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Do Some Business Models Perform Better than Others? A Study of the 1000 Largest US Firms


Peter Weill, Thomas W. Malone, Victoria T. D’Urso, George Herman, Stephanie Woerner

Sloan School of Management Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT Sloan School of Management Working Paper No. MIT Center for Coordination Science Working Paper No. 226

Copyright © 2005 Peter Weill, Thomas W. Malone, Victoria T. D’Urso, George Herman, and Stephanie Woerner


Despite its common use by academics and managers, the concept of business model remains seldom studied. This paper begins by defining a business model as what a business does and how a business makes money doing those things. Then the paper defines four basic types of business models (Creators, Distributors, Landlords and Brokers). Next, by considering the type of asset involved (Financial, Physical, Intangible, or Human), 16 specialized variations of the four basic business models are defined. Using this framework, we classify the revenue streams of the top 1000 firms in the US economy in fiscal year 2000 and analyze their financial performance. The results show that business models are a better predictor of financial performance than industry classifications and that some business models do, indeed, perform better than others. Specifically, selling the right to use assets is more profitable and more highly valued by the market than selling ownership of assets. Unlike well-known concepts such as industry classification, therefore, this paper attempts to describe the deeper structure of what firms do and thereby generate novel insights for researchers, managers and investors.

1 Draft: May 6, 2004

Draft: May 6, 2004

Do Some Business Models Perform Better than Others? A Study of the 1000 Largest US Firms

Few concepts in business today are as widely discussed—and as seldom systematically studied—as the concept of business models. Many people attribute the success of companies like eBay, Dell, and Amazon, for example, to the ways they used new technologies—not just to make their operations more efficient—but to create new business models altogether. In spite of all the talk about business models, however, there have been very few large-scale systematic empirical studies of them. We do not even know, for instance, how common the different kinds of business models are in the economy and whether some business models have better financial performance than others. This paper provides a first attempt to answer these basic questions about business models. To answer the questions, we first develop a comprehensive typology of four basic types of business models and 16 specialized variations of these basic types. We hypothesize that this typology can be used to classify any for-profit enterprise that exists in today’s economy. As partial confirmation of this hypothesis, we classify the business models of the 1000 largest US enterprises. Finally, we analyze various kinds of financial performance data for the different kinds of business models to determine whether some models perform better than others. We find that some business models are much more common than others, and that some do, indeed, perform better than others. For example, the most common business models for large US companies involve selling ownership of assets to customers (e.g. manufacturers and distributors). However, in the time period of our study (fiscal year 2000), these business models


Draft: May 6, 2004 perform less well (in terms of both profitability and market value) than business models in which customers use—but don’t buy—assets (e.g. landlords, lenders, publishers, and contractors). This study does not answer other questions like why these differences exist, whether they are changing over time, or how individual companies can exploit or modify their business models to improve their performance. But we hope that the work described here will provide a...
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