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The rise of paid communities. What's going on?

More and more I see people starting paid communities that aim to help participants with their product, sales, MRR, etc.

But I can't scratch off this vibe that more than a few community owners have most of their MRR coming from their community and have no experience selling or distributing anything else.

So let me get this straight.

Someone who only makes money from their community is going to show me how to make money from my product that isn't a community? 🤨 I get that there are parallels, but it's a little off.

Selling b2c access to something that promises money could be considered an easier sale than a b2b SaaS
Plenty of "fake-gurus" on youtube or tiktok selling money making courses wrapped around in pep-talk/communities also.

Are people paying for a sense of community above all else? Given the pandemic, etc. Is this most of the value both with indiehacking communities & fake-gurus, perhaps?

Do successful (non-community owner) members of the community help each other out with different needs/skills, and not necessarily the founder?

If they are successful why are they joining a community that helps with increasing their MRR in the first place instead of making their own community?

Why don't these members start their own community? Or do they, eventually?

Are some people simply better at community building due to their temperament and personality and end up gravitating towards that?

Community members: for every $10 spent on a community, how much 💰 did you get back? Ignoring the sense of community and focusing just on financials.

Help me understand, especially if you own or participate in a community! 🙏

  1. 8

    Community members: for every $10 spent on a community, how much 💰 did you get back? Ignoring the sense of community and focusing just on financials.

    I don't think ignoring the "sense of community" is a good idea. While I agree that the financial ROI might be the most measurable, it might also be one of the lower-priority reasons for why people choose to join such communities.

    I am part of several paid communities where all I want is access. Access to regular updates from an industry. Access to my peers who are talking about the things I am interested in. Access to resource collections curated by experts in my field.

    The ROI comes through opportunities facilitated by long-term relationships. I pay for access, put in the work to connect with people, and later leverage the learnings into products, sales, and investment opportunities.

    But what drives me back to the community is the knowledge that the other people there are equally committed. I know they also keep paying money to stay in there. They also invest both time and resources into maintaining the community. When they see something interesting, one of their first thoughts is to share it with their peers.

    That heavily impacts my perceived "soft ROI."

    1. 5

      Solid points! I realize this thread might come off as hating, but I'm just trying to understand people's motivations to:
      a) Build communities
      4) Join communities
      d) Stay in them

      1. 3

        I think you're asking an absolutely valid question, especially since communities are proliferating and shady actors are moving into the space.

        The legitimacy of a community depends a lot on what is being promised. Any hard ROI promise makes me immediately skeptical. There is no shortcut to building a legacy. A legit community will embrace that instead of promising quick riches.

      2. 1

        Why build a community?

        •  Access people you might not have a chance to otherwise.
        •  If you succeed you can profit directly from membership fees & sponsorships or launch products related to the problems of the community members.

        Why join a community?

        •  Access people you might not have a chance to otherwise for friendships or partnerships.
        • You have something you want to promote to the community (fyi this will often get you banned if not done tactfully)
        • Get knowledge which might be hard to find publicly.

        Why stay in a community?

        • Because any or all of the above remain true. New people join who you want to meet, you continue to have questions that are hard to answer elsewhere, etc

        1. 1

          Solid points. I'm torn between joining one or trying to start my own. It would be selective but free.

          1. 2

            Starting your own can be super rewarding, but it can also be a huge time-suck.

            Most of the time it's not worth it.

            If you roll your own I'd suggest keeping it very small, more like a mastermind group vs a community.

            Then all you need is a chat group and a regular phone call, low maintenance, high reward.

            Once you get bigger than ~6 people it starts to become a hassle.

            Unless you want community-manager to be your job you're usually better off shopping around for an existing community to join vs starting a new one.

            As the founder you'll have the benefit of being able to post whatever you want in the group, control the direction it takes, and possibly some "prestige" if the community is widely known.

            However you'll also need to moderate the group, balance competing interests, keep the community engaged and interesting, consistently make time for it, and a lot more overhead.

            Being a member of someone else's group gets you most of the benefits with the ability to jump ship or take a break from it whenever you want.

