Episode 010: Membership Sites with Ward Sandler

In this episode of The SaaS CX Show, I talk with Ward Sandler about membership sites. He shares best practices in creating membership sites as well as how things have changed over the years.
Show NotesTranscript
Ward Sandler of MemberSpace on membership sites
Ward Sandler

Over the last few years, one of the growing methods for businesses and startups to make money is to create membership sites. As an entrepreneur, your company has a lot of value, so why not charge customers a monthly fee to access your knowledge or features?

While this process sounds appealing to startups and other businesses, it’s not always easy to implement. Fortunately, you don’t need to know any programming language or spend countless hours updating your website page by page. In this episode of the SaaS CX Podcast, I’m talking with Ward Sandler, founder of Memberspace, a program that handles everything related to building membership sites.

Membership Sites Born From Website Consulting

Interestingly enough, Ward’s path to Memberspace was born out of consulting and building Squarespace websites. His original company worked with a lot of clients to create the site that they wanted, and one of his most-requested features was adding a membership package. At the time, nothing really existed that made it easy to incorporate this function, so Ward and his team decided to develop it themselves.

The story behind Memberspace is also great because it offers insight into how to run membership sites in general. Since the company uses its own product to sell to customers, it’s in a unique position to discover what works best and what doesn’t. Here are a few highlights of what Ward and I discuss.

Managing a Remote Team

Living in modern times means that more and more people can work remotely. While this tactic is both cost-effective and easy to implement, it’s not without problems. Mostly, issues stem from a lack of built-in communication methods. It’s easy to talk to a coworker about something when they’re next to you in the office – it’s more of a challenge when that person is in another city, state, or country.

Ward and his team had to figure out a lot of different details together, and the one thing that helped keep them on track was communication. Overall, if you assume nothing and take nothing for granted (i.e., that everyone is on the same page), you can provide a better system for communicating. Be proactive and repetitive if necessary – everyone has a lot on their plate, so you need to balance it with more communication, not less.

Don’t Forget the “Minimum” Part of MVP

One problem that so many startups face is that they want to add a million features for the launch. Each one is “crucial,” and will add to the overall value of the product, but they also take time, energy, and money to implement.

For Memberspace, they began with one feature, which was based on user comments. The beta version of the site enabled customers to lock specific site pages behind a membership wall. At first, it wasn’t a paywall, but just a system that forced visitors to set up an account.

From there, more features were added to Memberspace. Once the company mastered that feature, they could build on it to make the product better. At each step, they solicited feedback from their users to see which elements they wanted most so that they didn’t waste time and effort on something that wouldn’t add value.

According to Ward, if he and his team had built Memberspace based on what they thought people wanted in membership sites, it wouldn’t have been as successful. He was sure that analytics was a crucial piece of the puzzle, but they didn’t add that function for years after launching because no one cared about it.

Keep It Extra Simple

We all know that the older generation can sometimes be allergic to technology. However, you can use that to your advantage. Ward consistently relies on his parents (who are in their 70s) to make pages and features easier to understand. If boomers can navigate through your membership sites effortlessly, then anyone can.

We talk a lot more about membership sites, and there are plenty of other highlights in this episode, so check it out here. Also, if you’re interested in building a membership program yourself, you can let Ward and his team do the heavy lifting for you. Visit www.memberspace.com and use the promo code SaaS CX Group to get 50-percent off their services.

Frank Bria (00:00):
The SaaS CX Show, episode 10

Announcer (00:04):
From founders and CEOs to founders and CEOs. It’s the SaaS CX Show. You’ve found the one stop shop for all things CX. Each interview is an in-depth analysis of a successful growing SAAS company, building a world class customer experience for their users. And now for your host, serial SaaS entrepreneur, founder, consultant and advisor, Frank Bria.

