What I learned during the third year of running my SPECIAL PROJECTS membership program
Year Three of running my membership program was bonkers, prodigious, a blast, inspiring, and of course, exhausting. Mega exhausting. But exhausting in a well-used, full-life exhausting kinda way. A fabulous exhaustion. It was a year that left my head sometimes spinning, and my feet sometimes aching.
Because: 2021 was one of the most productive and rigorous years of my life. I published some 150,000+ words to my newsletters, shot and premiered two short documentary films, walked and extensively documented some 1,000+km of trails and towns across Japan, produced a new edition of my book Kissa by Kissa, ran a few board meetings, a bunch of livestream work sessions, and produced a few podcast episodes with writers I admire … and that was all made possible by my membership program, SPECIAL PROJECTS.1
It’s not easy, the running of a membership program. But it has inspired and catalyzed, for me, a sustained and vast interval of intense writing, photographing, bookmaking, and general “creative output.” It’s by far and away, consistently, unrelentingly, the most work I’ve ever put into anything. But I keep doing it. And want to continue doing it. The work carries with it a deep sense of fulfillment. (More on this below.) It even — gauche may it be to mention this — pays pretty well.2 In aggregate, I take all of the above to signal that this is good and right and to keep going.
In preparing to write this reflection on Year Three, I went back and re-read the 2019 and 2020 essays. They’re good! Surprisingly rich in emotional context. If you’re thinking about launching a paid membership program to fund your work, then I highly recommend you go and read them along with this year’s essay.
#Permission from Members
As I’ve written in past reviews, “permission” seems to be my biggest psychological takeaway from SPECIAL PROJECTS. That is: Feeling bestowed with a permission to do the kind of work I believed I was capable of, but perhaps not strong enough to do entirely on my own.
Ten years ago I received my first writing residency. I was lucky. It was prestigious. I felt like a full-blown imposter. I was in the woods in New Hampshire right at this very moment (early January, 2012), trying to stay sober (and failing),3 working on a draft of a novel I’d then go on to revise and rewrite and revise and rewrite some more, for, frankly, too many years. It wasn’t all bad, though — I used various drafts of that book to get accepted into other residencies, workshops, and fellowships. It was in those spaces that I met brilliant Actual Writers (as opposed to me, the Fumbling Buffoon), some of whom became dear friends, and through those friendships I was exposed to books and lives I’d have otherwise never imagined. This all flowed from (somewhat foolishly) committing myself to the novel.4 And my main takeaway from this was: Committing to big, messy, creative projects is a reliable way to increase the number and quality of healthy, talented archetypes within your orbit. The highest signal you can send a busy, accomplished person is that you are someone who makes, not just talks.
I also banged my head against the brick wall of the New York publishing industry in ways that made me realize I had more work to do to become the kind of writer I wanted to be. There’s that Ira Glass quote about taste and talent, and working on this book showed me my talent wasn’t yet matching my taste.
For years, I got my butt kicked.
I needed those kicks. They were helpful, humbling kicks. But, fundamentally, what I really needed was much simpler: to write more, with more urgency, more loosely, with fewer boundaries, and much less preciousness.
SPECIAL PROJECTS knocked me out of “gem polishing schmuck” mode, into “working writer” mode. It sounds silly, but that small exchange of cash back in 2019 — between me and a few hundred people, a formalizing of some unwritten contract with members — was all it took to flip a switch in my mind, to go from relying entirely on self-driven motivation to feeling the (useful!) pull of Hired Writer. Suddenly, a walk was no longer a navel-gazing stroll, it was a job with curious rules and exigency. My members were members because they wanted to “support” my writing, and that was all I needed to get More Butt into More Chair and do more work with more formal rigor than I had ever done before.
The results are present not only in volume, but also quality. Sure, these past three years I’ve written tons, but within that tonnage is some of the best writing of my life.
I failed to publish that novel, but by committing to, and working on it, I experienced how big projects lead to inspiring connections and growth. The dovetailing of that insight — with the formality of membership — seeded the permission I now feel, and fuels the impulse to keep going.
#Finding Product Market Fit
Looking at SPECIAL PROJECTS from the angle of “running a startup,” my three years of membershipping can be broken down thusly:
- 2019: MVP, just ship something, anything, goddamnit, you fool, get it out there, see if there’s a modicum of interest / market
- 2020: Iterate until we find product-market fit; and boy did we find pretty good product market fit (Books + Memberships)
- 2021: Hire a competent and creative assistant, a new accounting firm, move our physical books & prints to a proper warehouse and fulfillment center, collaborate with an even higher-quality printer; effectively “refactor” the “codebase” and infrastructure of the membership program
When I started SPECIAL PROJECTS, I didn’t think “books” would be the cornerstone of the work. But they are. As I wrote last year: The purpose of SP is to enable a continuous and rigorous production of book-shaped projects until I’m dead.
