Why I paused my revenue-positive membership site (and 3 business lessons you can learn from it)

In February 2014, I launched an all-new members-only section of Design Blender called Stoked.

And last Thursday just under six months later, I basically put the whole project on pause.

It wasn’t a flop. It wasn’t a failure. And I didn’t lose money on the project.

In fact, it brought in quite a bit of extra revenue which allowed me to grow Design Blender in new and exciting ways.

So today, I’d like to explain why in the world I would pause a portion of my business that was bringing in a decent amount of revenue. And I’d like to share a few lessons you might be able to take away and apply in your creative business.

First, a bit of background (I’ll make it short).

I’ve been running GraphicDesignBlender.com for more than five years now.

In those five years, our team has grown to include a (top-notch) group of writers, marketing specialists and a (stellar) Content Manager.

Without this team, you’d grow completely bored with my singular perspective on business and I would probably burn-out on the whole project.

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Along with quality content and a growing community, comes extra costs and the need to develop extra revenue streams to stay profitable (making it more than just a hobby).

So, late last year, we started building Stoked, our members-only site dedicated to helping your build your design business in new, innovative ways.

We started building.

And in February of this year, we launched. We quickly filled the limited 100-member capacity and closed registration until April.

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We LOVED having member forums, seeing how much everyone loved our free ebooks, watching people react to the audio interviews with creative pros, and interacting with a truly magnificent group of creative entrepreneurs.

And by the first part of April, we opened our doors once again and filled up quickly…again.

Since then, we’ve had even more sign-ups and people continued to show interest in Stoked.

But there was something missing

In the meantime, I hired a Community Manager to help me with customer support, community interaction and he did a great job.

But there was a certain spark missing. Something wasn’t quite right.

Our forums were pretty quiet. Members stopped logging in. And some even cancelled their membership with Stoked.

Stoked stopped being fun for us. And if it wasn’t fun to run, then how could we ever imagine it was fun to be a part of for our members?

So we pulled the plug (sort of)

One day, I woke up and realized I wasn’t able to deliver the kind of exciting content and community I wanted to through Stoked.

And since I promote “building a business you love” right here on my blog, I couldn’t keep taking members’ money every month for a product I wasn’t proud of. A product I myself stopped loving.

So I put our members’ payments on hold.

They still get 100% access to all the content, the forums, and all the features built into Stoked, but no one new can join and we won’t be billing ANYONE while we’re on pause.

(PS: if you are a Stoked Member, check your email for details on how to continue to access ALL Stoked content while on “pause” 100% FREE.)

It’s a big financial hit to the business.

But I just couldn’t keep doing things the same way and feel good about it.

Here’s what I learned from it all

Okay, long story. I know. But it’s important to understand where I’m coming from so you can learn from my mistakes.

Here are a few things I learned that can be applied to anyone building a business.

1. I should have started simpler and smaller.
Have you ever heard of MVP? I’m not talking sports here. In business marketing and product development, it stands for “Minimum Viable Product.”

The concept of the “MVP” is not new, but it has been recently popularized by the new book, The Lean Startup.

The concept is simple. When developing a product, ask yourself: “what’s the minimum product I can develop and release to start getting feedback and improving quickly on it?”

When I started Stoked, we had member forums, free ebooks, monthly Q&A sessions, audio interviews, member perks, and even more (believe it or not).

We had WAY too much.

And it was not only hard to keep up with, but (after some research) I learned most members only joined for a couple of the features and didn’t really care about the rest of them.

We should have simplified and started smaller.

Then, as members enjoyed the simple nature of the service, we could have added new features and scaled accordingly.

2. I should have built up more of a reserve.
I launched in February with only the content completed for February.

I, of course, had every intention of creating all the content I needed to for March, April, and subsequent months, but the weeks and months passed quickly and I found myself struggling to keep up.

I should have built up more of a reserve to guarantee top-notch content (and lots of it) for my first members.

3. I should have hired more help earlier on.
I eventually got smart enough to hire April to help me with content creation and Ryan to help with community engagement.

But by then it was too late.

