Starting a Membership Program (And Doing Interesting Work)

by Jeremy Bassetti
starting a membership program

With the new year marching onward, it as good a time as any for creative individuals to finally start their own creative businesses. There are many paths up the mountain, the saying goes, and one of those paths is starting a membership program.

Platforms like Substack, Patreon, and OnlyFans help facilitate starting and running paid membership programs. Some creators have even developed systems to operate membership programs on their own websites. Whichever path you take, it is important to understand the “first principle” of a membership program and how to set one up for success.

Contents

What is a membership program?

The deceit of 1,000 true fans

The first principle of membership programs: interesting work

What is interesting work?

Why start a membership program?

A methodology of starting a membership program


What is a membership program?

A membership program is a system wherein members pay a recurring fee in exchange for some members-only benefit. 

For example, Costco charges its members $60 a year to have the privilege of shopping in their stores. Netflix charges its members $15 a month to access its library of streaming content.

In the context of the broader “creator economy,” a membership program can be a powerful tool for independent creators to help fund their work. Easy-to-use platforms like Patreon, Substack, and OnlyFans make it easy for creators to connect with their audiences and provide various perks for their financial support.

Members act as micro-patrons and provide the capital (and, by extension, the more precious resources of time and space) for independent creators to do work that interests them.

The deceit of 1,000 true fans

Many “creator economy” membership programs operate under the assumption that small payments from many members will result in sizable earnings.

Kevin Kelly articulated this notion when he discussed the importance of having “1,000 true fans,” the “creator economy” axiom that states that any independent creator can make a living if they “create enough each year [to] earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan.”1.

Kelly’s notion is appealing because it seems within reach. We’re not talking about becoming a millionaire. We’re not talking about needing millions of followers on social media. We’re not talking about achieving celebrity status. We’re talking about just 1,000 people appreciating your work enough to give you $100 each year. That’s it. 

But I find the equation of 1,000 fans x $100 = creative liberation to be deceiving simple. After all, $100,000 a year is a financial feat for most people, to say nothing about what that achievement would mean for artists or writers.

What’s more deceiving is that conversations about “1,000 true fans” have focused more on the fans and the finances than on the work. That is, not many people talk about the type or amount of work needed to elicit a $100 response from 1,000 people each year.

As a membership program is based on group of supporters who find the work of an independent creator interesting, it seems that interesting work must come before any audience. Without work, there is nothing for anyone to support.

The first principle of membership programs: interesting work

It stands to reason, then, that interesting work must be the first principle of all theories about creative living or creative independence. Interesting work begets an audience, and an audience begets support. So, interesting work must also be the first principle of membership programs.

But, as Craig Mod reminds us, membership programs are most successful after creators have developed considerable audiences.2 This appears to be a catch-22: to be supported by an audience to do interesting work, one needs to have already done interesting work. Promise and potential can only go so far in terms of making a living from one’s creative interests or running a successful membership program. Quality of output is a more accurate measure.3 

Perhaps we can make a few assumptions for those who have been able to wiggle their way out of the catch-22: 

  1. Independent creators will be called to do interesting work before anyone will pay them for it. They are simply driven to do the work.
  2. As they need to pay rents and feed themselves, independent creators are likely to be stuck in endless, pleasureless, and pointless pursuits (rat races, hamster wheels, and other day jobs) as they do interesting work.

What is interesting work?

“But, Jeremy,” I hear you say, “How do you define interesting?”

If you’ll pardon a tautology, interesting work is work that the creator and other people find interesting. Or, to put it another way, interesting work might also be meaningful work. Does the work capture your attention? That’s a good start.

But, for work to be interesting enough to generate financial support from strangers, it must also capture the attention of someone else.4

“How does someone make interesting work?” you ask.

There is no formula for creating interesting work. If there were, it would be an indecipherable Matrix-style string of code, stacked with variables representing elusive ideas like persistence, practice, tenacity, talent, serendipity, and privilege to name a few. “Success” seems alchemical. But surely if you find something interesting, there are others who do too. And if you can create something that other find interesting, you’re off on the right footing.

And, by the way, let’s not confuse “interesting work” with an interesting work. Interesting work is a body of work. A membership program cannot ride off into the sunset on a one-trick pony.

Why start a membership program?

The benefits of launching a membership program should be clear: a membership program can provide the economic foundation for independent creators to continue doing interesting work.

But a membership program shouldn’t be just about the finances. It should be about the time and space too. For any creative individual knows how important it is to have the physical, outer space and the psychological, inner space when doing interesting work. How many creators with day jobs do you know would take a considerable pay cut in order to have the creative space to focus on their work?

It should also be about the work itself, for this is the driving force behind it all. This is what Craig Mod means when he says that membership programs are “implicit and durable permission machines.” They help clear the decks (of other more practical or perhaps more lucrative work) to focus on interesting work. Instead of focusing on work that conforms to abstract concept of market viability, creators receive the permission, time, and space to immerse themselves in experimentation and creativity from membership programs. The work is autotelic.

Of course, working independently takes a bit of discipline. But for independent creators who are self-motivated and lucky enough, membership programs can liberate them from day jobs and other distractions.

A methodology of starting a membership program

In a basic transaction, this is exchanged for that. But in membership programs, transactions are not always so simple. Sometimes, interesting work takes many months to produce. Other times, interesting work comes in waves. It is therefore important that membership programs set clear expectations. What interesting work are you creating? At what frequency? Do you have a track record that serves to predict success?

Membership programs also need to offer clear incentives. If we are to believe Adam Smith, that self-interest drives economic exchange, membership programs need to articulate to the members what’s in it for them. Why should anyone give you money to continue creating interesting work? What do members get out of it? What are the deliverables?

The methodology for starting a membership program seems to be something like:

  1. Do interesting work.
  2. Set clear expectations for the program. 
  3. Incentivize membership and articulate deliverables.
  4. Deliver interesting work.
  5. Keep doing interesting work.

Good luck starting your own membership program. If you have any questions or comments, please contact me.


Notes:
  1. https://kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans/[]
  2. https://craigmod.com/essays/membership_programs/#fn:2[]
  3. Craig Mod elsewhere speaks about frugal living as one of the pillars of doing interesting work.[]
  4. I don’t want to equate popular with interesting, but from a practical standpoint of running a membership program, it seems that the more attention your work captures, the more supporters you’ll have. We must not conflate interesting for someone with interesting for everyone.[]

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