            Once you're the community manager you either need to stick with it for years, watch your group die off, or monetize and hire help.

            It can become a startup in and of itself, leaving you little time for whatever other projects you wanted to work on.

            1. 1

              Definitely taking all this into account, but my mix of interests is just super niche and no other community (that I've seen so far) offers it all

  2. 5

    Most people are too lazy to create something themselves (although they could if they put in some effort). They prefer to spend a few dollars and hope that someone will change their lives in a short period of time and with little effort.

  3. 4

    People are gullible especially the weak and vulnerable who are desperate to make quick cash. Fake Guru epidemic is real. Too many of them peddling crap. Funny thing is that most people don't even bother to check the background of these gurus. "I bootstrapped to 1M in 10 months and let me show you how". Really ? Except they won't share any details of their background, company/product that they created and ran.

  4. 3

    You might be mistaking audience vs community.

    When you follow a specific founder, buy their book, join their course etc you're buying access to that specific person and their experience. That's not automatically a community.

    A true community is founder-agnostic. It doesn't matter who the founder is.

    Do you come to Indie Hackers primarily because of Cortland Allen? Do you follow any subreddits because of who the moderators are?

    This is actually a really good litmus test to differentiate "fake communities" (really audience-based products in disguise) vs communities who's value comes from the other members and the content which they create.

    When choosing a good community to join, look for:

    • Members who you'd want to meet.

    • An emphasis on creating smart connections and opportunities to collaborate.

    • Resources & information which are difficult to find elsewhere.

    • A high conversation:self-promotion ratio within the community.

    My background:

    I run a paid community called Indie Worldwide which I started as a wantrepreneur (wannabee entrepreneur).

    My business credentials before starting this group are limited to a small consulting company which I grew to low 6-figures revenue (e.g. not SaaS).

    I don't think anyone is joining Indie Worldwide specifically to talk to me (you can do that for free on Twitter or here) and you'll have to search our landing page real hard to find any mention of myself.

    So why do people join Indie Worldwide?

    • For the last three years we've had one of the most consistently active and helpful private Slack groups on the internet for bootstrapped startup founders.

    • The other founders in the group are really impressive and when you join I make smart introductions to connect you with founders making similar revenue and who have shared interests.

    • We regularly invite founders with million ARR+ businesses and deep skill-sets for private Q&A's.

    • We've fostered partnership deals with SaaS services you probably want to use to get over $20,000 in free credits and discounts.

    I believe my primary value-add is being a super-connector: bringing together smart people, negotiating for group-discounts, sourcing speakers and mentors, and any other thing that make zero sense for any individual founder to do as a full-time job themselves.

    So, you be the judge. Is it worth it?

    https://indieworldwide.co/

  5. 2

    yes this is true... I used to be in a ton of sales ones and I felt like the tools that the communities had access to were just sponsors of the community! Did not feel authentic and like I was being sold to when all I wanted was access to a group of people who were also in my role!

  6. 2

    I was just thinking about this yesterday! I guess it really would depend on the value offering the owner is bringing. If it is "I'll teach to grow to x mmr" then it definitelly feels like a scam. If it is something like "Exclusive community of X working on X where you also get access to these X" then it sounds less like a scam but is probably more niche.

  7. 2

    As someone who advertises MY community as a paid service along with the product itself, it's definitely a good thing because my members support each other and answer questions. Furthermore, a big part of my service is connecting members of my community together to work together on stuff that we organise so if you manage the community... you really can build incredible value for people

  8. 2

    You'll never win if you always follow.

  9. 1

    Here are my answers to the questions you posted:

    Someone who only makes money from their community is going to show me how to make money from my product that isn't a community?

    Nop, a community is not a "Guide to MRR" or a course. It's a place where you can share your journey with like-minded people. The other members and I can help by providing advice based on our experience but we never proclaim ourselves as experts.

    Are people paying for a sense of community above all else?

    I often ask the WBE Space why they have joined and the most common answer is because they want to share their journey with like-minded people. Being an indie hacker can be a very lonely endeavor and surrounding yourself with other makers can provide the boost you need to succeed

    Do successful (non-community owner) members of the community help each other out with different needs/skills, and not necessarily the founder?