From the moment the first 100 members signed up, I should have realized I had money coming in which meant I could spend more to build, promote, and maintain my new business arm.

I waited too long and it became hard (in some ways) impossible to catch up.

There you have it.

If you’re getting ready to launch a new campaign, create a new revenue stream, or just build your business in a new way, take my advice:

Start simple and small, build up a reserve (prepare well), and hire help as soon as cash-flow permits.

Learn from my mistakes.

I know I have.

So what does this mean for Stoked?

Lots of people have asked me “so what does this mean for Stoked?”

Stoked is not dead.

Again, all previous members can access all the content 100% free until we figure out our new direction.

And we have some really great ideas for what Stoked (or whatever we decide to name it) will be in the very near future.

So stay tuned. We think you’ll like it.

In the meantime, keep on building. Keep on learning. And stay honest. It’s the only way to go.

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Millo Articles by Preston Lee

Preston Lee is the founder of Millo where he and his team have been helping freelancers thrive for over a decade. His advice has been featured by Entrepreneur, Inc, Forbes, Adobe, and many more. Connect with Preston on Twitter.
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  1. Seth Addison says:

    It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially when you’ve put so much heart into it. A couple years ago I designed and built a web app that let professional videographers deliver full-resolution videos to their clients… as a designer I loved the building process, but when it came time to running the business it was like pulling teeth. As Steve jobs once said, the only way we are going to put in the required time and talent is by truly loving the thing. Thanks for sharing Preston – you’re a scholar and a gentleman.

  2. Noah @The Non-Accountant says:

    Thanks for the honesty Preston, what’s next for the membership site?

  3. Hi Preston, thanks for sharing this with us. I’m excited to see what you’re brewing up next.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks, Eric! Me too. 🙂

  4. Thanks Preston for the honest and very sound advice. This is why I love Millo. Everyone here is honest and is not afraid to sugar coat the struggles when it comes to starting something new.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks, Samantha! I’m glad you’re a part of Millo too!

  5. Sara Eatherton-Goff says:

    This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing your experience! It is widely relatable and intelligible and I truly appreciate you sharing your wisdom and experience. Oddly enough yesterday I turned down an opportunity that could have made my company explode beyond belief, however it’s not the right time. There WILL be another (if not the same!) amazing opportunity in the future when my business and family are ready for it; just as your hard work and dedication will bring Stoked to exactly where it’s supposed to be!

    I’ve loved reading your blogs over the past few weeks (as a new subscriber)! Thank you for your great contribution to the design community!!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Sara, thanks for sharing your story and for the words of encouragement. Best in all!

  6. Priscilla says:

    Thanks for the transparency! It’s good to know you’re a real, live person, and that sharing your mistakes as learning experiences and your integrity in offering paying members free access to all the content only strengthens your brand. Looking forward to seeing what you have in store!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      I’m definitely human. 🙂 and we all make mistakes. The best thing to do is just learn from them, right?

  7. Thank you so much for your honesty. It’s extremely refreshing when business owners are transparent, and authentic.

    I love that you stayed true to who you are and didn’t let money become the deciding factor.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks, Amani! If you’re not true to yourself as you build your business, then what’s the point, eh?

  8. Andrew Ley says:

    Great Attitude Preston; acknowledging where you’ve gone wrong, learning from it, and even writing about it so frankly here.

    Whatever form (and name) Stoked returns in, I’m sure you’ll do just great.

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Andrew, thank you so much for the kind words of confidence. I appreciate your support and encouragement!

  9. Jeffrey Oley says:

    Hey, love your transparency on this and that you’ve flipped it to teach others. Your team have super insights. Much enjoyed. Thank you!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks, Jeffrey! Transparency isn’t always easy. But it sure feels great. 🙂

  10. Ryan Tomlinson says:

    Great article. Your transparency and integrity is one of the main reasons I have been a consistent reader over the years.

    I am excited to see where stoked (or what ever new name it might get) goes in its next season. There is already a lot of great content and I am sure when it re launches it will be even more amazing!

    1. Preston D Lee says:

      Thanks, Ryan. You’ve been a huge support in all of this!

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