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Jon Henshaw: Welcome to the 10th episode of the Coywolf Digital Marketing Podcast. I’m your host, Jon Henshaw. In this episode, I’m sharing an excerpt from my interview with Drew Strojny. Drew is the founder of Memberful, a membership service that manages subscriptions and access to behind-the-wall content for WordPress and other platforms.
In the first excerpt, Drew, who also founded The Theme Foundry, talks about his frustration with trying to find good subscription service, and how that led him to the create Memberful to solve his own problem.
Drew Strojny: I was personally very frustrated with the software options that we had for the Theme Foundry. And we were using one of them, and I was just continually frustrated with it. I felt like it was a real poor experience, and had just been telling myself we should do something here, because we could make something a lot better, and eventually just decided to go ahead and do it. And we were able to test it in a live way to start, because we had a business that needed it. So we were able to push a lot of volume through it and feel confident that it was a legit, dependable solution. And so then we decided to open it up to others, and lots of folks loved it too, and then things just kind of kept going from there.
JH: Yeah. I mean, I really don’t remember how long I’ve been a customer. I just know it’s been many years. And it’s funny because what you described was what I was going through just on the consumer end, which is, I mean really quite honestly, I thought everything was just crap. And a lot of it was overthought and had horrible UX, and was trying to do everything. Or looked really spammy, almost like it was made by, and made for, people who want to create spammy communities. And one of the things that really attracted me to Memberful was that you weren’t, at least at the time, and it may have just been because of the fact that you can’t make everything at once, but at least at the time you weren’t trying to do everything. You were trying to do the core things and do them well, without kind of getting in the way of the CMS.
JH: That’s one of the things that I like about Memberful, is that it just kind of seamlessly integrates with WordPress. Even to this day there still aren’t a lot of, I would say, things you need to do in the WordPress admin, because it just kind of works. And even to this day I would say also that when I go to Memberful’s admin it’s also just what I need and it’s pretty efficient, and even with your universal search to kind of find members, or whatever it might be. So is that sort of how you drive the product? I mean, just this idea of minimalism but still having what needs to be there?
DS: Yep. There’s a lot of things going on there. I mean I think from a, I guess, product philosophy, Memberful came into existence because of frustration with overly-complicated systems that were trying to do everything poorly. So from day one we kind of took a stance of we’re going to focus on the membership part of this and make that really great. Make the experience really great for the members so that it just feels seamless, it’s on your website, and it just feels natural and easy to use. And then on the admin side we also wanted it to feel like hey this isn’t some overly-complex thing you need to manage. It’s actually pretty simple. You can see your activity. You can see your members. You can manage the stuff you’re selling. You can get access to all that right in a nice easy-to-use dashboard.
So and whenever we add something we’re always thinking about how can we make this as simple as possible? And sometimes that involves us making some decisions almost for the customer. To say we feel like this is the way you should be doing this, so we’re going to set it up that way and kind of guide you towards that use case. Versus trying to make it a Swiss army knife of you can do everything with this feature. We’re going to say no, this is kind of how we feel it should be used. And that allows us to make it more simple and make it easier to use.
JH: Well I can tell you, as a user, I really appreciate it. As I just said kind of before, I noticed it. That was the thing that actually attracted me to that system, because it wasn’t overly complicated and everything’s done poorly type of approach. So congratulations to you on accomplishing that, and that’s probably why you’ve been so successful with this.
JH: In the second excerpt , Drew describes the transition from working on The Theme Foundry and starting Memberful. He also talks about the how staying small and lean helped them get through difficult times as they continued to try and grow the business.
I’m curious to know, especially since you said it’s bootstrapped, which is something I’m very familiar with myself with things I’ve done. What are some of the early hurdles you faced, and how were you able to kind of overcome them?
DS: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, as I mentioned, we started the Theme Foundry. That was our kind of first online business. And our timing was really great with that business because we started in 2008, 2009, and that was right when everybody was realizing that they needed a website. And WordPress was kind of a go-to solution, and was kind of peak popularity I would say at that time. So we got really lucky with the timing there, and saying hey this theme business could be pretty big, and this seems to be a growing market, and we did well with timing there. So that business in that 2010 to 2012 time frame was doing really well and was throwing off lots of extra cash. And so times were good, and we felt like the cash that that was providing, why not make a bet here and invest it in trying a new product and see where that goes?
So because that business was doing so well we had the confidence to take some of those proceeds and invest them in a new idea. So and one of the ways I managed that was to just say look we’re going to spend X. We’re going to spend one year getting this off the ground. And we’re just going to see where it goes, and then see if it can kind of sustain itself. And we were able to hit those marks of hey we’ve got it built, we’re going to launch it. And now it’s been launched, and within a year it was breaking even to then profitable, and then we kind of just kept grinding at it, keeping it profitable.
JH: Were there times when you’re like “I don’t think this is going to work.” Or was it always just enough of it was promising as far as who was using it, and the growth and stuff? I mean were there times where you were kind of concerned?
DS: Yeah. There were times when things kind of worrying … It definitely wasn’t straight up and to the right. There were times when we kind of would just not go anywhere for a few months, or revenue would kind of stall out a little bit. But it was because we were so lean it was literally myself and one developer, and we were keeping a tight lid on the costs of everything. So and I knew the promise, and I knew how much our customers loved it. And there seemed to be some really good word of mouth building just in the general software community about the product. So the confidence was high throughout, which made it easier to say oh look revenue hasn’t gone up for a couple months, but we’re still feeling good about where this product is headed. And then, as time went on, it started getting more and more profitable. Then we were able to start hiring more people, and then confidence kept just kind of building as we got more customers and revenue started going up.
JH: I like that you approached it with that “let’s not throw too many people and too much money at this.” “Let’s keep things kind of under control, but stay optimistic and realistic about it.” I think that sometimes people get a little overly ambitious, and even just in their expectations. And when they don’t see that immediate growth it’s either frustrating, or they have to make drastic changes or whatever. But keeping things sort of steady and under control, and not freaking out when things kind of plateau for a little bit …
JH: It’s just the reality of anything like this. If I had to take a guess, I think a lot of people don’t have the patience for that I mean. And I think, like I said, their expectations are a lot higher. But what you said really resonates with me as something very similar to what I have been through, and how I approach things still to this day, which is don’t overdo it. Know that this is more of a long game you know, instead of …
JH: Instead of something that has to have immediate traction. And everything you’ve described, that is kind of what I think I’ve kind of observed with the company, which obviously eventually did grow to a really good place. And, like you said, you were able to finally start to hire more people and do more with the company, which then kind of it’s, I guess, led to the deal with Patreon. I mean, how did that come about?
In the full interview, Drew describes his experience with Patreon acquiring Memberful, what’s it’s been like after the acquisition, and he reveals an upcoming feature they’re working on. You can hear to the full interview at coywolf.pro/memberful. Thanks for listening.