Issue 035
January, 31, 2020

Membership Programs, Year Two

What it's like running a membership program

Rooooden —

Happy new year — western and eastern alike. I’m Craig Mod, and this is the first issue of Roden getting blasted out into the newsletter-o-sphere in 2020.

February marks the start of year two of the Explorers Club membership program. Year one was incredibly productive and I am proud of what we — the members and I (because it really does feel collaborative in many ways) — produced.

Unlike last year, when I launched the membership program “with crippling trepidation” and “considerable hemming and hawing,” I’m no longer sheepish about it. It works. I am proud of it. I am exceedingly grateful to everyone who has joined. I realize not everyone can afford to join, and I realize we’re all a bit bombarded by “memberships” and “subscriptions” these days. But ultimately — this is a good thing!

A scant ten years ago this ecosystem barely existed. Now it’s ever-more normalized. This feels healthy. Directly supporting writers, artists, musicians, software developers, et cetera, feels like the last remaining puzzle piece of the last 30 years of independent creation. Computers democratized design in the ’80s/’90s, the web democratized publishing in the ’00s, and now proper payments infrastructure is democratizing creative sustainability.

Lest it be lost in the many, many words below, allow me to put my humble ask to you readers up here: I’d love to get 100 new yearly Explorers Club members in February to kick off this new year. The 2020+100. Please consider joining. Click here to subscribe. The program is better than ever and I go into all the details of why below.

If you were wondering what memberships have helped produce, last year’s output is enumerated here: What we made in 2019. Spoiler: We made a ton of stuff.

I just published a huge, hulking, definitely-too-long essay on what it’s like to run a membership program: Running a Paid Membership Program. It’s meant to be a catch-all for anyone looking to do “the membership thing” — notes on finances, software costs (ex: it costs me about $4,000USD a year in recurring technical costs alone to send these newsletters, host podcasts, and run this membership program), pricing, member acquisition, et cetera.

I’ve updated the membership page to more clearly explain what’s offered, and what benefits come with becoming a member. Monthly, yearly, and lifetime subscriptions all come with the same perks, the only difference is in billing regularity (and a slight “discount” for yearly payments).

There used to be a cheaper student tier. I now offer students free access. If you’re a student and want to join, email me at and I’ll send you the special signup link. (Why “students?” I know, it’s a little weird, and I try to answer that in this footnote.)

There is now a special members-only section on my website to consolidate membership perks, and act as a place to which I can add more benefits:

  • Access to my members-only Inside Explorers newsletter, including the 2019 archives
  • Access to the members-only “Pop-Up Walks” archive (currently only 1 walk as of Jan 2020)
  • Digital copies of my books Koya Bound and Art Space Tokyo
  • Discount codes to buy the physical edition of Koya Bound (which saves you $30), and discounts on all future books
  • A pack of twelve high-res walking-in-Japan wallpapers for your phone
  • Access to members-only “office hours” I hold when visiting cities (and possibly virtual office hours later this year — still considering if there’s interest in this sort of thing, respond and let me know)
  • First dibs on tickets to events / talks / workshops I’m running; free tickets to events I’m speaking at when possible

In fact, two members just got free tickets to the Config conference next week which were worth $300 each.

temple garden

Membership Questions

I asked my followers on Twitter if they had any questions for me about running the Explorers Club and it turns out they had some good ones. I’m going to respond to a few here. (If you have other questions you’d like to see addressed, reply to this email and fire away.)

How did your writing (process, content) change with the membership program? Also, how did readers engage with you differently once they became members?

The membership program had a profound impact on my writing process — for the better. I keep using the word “formalize” when discussing the program, but it did precisely that: formalized the relationship between me and readers, and created accountability. My fear was the accountability would stifle creativity, but precisely the opposite happened. That accountability of weekly and monthly deadlines created a rhythm and rigor to the process of publishing words and images, and the output includes essays I would have never otherwise written, and feel all the better for having written. Those essays are now being worked into book-shaped things, which also would not exist without the program.

Overall, the membership program created a system. And through the strictures of that system I’ve been more creative and productive than at any other point in my life. For me this works. For others, it may not. In the last decade I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words on my own, with no explicit accountability, under the guise of perhaps someday publishing them as a novel, so I know I can produce if need be. But — I think this way of publishing that the membership program demands and enables, this way of creating a sustained conversation with you all (“my community” you might say), is far more “of my nature” than just hiding in a cave and writing for years, hoping I can emerge at the end of the process with something worthwhile. I’m not at all against that method, and may return to it given time. But, damn, I wish I had started a membership program, like, three years ago.

“Engagement” with paying members changed only in so much as I now feel that I have a crew I can reach out to — for advice, testing of ideas, et cetera. Maybe those paying feel a little closer to me, but more than that: I feel closer to them, and am grateful for the support

Somewhat related to the above question:

I’d love to know whether/how running a paid service has changed your approach and work itself (a sense of pressure? A sort of validation? Something else entirely). It’s always interesting when ‘hobby’ becomes ‘work’ (in quotes, as I don’t think either term is quite right here)

The biggest changes: an increased sense of accountability, but more than that, a sense of “formalization” and a regularity of, I suppose, “validation.” It’s unlikely that there exists a magazine that would hire me full-time to write about what I’m writing about, to do these walks, run these experiments, explore our relationship with technology in my own off-kilter way. That realization came from talking with a number of journalist friends who, when I floated the idea of going in-house somewhere, grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me with loving violence and said, “Craig, you ding dong, you know what you want to write about. Nobody will let you do that from the inside. You have your audience. Go do it.” I’ve been doing it, and you’ve been responding positively. Thanks.

