit is
followed by a process of trial and error, and a number of core
decisions are made that delimit the directions in which the
firm can evolve. At some point, a fairly definitive, formal
model is in place. Subsequently, adjustments are made and
ongoing experiments are undertaken. Siggelkow (2002)
characterized such adjustments in terms of augmentation,
reinforcement, and deletion. A basically sound model will
typically withstand economic downturns and modest distur-
bances but can become dysfunctional if major discontinuities
occur. When external changes undermine a model, it typically
cannot be recalibrated; a new model must be constructed.
Hence, Grove (1997) describes ‘‘strategic inflection points’’
in the respecification of Intel’s model over time.
4.3. Linking the business model to strategic management
concepts
The business model is consistent with a number of
emerging concepts from the field of strategic management.
Strategy, in Porter’s (1996) view, is about performing differ-
ent activities than competitors or about performing similar
activities in different ways. He juxtaposes strategy against
operational effectiveness, a concern with performing similar
activities better than competitors. The business model has
elements of both strategy and operational effectiveness. For
instance, a low-cost advantage deriving from a novel ap-
proach to distribution might be central to the way in which the
firm creates value, reflecting Porter’s (1996) notion of strat-
egy. Similarly, the model might call for internal manufactur-
ing, where production processes are fairly similar to those of
competitors and the firm’s competitiveness in this area is a
function of operational effectiveness.
Central to Porter’s (1996) recent work is the concept
of ‘‘activity sets.’’ Organizations configure activities in
unique ways, with advantage deriving from how activities
fit with and reinforce one another. Activity systems can
be mapped so as to capture the evolution of organizations
along discernable developmental paths. Siggelkow (2002)
characterizes activity sets in terms of core elements,
elaborating elements, and interactions. He notes the
emergence over time of seven core elements in his study
of the Vanguard Group. Implied in this work is a large
universe of potential core elements from which a subset
is created and elaborated upon as a firm evolves.
The business model organizes these core elements and
activities around six key decision areas. The model
captures all of a firm’s core elements, although more
than one core element can fall into a given decision area.
Further, each of the six decision areas and the interac-
tions between areas are supported by a variety of activity
sets. Unfortunately, the mapping referred to by Porter and
Siggelkow (2001) occurs after the fact. The business
model represents a framework for doing this constructing
in the early stages of a venture and for conducting
predictive, what-if scenario analysis. For early stage
entrepreneurs, many of the potentially most productive
activity sets are less apparent, as the firm has little
experience, highlighting the importance of entrepreneurial
vision.
The business model encourages the entrepreneur to (a)
conceptualize the venture as an interrelated set of strategic
choices; (b) seek complementary relationships among ele-
ments through unique combinations; (c) develop activity
sets around a logical framework; and (d) ensure consisten-
cy between elements of strategy, architecture, economics,
growth, and exit intentions. Strategic choices that charac-
terize a venture are made both intentionally and by default.
The business model makes the choices explicit. The model
is a relatively simple way to delimit and organize key
decisions that must be made at the outset of a venture. At
the foundation level, the model provides a framework for
deciding what not to do (e.g., what services not to offer)
and assists the entrepreneur in assessing consistencies and
recognizing trade-offs among decisions. At the proprietary
level, truly unique configurations are produced that can
result in sustainable advantage.
M. Morris et al. / Journal of Business Research 58 (2005) 726–735 733
5. Conclusions
The business model can be a central construct in entre-
preneurship research. This article has sought to provide
direction in addressing some of the more vexing questions
surrounding models. The model represents a strategic frame-
work for conceptualizing a value-based venture. The pro-
posed framework allows the user to design, describe,
categorize, critique, and analyze a business model for any
type of company. It provides a useful backdrop for strate-
gically adapting fundamental elements of a business. By
specifying the elements that constitute a model, the frame-
work enhances the ability to assess model attributes. A
model that ignores one or more of the specified components
will suffer in terms of its comprehensiveness, while incon-
sistency can manifest itself both in terms of the fit among
decision areas within a given component as well as the fit
between components.
With the proposed framework, each of six components is
evaluated at three levels. At the foundation level, the model
is defined in terms of a standardized set of decisions that can
be quantified. A benefit of this standardization is the ability
to make comparisons across models from a broad universe
of ventures. New avenues for empirical research become
possible, ranging from the creation of general model taxon-
omies and investigations of relationships among the foun-
dation level variables to modeling relationships between the
model and a host of endogenous and exogenous variables.
Also promising is the ability to identify model archetypes.
By applying codes to the various decision choices across the
six components of the framework at the foundation level,
statistical tools can be used to identify dominant patterns
among decision choices.
At the proprietary level, considerable scope for inno-
vation exists within each model component. The model
becomes a form of intellectual property, with some
entrepreneurs actually obtaining patents for their models.
Considerable work remains to properly understand busi-
ness model innovation. A beginning point is to develop
measures of model innovativeness. A further step
involves determining how the relative importance of
component innovation varies depending on industry or
market characteristics.
The business model can serve as a focusing device for
entrepreneurs and employees, especially when supported by
a set or rules or guidelines that derive from decisions made
at the proprietary level. Rules provide a clearer sense of the
firm’s value proposition and are a source of guidance
regarding actions that might compromise the value equation.
Additional research is needed regarding what constitutes a
rule, types of rules, differences between rules and objec-
tives, qualities of good rules, and ways in which rules
become dysfunctional.
Other areas requiring further investigation include the
ability of entrepreneurs and others to assess model quality.
Systematic approaches for assessing model viability are
needed. Methods are also needed for appraising the model’s
fit with changing environmental conditions; just as critical
are issues surrounding model implementation. One chal-
lenge concerns the translation of model components into
operational decisions, where the importance of fit will likely
differ by activity area. Another challenge involves exper-
imenting with new strategic moves in ways that do not
compromise the model. Finally, further insights are needed
into the dynamics of model emergence and evolution.
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This paper uses a longitudinal case study of the mutual fund provider, The Vanguard Group, to understand the developmental processes that lead to organizational configurations and fit. A new method for determining an organization's core elements is developed, and four processes are identified that describe the creation and subsequent elaboration of these core elements: thickening (reinforcement of an existing core element by new elaborating elements), patching (creation of a new core element and its reinforcement by new elaborating elements), coasting (no further elaboration of a new core element in a given period), and trimming (deletion of a core element and its elaborating elements). The four processes are used to describe organizations' development paths toward configurations and their transitions between configurations, including two new ideal types, termed thin-to-thick and patch-by-patch, as well as two known paths between configurations, the punctuated equilibrium path and reorientation through linear progression.
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At present, the resource-based view of the firm is perhaps the most influential framework for understanding strategic management. In this editor’s introduction, we briefly describe the contributions to knowledge provided by the commentaries and articles contained in this issue. In addition, we outline some additional areas of research wherein the resource-based view can be gainfully deployed.
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In this interview, international strategy guru Gary Hamel explains the thinking behind his new book, Leading the Revolution. He believes that the impetus for radical change in a business must come from the ideas and energies of the people within the company, not from consultants or external advisors. He also believes that innovation and radical change will be necessary for wealth creation in the coming years – change not only in products and processes, but change in entire business models as well. The interview includes Hamel’s guidelines for those at any level of an organization who may have ideas about new opportunities that can revolutionize the company or the industry.