The incidental corollary of this is: education. Meaning, the membership program is meant to provide folks with precisely what I needed while, say, working on my novel. Namely: A strong archetype, and demystification about how it looks / feels to be work on big projects. This is why I offer membership up to “students”5 for free.
When I launched in 2019, there were essentially no “perks” for members. The program existed simply to support my free newsletters. The main pitch was:
This membership program is, at its core, like a mini NPR — of course, there are perks, but the main reason to become a member should be: Craig, ya weird bird, I want to see more of your work in the world.
It wasn’t until the start of the pandemic in March 2020 that I began to double down on members-only livestreams, began to run “board meetings,” and began to focus on books in earnest. And it wasn’t until August 2020 until I found true “product market fit” — I sold more memberships in tandem with the launch of Kissa by Kissa than I did during any other period.
As I break down in last year’s review, the percentage of people who were not members, who bought my book and also became members (the “conversion to membership rate”) was about 20%. This feels like a great rate and seems to imply a good confluence between pricing, discounts, and membership value.
I had no “roadmap” to get to my current position. I’ve mainly followed my interests. As I wrote about last year, I’ve most deliberately maintained a self-awareness around “trapping myself” in a kind of horrible meta-loop of running a membership program only to talk about membership programs. Instead, I’ve been pretty “selfish.” Meaning: I’ve been uncompromising in not “bending” the program to meet the “needs” or “desires” of members, but rather to enable and further work on my books. And I make sure my messaging around the program is clear about this.
It’s not to say I’m not interested in creating membership value. But that I want the focus of membership-derived value to be activities (livestreams, Q&As) directly related to book, book-adjacent (videos, walks), and education (Office Hours, Board Meetings, et cetera) specific work.
Paradoxically, I think this is why the program provides the value it provides — namely, members get access to behind-the-scenes peeks at someone Doing The Work (as opposed to meditating on the possibility of work).
From a callous business perspective, SPECIAL PROJECTS is not nearly as big as it could be because of this. I could be creating “classes” and running “seminars” and I’m sure the program would be making more money. But it would also take away from the main goal, the bookmaking goal, and by having that goal firmly set, it makes it easy to say no to distractions.
#The Year of Video
If 2020 was the year of considering video as a compliment to the membership program and my work at large, then 2021 was the year of committing to it with some formal oomph.
Here’s a supercut of the “more exciting” Tiny Barber moments:
The other twenty-one videos were members-only: livestreams, walk updates, packing videos, and board meetings. (All new members get access to those archives.)
This commitment to video has paid off handsomely. Without trying to intentionally build or grow a YouTube channel, we had decent results, cresting some 90,000 views and garnering a few thousand subscribers. It’s become an interesting tertiary channel through which to promote my work.
More than that, the video commitment means I now regularly run members-only sessions, and am able to give talks online with minimal worry about sound, lighting, or video, since my home studio is now dialed in. This significantly removes the “activation energy” required to try something new or run a video session.
I also shot and produced two short documentaries:
In February I shot the first documentary about a kissaten I had walked past during my Nakasendō walk in 2019. The place served up a great helping of pizza toast, cut in a funky way. So I went back, asked if I could film the proprietor at work. He was flabbergasted. I prodded, he ultimately relented. The resulting video, Pizza Toast & Coffee came out pretty well, I think; certainly pretty well for a first go. I learned a ton working on this project, and somewhat unexpectedly, earned a new friendship in my connection with the owner.6
Later in the year, I took the reprinting of my book Kissa by Kissa as an opportunity to shoot a behind-the-scenes production video. The result, The Craft of Kissa by Kissa, is largely about elevation: Elevation of the folks who made the book so damned nice. These were the craftspeople and specialists working as print operators and binders and sewers. The folks who ushered the book from files-in-a-folder to fully-realized object, an object that then found its way into the hands of thousands of people spread out over dozens of countries. I felt like they deserved some screen time, and figured readers would enjoy the journey as well.
My dipping into video during the pandemic was unique. I’ve noticed a number of folks suddenly doing great video work. Of note is the photographer Alec Soth. His YouTube channel has become a masterclass in photography and photo book making. Truly, it is an astounding, free resource.
One of the most delightful professional moments of 2021 was when I got an email from a friend saying, “Hey, have you seen this?” linking to a new Alec video on “Photos + (foreign) Words:”
You can imagine my shock at seeing this. Anyway, dumb as it may sound, I felt like this “validated” my work in a “formal” way, and makes me only want to work harder on future projects. I am extremely grateful for the nod.