Frank Bria (00:31):
Welcome to the SaaS CX Show by SaaS founders and CEOs for SaaS, founders and CEOs. I’m your host, Frank Bria. Today’s episode, we are going to be talking about membership sites, but first, the SaaS CX Show is brought to you by the SaaS CX group. Number one reason for ideal customer churn, not getting value from your software. Find out how to fix that by downloading our SaaS churn checklist. We cover the seven things you need to have in place to ensure your ideal customers stay, use and love your software. Decrease churn by 10 to 25% in just three to six months. Find out more at the show’s homepage. Saascx.show, that’s saascx.show. And now I am absolutely pleased to introduce today’s guest Ward Sandler. Ward is the co founder and CEO of Member Space. He has a background in sales, client management, web design and user experience. He’s passionate about helping people build membership businesses even if they aren’t tech savvy. Ward, welcome to the show.

Ward Sandler (01:33):
Hey Frank, thanks for having me.

Frank Bria (01:34):
Our pleasure. Absolutely. So this area, this space of membership sites is starting, I mean it’s been around for a bit, but I think it’s really starting to come into a kind of 2.0 version of things. I remember, you know, playing around with this stuff probably six years ago and feeling like you needed to hire a Salesforce consultant to get things up and running. So, first of all, how long has the company been around?

Ward Sandler (02:03):
Yeah, so we’ve been around since 2015.

Frank Bria (02:05):
Cool. Awesome. So you got some, some depth in the space here. And what did you guys see in this area that kind of motivated you guys to launch the company?

Ward Sandler (02:17):
Yeah, so we first started out as actually Squarespace consultants. Just like building websites and supporting those websites. And before that we were just building custom software. So we had kind of done at all. We had realized when we were building Squarespace sites, a major feature request was memberships and we looked around for third party tools that would plug into Squarespace specifically. And there were a couple, but they were really low quality and insecure and didn’t look good. And so we weren’t comfortable recommending them to clients. So we said, you know what, let’s try to make it ourselves. And so we built a real, real basic MVP version, got it out there, got free beta testers to try it out and just kinda kept building from there, adding features and making people happy. It just kinda kept growing and growing. And now we no longer do the consulting.

Frank Bria (03:03):
Yeah, I love that story of any software company gig is. You know, there’s no one right way to do it, but if there were a right way to do it, that’s the right way to do it. It’s sort of a Guy Kawasaki approach. His book Art of the Start is one of my favorites and that’s what he says. It’s consult, build tools to make your life easier, and then go sell those tools to your clients.

Ward Sandler (03:24):
So yeah, we actually got that general principle. It’s called a Sale Safari, give a hat tip to Amy Hoy, and her 30 by 500 which we did not take, but I’ve read a lot of her blog posts and kinda reverse engineered it a bit, but essentially, just to give you some context, we literally went to the Squarespace forum and sorted by most viewed topic and it was number three was like, how do I add memberships to Squarespace? And so it was like, we didn’t have to guess, is this something people want? There were 100,000 people that had viewed that topic. Thousands had commented. It was just like, Oh, obviously this is a thing so we don’t have to guess.

Frank Bria (04:02):
Yeah. That’s great. That’s awesome. So many sort of the old styles, you know, get a software company up and running where you had to basically go ask for $6 million and bury yourself in development for a couple of years before you get the first users on board. I’m glad to see those days over. You know, I have my own skinned knees from that stuff early on in my career, but it’s great to see other things moving along. So as you started transitioning from a consultancy to a software company, walk us through that dynamic. Was that a tough transition? You as CEO, did you have to change your role and how you were managing the organization during that transition?

Ward Sandler (04:46):
I mean, we’re lucky we had another person on our team called Roger who was handling most of the Squarespace actual consulting, like the actual implementation, the dealing with the clients. So it freed me up for a lot. I mean, I still did a lot of the sales calls, but it allowed me to spend most of my focus on Member Space. And then our CTO, Ryan, my co founder, he was full time just doing dev work, building and fixing stuff on Members Space. So he didn’t, he wasn’t involved in the Squarespace consulting at all. So really we were lucky because we had three people and two of us were focused on Member Space, and the consulting, which was paying the bills, we had Roger who we trusted to handle most of that. So it was nice.

