My Failed Patreon Experiment

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Back in 2017, I tried launching a Patreon for this very show, after hitting 50,000 downloads in 9 months. It was an epic failure! As a relaunch memberships for this site 4 years later, I reflect on the Patreon: how I overpromised, how I underdelivered, and what lessons I carried into my new membership, Creator Crew.

Show Notes


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Joe: Hey, everybody, and welcome to Episode 205 of How I Built It. Today’s episode is brought to you by Outgrow, Restrict Content Pro and TextExpander. You’ll hear about them later in the show. And today’s episode is called My Failed Patreon Experiment. So instead of asking the question, how did you build that, I’ll be reviewing how I poorly built something or maybe asking the question, how should I have built it?

So we’ll be getting out into all of that in a second. But this is part of a two episode series that I’m talking about because I recently launched a membership for this podcast. It’s called the Creator Crew. You can sign over at It’s $5 a month, but the first 100 people to subscribe will get 25% off for the lifetime of their membership. That makes it around three something or maybe around $4. $3.75 or $37 for a year. And included in that membership, you will get bonus episodes, you’ll get a private feed to the Build Something More podcast, which is ad-free episodes of this podcast as well as a post-show.

And in today’s post-show, I will be talking all about how I put this episode together in an app called Craft, how much money I actually made from Patreon, and how I came up with benefits for the new club. That’s the main thing you’ll get. You’ll also get a nifty member chip. It’s a custom printed poker chip that says Creator Crew establish 2021 on it. I absolutely love it. I’ll link it in the show notes. So if you’re interested in that you can sign up over at

Today we are starting at kind of Episode 1 of this saga, right? The first time I tried to roll out memberships for this podcast. And I did that in 2017. I will link in the show notes to an article called 50,000 Downloads and More to Come for How I Built It, where I talk about how the summer before, the summer I got married in fact, I was at a crossroads with my then online course website WP in One Month and how in-person courses weren’t working, how webinars are running their course but that wasn’t a sustainable webinar for me.

As I was trying to shape what WP in One Month would be, it’s now called Creator Courses, I got the idea to start the podcast How I Built It. I picked up the snazzy domain That was informed by my honeymoon in Italy where .it is the national top-level domain, and I ran with this idea for a podcast.

I was really excited about it. Because I was having conversations with people—I’m genuinely curious about stuff—and it seemed like people were really into it. You’re listening now, but when I first started, I was getting around 4,000 downloads a month. I watched that number tick up to 6,000 and 7,000. Today, I average about, we’ll say, 2,000 to 6,000 downloads per day, which is super exciting. But this really excited me when I first started this podcast. I kind of started on a whim, had legs. And before you know it, nine months of podcasting got me to 50,000 downloads, which I thought was incredible, especially for something I, again, I just started it on a whim.

So I told myself that if I got to 50,000 downloads, I would launch memberships. I thought that 50,000 downloads was a sign or confirmation that people would be willing to pay for the content. I have since learned that 50,000 downloads is great. If you are getting 50,000 downloads, if you got 50,000 downloads on your podcast, congratulations. That’s really great. But it’s definitely not enough to build a successful membership because you really don’t know how many people that is.

And that’s the important point I want to make early on here. The number of downloads is not really the right metric to use if you’re thinking about starting a membership. Because those downloads could be representative not necessarily of your super fans or your weekly listeners. But you know, I’ve had really popular episodes. In fact, my yearly theme episode is generally very popular. My episode with Jenn Bourn last month was very popular. And those people are maybe ducking in to hear the conversation with a person they like. So the downloads are great.

And if you’re getting millions and millions of downloads a month, yeah, go for it. But if you’re getting thousands and thousands, there’s maybe a better metric to use. And that metric is to build the community first. That’s what I should have done. I should have built the community first. But I was too focused on trying to make money.

So instead of doing things like engaging with listeners more on Twitter, or Facebook, I was just like, “Yeah, if you want to engage with me, become a member.” And people weren’t willing to do that. And I didn’t really have proof that people were willing to do that. What I should have done first and what I’ve done since is build my mailing list, and create a community that way.

Now, something I still feel I haven’t done super effectively was build the community around episodes. And that’s a really big goal for me for this year, not just for paying members, but for all members. So I’ve had a little bit of analysis paralysis, “should I do a slack? Should I do discord? Should I try the old forums again?” And I think I’m going to go with the old forums and Slack, so I’ll have kind of both. That way people can pick.