#Strategies for Not Losing Your Mind (Memberships & Mental Health)
I have a variety of strategies for keeping myself sane while running SPECIAL PROJECTS. Maybe they’re be helpful for you, too? Here are my rules:
- Never look at subscription data more than once a quarter. And even then, don’t really look at it. Glance askance and not for long. SP crested a line last year that I define as the “enough” line. Everything above that line is Good. I ambiently “see” the line when I send out members-only emails because my newsletter software tells me how many recipients are out there (I’m tempted to write some custom CSS to hide it …), but I try to never gaze directly into the beating heart of those digits. Books and education are the goals, not eternal, mythic GDP-style growth of membership revenue.
- Don’t get notified when anyone unsubscribes from anything. I can’t believe some newsletter / membership software DEFAULTS — D E F A U L T S — to emailing you when someone unsubscribes or cancels a membership. ARE. YOU. MAD? Who are these Sadist Engineers of the Fifth Circle of Hell setting these defaults? The quickest route to declining mental health is to open yourself up to this attack vector. Close it down and keep it shut. Members leave for all sorts of reasons, and “you suck and are a dumb dumb and I hate you” is almost certainly not the (main?) one. (Though it is the one your mind will scream at you upon arrival of each unsubscribe email.)
- Don’t “bend” yourself or your membership program to the assumed “needs” of members. That is, be clear in what you want to achieve, and communicate those goals directly, upfront. Members will self-select in support of those goals and you won’t feel the need to generate a “Second Self” to somehow placate members who joined for the wrong reason.
#Jobs to be Done
Clayton Christensen’s most famous business theory is probably his theory of “Jobs to be Done.”
It boils down to: Folks don’t “buy” stuff, they “hire” stuff. So goes the prime example: You don’t “buy” a milkshake from McDonald’s, you “hire” it to do the job of “satiating your hunger, slowly, via straw while you commute in a car” and other similarly unexpected jobs.
The theory enables simple, but profound insights into how to better find so-called product-market fit for the work you’re doing. I thought it would be fun to apply this theory to my membership program. Let’s look at what I’m hiring members to do for me, and what they’re hiring me for.
#Me Hiring Members
As someone who runs a membership program, you’re absolutely “hiring” members. Most obviously, you’re hiring them to pay you so you can do your weird work.
But as I wrote above, I’ve been mainly “hiring” members for permission. Not in a “please allow me to do this” kind of way, but more a “formal contract” kind of way. It’s nice to “sign” something and make it official. I wish my intrinsic motivation was more reliable, but I’ve come to realize I thrive through clear accountability. (I suspect most of us do.)
I’m reminded of the story of Karl Ove Knausgård: In writing his mega-metacognitive-auto-fiction opus, he would — each and every day — call his editor and read him the pages he had written that day. My guess is that there was a lot of pull / permission / energy derived from that relationship. Not all of us are lucky enough to have partners / editors willing to collaborate so intimately (and patiently) with us. So finding alternative forcing functions or systems to enable and engender the work to be done is critical.
Aligned with the above, I’m also hiring members to make the creative process less lonely. I hire them as “audience” members. The “Boring Livestreams” I run are mainly to get me to do “boring” work with greater intentionality. It turns out most creative work-work is “boring” work: iterative and circuitous. I also broadcast those livestreams because I believe there’s value in being able to look over the shoulder of someone as they perform the less glamorous acts of creativity.
Finally, I also hire members to be on my “board” so to speak. “Board Meetings”7 further force me to think about what I’ve worked on and what I want to accomplish going forward. An act I’ve never done on my own, and as anyone who has “vowed” to do a Year-End Reflection — and yet has never done one — knows, they can be difficult to do for yourself, alone.
These are all constructive tokens with tangible impacts, evidenced by how much I’ve written / photographed / filmed these past few years. By “hiring” members for the job of enabling these activities, I make more progress on books, more quickly, and feel the “courage” to design, and embark upon ever-stranger, longer walks.
#Members Hiring Me
Members hire me for all sorts of reasons. I figured the easiest way to find out precisely why was to ask. I sent out a survey and got ~400 (!!) wildly thorough responses.
What membership “perks” provided the most value? (multiple selection allowed):
- 87%: Enabling my public-facing work (newsletters, essays, podcasts, et cetera, free for everyone; AKA “unlocking the commons”)
- 50%: Discounts on books / prints
- 50%: My members-only writing diary (“Nightingalingale”) for my next book
- 39%: Office Hours members-only podcast
- 35%: “Boring” work livestreams
- 22%: Board meetings
- And then about 20 other write-in perks that I hadn’t listed
So, the SP crew first and foremost, “hires me” to synthesize / write for a “broader good.” I had hoped that “enabling my public-facing work” was an understood / highly-valued perk. 87% is astounding. This makes me a) happy, and b) confident that my messaging around SPECIAL PROJECTS is unambiguous. Since day one of SP I’ve always listed the “main” perk as: Craig, ya weird bird, I wanna see more of your work in the world.
