Stop Guessing What Customers Will Buy
Our web consulting business (320NY) has been around since 2011 and we've been trying to create a membership business every year without success. In fact, for the first idea we had (called Storytime) was meant to help web consultants scope out client work better. our 3 person team spent six months building it before we ever showed it to anyone. When we finally had a web consultant friend of ours look at it he simply responded with “oh that's kinda cool”. Not exactly the response we were hoping for :(
We were convinced Storytime was a terrific cutting edge software tool that would be incredibly useful for other web consultants - and yet when we showed it to someone in our theoretical target market they weren't very enthusiastic about it (much less willing to pay us a dime).
We've tried at least a half dozen other ideas that seemed terrific but time and time again we struggled to find anyone who was excited about what we built or willing to pay for it. Within the last couple years we were able to get one paying customer for an idea we had but they canceled less than a year later. The only real success we've ever had with a recurring membership business is MemberSpace and the reason it's been successful so far was counter to what you've probably read, watched, or heard about successful membership businesses. We never actually came up with the idea of MemberSpace, we simply listened and read what people were already publicly complaining about - a lack of membership functionality in Squarespace!
Listen To What People Are Already Saying
After hearing numerous times from our various Squarespace clients that they wanted some kind of membership functionality I went to Google and started searching for solutions. There were a couple that popped up but most of their websites looked sketchy or not exactly geared towards what I was looking for (membership functionality on Squarespace).
I then started combing through the Squarespace questions and answers forum. They had a feature which allowed you to sort question topics based on which ones the community had voted were the most important. Towards the top of the list was the ability to have member only content. I then looked at the total number of views for this topic (100K+) and it blew everything else out of the water.
At this point it became clear there was a HUGE need for this functionality. After reading through literally every topic on the forum about memberships I understood the existing solutions to the problem were lacking in some combination of features, user experience, or pricing terms. The community felt the problem was not being solved well but they were willing to try new solutions and pay for it. This research and understanding led to the birth and launch of a very basic version of MemberSpace back in December 2015.
The reason I gave you all this back story is simply to illustrate a point that we never actually came up with the idea of MemberSpace. This wasn't some epiphany or stroke or genius - the idea was simply obvious after doing extensive reading and research on the Squarespace forum.
Don't Build Something No One Wants
If you're trying to start a membership business you need to begin not with an idea you pulled out of your head, but with research. Say you want to create a members only course to teach people how to eat healthier. You could easily build a website in Squarespace, record a handful of recipe videos using your iPhone, write a few blog posts about eating more plant based whole foods and avoiding processed crap. You could use a 3rd party tool like MemberSpace to lock down this member only content on your site and charge $20/month for access. You could then post a link to your new website on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. You could text your friends and family letting them know about your launch. You could tell everyone at your gym or yoga class about the course. But inevitably you're going to run into a serious problem - you didn't do enough research. How do you know $20/month is a good price point? How do you know people even want recipes to eat healthier (it's easy to google healthy recipes). How do you know people don't already know they should be eating whole foods and avoiding processed junk (that's becoming common knowledge)?
If you don't know the answers, then your business is built on a guess. And sure, you could have guessed correctly and some customers sign up. But if you're trying to create an actual sustainable business (one that might eventually be your full time job) your foundation can't be built on a guess.
A different approach to your membership business might look something like this. You join the top Facebook groups that revolve around healthy eating. You also join the top groups that revolve around weight loss. You actively read and participate in all the discussions for a few weeks. You subscribe to the top 10 most popular blogs about healthy eating (that are aligned with your philosophies on the topic) and the top ones that discuss dieting and weight loss. Again you actively read every comment for every post and participate.
After actively reading and participating in these discussions for a few days you'll start to see some obvious patterns emerge. Maybe you'll hear people complain specifically about how their diet affects their skin. Maybe they'll complain about how hard it is to lose body fat. Maybe they'll say it's too expensive or time consuming to eat healthy. Whatever it is, pay attention and write down the patterns you observe. These complaint patterns will be what you base your business model and services around.
Yes this is time consuming. Yes this is tedious. But this is the hard work others aren't willing to do and will give you the best chance for actual success.
To be continued... Next we'll explain how to comb through all the data you're collecting in order to select a specific customer niche and choose which service(s) to offer them.