Charging Membership Fees For Access?

I don’t know if I’m trying to shoehorn SaaS into this platform, but I have been quite inspired by nomadlist’s initial business model. He built a community for “digital nomads”, which was just a slack channel and forums at first. But free users had very limited access to the community, and you had to sign up for a single-tier membership to support the application. I think it was $70+/yr.

From what I understand, perhaps this only worked because, at the time, there weren’t many nomad communities online… I don’t know. But plenty of membership sites were around in the past. I guess the most important aspect is that you’re providing continued benefits to your members to warrant a paid membership.

Let’s say the niche was freelance programmers - would it be worth going down the avenue of building an exclusive paid-only community, while focusing on providing as many benefits as possible to members (tools, material, etc)?

On the other side, I’ve thought of just starting with some small informational products. Write a short ebook, build an email list, write something more comprehensive and sell to the list, get into conversations with potential customers about other ideas, and build out my platform from that feedback.

I figured after I while I could build a whole library of books, courses, videos, and could use that to warrant a paid membership - or I could build tools to allow others to create content and earn through platform fees. Along with that, I could develop simple tools relevant to my users and use that to further market the platform.

Would appreciate any insight. Since quitting my job 3 months ago and going back to freelancing (10 hours/wk), I’ve had a difficult time following through with my ideas despite the vast amount of free time I now have.

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NomadList is a lightning-in-a-bottle, non-replicable story.

The full story is at and but here are the important parts:

  • he lucked into building something that didn’t really exist and resonated with people even when it was the quintessential MVP (a public spreadsheet)
  • it was relatively easy to build the full version
  • it got a large community with no advertising, just by word of mouth (the luck part)
  • he was smart enough to monetize that community with features that were easy to build
  • he’s really good at promoting (aka. marketing)

Here are things that are not easy to replicate:

  • build something that resonates that strongly. I think there’s too much “freelancer” stuff on the internet to build something unique enough to get that kind of attention. There’s aspirational mystique to the whole Nomad thing that doesn’t exist for freelancing. That’s why NomadList got covered by Forbes, Business Insider,, LifeHacker etc. They wont cover a website with freelancing tips
  • something that is easy to build. NomadList was partly crowd-sourced and front-end to display things from database is relatively simple to build. Writing enough content to attract people is very time consuming (I dabble in writing content like so I know)

So I wouldn’t bet on replicating NomadList. There was too much that went just right there.

That being said, you miss all the shots you don’t take and theorizing has little value.

Ship something.

An article, multiple articles, a short book.

Put google analytics on it, promote to the best of your ability and see what happens.

I think the most important lesson from NomadList story is that you have to ship stuff.

Preferably small stuff that doesn’t take too much time to build.

The guy wrote a bunch of useful blog posts ( and did several projects before he hit gold with NomadList (,

In that spirit, today I shipped It’s a first version, it’s not very good and maybe nothing will come out of it. But it’s my shot.


Thanks for the links. I’ll read them through.

“build something that resonates that strongly. I think there’s too much “freelancer” stuff on the internet to build something unique enough to get that kind of attention”

I should note - I was just using the freelancing market as an example and am certainly not attempting to replicate the success of NomadList. It was more about the forced paid membership. At the same time, I don’t nearly need that amount of success to support myself - my only goal is to get out of contracting and focus 100% on my own product business. For that, I need about $1600/month. If I pour a few years into building valuable stuff, I’ll be very surprised if I don’t achieve that level of income.

That idea of 12 MVPs in 12 months is very similar to my own plans. In fact, I even moved to Thailand a few months back in order to significantly reduce cost of living so I could afford to focus almost full-time on my own stuff.

The idea is to essentially focus on building products out of the 8 years programming and development experience I have… books, courses, tools, software services, platforms, anything and everything, until I find something that sticks. I have around 1500 hours this year, and am hoping I’ll have made some progress by then. I have the dev experience, so now I’m focusing more so on the marketing side of things.

I’ve even considered potentially partnering with someone who has the beginnings of something, and building traction through that. Not sure.

Either way, I’ll find a way.

It doesn’t seem to matter what you do when going it alone, there is always risk involved, and there are always 1000 reasons not to start. That’s primarily what has kept me from following through with any of my ideas and actually publishing something. Irrational belief in what you’re doing is almost a prerequisite.

So, it sounds like you’d build some content, hope to get $1.6K recurring Monthly revenue, then use that time to build another product.

Is it really necessary to spend the time on the “freelancer info” ? Could you skip that step and create an MVP for the actual product you’d like to build?

