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Using Strategy to


the Income Ceiling

By Maggie Patterson

All opinions in this post are my opinions and mine alone.

You can view our full disclaimer here.

Over the years there’s been one myth about service businesses that I haven’t been able to escape. The myth of the income ceiling which is used to try to tell people they need to stop doing services and start doing something else. But is it real, and what should you really consider if you’re faced with an income ceiling?

In this episode, we’re looking at different strategy options you have to help you command more cash and position yourself as a true expert.

Listen Now To This Essay On The BS-Free Service Business Show

One of the biggest frustrations faced by service business owners who want to stay solo is that they feel like they’re eventually going to hit an income ceiling.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of an income ceiling, it’s essentially when you can’t make any more money because you’ve hit the maximum pricing you can charge and the number of clients you can serve.

On the surface, it’s a very simple concept. You only have so many hours in the day and can only charge so much for your services.

It’s a message that’s been used heavily in marketing for people teaching people how to create a course or group program. The pitch is that an income ceiling is inevitable with a service business, so you need to diversify your income streams.

The premise here is inherently flawed, as it positions the shift from a service business (one-to-one model) to courses/programs (a one-to-many model) as natural and normal.

Unfortunately, the shift from services to a course, program, or product business is much more complicated than it appears. To run that type of business, you need to build a solid (and sometimes sizable) audience for the one-to-many model to be financially viable. Plus, courses, programs and products all require a very different set of skills.

So the real question we need to explore is if there’s really an income ceiling for service business owners.

The truth? The answer is complicated, and that’s what we’re going to dive into in this essay and episode, along with some specific and proven ways to break the income ceiling.

The Income Ceiling: A Reality Check

One of the reasons I started doing the work I do here at BS-Free Business is the result of being able to figure out something that many of my business friends and peers didn’t. Trust me when I say I didn’t set out to be a consultant who works with service business owners, so it’s a happy accident that I’m here today.

In 2014 and 2015, I was a solo business owner and made significant shifts in my business that led to revenue growth. After years of relatively flat revenue (and income), I finally figured it out. People started to notice and started to ask me what I was doing, and I moved into doing more business-type consulting.

I’m going to share some of the specific strategies I’ve used to break income ceilings (and that I share with my clients), but it’s important that you have the context for the biggest reasons you’ll bump up against an income ceiling at some point.

It’s important to note that every business, and business owner is unique. Where an income ceiling may happen for you will vary wildly, and can’t be fully separated from your values and personal goals.

As discussed in the episode on salary and paying yourself, this is intensely personal, but it’s not rooted in trying to grow a giant business and make buckets of money. Remember, we’re talking about Staying Solo, and the real objective is to ensure you’re meeting your goals, and not engaging in harmful business practices.

Ultimately, there are multiple factors that contribute to a potential income ceiling from experience, skills, pricing, delivery, packages, clientele, industry and more. We’ll address each of these when we look at potential solutions.

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The Overall Business Strategy

As a service business owner, your business model is nailed down. However, your overall business strategy will shape so much of how you “do” business on a day-to-day basis.

Your business strategy is essentially your game plan for how you’re going to accomplish your goals. At a high level, it will guide your direction and decision-making.

A business strategy can be incredibly robust, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick with your audience, industry and value proposition, as those tend to be key contributors to an income ceiling for service business owners.


In the case of your audience, you need a clearly defined audience that you know forward and backward. I know that sounds obvious, but one of the biggest mistakes I see service business owners make is focusing on the WRONG audience.

For example, if you’re selling copywriting services to B2B clients, you need to understand their need for the service and pain points, who makes the buying decisions, how they do their research, and what they’re looking for. This deep insight will enable you to target the right person with the right messaging and marketing.

Looking at our example, if the person who makes the buying decision is a VP of marketing, you need to market in a way that targets them, and not someone at a more junior level with little influence in these decisions.

While you may be able to make some sales in this situation, by getting it dialed in, you’ll be able to get high-quality clients and potentially more clients.


I won’t sugarcoat it. What industry you work in will absolutely impact when you hit an income ceiling. Different industries have different thresholds for paying for services, expectations and needs.

This is why my agency went from working with entrepreneurs, to locally-based small businesses, to tech and professional services firms.

It was an evolution, but I found that the entrepreneur market had five-star expectations but a tiny budget. For local small businesses, the ones we worked with had money to invest but required an extreme amount of handholding, so it cut into profits. For the type of work we do, tech clients are ideal as they have the budgets and how they work is aligned with how we want to work.

If you find that you’re constantly hitting the high end of pricing in your market alongside other constraints, it may be time to explore a new industry. Remember, there may be markets adjacent to the one you already work in, or have past experience in that would be a fairly easy shift for your business.

Value Proposition

Why should a client choose to work with you? It should be an easy question, but I know for most of us, it’s not!

Most service business owners are way more comfortable being behind the scenes, so clearly articulating WHY a client should work with them can be a challenge.

I’m not saying that you suddenly need to have slick sales skills, but rather that you need to be able to tell people why you’re the right choice. If you’re struggling to articulate your value proposition, it bleeds over into all parts of your business. And that, ultimately impacts your ability to break through an income ceiling.

Here are a few questions to help you explore your value proposition:
What skills and experience do you bring?

  • What past client successes can you share?
  • What’s different about your approach?
  • What problem do you solve?
  • What results can your clients expect?

