Reflecting on the SPECIAL PROJECTS membership program as it enters its third year
Another month passes, and here we are — me, Craig Mod, the author of Roden, this monthly newsletter, and you, curious reader somewhere out across our vast and pandemic’d globe.
Welcome to issue fifty! Which also happens to be the Dreaded Membership Issue™ whereby once a year, I compress a week of soul-crushing NPR-style membership appeals into a single email.
Because: Last week marked entry into Year Three of SPECIAL PROJECTS, my little membership program that I began in 2019 with a crippling sense of shame. It isn’t so little anymore, and I’m exceedingly proud of what we’ve produced and who has joined. The whole dang thing is humbling to the max.
In fact, we’re about 85 members away from hitting the hallowed 1,000 Simultaneously Paying Members Goal. (!!)
If you’re enjoying Roden, and want to send a strong signal of support for my work, consider joining SPECIAL PROJECTS. SP enabled tons of stuff in 2020 (and 2019). Thank you! Here in Roden alone I published some 45,000 words in 2020, and that’s just a blip within a much greater constellation.
Yearly (and Lifetime) Members get the mega-perk of $40 off Kissa by Kissa, meaning you get membership at almost half price if you’re thinking of buying my latest book. And Monthly Members can upgrade to Yearly (→ Change Plan) easily (and you’ll immediately be sent the coupon).
This is meant to offer an all-cards-on-the-table psychic roadmap for creative folks looking to stake out on their own. (See also last year’s: Running a Paid Membership Program.)
Mainly, though: A huge thank you to everyone who has joined, who has issued a vote by joining. For those of you who don’t have the means to join, thank you for all the kind words these past few years. A pulsing, smart, generous email is so valuable — never forget that. I read them all and save them in a readily accessible bucket for when inevitable Days of Darkness descend.
Also, a reminder: students get free Yearly memberships. Just reply to this email saying, “Hey I’m a student!” (Note: My “definition” of “student” is quite liberal and I don’t check “credentials” so if you “think” you’re a student, you’re “probably” a student.)
I’m going to run two members-only 2021 Planning Zoom Q&A sessions on Sunday, Feb 7 — one for Europe-based members, and one for north/south-America-based folks. We’ll go over the Work To Be Done in 2021, and you can Ask Me Anything.
Like last year, I queried the Twitterverse for questions about running the membership program. Some great ones came in. Here are my answers.
Q: How much overhead work is there to maintaining the membership? Does it go up with each member, or is sort of a fixed cost in addition to producing, you know, the actual SPECIAL PROJECTS
I probably spend a month out of the year worrying about / dealing with membership overhead. I try and squeeze all of the work into January, which is the month I use for reflection / planning. Folks traditionally to use December for this, but I find December to be a mess. In normal years December is full of gatherings, usually frantic, and overall fraught with a kind of weird “completionist" anxiety. In contrast, January is oddly quiet, serene, open, feels like it expands and expands into the future.
So I hole up, become socially unavailable, review the previous year of the membership program, write it up and reflect on what did or didn’t work.
The goal is to then spend the remaining eleven months of the year cranking away on the Special Projects part — the books, the essays, the newsletters, the sometimes podcasts — of SPECIAL PROJECTS.
As I touch upon in last week’s big year-end essay, I try to align every membership activity (livestream, Zoom chat, YouTube video, et cetera) with the larger horizon goal of “bookmaking” or the secondary goal of Archetyping — which is my convoluted (but slightly nuanced) way of saying teaching. So all the membership-related work throughout the year doesn’t feel like “membership busywork” but rather auxiliary activities / brainstorms / collaborations that feed into bigger-than-the-program goals.
As for work going up as members increase, I’ve been thinking about how to cap the program to avoid just that feeling. If we hit the cap, I’d add a waiting list and invite folks in once a month as normal churn opens up spots.
Q: Does anyone want to support one project and not necessarily another? Like “Craig, I love the books, but the walking… I’m sure other people love it, but it’s not for me.” Or “I love this podcast! I want more podcasts!” How do you handle that?
I think most folks who join to support a specific piece of output (newsletter, podcast, audio series, essay topic) get pulled into other work of mine and understand that the oeuvre in question contains multitudes, the confluence of which may not make immediate sense but often rhymes (and hopefully makes more sense as time passes).