Unsurprisingly, “hiring” SPECIAL PROJECTS to provide discounts is the second most valued job. I love this, though; the confluence of discounts and “unlocking the commons” — memberships allow me to produce books / prints, write essays, go on big walks, synthesize, and share — mostly — for free. Being able to “pay it back” to members in the form of discounts feels extremely symbiotic. My goal is to “return” the cost of Yearly Memberships in discounts each year.
But if you just survey folks with a bunch of checkboxes, you miss a lot of nuance. What does it mean to “enable my public-facing work?” What is it about that writing diary that’s useful? In broader terms, I believe it means that members hire me to be an “archetype”-at-large.
I had a few write-in questions on the survey:8 “Anything else I missed?” and “What was the thing/moment that made you flip from casual reader/fan to card-carrying paying SP member?” Allow me to share some responses. (The surveys were anonymous, but I told folks I would share some responses publicly.)
On hiring me as a “guide” or “archetype” or, even, “mentor:”
I love the sense of inclusion in your work, that my participation means something. I also love enabling you to do whatever you fancy creatively as I appreciate the power of that (and the older I get, the less I can abide the waste of human potential; if I can help someone enrich their own creative life, I will).
My nephew is 18 yrs old and I want to someday show him yr life and say, dream of things that might seem impossible, but you can do whatever you want if you work at it.
I love the work you’re doing, but I’m more inspired by the way you’re doing that work than the specifics of any given project and I truly find your (public) worldview extremely invigorating. I consider you a mentor-from-afar.
Thank you for sharing with us. It’s great to be along for the ride and glad you are able to sustain your art in this way. Please don’t stop. If we need to pay more we will!
Thanks for being a thoughtful, measured voice in a loud and immediate world!
Thanks Craig for sharing so much about your process and being thoughtful about your members. Love your work and using it as an archetype for my own. One of my favorite things about your membership is feeling like I’m part of a community without investing a ton of energy into socializing with people.
I’m so glad you exist in the world and do what you love. It’s such an inspirational bright spot for me. I get so much joy from what you do because of how you do it.
Your candor in bringing us into your work and process has really helped me in my own non-“job job” work (ie the work is really like to be doing) and I find that super valuable. Also very happy to be able to help, in whatever small way :)
One thing I have been relating the concept of Special Projects to, is tenure (in the academic sense). It is as if your crew has granted you creative tenure - the freedom to explore, create and fail. (ed: I like this framing!) At least I see it that way!
I value not just the beautiful work that you do—but your philosophy around the work itself, which seems to have little to do with monetization. Yeah we all need to make money—but I’m so sick of it being the focus when it comes to creating things. Thanks for the honesty too—e.g., writing about pizza toast, walking, the “mundane” and surprising—for being open to seeing things a certain way, and for being unapologetic about valuing and sharing that perspective.
Thank you for everything that you do! You are a voice for a better, saner, more generous and creative internet. Your contribution is important to building a human-scale, handcrafted internet in opposition to the ocean of mediocracy and thoughtlessness propagated by the corporate monoculture. It just occurred to me that what you (and people like Robin Sloan) do is create a ‘walkable’ internet — something idiosyncratic and diverse, that can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace as you wander from neighbourhood to neighbourhood; rather than screaming through bland, undifferentiated sprawl, passively looking out of the window from your car on the freeway of ’the feeds’.
I really appreciate your tone; you’re so relentlessly positive (like a Ross Gay poem) that it really helps to temper my own pessimism. And you’ve done a bit of this, but I’d love to see you write more about process – from writing, to how you arrange a workspace, to living day-to-day. You’re just so damn productive!
Thank you Craig for your generous, persistent work. I don’t even know if I would choose to read this sort of work out of the blue, but you’re one of the few people who I read just to read you. So thank you for taking us all on a journey, and make sure you get all the rest you need! We’ll still be here when you get back.
I don’t just value your writing on the physical paths you take, but also on your creative path. It gives me a vantage point to think about how I could also support myself doing “weird” creative work.
SP has helped me commit to rigorous creative work and even though I do this work in somewhat isolation, I feel less alone in wanting to do it (being an artist is not my job, I didn’t go to art school, and I’m not part of a collective)
Seeing you do it at your scale and feeling both inspired and guilted into making more/better headway with things in my work.
I enjoy telling other people about your work and it’s a privilege to be a small financial facilitator of the body of work you’re creating.
