July 27, 2023

Reader question from Marc re: How the subscription model differs from the retainer model?

Fellow list member Marc Lawrence wrote in to ask a follow-up question about productized subscription services (shared with permission):

I’d be super interested to know how the subscription model differs from the retainer model. Or are they the same?

Apologies if this has been covered previously.

Kind regards,


Great question! Thanks, Marc :-)

The word retainer is used very differently by different people and in different industries.

When I was doing mobile strategy consulting, I specifically offered an advisory retainer to my clients, which I define like so:

A specific type of productized service where you offer your clients 24/7 access to your advice on a subscription basis - typically monthly but sometimes quarterly or even annually. A client asks you a question over an agreed-upon channel (e.g., phone, email, Basecamp, Slack, etc) and you answer within an agreed-upon time frame (e.g., “within 90 minutes for requests made during business hours, next business day for after-hours requests”). Think of it as a hotline to your brain.

So in answer to Marc’s question, an advisory retainer is just a specific type of productized subscription service.

NOTE: You can offer advisory services on a basis other than subscription - e.g., one-off sessions or for a pre-set time period that didn’t automatically renew. That’s just not how I did it.

The key difference between an advisory retainer sold as a subscription and the productized subscription services examples I shared recently is that an advisory retainer is primarily “brains” work and the others are primarily “hands” work.

To put it another way...

Brains work is mostly about giving advice, and hands work is mostly about creating deliverables.

Either can be potentially sold as a subscription OR as a one-time purchase:

Each combination has different startup costs, risk profiles, sales cycles, profit margins, day-to-day activities, business valuations, etc, but which one you choose to pursue is totally up to you.