Part of the great pleasure in the not-always-obviously-intersecting side of my work is the pulling together of disparate groups of folks, cross-pollinating between the Literary World and Camera People, between Silicon Valley Dorks and Committed Walking Dorks, between Serious Gourmands and Pizza Toasters. It’s a cliche, but true (hence the cliche): Interesting work happens at boundaries or intersections. And I’m proud of the intersecting communities that seem to be represented in SP members. In fact, I treat relative diversity as a high-value ambient signal for how I’m doing.
Q: Thoughts on opportunity cost? Any types of things past Craig / parallel universe Craig might have done more eagerly/freely, if not for the real or imagined expectations of the membership?
Parallel unlived lives? Absolutely. in 2018, before starting the program, I seriously considered moving back to the US to go in-house at a publication. I know I would have learned tons, and would have been able to work with talented and generous people. But, obviously, these past two years I’ve also learned tons, and have also been able to work with talented and generous people, with the additional benefit of building off the unique set of interests I’ve cultivated during the previous two decades of life. It’s unlikely a publication would have given me the in-house freedom to chase the topics I currently chase. (For better or worse.)
As one editor with whom I was jabbering in 2018 put it: You have an audience, and you have clear interests, just go Do The Work.
As for “expectations of membership” — I don’t feel bound by any. By design, everything I’m working on I want to be working on, and none of the work feels like membership-specific busywork. If anything, the operation keeps me more honest than I am able to keep myself on my own. Over time, I plan on changing the tenor of work and topics I explore. I assume members will either enjoy the journey or drop off, with new folks hopping on.
For the record: I almost never look at membership-related analytics. I.e., I don’t see who leaves (I see who joins because I send everyone a thank you email) or who turns off recurring payments. I kinda despise having to see the Memberful dashboard when I log in to edit user information or set up something like the members-only podcast feed. This is because … well … as long as the trend is generally moving in a good direction, I don’t care about the specifics. The goals of the program are to explore our world and produce book-shaped things related to those explorations, and to illuminate that path for those following along. People drop off for all sorts of reasons. I can’t imagine anything less helpful (and more anxiety inducing) than looking at membership stats every day.
Writing this out, I now realize I treat the program like I treat the stock market — that is, as a seriously long term investment. So the daily fluctuations not only don’t matter, but can subvert and sabotage your investment / work strategy.
(If Memberful devs are reading, I’d love to have a “no stats” mode, where I have to really dig to see what’s happening with membership numbers, where the Memberful backend was just a place to do technical work, set stuff up, not be slammed in the face with week-over-week metrics.)
Q: When you think about your current members, do you think of them as fans, collaborators, patrons, community members, or something else? What would the ideal composition look like for you in year three and beyond?
I think of them as all of the above and more — as micro-investors, as mentors, as anti-dingdong talismans. As I noted above, pragmatically, members become a sort of tool for “keeping me honest” — which is a thing I think folks working alone or in solitude can struggle with. I certainly do. I’ve accomplished more in 2019 and 2020 by dint of Membership Honestly than I did in 2012 - 2019. (OK, maybe I’m being a bit unkind to myself here, but, seriously, I’m extremely proud of the work produced in these last two years.)
Payments formalize the relationship in a way free subscribers don’t. Money introduces a bit of friction that helps me be more “open” with members than, say, in this big list of anonymous folks here.
For example, I’ve increased the regularity of running my members-only series called “A Most Boring Livestream” wherein I work on very mundane things, live, streamed on unlisted YouTube URLs. Stuff like prepping a podcast for launch, editing a batch of photos, prepping the technical nuts and bolts behind a new newsletter. They’re “boring,” but I think there’s power in boring — a sense of reality that you miss in slick edits and “polished output.” I would have loved the opportunity to peek over someone’s shoulder when I was twenty. I’m reticent to run a livestream like this on the “open” network — I think the pressure to be performative (because of unvetted large numbers) would upend the value, and certainly increase the stress on my part. So the friction of paying to join SP minimizes reach, but amplifies playfulness — at least for me. And for that, I’m extremely grateful.
There’s a larger community aspect to memberships that I could be cultivating, but running communities is a full-time job. It would feel more like busywork than the work I’ve set out to do. That said: I think “pop-up” (i.e., temporary) community activities are something I’m willing to explore in the future. And the community itself is welcome to self-organize their own groups / Slacks / Discords / et cetera.
Q: Craig, when considering membership perks how do decide what to add while at the same time keeping things manageable (and yourself sane)?
