What does it take to get a membership site to keep going?
Let's go on a wild journey where the entire site was wiped out and how it bounced back again. And how nearly 20 years later, it’s still going.
In early August 2002, we at Psychotactics did something quite remarkable. We sold our first copy of a book called ‘The Brain Audit.' What was unique about this occasion was that it was the year 2002. The Internet was nowhere as spiffy as it is today.
E-Commerce itself was something that people didn't entirely trust. And what made the sale even more dramatic was that The Brain Audit was an anorexic 20-page booklet. It contained about 16 pages of content and four pages of filler material.
Trying to sell an e-book for $29 was insanity enough, mainly because you could get a hardback book for a lot less. The fact that the e-book was just twenty pages made the sale even more bizarre when most e-books (even back then) routinely ran into a hundred pages or more.
And yet, The Brain Audit sold. Not many at first. In the first month or so, we barely sold one. Or two.
Then the sales slowly started to pick up. But by Feb 2003, we still didn't have a truckload of buyers for The Brain Audit. And yet, based on just those few buyers, we launched a membership site. The membership site was called 5000bc.
The name was based on the fact that nothing had changed in human psychology for thousands of years. So we randomly picked a figure out of thin air and said: Nothing's changed for the last five thousand years, and so hey, let's call this site 5000bc.
Then in a bizarre stroke of madness, we put cave dwellers and dinosaurs in 5000bc. It didn't matter that cave dwellers and dinosaurs had never existed in the same period (Dinosaurs were extinct long before man started wandering around).
And anyway, in 5000bc, man was reasonably well developed. Beer was being brewed in 5000bc, rice was being cultivated, the plough had already been invented, and water buffalo were domesticated.
As if that were not enough, the wheel had already been invented. But all that doesn't matter when you're telling a story. And the story was one of Ooga the caveman and the dinosaurs and how they all lived happily in the improbable year of 5000bc.
At first, the branding was all confused.
5000bc was red. At times it was referred to as 5000 BC. At other times it was 5000bc. And at that specific point, we had no idea what you were supposed to do with a membership site. And not even sure why the membership site should exist.
But it was the time when blogs were starting to make some money. The earliest version of 5000bc was just that—a blog. We'd decided that 5000bc would have some content. And so, with a bit of fanfare and the crazy annual membership price of $7 (yes, seven dollars for the entire year), 5000bc went live.
At first, I wasn't so sure we needed to start a membership site.
I was relatively new to the business of marketing. I was still running two businesses: cartooning and marketing. Well, not quite. I was running one business: the cartooning business. When I started Psychotactics, I didn't have a single client in marketing. Not online. Not offline.
The sales of the Brain Audit bolstered me a bit, and I thought of 5000bc as another source of revenue (no matter how small). The cartooning business was still bringing in 98% of my income, and I was not eager to give up the revenue.
I don't know what quite happened next.
The history is a bit of a blur, but someone must have bought the membership to 5000bc. Then another, and another. And by 2004, we had about sixty-seventy members at $7 a year. And then the year rolled over, and it was time for renewals, and I increased the prices by $4—yes, for the entire year.
It now moved up to the fee of $11 per year. At this point, 50% or more of the members didn't renew their membership. I was gobsmacked. $11 wasn't much to pay, and though 5000bc was reasonably basic at the time, losing 50% was like half your audience walking out in the middle of your speech.
I called some of the members long distance on my dime.
Not the members who'd stayed but the ones who'd left. I wanted to find out what had gone so wrong. And this member said something that I'll never forget. He said: Even if I pay 50c, it's 50c. It's 50 cents I could have spent elsewhere. Unless you create a better experience and more focused content, I will not renew my membership at any fee.
I knew something had to be done.
But there was nothing I could do because the whole business was new to me. In the first few years, I spent more than US$10,000-15,000 on learning materials when the exchange rate with the US dollar was unfavourable. It meant that the 10,000-15,000 dollars were more like spending a whopping $20,000-30,000 on your education.
And after paying the mortgage and the bills, there was little left for any fancy software upgrade. Part of the problem was simply this: There was enough content on 5000bc.com. The articles were just placed in a klutzy way, and the overall experience was shoddy.
Then Visiongate rolled along.
It was this whole new world. I could pay $100 a month, and there was this membership software that I could latch on to. Membership software that had all the bells and whistles at the time.
I rejoiced, but probably too soon, for the learning curve was horrific. I spent over two months learning how to work the software. However, it didn't cost thousands of dollars, just $100 per month.
There were no tutorials (or elementary tutorials), and the people who ran the Visiongate software seemed to spend hours on the phone walking me through the software but didn't seem to put aside time to create video tutorials. I was willing to endure the stress if I could only move on.