I’m partial to artists who lead their lives as a Gesamtkunstwerk, and let folks into many different layers of their creative process (the business parts, the raw materials & idea generating, the edit, etc.). You do that super effectively and it’s probably the biggest perk for me.
Watching Craig suffer the artistic process like a some delightful slow reality TV documentary
There is also a contingency of members who hire SPECIAL PROJECTS to be “part of something” — a framing I hadn’t considered! (Mainly because I do so little to “bring” everyone together; but this is now something I’m thinking more about for 2022.)
I saw that you were building a community around your philosophy and writing and being a paid member of SP was a way to affirm my identity as being a part of that community.
I’m really enjoying this little community. It feels like something out of an earlier era of the internet, but with better aesthetics and UI/UX. :)
My first year as a member of the SP community has been fantastic and I can’t wait to follow along on future projects. Thank you!
Being “in” on something special, and enabling interesting work.
As good if not better than NPR membership
Whether intentional or not it feels like being a member of a community.
A sense of belonging in this little community whose size I know not, but whose collective patronage has enabled work that has inspired and delighted me.
I feel connected to my far away friend, who’s a member, too. Also – seeing that this is possible, and being a part of it.
Just a sense of community in a very big crowded internet.
(amusingly) a sense of community, and reassurance that it’s maybe not as weird to still like books and walks and people who are perfectly happy making great coffee or giving a good buzz cut ¯\(ツ)/¯
I feel a bit like an art patron, I’m that I get to support your work only with the expectation that you get to produce something genuinely “Craig” and explore new outputs feel. It’s cool!
I’m also being hired as a “cultural translator”9 — a lot of my writing is about Japan (by dint of me being here), and folks seem to value that:
The transportation into a culture I’ve always wanted to be a part of. You help immerse me in the traditions and culture of a place I long for.
The joy of following along as you walk around and explore. It’s really fun to get such a view of rural Japan.
I feel better connected to Japan. Would even love to see you explore places close to home so I could experience them in a new way. Perhaps even Kamakura or Tokyo.
I learn a lot. Japanese culture and topography, and design thinking broadly speaking.
Especially during the pandemic, the window that you provide into Japan is invaluable to me. I’m happy that I’m able to support your projects in some small way.
Unique view from non-Japanese view and sights at the same level of the local people.
I’m mentally and emotionally transported to Japan on a regular basis
It’s neat to read/watch/listen to things I can’t experience firsthand. You’re a great communicator. Thank you for sharing your gifts
And regarding hiring me as a “distributor of coupons” (and seeing how it nicely commingles with other jobs):
It was Kissa by Kissa that made me join. One reason being that I wanted more objects like it but also realizing how much I enjoy your “missives”. ;-)
Maybe the discount on Kissa By Kissa, but also not long after you started SP membership I became very interested to support thoughtful, calm, interesting work. Basically the antidote to 99% of the internet.
I was buying Kissa by Kissa anyway, and with the discount I got to support a talented creator in the process. Winning.
The Kissa book. Had a friend who I knew would like it
Kissa by Kissa launch, a month after signed Ridgeline
Wanted to buy the third edition of Kissa by Kissa so took the opportunity to become a member at the same time
On the topic of archetypes: The membership program is like a private club where I’m more willing to be “open” about processes in ways that would feel too exposed on my normal mailing lists or public YouTube livestreams. With SP members, the audience for many of the members-only newsletters (like the writing diary I’m currently running) is in the hundreds or, for livestreams, dozens. All paying, supportive, “fans.” (But really, more like co-workers.) My normal newsletters go out to tens of thousands of strangers. You can understand why one space might feel like a safer & less stressful place to be emotionally & creatively exposed.
Part of me is embarrassed to share the above. It seems narcissistic to post these notes publicly. But, another part of me is energized by it all. To be honest, I did not anticipate this volume of response or positivity. It’s all extremely heartening. The resulting impulse is an overwhelming sense to push further down this road. I’m glad I surveyed folks in the end; having concrete responses is far more encouraging than simply imagining how folks are positively affected by your work. (Or affected at all.)
Overall, three years in, the Members ⇄ Craig relationship feels extremely symbiotic. Like we’re all on a big, funky, pizza toast infused walk together. I’m divining a sustainable financial base, a set of permissions and support, and members are “hiring” an archetype, a guide, a mentor, to simply do the work that I feel I should be doing.
#Costs & Equipment
My fixed costs continue to increase commensurate with my work.
In 2019, costs were (all USD) ~$4,000.00.
In 2020, ~$5,200.00.
And 2021, ~$7,000.00.
Biggest cost increases: mailing list software (since my subscriber base has grown), and Dropbox / Backblaze B2 space for backing up video, which is gargantuan.