Frank Bria (05:24):
So you were lucky that you had the, you know, also the foresight to have the people to essentially, you know, division of labor. Were there times where, because a lot of companies who do that, who make these transitions, whether it’s to break into a new vertical or to open up, you know, another software offering or to make this sort of switch over from services over to a straight solution focus. They find that during some of the transition there’s a little give and take, a little pulling of resources and a lot of negotiating. And oftentimes the part of the company that’s bringing the money in, will win the argument even though everyone knows longterm the other side of the company should be winning the argument. Do you guys have moments like that that you were dealing with?

Ward Sandler (06:12):
I can’t think of anything specifically that was along those lines. We always kind of understood that Member Space was the future and consulting was just something we had to do for now and we were pretty good at it. We, for example, we’ve built over 400 Squarespace sites, so we did a lot of volume. So you know, it was a core competency. We had good SEO, a lot of leads. So it was, but we know, we knew it didn’t scale indefinitely and it wasn’t the kind of work we wanted to do long term. So there was never really any tension because you know, we knew that it was just for now and Member Space was what we should be focusing on.

Frank Bria (06:46):
Yeah, it’s probably helpful you guys had the strategic vision at the time. This wasn’t, you were dipping the toe in the water and sort of investigating, it looks like you were kind of heading in that direction. Yeah, that’s great. As the leader of the company and as you’re growing now and adding more folks, is it a different management dynamic running a team of developers versus, you know, trying to be, be always in client service delivery mode?

Ward Sandler (07:18):
Yeah, no, for sure. I mean we’re 10 full time people now, including myself and we have, you know, a few contractors on top of that. So yeah, we have a decent sized team and yeah, I mean a lot of this stuff you kinda gotta learn on the fly. You know, how to deal with people. I mean, I’m sure everyone’s always heard. Like the number one issue is communication, especially if you’re a remote team, which we are. So, you know, you’re not doing face to face, you’re not meeting each other. I mean, we’ll do video calls and obviously text discussions in base camp is what we use. But yeah, it’s tricky. It’s figuring out how to communicate things properly. Making sure even being proactive about communication is the biggest thing. Like not assuming everybody remembers something or that they looked at something. So proactively letting everybody know, here’s where things are at and also here’s what we’re working on. So not surprising people. That’s something that I’ve had to kind of learn the hard way is that people don’t like to be surprised about new initiatives or new endeavors or changes. You should always try to give people as much time ahead of time to let them know that it’s coming.

Frank Bria (08:18):
Yeah, it’s interesting with a size team that you’ve got, which is, you know, moderate sized development team for growing software company. It doesn’t take very many people for you to have to start thinking about things like change management, communication dynamics. It comes in pretty fast. I always like to say the moment you get the third person in the room, you’ve got politics. So, yeah. That’s great. So were there any resources or things that you use to help you pick up these skills along the way? You know, I mean a lot of us also, the school of hard knocks, but were there any things that kind of helped you in that transition process as CEO?

Ward Sandler (09:04):
Yeah, I mean, I’d say there were a few. I’ve definitely been a pretty avid reader of various books, business books and blog posts and following people on Twitter. So anyone who knows about SaaS, they’d probably know there’s like the cool kid group of SaaS companies that are out there that everyone kind of follows, like the Justin Jackson’s, the Nathan Barry’s, that whole group of people on Twitter at least. So I’ve read a lot of their stuff and I think that a lot of good advice there. But I think, you know, and also Jason Freed from Base Camp a lot of his advice and how to run a business and keep the company calm. That’s all things that you kind of have to figure out, but there’s no, there’s just, there’s no magic one resource I’d point to. It was really trial and error to be honest. Just focusing on communicating and how to communicate better, and then asking the team what can we do to change, to improve communication? Because, you know, I might guess about what we should do and maybe that’s the right thing, but maybe it’s not and it’s easier just to ask your people, you know, what do you want this, what do you, what would you want this to be like? It’s kind of like user experience when you’re designing software. It’s like, just ask people what do you want? Like what are you trying to accomplish? And then, okay, I’ll try to make that as easy as possible.