(Also, ironically, because the membership program removes a bit of the pressure to sell pieces to magazines, it’s made it easier to do better work for magazines. I don’t feel as “beholden” to them as “kingmakers,” for example. (The points of value I now focus on for magazine writing are: 1. Which editor do I get to work with and how closely? and 2. Does the publication have a supportive and engaged audience?) But that feeling is only possible because the membership program is working.)

rock in garden

would love to hear whether significant following / audience is a prerequisite to success + tools to use to manage the program + how do you think about people inevitably re-sharing paid content

An audience is often a prerequisite. But “an audience” is often a proxy for someone having done the work. Which is to say, I do not recommend starting a membership program unless you’ve already spent years doing what you plan on doing for the program. If you’ve done that, and have been smart about regularly reaching out to others in your community, then you should, in theory, have (at the very least!) the seed of an audience. So, in a way it’s a non-issue: If you haven’t been doing the work, then you’re probably not ready to launch a membership program.

As for re-sharing paid content: I think the only time “piracy” is an issue is at massive scale, and if piracy is happening at massive scale, then that means you’ve mis-judged the market: i.e., it’s too difficult to buy your product, or your product is wildly mis-priced. In that sense, piracy is a opportunity-signaling proxy.

I think folks like Stratechery and The New Consumer handle the issue of piracy perfectly: They include a little message at the bottom saying that the newsletter shouldn’t be shared with many people, that it’s paid, and if you like it, you should join. There’s not much else to be done.

hanging rock garden

How much time it took to admin it v how much time writing for it.

Admin time is kind of an issue. See: Technical Gobbledygook. But it’s also a front-loaded workload. You ramp it all up, and then hopefully it just runs. I spent this last month of January in an almost full-time state of prep for this relaunch. That included, in part:

All of these things take time, some more than others. I’ve written about 20,000 words (many cut) for all of this, and have spent dozens (at least?) of hours on design and technical details. Thankfully, for me, technical work is palliative. Those problems offer a beautiful counterpoint to the work of “placing words after other words.” And so I can flip-flop between writing or design and tech, and hopefully, make reasonable progress. I do not expect others to be like me. I am an odd bird.

big bushes

I’d love to hear advice on setting prices for memberships and/or sponsorships. Sorry if too personal but no one really talks about it and it would be very helpful

I discuss price setting in the big essay, but sponsorships are something I have had as a to-do for about a year. And yet, I’ve been hesitant to dig into sponsorships because it’s One More Thing That Isn’t Writing or Walking or Book Making. That said, man, I’m inspired by Kai Branch’s DIY ads / sponsorship management setup.

Is it better to “save” sponsorship slots for my own books and projects? Would any of you readers care if I sold a sponsorship slot? I suppose if one company whose ethos was totally aligned with this newsletter (related: please explain to me the ethos of Roden) wanted to sponsor a whole, say, year, I’d be open to that discussion. But otherwise, I’d rather spend sponsorship time on writing.

On The Road

I’m off to SF in a few days to speak at the first Figma conference — Config — about “two books and a long walk.” Here’s my precis:

Although many of us are product designers, it’s rare we turn our design lens on our own lives. We’re bombarded with inputs, and expected to produce a near infinitude of output. How does establishing boundaries, applying design thinking to the way our digital tools operate, and giving “edges” to our work help us create deeper, more meaningful relationships with our communities, and ultimately produce better, more thoughtful design?

I’ll be talking about the SMS project and more.

Prepping for that has been fun — the Figma team have been superb at providing feedback. What I’ve found most useful have been the little video-chat test runs we’ve been doing each week since the start of the year. The best way to understand a talk is to give it. And the best way to give it is to schedule … talks. Suddenly things become much clearer when said to another human (as opposed to your wall). If you have a talk to give and you’re having trouble focusing, schedule calls with friends, use those calls as a forcing function to present it over and over and over again. Your friends will despise you and henceforth never take your calls, but your talk will be better for it.


This issue of Roden has had a little garden theme going on. I want to leave you with my favorite: A photo I took last year, somewhere alone the Nakasendō. I just love it. I love the textures, the light, I love the shape of the trunk (and the way the light hits it) of the foreground tree, I love the flanking trees, their shape, the care that has been put into maintaining them, I love the size of the window and its frame, I love the curtains behind and their subtle texture, their pinched-togetherness, I love the brick of the house and how it feels plucked from the Taishō era. I walked by it and was immediately smitten. If I recall correctly, it was on a perfectly boring road, with nothing special anywhere around it. A little cluster of care.

Explorers Club

Next Roden will be a little more “normal” — a smattering of thoughts on photography and literature and travel. Thanks for indulging me this flight of membership fancy. Consider this my once-a-year pledge drive. Can we nab 100 new members this month? That would be amazing, and would help put to ease membership concerns for the year.

And to everyone who has already joined, a genuine thanks. I hope that thanks is felt in the work. I look forward to meeting some of you on Thursday, at Config.

Until then,

Along the Omine