My general tech stack, largely, remains the same.
My investment in video incurred no recurring costs outside of storage because YouTube is essentially “free” as a platform. I wish there was a reasonably-priced YouTube alternative (besides Vimeo), but the fact is, hosting 4K video is expensive, and there aren’t many options that don’t cost a lot of money.10
That said, I did spend roughly ~$10,000.00 on video equipment in the last 18 months, but can trace back approximately ~300 book sales, plus new memberships, to just the two documentary projects last year. This represents approximately ~$30,000.00 in revenue. So that equipment investment has paid off well.
As of February 2022, here are my membership-related fixed costs:
|Digital Ocean Server
|Hosting for craigmod.com, specialprojects.jp, walkkumano.com, et al.
|Domain caching, protection, CDN
|Backblaze backup + B2 storage
|Backup for computer / video files
|Backup / offline storage / file sharing
|Managing memberships themselves (tiers, signups, billing, refunds, et cetera)
|Running Ridgeline / Roden / SPECIAL PROJECTS newsletters
|Newsletter acquisition helper
|On Margins hosting / publishing
|Office Hours & SW945 hosting
|Selling books / digital goods / hosting membership perks
|Hosting members-only Q&As, lectures
|Privacy friendly web stats
|craigmod.com, specialprojects.jp email
|monthly running costs
About or $7,000.00 per year in recurring tool & platform costs.
I also hired an assistant / studio manager last year which was — outside of rent — my biggest fixed cost by far. Simultaneously, this was one of the best moves I’ve made since starting the program. This studio manager has helped smooth out a lot of background logistics & customer support noise. I am profoundly grateful for their work and candor.
Other miscellany: Memberful charges 4.9% per transaction. Stripe charges an additional 2.9% (+$0.30) credit card processing fee. Together, this represents an additional running cost of 7.8% on all membership fees.
Shopify charges ~2.8% for credit card processing on top of their $30/mo fee. I don’t use any paid Shopify plugins.
I’ve managed to save tens of thousands of dollars in processing fees by using my opensource Craigstarter theme for Shopify, instead of running campaigns on Kickstarter. You should consider using it, too.
#“Measuring” Our Lives
I finished 2021 by reading Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life.11 It’s a great book. And you should consider reading it, especially if you’re thinking about starting a membership program. Christensen has run successful startups, consulted extensively for big business, and finished out his life as a professor at Harvard Business School. He was also Extremely Mormon which is, I think, why the book is so fascinating. I’d never imagine Mormonism and HBS + business theory in conversation with one another, but here we are. The uniqueness of the book comes precisely from that unexpected confluence.12
Relevant to membership programs, we have the notion of “job satisfaction.” Christensen quotes a guy named Herzberg. Frederick Herzberg wrote extensively on the “motivation theory” of satisfaction. To understand and apply it, you need to distinguish between two critically different types of factors: hygiene and motivation. “Hygiene factors are things like status, compensation, job security, work conditions, company policies, and supervisory practices,” he writes. Critically, it turns out that compensation is also a hygiene factor (as opposed to a motivational factor): “You need to get it right. But all you can aspire to is that employees will not be mad at each other and the company because of compensation.”
The crucial point: “If you instantly improve the hygiene factors of your job, you’re not going to suddenly love it. At best, you just won’t hate it anymore. The opposite of job dissatisfaction isn’t job satisfaction, but rather an absence of job dissatisfaction.”
This is part of why, I believe, once SPECIAL PROJECTS crossed a revenue line sometime in late 2020 / early 2021, I haven’t paid much attention to growth. Obviously, I don’t want it to dip too far, but the point of starting this membership program was never to make a million bucks a year from memberships alone. (There are far easier ways to do that.) The point was — I can now see, years into the program — to self-formalize the permission to do the work I felt I should be doing, and to find a sustainable base upon which to do that work.
Which brings us to motivation factors. Ah, motivation factors, the very grist of a full and rich life. Allow me to liberally quote, since Christensen sums it up well:
Motivation factors include challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth … The theory of motivation suggests you need to ask yourself a different set of questions than most of us are used to asking. Is this work meaningful to me? Is this job going to give me a chance to develop? Am I going to learn new things? Will I have an opportunity for recognition and achievement? Am I going to be given responsibility? These are the things that will truly motivate you. Once you get this right, the more measurable aspects of your job will fade in importance.
Looking back at these last three years of SPECIAL PROJECTS, I see many of these qualities present in spades:
- My work has felt exceedingly meaningful because it leans on a unique (and uniquely non-commercial, in many contexts) set of skills (walking, linguistics, photography, journalism, literary non-fiction, cultural geography) that, filtered through my life experiences, feels wholly distinctive and idiosyncratically valuable.