I was on Facebook, and I just don’t… Maybe it’s that my community isn’t big enough, maybe we hang out in different places, but I’m not keen on building my community on Facebook. I think it’s too transient. It’s like the flavor of the week for the posts. I wasn’t getting a lot of engagement. I also wasn’t posting regularly enough. So one of the things that I need to be better at is engaging in such a way that people will want to engage back. So I’m really going to make a concerted effort for that as well. So I’ve got my mailing list. I’ll start there. You might hear me talk about the forums of the Slack. But definitely through the mailing list, people will be able to find out how to engage a bit more.

I’m also not under any illusions this time around. When I launched the Patreon or when I launched the memberships, I thought, “I’m going to launch this and everyone’s going to sign up.” It’s something that I suffered from for a long time. Every time I did a course launch, I thought, “Oh, man, I’m going to launch this and I’m going to tweet it, and then everyone’s going to sign up because they’re going to see how great it is.” Well, that’s not how things work. And I learned that the hard way. That kind of sets the stage.

Why I decided to start this membership it’s because I thought 50,000 downloads was good enough, let’s say, market research to confirm my idea that people would be willing to pay for my content. But I didn’t have anything else. I just had listeners. I didn’t even have email addresses. I didn’t start building my list until 2018 maybe because I got some good advice from guests on the show. I didn’t understand why people were listening. And that’s the real problem with my Patreon experiment. And we’ll get into that in just a second.

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Joe: So I had this idea that I was going to use Patreon because everyone was using Patreon. Maybe that was my first problem. A theme that you’ll see throughout this whole kind of saga is that I was just doing things because I thought that’s how podcasters did them. I was just doing things because I saw other creators doing it that way. I didn’t put that much thought into my membership. And that was a big problem.

So, one of the things that I tell my students or my clients when they want to start a podcast is I say, “Why? Why do you want to start a podcast?” The great books “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek has really influenced me. And it’s something I think about whenever I start something new, or whenever I decide to revamp: why am I doing this? Why am I starting this podcast? Why am I doing the membership? Why am I launching this course?

Again, the problem with the Patreon experiment was my why was to make more money. And if you have taken my course or have been to any of my talks recently, you’ll know that I think to make more money, especially in the podcasting space, is a terrible “why”. Because you’re not going to get rich. Most people I should say aren’t going to get rich off of podcasting, even with their memberships.

So I never considered at the start why people might want to support the show. I never thought of what’s in it for them, or why I’d want to offer more content. I wrote a second blog post about a year later, less than a year later actually, called I’m Doubling Down on Patreon. And I tell this wonderful story. The first time I learned how to burn a CD was mind-blowing, I talked about what the world was like in 1999, and how I burnt a CD and I was stoked about it. Because the experience taught me two things. It allowed me to have a very successful mix CD business in high school but it also made me realize that I just need to try things in order to learn them. And I felt empowered by the fact that I could do that. And then I say, “I want you to feel empowered to.” So this is like super campy, right? Again, I’m not solving anyone’s problems. I’m just kind of talking about myself and what’s in it for me.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned since then is people a) love stories, but b) people throw their money at solutions to problems. And maybe it’s hard to see what problem am I solving with a membership, but it’s definitely not about how great I am. If I read a pitch to somebody who wants to come on my podcast and they just talk about how great they are, and they don’t talk about what’s in it for the listeners, I’m not going to consider them for the show. Because I don’t want somebody to come on my show just to brag about how great they are. I want somebody to come on my show to teach me something, and more importantly, to teach my listeners something.

So while I was doubling down on Patreon, I realized it was still all about me and what I wanted you the listener to do. So here’s a little excerpt from that. “I’m lucky enough to work for myself. I support my family with sponsorships, online courses, and freelance work. With your support, I can switch focus away from freelance work to creating more content. I want to make better resources for listeners and educators, spend more time researching interesting topics, and tell more great stories.”

So I want you to pay me so that I can do the things I want to do. It sounded nice when I wrote it. But what problem was I solving? I didn’t have anything of value to offer because it was all promises I made if people pledged on Patreon. I didn’t have any real content to tease, just promises that I would need to keep. And again, I’m asking you to support me so I can do what I want to do.