As I explain in The Big Essay, the membership program exists as an accelerant to achieve the “horizon goal” of bookmaking (and the secondary goal is education). In theory, all perks “have to” aid in buoying these goals. So a members-only livestream is a way to work more quickly and creatively and with a little more self-awareness. The 2021 Q&A zoom calls I’m going to run on Sunday are to force me to treat the year with more ceremony and clarity.
Almost all of the member perks are “creative runoff” from working towards our bigger goals, so I don’t feel particularly burdened by them.
That said, because the crux of the membership program is “Craig, ya weird bird, I wanna see more of your work in the world” and not, “Here’s a course on how to double your productivity and make $10,000/week day trading for one hour!!” I also don’t think members are that expectant of so-called perks. And anything extra feels like a … bonus? If someone feels under-perked, if their Perk Expectation and actual Perk Delivery aren’t aligned, they can always ask for a refund. (In two years I I’ve issued only one refund.)
Q: What are the pros and cons of roll your own versus use off-the-shelf?
Because I have a technical background, and because I find a certain kind of technical work palliative, and because I find that technical work to act as a forcing function to get to me to be more efficient / smart about the larger projects at hand, I extract a lot of value out of rolling my own stuff.
That said — I would never recommend roll-your-own as a default!
Here is the sequence I do recommend: Use an off the shelf tool until you break it, until you hit its edges, then look for a solution. If that solution requires you to build something, then you have permission to build it, but only building out just enough to solve your creative issue.
In my case, because form and content are generally in conversation, the work goals I have are (somewhat) intrinsically tied to technical execution in a way that a platform like Medium or Substack could never allow for. Hence my building.
But for the work of many of you out there, basic platform defaults probably align well enough. Use the defaults until you hit insurmountable walls. Then look for the next technical step.
Even though I’ve rolled my own general newsletter systems, I haven’t changed them in the last two years. I sometimes perform minor incremental updates, but I don’t foresee any big investments in new technology any time soon. I’d much rather spend that time learning a new skill, like how to shoot and edit video well, rather than once again reinventing blogging software.
A good example of minimal tech: The members-only perks section of my website is just a directory with a single html file “protected” by a shared Apache login/password. I could have gone and wired up an authentication layer with the Memberful API but … to what end? There’s nothing of particularly high value to “steal” and if anyone is going to leak anything from that perks section, well … what can I do? Because members don’t join just for perks, the loss in value to me is essentially zero, meaning the relative amount of effort required to build a more secure authentication layer essentially becomes infinite.
The next update I make to the perks section will be design related — because we have so many perks (so many livestream archives, guest lectures, publishing experiment archives, et cetera) it’s getting difficult for me to point to specific items. In other words: We’re hitting the limits of the tool in its current form.
Thanks and Thanks
I actually have two “releases” coming up in the next two weeks. New episodes of On Margins (Yes! That old thing!) and a new … newsletter! (Gasp! Not as painful as it may sound …) The plan was to get them ready before this issue of Roden but the last month was dominated by Year Three launch prep, writing up the membership program notes, refreshing the /membership signup page, and generally just attempting to get a handle on life and work from the whiplash of 2020 heading into 2021.
One again, thank you to everyone who has joined SPECIAL PROJECTS. It would be amazing to cross that 1,000 member line — please consider hopping on board. That membership numbers graph at the top of the signup page is (basically) live. (Meaning, it sometimes also goes down. (And, yes, I know it’s anathema to my anti-stats screed above; but this is just temporary, for this Year Three launch blip (a marketing tool, I suppose? I circle to be completed with your help.)))
And if you do join, I hope to see you on Sunday. Feb 7 for the 2021 Q&A and Overview Zoom. (I’ll be sending out those invites tomorrow.)
Back soon with a more “normal” Roden.
p.s., Here I am about 400 kilometers into the 700+ I walked in November along the Tōkaidō — dressed in business hotel pajamas, poking my head into a unit bath. This is how I spend most of my evenings on those big walks — looking like an escaped lunatic, crazed with the eyes of someone who has imported too much media and fears the process of editing. The weird thing about this photo? Pure nostalgia. I can’t wait to get back out there, to walk day-by-day between hotels, some like this, some centuries-old inns, some the homes of widowers, stinkbugs galore, serving up more tofu than a man could eat in a week, crying when we say goodbye the next morning.