If you’re tempted to avoid this, I’m going to encourage you even more to focus on this, because there’s nothing more powerful than having clarity and confidence about your value to clients.

Your Delivery and Packaging Strategy

The next strategies you need to nail down in your business are your delivery and packaging strategy. While these get talked about alot for service business owners, as you become more experienced, you may need to find new ways to do this.

When I refer to a delivery strategy, this is “how” you deliver your services. This may be projects, retainers, intensives, or something else entirely.

Usually, when we start our businesses, we naturally gravitate toward one of these delivery strategies, and our inclination is to stick with it as we know it works for us. But if you’re bumping up against an income ceiling, it’s likely time to consider adding a new delivery model into the mix.

Why? It comes down to the needs of different types of clients and how they may work with you. For example, if you only offer retainers, you’re missing out on opportunities to serve additional clients who may want a one-time or short-term engagement. In this case, you may want to add a shorter, more contained service that enables you to work with a whole new set of clients and generate more revenue.

That said, if you consider adding different ways of delivering services, you need to ensure it’s going to work for you, and it’s a good fit for the type of services you provide. Not every service or potential client is ideal for every delivery model.

Next up is your packaging strategy, which is about what you do (and don’t) deliver. That may seem tactical, but trust me when I say it’s a strategy. Having packages in and of itself isn’t enough.

You need the right packages that align with an actual market need. If you find you have potential clients but you don’t close as many as you like, take some time to examine your packages and get curious. Are you solving for a specific problem and communicating the result you deliver? Or are you providing a laundry list of tactics you’ll do for them?

The better you can dial that in, the more clients you can close. (And the more you can charge as you’re solving a stated, real problem for clients, making you a must-have, not a nice to have.)

All of that helps you break any potential income ceiling.

Selling Strategy

For the past 18 months, I’ve been going hard on talking about the fact that service business owners need to sell the strategy.

Most of us are doing strategic work for our clients, but we fall into the trap of giving it away for free or not charging for it. If you do one thing after reading this essay, I want you to take some time and consider where you may have these strategy leaks.

In my own experience, all of the things I’ve discussed so far contributed to me being able to break through an income ceiling. But hands down, the biggest difference was focusing on ways to Sell the Strategy.

The Sell the Strategy method is about creating a product around the strategy work you’re already doing it and productizing it. The process I follow is built around my steps of product, position, price, promotion and prepare.

For those of you doing retainer work, a selling strategy can be offered as a project for a different audience. For those of you doing projects, it can be the compulsory first step in working together. And if you work with day rates, you could be doing a strategy package in your intensives.

Selling strategy is about so much more than being able to get paid for work you’re doing, or commanding more for the work you do. For me, and so many of my clients, it helped them see themselves as a true expert, while positioning them in that way for their clients.

When you’re selling strategy, you show up differently with clients as you’re clear and confident. That impacts every aspect of your business in a positive way.

Your Pricing Strategy

Finally, let’s talk about the strategy that most people would have started with, your pricing strategy.

Listen, I’m not going to knock pricing strategy as a proven way to boost your revenue and break the income ceiling. It absolutely works. It’s worked for me, and I’ve seen it work countless times for my clients.

But pricing strategy is just that, a STRATEGY. It’s not these flippant “just raise your prices” or “charge your worth” BS statements that we’re swimming in all day long in the online business world.

For you to raise your prices, you absolutely need to ensure that:

  • There’s a proven need for what you have to offer.
  • That you can clearly articulate the value and results you deliver.
  • Your position in the market and target audience.

That’s why this was the last one on the strategy list, as all of these things we’ve talked about so far create a compound effect. Those small, smart and strategic decisions add up to you being able to raise your prices in a way that’s realistic, trustworthy and sustainable.

If you’re hesitating about the idea of even raising your prices, I want you to consider what happens if you don’t ever raise your prices. You’re not even going to be dealing with an income ceiling, you’ll be struggling to keep up with the increased cost of living.

If you had a regular 9-to-5 job, you would likely (at least I hope) get a raise as your skills and experience increased. Your value as a service provider increases over time, and the reality is that market rates also climb over time.

Never raising your prices is simply not sustainable.

There’s nothing wrong with raising your prices, as long as you do it in a way that’s thoughtful and intentional. Take time to look at your current pricing and where you may have room to raise prices.

And here’s a pro tip. If you have more client work than you can handle, or nearly everyone says yes to working with you, you have pricing capacity and can raise your prices.

Finally, no conversation about pricing would be complete without acknowledging that the economy is still weird, and many solo businesses are seeing a lower number of leads, longer lead times to clients saying yes and other factors that impact the business overall.

If you’re not feeling comfortable raising your prices right now, or in a market that’s overly impacted, you can wait until the time is right. Pricing is just one strategy, and it’s one you can use at the right moment for you and your clients.

Every one of the strategies we covered today should be seen as strategic tools for you to use in your business to help ensure you don’t get stuck at a specific income ceiling.

While these strategies are all interconnected you don’t have to be actively using them all at once. You can wield them wisely as levers when needed to achieve your salary goals, and ensure your business is truly sustainable.

Remember, a business with out strategy is probably not simple, and very much not sustainable. As I learned, it can only get you so far, for so long, and it will wear you down and keep your income flatlined.