Frank Bria (10:17):
It is interesting that a lot of times the soliciting feedback piece, which is easy I guess logistically to do, but gets overlooked a lot of times, especially when you’re moving fast as a company, you think we don’t have time to get everyone’s opinion in, you know, too many cooks in the kitchen. But it turns out that longterm, it seems like in most cases, you know, you just actually, you’re adding more time to the overall process to not get that feedback in the early stages.

Ward Sandler (10:48):
Yeah. You need systems. I mean at the end of the day, that’s what it is. It’s, you need systems on systems. Systems for pretty much everything because anything that is ad hoc will work to an extent and then it will break eventually. And so the more proactive you can be about systems, I think the better. But there’s also the fine line having over systematizing everything, having too many processes before they’re needed. So you kind of have to wait till it’s till the ad hoc system gets a little uncomfortable and then create a system that’s at least what we, what we try to do.

Frank Bria (11:19):
Yeah. That’s nice. That’s great. I mean it’s that just-in-time kind of a framework. So let’s focus a little bit on the software, the solution you guys are providing. What surprised, so you obviously recognized the need, you went out there and started building these things and as you started to put together a system that allowed people to put their own membership sites together, what was something that surprised you most that may maybe have been more difficult than you thought it was going to be or you weren’t expecting in this process in order to deliver a solution that people would actually use?

Ward Sandler (11:57):
Yeah, I mean I’d say it’s the nuance of features. Like we are, just to be clear, so what we are, we’re, CMS agnostics. You can use Squarespace, Webflow, WordPress, Wix, we believe in custom HTML. And that’s what makes us different is that you can plug our software into any website and just create memberships by protecting pages, charging for access. And then you can actually even move your website, say from like Webflow to WordPress and your membership moves with you, all the billing details, all the login details. You don’t need to recreate any of that. So that’s kind of what makes us special because there’s a lot of systems out there for creating content and hosting content and charging money for it. That’s not really what we’re competing. We’re competing where it’s like you want everything to live on your website. And so because of that, we get a lot of different types of membership businesses. People use this tool in lots of ways, not just the obvious ones. And so there’s a lot of nuance of different kinds of features and user experiences that they want. And so it’s always been a tricky game to figure out, you know, what can we make that is going to be useful for most people as opposed to someone’s pet feature or something that a few people are loudly asking for, but that actually won’t help the majority of our customers. That’s always a tricky balance that we’re still working with today.

Frank Bria (13:09):
Yeah, I mean, I think every software company is always struggling with you know, which features they’re going to be putting on the roadmap and not. How did you do that with the MVP? How did that work in the MVP? Did you get a group of folks together that were kind of, you know, an initial beta users that gave you that feedback or how did you make that initial assessment of here’s where we’re going to cut it off for the MVP?

Ward Sandler (13:33):
Yeah, I mean, so this is going back to when I was talking about the Amy Hoy Sales Safari stuff. I read through that, the Squarespace forum post about adding memberships. So I read every single comment. So that took hours and then as I’m reading and I’m also taking notes and so you start to very quickly get up to see a pattern of what is it that people are asking for. Like where’s the overlap? It’s like a Venn diagram. What is it that almost that everybody needs? Cause that’s just, and then what are the current solutions doing that people don’t like? And so the Venn diagram, we picked out the smallest, clearest sliver of overlap. And what that was was simply I want the ability to lock down specific page URLs on my website so that random people can’t get to them. And in order for people to get to them, they need to register as a member. And when we just started, what registering as a member meant was literally them creating an account, which is name, email and password. No payments. That’s it. So someone has to register as a member name, email, password and now they can get access to these member only pages on your site. That’s all we did. Literally there were no other features. And so we got, I think it was like a hundred people we posted in Facebook groups and we reply to the forum thread and got like a hundred people just to try this out for free, just to give us feedback. And we heard really good things or like, yeah, this does exactly what I need. Oh, could you also add this feature though? Oh, it’d be great if I could charge a recurring subscription, et cetera, et cetera. So that’s what we started with that core of what is it that people actually need that they can’t do right now? And that was what I just said.