    Yes, ofc XD
    Members help each other all the time and a lot of them become good friends. Checkout the WBE Space Stats to see how the members are engaging with the community.

    If they are successful why are they joining a community that helps with increasing their MRR in the first place instead of making their own community?

    The WBE Space is a community for starting indie makers. So most of them have not yet reached Ramen profitability.

    Why don't these members start their own community? Or do they, eventually?

    Being a community manager is a full-time job and the skills necessary to manage one are very different than the skills of building a SaaS. So not everyone will necessarily succeed or like building a community

    Community members: for every $10 spent on a community, how much 💰 did you get back? Ignoring the sense of community and focusing just on financials.

    Joining a community is like joining a Gym. A gym has a lot of resources that will help you lose weight but in the end, it depends on you as a user and how much value you get out of it.
    A lot of the members of the WBE Space have been increasing their MRR because they are working hard on it. Is that all due to be a WBE member?
    Maybe yes, or maybe not... One thing is for sure, most of the members are extremely happy about being part of the wbe space. As you can see by the reviews

    1. 1

      Interesting insight, Tiago! I'm exploring some communities to join, but have a hard time knowing where I'd fit in. Any tips?

  10. 1

    I was wondering about the same question for a long time.

    Arvid Kahl and Danielle Simpson (FeedbackPanda) recommend the book Tribes (by Seth Godin) if it comes to community building.
    The interesting part about this book is that Seth Godin explains:
    The most successful communities are those which celebrate the wins of their members.

    I saw this in the (free!) EddieHub community by Eddie Jaoude, who's a great person.

    Seth Godin also describes that a successful movement needs leaders.
    We need leaders all over the place but only few people actually want to lead.
    Hence there's a shortage of leader who go first with a disruptive idea and who keep the communication of the community up - the celebration of our joint success.

    I think that's why many people don't start communities:
    Because they don't want to lead - at least in the long run.

    And I assume that people join communities because they strive for recognition.
    That's my logical interpretation and conclusion based on Seth Godin's Tribes, my experience and your questions. 🤗

    1. 2

      Thank you for the book suggestion! Gonna have to read it now 😭

      1. 1

        You are welcome.
        I see you even got an extensive reply from Arvid.👌

  11. 1

    Generally, I find it's a mixture of knowledge and being around relevant people.

    I have 3 communities now. One has been around 15 years. Is a mixture of free and paid. (This is my passive income, I no longer run it day to day).

    Then Rosieland (a community about community), again a mixture of free + paid.

    I started Indiependent as another lowkey community that is purely paid (a one-off fee), but people have to participate or they get kicked. This one is not so much about knowledge, but about making deeper connections. It's been an inspiring to see people develop relationships and trust with other people (which is what is lacking in most communities these days).

    I'm going to start another one shortly in lines with the Indiependent model, to me I feel it works really well for people who are really finding that need to connect. It's super hard to get that in most communities. People join and don't participate enough to develop any real connection.

    I think it's also worth bearing in mind that many communities are actually more like memberships. That's worth considering too.

  12. 1

    Context: I curate the largest directory of cross-platform communities on the internet, the Hive Index, and in the process have explored over a thousand active online communities.

    Yes, it's true that paid communities are on the rise. The most straightforward explanation as to why some folks prefer paid vs free communities is two-fold.

    Firstly, the members that join paid communities are much more engaged and motivated to contribute to the community. This makes it a much more appealing for new members to join because they know they will be interacting with and learning from people that have skin in the game, and aren't just there to promote their own products.

    Additionally, the paid communities can afford to re-invest their revenue into the community and provide more value to their members. Community managers with some money in the bank tend to use those funds to throw online/offline events, publish content like newsletters/podcasts, do special pairing between the members, and chase down perks and benefits for their members.

    Especially for entrepreneurship communities, the small membership fee can make a huge difference in the experience & value that someone gets out of it.

  13. 1

    I'd suggest two trends to look at (though there are a lot of other good examples in the replies):

    1. Courses turning into communities
    There's always been hype around courses as passive income, but courses really exploded during the pandemic with the trend towards cohort based courses (assignments, zoom meetings, timeboxed and usually centered around a community space on Circle or Slack).

