Community: the new business model for indie hackers
The new business model of charging for paid communities is sweeping through the world of indie hackers.
The golden age of paid communities
No, they aren't "new" in the sense that no one's ever built them before. Our very first founder interview featured Pieter Levels of Nomad List, a massively successful community for digital nomads. And our very own community manager Rosie Sherry scaled her own community to seven figures before we brought her on board.
But stories like Pieter's and Rosie's have always been rare and difficult to replicate. Hence Pieter's magnetism for mainstream press and Rosie's multiple appearances on Computer Weekly's long list for the most influential women in UK tech.
This is changing. Paid communities are becoming explosively popular, and an increasing number of indie hackers are growing them to profitability. The model simply "works" like never before. And it's ushering in a golden age for paid communities.
For all their differences, the three revenue-positive communities above have one thing in common: they're all just a few weeks to a few months old — as new to the scene as the pandemic.
One of the clearest signs of the momentum behind community products is the rise in new platforms to support them. In addition to some of the traditional players like Slack, reddit, Facebook Groups, and Discord, the last few years have brought a rise in community platforms that have all the bells and whistles needed to make a more "feature-complete" community product, like Mighty Networks, Circle, and MemberSpace.
And there are plenty more on the way:
So… what gives?
Passion and the Plague
Online communities have always been difficult to monetize because, more often than not, they target consumers, who are notoriously reluctant to spend money when they don't have to. Business customers, on the other hand, are much quicker to part with their cash as long as a good case can be made that a product will make them more money in the long run.
Enter the passion economy, which is now driving an increasing number of consumers to think (and spend) like businesses. Andreessen Horowitz partner Li Jin calls this the "enterprization of consumers."
She's talking here about all the site builders, marketplaces, and other consumer-focused platforms fueling the rise of e-commerce, no-code products, podcasting, paid newsletters, and more, by extending access to people who previously didn't have any options for expressing their creativity for a living.
The passion economy supports both sides of the paid community ecosystem: supply and demand. On the supply side, it empowers consumers to build their own online communities. And on the demand side, it emboldens many more potential members to see themselves as, in Li Jin's words, consumers today aspiring to become businesses tomorrow.
Now. Add to all of this the crushing effects of the coronavirus pandemic: the tens of millions of newly unemployed in the US alone; the hundreds of millions stuck at home due to lockdown. And suddenly you've got a lot more relationship-starved entrepreneurs to fill the membership ranks.
Behind the Scenes at Ness Labs
I caught up with Anne-Laure to gain some perspective on the strategies and numbers behind the burgeoning Ness Labs community.
First, the hard numbers. Here's what she told me about her revenue and membership:
Revenue is $9.6K since launch. Currently there are 300+ active members. I went from 0 to this in the past couple of months, and as you can see from the graphs it's pretty unpredictable on a day-to-day basis.
Anne-Laure quit her job at Google a few years ago to build a portfolio of products under the Ness Labs brand, like Teeny Breaks, a Chrome extension reminding people to take breaks at work, and Maker Mind, a weekly newsletter about mindful productivity.
So did she launch the paid community just for the hell of it? Or was she following a higher strategic vision?
The community is a cornerstone of my product strategy. I have always been more comfortable with audience-first products. The community is a way to learn from my audience, to receive feedback, and to co-create products that answer their needs. For example, I don't think my course announcement would have been so successful if I hadn't based the whole content on conversations I had with members of the community.
That last point about the co-creation of products? It might be the most potent insight of all, because it separates paid communities from every other product category seeing gains from the passion economy.
Communities don't just contribute to the co-creation of products by offering helpful discussion. The helpful discussion is itself a co-created product. After all, a paid community is, at least in part, a content product. But unlike a newsletter, or a blog, or a podcast, or a YouTube channel, community content is crowdsourced by the audience it serves, making it both uniquely scalable and, well, uniquely unique. (A community's culture, like a human fingerprint, is impossible to replicate. The moat is built-in.)
This is one of the central insights Courtland and I have leaned on to build and grow Indie Hackers as a team of — until recently — just two people. We've run every single product consideration through the following filter: "Can we crowdsource this through the community?" If the answer is no, we don't build it.
So in calling this a golden age of paid communities for indie hackers, I really mean to emphasize for indie hackers.
As if it to reinforce the idea, Anne-Laure sent me the following message as I was wrapping this story up:
You can discuss this news roundup with other indie hackers on the site.