If you think I’m great, and a few people really just liked what I was doing and they pledged on Patreon, but for most people, they’re not just going to give you money because you’re asking for it. You need to ask for it but you also need to provide some value. So I did what I thought was provide value. And then I over promised. And that was the second problem.

Here’s how I over promised. I put myself on the hook for a lot of stuff because I thought I need to tell people they’re going to get all these amazing things. In that situation, I would need to deliver if I only had one patreon, which I did for a while.

So let’s take a look at the pledge levels I had on Patreon. “For $1 a month access to my discord server where you, me, and all the other patreons can chat about what we’re working on. You’ll also get access to live streams of me working on stuff, Q&A forums, the suggestion box where you can request tutorials videos and podcast guests.”

First of all, that’s a lot of access for $1 a month. But also I didn’t already have a Discord server. This was just something I was going to spin up because members were there, because people would be interested in that. And then I also kind of didn’t think about what would I work on, what questions am I getting? Like why would people pay me just to submit questions when they could tweet at me those questions. I was probably going to answer them anyway. So that was the $1 a month plan.

$5 a month. Everything in the previous reward level, plus add-free episodes of How I Built It early. You will also get bonus episodes, access to a private discord channel where you can ask upcoming guests your own questions. This put a lot of work on me because they were getting ad-free episodes early. What was early? What if I didn’t have the episode early? Which there were some points where I didn’t. How would I create ad-free episodes? And how was I going to publish this schedule for upcoming guests? I mean, there were questions there I didn’t have answered when I wrote that.

At $10 a month, you get everything in the previous reward levels plus a transcript ebook for each season starting in Season 4, priority requests for tutorials, and a build something t-shirt after your third pledge. So again, is a transcript ebook something people actually wanted? I don’t know. No, clearly. I don’t think anybody pledged the… a couple of people pledge that level. And I’m very grateful for them. They were friends who appreciated what I was doing.

But priority requests for tutorials, that makes it seem like I was getting thousands of requests a day. I was getting virtually no requests per day. And then I had these two super lofty ones. I need to be clear here. I was copying from other people. So at $50 a month, you’d get everything in the previous levels plus access to a white label video repository, have great tutorials without my logos free for you to use. You’ll also get two consultation calls a year starting after your sixth pledge.

First of all, I have this language, right? “After your third pledge. After your sixth pledge.” That basically says I don’t trust you enough to see the value in my work. So you have to essentially pay me upfront before you get certain pledges. That’s not great. Also, I didn’t have any sample white label videos. At the time I had released my Gutenberg course, I guess. So I could have white labeled that. But how would I control that access? Again, these are all questions that I just wrote stuff down.

And then at 100 bucks a month, you get everything plus monthly calls with me starting after your second pledge. So first of all, I have too many levels. Like I said, I was just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

What would I offer on a monthly call? In 2017, 2018, I did not know. I was just like, “I’m a web developer. I’m sure people have questions for me.” And so for 100 bucks a month, they could ask me questions. I know now what I would offer at that level. But I also know that that’s not enough for a membership. People can grab an hour of my time if they want to pay that money for a call. All right. If they want to do it monthly, they can do it other ways. That’s not the value I’m adding in my membership.

So like I said, I also didn’t have a way to send out free episodes at the time. I gave away too much at the $1 tier. And I didn’t have a community I was inviting people to. I was just like, “Give me money and I’ll build this community.” It sounds absurd when you put it that way, but that’s what was happening. In other words, I just offered things to offer them, thinking, “Well, if I get enough people, it’ll be worth the trouble.” So the problem is if I didn’t get enough people, it wasn’t even close to worth the trouble. And I wasn’t even close. And I under-delivered.

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Joe: So what could have went better? Well, there were a few things. First of all, there were certain things that the Patreon platform didn’t work for me. I used Patreon because they promised to bring the community. They have a directory of all their creators, and they could suggest me as a creator to their audience. But that’s kind of not how memberships work. Right? People are browsing Patreon to be like, “What creators look cool that I can give money to?” You really need a following if you’re going to sell memberships. And that was the main problem I had. I did not have the kind of following I needed. Or at least I hadn’t captured enough of that audience to directly market to them.