Frank Bria (15:05):
Yeah. Smart. Yeah. This, I think is one of the big mistakes a lot of software companies make when they go out with an MVP is they miss minimum. They, you know, sometimes we miss viable but most often I think we miss minimum and I’ve seen several software companies just never get off the blocks cause they keep trying to throw stuff in and someone’s like, but this is important, this is important. And it turns out that, you know, it might’ve been important but it doesn’t matter cause their software’s not hitting the streets.

Ward Sandler (15:35):
I mean if we had guessed what features to build when we did the MVP, we would have been wrong on a lot of them to be honest. Like just as an example, you would assume if you have a membership business, you need really in depth analytics about what people are getting charged and how many members you have over time. And that was, we didn’t build that for years and we have it now. But when we first started it was like nobody even asked for it. And I was like, wow, I would have assumed analytics would have been something you need to have and just wasn’t true. So that’s really the trying to figure out the literal minimum, right? That’ll solve the core problem. It’s tricky. It’s easier said than done, but it’s really, really trying to focus on that is what we do.

Frank Bria (16:16):
You know, it’s funny because in the software world, we all look at like Steve Jobs, you know, and then Steve Jobs comes out and says your users don’t know what they want. You’re going to create a vision and I think people do get hooked on that a little bit. And I always shake my head cause Steve Jobs is amazing, but he was also a one in a million, you know, kind of a person. And for us mere mortals, it’s way easier to just go ask people. So now when people throw that quote in my face, I go, you know what? You go exit three companies first and then you can go become Steve Jobs. Until then, start asking people what they want. Right now you guys have a really fascinating feature that I think is, I don’t know if it’s unique completely cause we didn’t look at every single one of your guys’ competitors in research for this, but I’ve never seen it before. You do some some fee recovery work or there’s some fee recovery features. Talk a little bit about that. That seems like a really unique angle.

Ward Sandler (17:13):
Yeah, so we use Member Space to run Member Space, so it helps us kind of dog food it to see if there’s issues or UX things or things that we want to do for our company. Cause you know, we have a subscription business and so one of those things was recovering fees. So what that means is there’s three things. One, when someone goes to sign up to become a member, it’s a two part signup, so create your account, then you see the credit card form to pay. So just like on eCommerce sites, if you start to check out, but then you get to the credit card part and you don’t fill it in. Some eCommerce sites and extensions will allow you to do abandoned cart recovery to follow up with those people. We do the same thing for memberships. So if somebody creates their account but then doesn’t fill in the credit card details or doesn’t do it successfully for whatever reason, we automatically have popups on your site that we generate and we send emails on your behalf that you can edit. So that’s part one. Second part is if you have people paying you on a recurring basis, it’s inevitable that their credit cards are going to fail at some point. It happens with everyone. So we have again popups on the site and emails that go out that encourage people to update their credit card details so that their account can stay active and the charge can go through. And then the third thing we do is cancellation alternatives. So if somebody goes to cancel their subscription, you can give your member options alternatives instead of canceling things like, would you like to extend your trial? Would you like a coupon discount. Do you just want to talk to support? Like, maybe you just couldn’t figure out how to talk to support. So we give them those four options and then the other one is just, you know, cancel. But, those are all things that help us as a software business that’s doing subscriptions at scale, that helps us a lot. You’re talking about thousands of dollars a month in difference by having those features. So we knew if we do this, other people are going to do it. So we created it for ourselves, then it automatically is enabled for everybody else cause we use Member Space to run Member Space. So that’s kind of how that came about.