And move on, we did.
I went to the existing members. I told them that I'd be raising the price. The price at the time was $24 a year. I had the happy job of telling members that from 1st Jan 2004, the cost would be $97.22 a year, a whopping 300% increase.
Once again, we lost 50% of the members, but it didn't matter. The ones that stayed more than made up for the loss in revenue. And it underlined one crucial thing: I was doing something right. As we stepped into this brave new world, 50% of my audience was willing to come along for the ride despite a reasonably unreasonable increase in price.
Of course, we settled into a bit of a routine.
And then it happened. I was at Fox Glacier, at the bottom of the South Island in New Zealand. We were on vacation, and I stopped at this Internet cafe that only seemed to have intermittent Internet access. I remember it clearly. It was Feb 2005.
I received an email from one of the 5000bc members, who informed me that 5000bc was down. I didn't think much of it. The website went down many times during 2004 and even in 2005, sometimes for hours. On most occasions, there was little I could do but call Visiongate long distance.
When my website went down, so did theirs, so there was little hope of sending them an email. But even the phone call was often a waste of time as it would go straight to an answer phone. And no one would get back— ever.
By the end of 2005, I'd had enough of this drama and was already working on hosting my version of 5000bc. This is why we decided to back up all the information to transfer it to the new website.
Meanwhile, the 5000bc website was still down.
One day passed. Two days passed. Three. Four. Seventeen days passed. There was no site of 5000bc being restored. What foxed me was that Visiongate was back and running, so I got in touch via email. Which is when I got the terrible news.
Apparently (and this is their story, not mine), someone had deleted all our data. And then made a backup of that deleted data. In effect, I was looking at a web server with nothing. All the articles, all the forum—everything was gone. Not a pixel remained.
I was distraught.
But that's when I found my true friends. One of the 5000bc members created a Waiting Room. And the conversations in the forum at 5000bc continued anew in the Waiting Room.
As luck had it, I'd kept all the contact details of 5000bc on another site, so I could email every member, explain the situation and then send them to the Waiting Room. Not one member complained. Not one asked for their money back. There were repeated emails to me asking how they could help.
5000bc finally got back up.
I'd just got my head around how Visiongate worked. Remember that backup website we were building in November 2004? Luckily, we had saved enough data and backed up the forum (up to a specific date), so we could restore a shaky but working website.
The new website in Joomla was up and running again. And then came the long, tedious task of the learning curve again. Not only did I have to learn Joomla, but I had to make sure we populated the site to its original state. This meant putting back all the articles one by one (there were over 300), adding fresh content, and handling questions on the forum.
I didn't sleep well that entire month.
I'd sleep at 10 pm, then wake up at midnight. Then at 1 am. Then at 2 am. Then groggily stagger to work at 4 am. This crazy schedule repeated itself for a whole month. However, we got a lot of help from members. Whenever I asked for help, I received it. And slowly but surely, I got more sleep. And the website staggered back to a better version of its original self.
The membership hovers between 500-600 members.
To the average person, that doesn't sound like a very large number, seeing we have been online for almost 20 years. However, we've been selective about how we go about choosing our members. For one, we don't promote 5000bc to our entire list but only to those who have read The Brain Audit.
This narrows the field considerably. And we don't do any joint ventures or any Adword campaigns. So the 5000bc membership is a select band of members who've decided to take a chance on us and stay. Many of the members have been around for years. Many have done several courses with us. Working with such a small group has been a bit of a blessing.
I don't know if you've ever been to the Cave.
The Cave is the forum in 5000bc. On a bad month, the forum can tote up to 1500 posts a month. It can be a lot more on a busier month. The activity is frenetic, even with a tiny group of members.
As you can tell, we're in no hurry to get a new bunch of members. In 2003, we had about 70. Though all these years have passed, the number has inched up slowly. But our income and free time have rocketed.
Remember how I depended on my cartooning income to make ends meet?
In 2003, I eventually dropped the cartooning business completely. By mid-2004, we'd stopped doing most of our one-on-one consulting. All I do through the year is write new information in 5000bc and books and do courses.
I barely speak at events, do little (if any) consulting, and well over 90% of our income comes from that list of 385 members. An income that has afforded us enough to buy a decent amount of property have a nice bank balance, and take time off three months every year.
I've come full circle, I guess.
The philosophy of 5000bc is ‘be kind, be helpful, or begone.' And that's the philosophy that has been held through all the ups and primarily through the downs. In good times and bad, the community of 5000bc has held together. You see, in 2003, I didn't know why I was setting up a membership site.
Now I know. And I can only sum it up with this ancient African saying:
If you want to go quickly, go alone.
If you want to go far, go in a group.