Another problem is their fees kind of seemed like a black box, at least on the free tier. I honestly did not know how much I’d be getting each month. I really and truly didn’t. I calculated it sometimes. In their fee structure seemed like it was like 5%, but sometimes it was 11%. And maybe they change that since I left. But I didn’t understand.

I also didn’t like that you were just posting audio on their platform. I wanted my members to be able to listen in whatever app they wanted, which is something private feeds for patreons is something that Patreon just recently rolled out. I know because one of the people I pledged to on Patreon has offered that. And there was also no way to auto-post to or from Patreon. So some Zapier integration around posting would have been nice. I think I could have been more consistent that way. But Patreon apparently wants you to go into the platform and post.

So I couldn’t automate certain things which would have been great. But the platform was maybe 10% of the problem, right? The main problem, the thing that should have went better, that could have gone better is I should have understood what I was doing and what I was offering. And I didn’t. I offered a membership because I thought that’s what you do to make money on podcasts. As a result, my offering didn’t make any sense.

If I had talked to my listeners and built an email list first, I would have understood that. I would have understood why people follow me. I would have understood what content resonates most with them. And I should have started off slow offering only a couple of things to members first. And I mean, five tiers is too many tears.

First of all, $1 Patreon… I did some research, there’s no difference between a $1 and $3 tier essentially. There aren’t people who are selecting the $1 tier because they aren’t willing to pay $3. So there’s that. Honestly, I should have made it a $3 tier or just a $5 tier. And then if I want to, later I can offer bonuses at a higher tier or something like that. But the offering was too confusing. What do people get? They had to read a lot to figure out what they were getting and what they might have wanted.

And I was trying to offer too many things. Discord server access to live streams, which I do live streams now for free, access to Q&A forums, a suggestion box, like I’m not going to take suggestions on Twitter, like, “Oh, you got to be a $1 a month member,” and things like that. That was just the $1 tier. Ad free episodes. Again, I didn’t have a mechanism for that, etc. I covered all of that. That is my failed Patreon experiment.

Again, if you do sign up for the Creator Crew, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty, I’ll mention the numbers, and I’ll talk a little bit more about how I put together this episode. But I’ll mention how much I actually made on Patreon in Build Something More.

Which brings me to the next segment here, which is how I’m changing for my new membership. And next week, in Episode 206, I will talk about how I built the Creator Crew. What tools I use and how I connected everything and things like that.

But here’s why I am ready to do this again, about three years after my doubling down on Patreon post. So first of all, I have another membership at Creator Courses. But I’ve kind of tucked that away. The members are still members and people can still sign up for the membership. But I was sending some mixed messages. First of all, if you are a member of Creator Courses, you will also get the benefits of the Creator Crew. The only big difference is that you’re also getting access to the courses that you want.

And if you’re a lifetime member of Creator Courses, then you will be a lifetime member of the Creator Crew as well. But from what I have found, people are more interested in the ala carte offerings for my courses, and not necessarily the membership. So I redesigned that and I tucked the memberships away. And if people really want to find them, they probably can but that’s not the thing I’m putting forward over at And part of that is because of the Creator Crew.

So that’s the first thing. This is actually like a branded thing now. I have a brand and I have a direction. It’s called the Creator Crew. The podcast is called to Build Something More. I have a bigger community now. The number of downloads that I was getting in a month I now get in a day. I have a more engaged audience. People are sharing the episodes more. People are interested and they’re commenting, and they’re writing into me. So I feel like I have a more engaged audience and a bigger community.

I’m also not over-promising. I don’t have five levels where I just kind of threw things at the wall. I thought about: what can I reasonably start doing now without members that would bring value to the club? What could I do now…? This is important. What could I do now without members that makes me feel like I can bring value to the club? This is what I like to call a low effort, high reward offering.

So, here’s what I came up with. And I did some legwork before. You know, I’ve been planning this for like a year now. More or less since the pandemic happened, I thought, “If sponsors disappeared tomorrow, this podcast will make no money.” I’ve been lucky in that people have continued sponsoring the podcast and that sponsorships are booked up through July right now. I have some who have already sponsored for the full year. I’m very very lucky in that regard. But if there comes a time…

You should never rely on one thing right for your business. You should niche down but you should never rely on one stream of income. You should never rely on that one big client. For me, the quote-unquote, “one big client” is the sponsors. So, as a member of the Creator Crew, I wanted to come up with good benefits that I could deliver on immediately. And ad-free episodes is one of them.