    Examples:
    https://www.ship30for30.com/
    https://www.pencil-pirates.com/
    https://www.creatorwizard.com/

    A lot of these turn into membership communities after the fact, as students want to continue learning and growing with each other.

    CBCs are operationally intense, so a lot of folks migrated these into learning communities with content delivered on an ongoing basis (or started this way).

    Examples:
    https://creatorscience.com/
    https://buildacommunitybusiness.com/

    2. Creators using a community as a content hub for their business
    I've heard the second most popular tier after "free" on Patreon is the private community tier. That gives you a "why join," but not a "why stay."

    I think a lot of times this does turn into a Discord dumping ground. For folks who figure it out, there's benefit in terms of MRR, but it also becomes a hub for a multifaceted creator business. You can test new content there, amplify your efforts, etc.

    Even if the creator's not naturally talented at building community, they can use tools and best practices to get to a place where they can hire someone who is.

  14. 1

    This post is on point, Amando. I have been grappling with this question since I began working on my startup. The questions I keep asking are: How important is it for me to build my own community and how do I make my product meaningful to users without one?

  15. 1

    I don't see the value in paying to simply be a member of something any more. That model seems outdated, especially if part of the allure of the product is making it seem exclusionary.

    That said if a membership is forward-thinking and provides tools that the members can use in their business as well as access to beta tests of new products, then I think that it's worth signing up for. Of course this is always hard for one company to do well consistently for a long time.

  16. 1

    There is tons of communities that endorses this kind of thing. You have to pay to enter it like in affiliate marketing and NFT communities. You can actually learn more while you network with these individuals because they help you grow your own network and give a spotlight to your product but you will have to pay regularly. It's a fast growth but if you compare it with an organic one, it sure does take time but you can gain trust and transparency which can never be replaced.

  17. 1

    Paid community = Useful Tool with Social Features. At least this is how we implemented it. And so far customers are happy.

    1. 1

      But you have a community around a product? I'm referring to those communities for the sake-of-it type.

      1. 1

        Well if you look at a community as networked users, then yes.
        Look at BAYC, Gary V, or the original Clubhouse as examples where this exclusivity was / is part of their growth.

  18. 1

    It's kind of what some of the less scrupulous accelerators do... they charge you a piece of your business with the promise of advice and help to grow it

  19. 1

    Someone who only makes money from their community is going to show me how to make money from my product that isn't a community?

    I think there is a misunderstanding in your expectation of how a paid community works. It's not the owner or the creator of that community that teaches you or shows you something. Think of them more like the managers of a company, they don't own the company or your growth. They just bring order and carry processes.

    In the context of the communities, you learn from the other people that are part of that community. For example I am part of 1 paid community and it's been only 2 times I interacted with the owner. Do I care? No. He is a great guy but I paid off the amount I paid by the value I got by interacting with the other members. I also made some friends (which is priceless).

    I see the community as a framework just as any other software framework out there. What I do with it is completely up to me.

    1. 1

      I did address that later on:

      Do successful (non-community owner) members of the community help each other out with different needs/skills, and not necessarily the founder?

      Why don't these members start their own community? Or do they, eventually?

      But besides the priceless things. What was your ROI? The things you can atach a number to.

      1. 3

        Sorry I misinterpret the questions as sarcasm.

        Definitely !! If the community is good - then members help each other a lot! And that is pretty much it. I met a lot of people that share same or similar problems. My best ROI was that I get unblocked on technical problems really fast. It's like asking your colleagues at work. As I am learning Web dev in the past 3-4 months, I needed a lot of support and fast unblocking.

        What I personally don't like in other communities, is that often they are huge. More than 1-2k members. You are getting lost in the noise of promotional messages and non-contextualized talks (that happen just for the sake of increased engagement).

        Btw, I am aware that there is a shitload of bad communities out there.

        1. 1

          Good point! If a community is too big it doesn't feel like a community at all. Dunbar's number probably plays a role. 1k is way too much :)

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