Frank Bria (19:01):
That’s very cool. And it’s, I think a lot of people, when I looked at that, it was like those are the kinds of things you see with very sophisticated eCommerce sites that I think a lot of people would assume that kind of functionality was a little bit out of their reach. And you guys have kind of put it in reach of again, us mere mortals who are doing this. Brilliant move. I love that. We’re running out of time. One last question I want to ask you and that’s specifically around the customer experience piece. So as you started to think through what the customer experience should be for, you know, setting this up cause fundamentally setting up any kind of a technical platform involves a lot of steps. It involves a lot of tech, a lot of integration. You guys are sitting on a lot of other people’s platforms. There’s a lot of pieces you don’t control, right? And so there’s a lot of places it could go wrong and have nothing to do with you guys. So as you’re thinking through that customer experience to get someone to this successful point of implementation, what were some of the overall principles, design principles you guys were falling back on to help guide that effort?

Ward Sandler (20:10):
Yeah, I mean, again, trying to keep things as simple as possible. Like one of our core focuses is that we want to help nontechnical people. So you need to keep things really simple. If it’s non technical, things need to be as clear as possible. And even then, no matter what you do, you’re going to get certain amount of people confused. You know, how matter any, even the best software in the world, there’s still some confusion and just it’s inevitable, but it’s trying to get it so the majority of people can get through smoothly. So that involves a lot of talking to people. Like for example, I talk with probably about 20 customers every week. I do, I do demos of Member Space. So I get to see firsthand people’s using the software, trying to implement it, asking questions about it based on our marketing site. So I get to learn and get feedback every day almost about what’s working and what’s not and what could be better, what could be more clear. So that’s a big part of it. Another part, which is kind of random and funny, I actually have my parents who are both approaching 70 check out different screens that I designed sometimes and just kind of get their thoughts. And you’d be amazed how much I’ve been able to simplify and clarify things just by having them look at something and I tell them what are you supposed to do on this page? And then just let them talk. And it’s fascinating and it’s almost always right. Like once I may take their feedback and then make a change, they’re like, yeah, this is good now. And it’s like, Oh, okay. So if you, so I guess the way to codify it is if you can make something that’s simple for people that are much older, it’ll be stupid simple for people that are tech savvy. So by trying to appeal, make it simple for the lowest common denominator, everybody benefits. And again, that’s easier said than done, but I think it’s a good principle to strive for.

Frank Bria (21:47):
No, that’s great. So Ward, you’ve just created the grandma principle for UX design. That’s awesome. Good stuff. I love it. I love the focus on simplicity and you know, just getting that feedback. That’s again, one of those things that I think people leave out of the process a lot. So good stuff. Ward, thanks so much. Really appreciate it. It’s been great. I really appreciate you taking the time with us today. One last question before we go. People want to connect with you guys. Want to find out more about Member Space. What’s a great way for them to get started?

Ward Sandler (22:20):
Yeah, so just head on over to member space.com all the stuff is there that you need. And if you do want to sign up for a free trial, it’s 14 days and we’re happy to extend it if you need more time. And then we also have a special coupon code for your listeners. It’s SaaS CX group, so you just enter SaaS CX group into the coupon field when you’re signing up for the trial and it’ll give you 50%, five zero, off your first month. Also, we will do a free migration for you. So if you want to migrate from another platform and other membership system over to Member Space, we’ll help you do that for free.

Frank Bria (22:52):
Thank you. Very generous offer to the the audience. Really appreciate that. And those links with coupon code are on the show notes page. If you’re out and about listening to the show, come on back and connect through and check out Member Space and Ward. Thanks so much for taking time with us. Really appreciate it.

Ward Sandler (23:06):
Yeah, thanks Frank!

Frank Bria (23:07):
And thank you so much for being with us on the SaaS CX Show. I’ve been your host, Frank Bria. Just a reminder, you want to reduce customer churn by 10 to 25% in the next three to six months. Check out our SaaS churn checklist, which covers the seven things you need to have in place to ensure your ideal customers stay, use and love your software. Download it now at saascx.show that’s saascx.show. We’ll see you next time. Make it happen. Bye bye.

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