- I have done nothing if not “grow” and “develop” these past three years; from the rigors of walking & writing, to learning video production, to shooting documentaries, to running livestreams, to producing books … it’s been a rich few years! I think back to who I was and what I was doing three years ago and am a bit baffled / shocked / in awe at how far we’ve come.
- In short: I have learned countless new things, and continue to do so.
- “Recognition” is built into the membership program by default; a human joining is a vote in favor of what I’m doing; but I’ve also been lucky and my work has been recognized by well-established folks in the literary and photography industries. I’ve also gotten more Thank You letters / notes / gifts in the past year than in aggregate throughout my life thus far. I am not above being positively affected by a nice email!
In some ways, this is all obvious, but writing it down pulls it from the realm of theory into something tangible, and helps me double down and believe in this program ever more consciously, going forward.
Three years ago upon launch of SPECIAL PROJECTS I thought I was taking my first steps into the fires of Professional Mount Doom, was shouldering a Sadness Backpack full of coal, was doing the thing I wasn’t supposed to do but couldn’t do anything else so was stuck doing it, big sigh BIG SIGH. I wanted to hitchhike on a Bezos rocket and skydive into particulate nothingness, have those atoms reconstitute into dirty pigeons then maimed by tiny airplanes, seep as boney meatsacks into the earth and become, at best, minor nourishment for a hearty tree, only then to be beset by some horrible fungus and wither, hollow out internally, falling, eventually, during a stormy spring day on the home of a kindly shoe cobbler, rendering him a widower, a howler of the night above his village.
2019 worked out OK, and 2020 was a gangbusters bonanza. 2021 was the fine maturation of the machine of both memberships and creativity, and I’m more excited for 2022 than any year thus far.
So, you know — THANK YOU. Geez. I really can’t say that enough. Thank you to everyone who has joined, and thank you to everyone who has bought my books and prints and has sent in messages of gratitude and poked their noggins into livestreams or Board Meetings or other “boring” video experiments. Thank you to the other folks starting membership programs, “going for it,” out there cranking away on your own terms as archetypes and models for future folks. For showing us all the myriad of strange, wonderful, unexpected ways to live out these lives of ours.
Thank you thank you thank you.
Good luck. And if you have any questions, email me: email@example.com.
Oh, and, you know, please consider joining SPECIAL PROJECTS.
Well, and my partner of many years, of course, and dear friends, mentors, and certainly my therapist, whose positive, patient, kind guidance over the years is overwhelming to consider in retrospect. Seriously: Find a good therapist, one you can trust, respect, who is metered and sensible, who brings wisdom to the table. I am glad I found mine when I did (four years ago), but could have used him about fifteen years earlier. So, you know what I mean — there is a core of humans in my life that create the stable base upon which to even think about launching something like a membership program. And it’s atop that base that SPECIAL PROJECTS is able to pulse and thrive and grow. ↩︎
But gauche only in some old-world, inherited-wealth notion of talking about money? I suspect it’s only in bad taste to talk about money if you’ve done nothing to earn the money? Because: Sustainability is critical to creative work, and all too often the story of how ARTIST X or Y divined the ability to do the work they did is left to hand-wavy ambiguity. Very often it’s because of a trust (family money), or because of a single, generous benefactor (think: Rockefellers). Sometimes, it’s also through gumption, but mostly, I suspect, more than we may realize, there’s a hand-descending-from-heaven provenance to much of the art we know today. So — sure, I’m sticking this in a footnote, but I’ve written about it more explicitly in past years — this membership program, combined with book and print sales, entirely, on its own, enables me to do the work I’m doing, and continue to do so. We’re well over the $200,000/yr revenue line. In a country like Japan, with rational social infrastructure, this goes a long freggin‘ way. ↩︎
I mention the alcohol thing because, looking back on my 20s, removing alcohol from the equation of my life would have had, I believe, the biggest positive overall life impact. I can now see — with a head-dipped-in-ice-water kind of clarity — the self-destructive loops I was stuck in. And can see how alcohol was, for me, such an enabler and retardation agent. I estimate I am “five to ten years behind” because of booze. (I began to pull back at twenty-seven, but it wasn’t until ~thirty-three that I really cut the head off the beast.) If I could have somehow snipped the cord on alcohol sooner, I think it would have forced me to have owned up to a host of other traumas and toxicity I was carrying around in my mind and chest. (Which makes sense, alcohol was rarely “fun” for me — it was almost always a dulling agent, an escape agent.) And so, I mention this stuff not to be dogmatic or sanctimonious, but to plant the seed in the mind of someone reading this who, too, might be thinking: Dang, maybe drinking isn’t great for me? I could have used a few kicks a bit earlier, but am also grateful I pulled back when I did, but only after suffering some pretty big losses. Maybe you can avoid that? ↩︎