OTOH, +1 for testing some ideas. I suggest spending a fair amount of time (30% or so of the time you’ll devote to this “experiment” thinking of a good test for the Freelancer market and/or your product. Those could be two of your 12 MVPs in 12 months.

That was not luck. That was the essence of it - the right marketing.

There are a lot of paid communities. Many not known very widely, but still generate a nice income for their leaders.

And I mean “leaders” just like in “totalitarian cult leaders”. Not to say anything bad about those communities, but very often the same information could easily be obtained for free. People who flock there are the ones lacking the initiative or drive. The work of the leader then is to generate an unending enthusiasm. Case in point: Fizzle:

Fizzle has nice, step-by-step instruction on how to do X. It is well done, but it would only be needed to people who did not make an effort to google a bit. Amy Hoy calls that “entrepreporn”, and the paid communities, IMHO, attract exactly people who need that porn.

My point is that the owner of a paid community may need to have a particular personality. Simply building up a library of resources is not enough, IMHO.

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That was not luck. That was the essence of it - the right marketing.

I’m not disputing that his promotion skills were crucial for success.

But the right product was even more crucial and that’s the part that I referred to it as “luck” (for the lack of a better word).

Here are projects that he did before NomadList:

  • Tubelytics
  • Play My Inbox
  • Go Fucking Do I
  • GIFBook

His promotion skills were the same for all projects.

Presumably he worked on those because he thought those are good ideas.

Promotion and marketing is important but it won’t turn project without product-market fit into a success.

So I strongly disagree with ascribing the essence of his success to marketing.

The essence is the right product, well executed.

Marketing is an important part of execution but before his marketing skills were worth anything, he first had to:

  • write that PHP code
  • design a nice looking website
  • put it on the server

And then he could tweet about it and post on Hacker News and Product Hunt.

No argument, the site was useful, too, I remember it in the early days. Still it is not a luck :smiley:

Good points all round. Thanks.

My idea was something quite similar to Fizzle, but based on programming. Of course, there is a tremendous amount of material out there, and plenty of courses around (on Udemy and gang). But I’ve started to think perhaps it would be wise to target a particular niche within the community and build a custom experience specifically for them, a course, or even academy/bootcamp type experience that these generic MOOCs do not provide.

…and yes, one of the selling points would have to be personality, which I would attempt to salt into everything I built. I’d want the whole thing to be a fun and engaging experience, and extremely effective at providing a few particular benefits to users/customers.

But, alas, exists haha – but perhaps a spin-off focused on a smaller community (not the entirety of web developers).

In the nature of starting small and thinking big, I’m going to get my feet wet by writing a couple of reports to capture emails, write some articles, start marketing the material and try to build up an email list… with eyes on building an initial product (perhaps an ebook, not sure yet). I have also thought of introducing some highly regarded affiliate products.

" Not to say anything bad about those communities, but very often the same information could easily be obtained for free"

I think that could be said for almost any piece of information publicly available. I didn’t need to buy any of the books I’ve bought over the last 15 years - all the information was right there on the net. I bought them for reasons beyond the information inside. Whatever I build has to provide benefits way beyond access to easily digestible information. I bought an excellent book recently about Experience Design, and it talks a lot about how experience is a major competing factor.

Its much easier to sell something simple like content first to learn about the process and interact with customers, then if they like the book, upselling the next big thing is much easier with an existing audience.

This is what Rob Walling describes as Stairstep Approach to Launching Products:

it makes a lot of sense.

Exactly. This is what Amy (UnicornFree) suggests. I think their typical journey was -> contracting -> build content product (JavaScript book/course if I remember) -> Software MVPs -> 30x500 to teach others how to do the same.

Also, regardless of whether I built an MVP first, I will still have to produce great content… so I might as well sharpen that blade pronto. Content marketing will be one of my major strategies, though I’ll happily trade that in for paid advertising if I had the funds and could build profitable campaigns.

Finally, being able to build a relationship with potential customers in my market through continued content/marketing will be crucial to help me better understand how to serve them through software products.

Cheers for the links Benjamin!

Back in 2010, I was paying $300/month to be a member of the seobook forum. The owner of the site was, at the time, well-known as an SEO expert. He took time to give excellent answers to forum questions. It was worth it to me at the time, as it was much easier and cheaper than finding and hiring an SEO consultant.

There are plenty of paid membership sites around the web. To run one, you’ll need some expert knowledge on a topic, and the ability to market yourself. Easier said than done.