I bring all this up because I want to hammer home the point that I didn’t just wake up one day and go: Let’s Membership! It was a weird road, not very “optimized,” quite messy, and in some ways, extremely disappointing. That said, I think that this pain / disappointment / failure was critical to recognizing the “true” amount effort required to do what I was trying to do. Which is to say — it was considerable, and considerably more than I was capable of imagining. ↩︎
As I put in a footnote every year: This is such a weird distinction, I know, the “student” discount. Why students? Who is a student? What constitutes student? Aren’t we all students? Why not an “unemployed” discount? I don’t know! But what I do know is I like this idea: A period of time in life where you don’t (usually) have a lot of excess cash, and your mind is fertile and fresh and open to new ideas, and you have some time to think about who and what you want to be in the world. And, really, what kind of world you want to live in. You’ve yet to make any real “binding decisions” that otherwise burden folks in their late 20s and 30s and beyond. In an ideal scenario, this period tends to fall during college / university, early 20s, before you enter into or push back against the workforce. I think if you want to have an impact on the next generation and their sense of optionality, opportunities, and positive archetypes, then offering them an inside glimpse into creative processes and “non-standard” ways of investigating the world is a critical, and in some ways maybe even a moral duty. When I was 20, I wish I had had better access to what I know now. It would have made me feel a hell of a lot less lonely and crazy. So, I suppose the free student tier is my ham-handed attempt to pay that forward. If you’re a student, just email me: firstname.lastname@example.org and say, “Hey I’m a student.” I don’t require ID checks or anything silly like that. I trust you. ↩︎
I returned in January 2022 to show him the results (I was a bit timid, didn’t know how he’d take it) and he teared up a few seconds in. Was speechless for a few minutes. Couldn’t believe it turned out as well as it did. “I thought I was useless and you ditched it,” he told me when he finally said something. Basically, what I witnessed — while watching the owner watch himself make toast — was a burgeoning of unexpected grace. The work was elevating the subject and the subject, in turn, was strangely renewed. I did not expect this result, but I have to say it made me feel like the work to produce the piece (a non-trivial amount of work!!) had been worth it. After forty years slinging coffee & toast, this guy finally saw himself? Something like that. ↩︎
This is a good example of something evolving over the course of a membership. I began by doing 1:1 office hours. But that didn’t scale well (and left me emotionally exhausted). So I switched to quarterly zoom-based “board meetings.” Those were much better, but even quarterly felt a bit too frequent. So they’re presently on a twice-a-year schedule, which feels about right. (Sometimes not much happens in a quarter.) ↩︎
The responses I posted above are, like, ~10% of what came in? If that? It was overwhelming. I put them all into a doc, set it in tiny type and printed it out, and it was 40+ dense pages. I spent four hours reading through it all in a cafe, marking it up, making notes. ↩︎
Hard cringe that this phraseology. I don’t desire to be some magical facilitator of “the mysteries of the orient” or anything horrifying like that. By dint of pandemic, by nature of language skills, and because I have a twenty-two year (!!) history with the country (this is, for better or worse, my home), Japan has been a good place to focus for the last few years. I feel no “ownership” of Japan knowledge, have no desire to be seen as an academic. My main “goals” with my Japan-related work are simply to reflect the less visible (but ultimately, I believe, universally fascinating) aspects of the country as filtered through my own life; I’m drawn to dingy diners, insane mythologies, slap-dash meals, clunky sprawl, and sloppy farmers, as opposed to ancient shrines, twentieth-generation inns, and cherry-blossom snowstorms (though I love and respect all those things too; but there’s no pressing need for me to write about them). ↩︎
Compounding this desire for alternatives is YouTube’s maniacal stance around intellectual property. Lo be the poor Content Creator who happens to capture a few seconds of commercial radio in a recording; upon them will come a swift smashing of the Copyright Strike hammer. It’s … infuriating, and seems to assume bad faith above all. And this policy causes you to lose control over if / how your work is monetized, meaning random ads gets slathered atop / between your work. ↩︎
It was the reading of this book that reminded me of his Jobs To Be Done theory, that inspired me to look at the membership program through that lens. ↩︎
A general rule of thumb for finding “interesting” subjects is where the Venn Diagrams of wholly disparate fields overlap. In fact, it can be difficult to be “the best” in some field, but if you focus on the oft ignored overlapping bits, the scope is usually sensible enough to put “mastery” of that space within reach. Generally, too, I find myself more delighted and inspired when stuff that normally wouldn’t be adjacent is made adjacent; this is true in my own work and the work of others. ↩︎