Here’s the difference between now and then. I talked to my editor first and I said, “Hey, how easy would it be for you to deliver an ad-free version of the episode along with the ad-supported version of the episode?” And he said, “It would be no problem.” Luckily, the way I’ve structured the show, we add the sponsorship spots in post-production. So yes, members will still hear at the beginning, “this episode is brought to you by” but the conversation will not be interrupted by ads. So that was the first offering. And after talking to my editor, I knew how I would deliver that.

Pre and post-show bonus content. This is something I’m already doing. I’m already talking to people before the show and after the show. So this was low effort, because I didn’t need to do anything extra. So I’ll let my guests know when we start, “Hey, do you mind if I record this part of the conversation? Or do you mind if I release it to my members?” Or usually, the pre-show is not insanely interesting. Usually, it’s just kind of us getting to know each other if I don’t know the person already, it’s us kind of talking through logistics. So that’s not super interesting. But the post-show, that usually is.

And the way I do that is, is if there’s a part of the conversation that I don’t think will fit in the main episode, but would be good bonus content, I’ll just say, “We’ll talk about that and Build Something More.” Well, I haven’t said Build Something More yet, because I just came up with the brand. But I say “we’ll talk about that in the members-only episode.” So again, something that’s easy because I’m already doing it. I’m already on the mic.

Advanced look at the schedule. I am lucky enough to be organized enough now to be able to offer that. So in the members’ section of, they will see the upcoming guests that I haven’t recorded with already. And right below that, there will be a form where they can submit questions to those guests. So again, it’s something that I offered last time but I didn’t have an implementation in mind. This time, I implemented the form and the view, the schedule, before rolling out memberships. And it’s automatically updated. It connects to Airtable. It’s beautiful.

Behind the Scenes newsletter, that’s something I was already doing for the Creator Courses members. So I will just continue doing that for a wider audience. And then special deals and offers. This takes a little bit of legwork because it’s something that I need to reach out to friends are other businesses and see if they want to offer something right. But again, I have a plan in place. Former sponsors, for example, maybe they are willing to continue that offer for members only instead, or I have lots of friends who have coupon codes. So that is something that again, is low effort for me, high reward for members to the tune that maybe they can even save more than they’re paying for the membership. That’s the dream right there.

And then the two things that require extra work for me, but it’s extra work that I can easily plan is quarterly member-only episodes, right? So that is just four extra episodes a year for members only. And member interviews. This is something that I thought about that people who have memberships I’m a part of do, and I really like it. It’s a great way to engage with your members. And so that’s something I’d like to offer if my members take me up on it.

But again, that’s something that I can offer that’s low effort. It’s a little bit of my time to people who are giving me a little bit of their money. And it’s a high reward, right? Because it’s nice for the members who’s being highlighted and it’s nice for the other members to hear from other people in their community.

So, that was my failed Patreon experiment. To sum up, the reason I started it was bad—because I just wanted to make more money. The metric I used to start the membership was bad—because 50,000 downloads doesn’t tell me how many people, it doesn’t tell me how many consistent people, it doesn’t tell me how many engaged people. It just tells me that the episodes were downloaded 50,000 times in nine months. And honestly, I mean, if we do a weekly show, that’s nine times four, which is 36, 50,000 divided by 36 is not that much. It’s about 1,300, 1,400 downloads per episode. Again, that doesn’t even tell me who’s listening.

So I should have built the community first, but I was too focused on making money. So the why was bad. What I offered was bad. How I positioned it was bad. By the way, if you’re wondering, what’s the why first starting the membership now, why am I doing it? It’s because I have a clear mission for the podcast now. I want to offer actionable tips for small businesses to leverage technology, for small business owners to leverage technology.

So, in the main episode, we can talk higher level. In the members episode, we can get into the nitty-gritty. It’s a more intimate audience. It’s people who have bought into this idea. So, in current member-only episodes, which by the way there are a bunch, because it’s something that I decided to do before rolling out the memberships so that I wasn’t just promising if you do this, right? The member stuff is not a carrot. The member stuff is built-in to the show now. And I think that’s really important.

But anyway, in previous members-only episodes, we talked about accessible themes, we talked about SEO tools, specific SEO tools, we talked about what happens if you get a bad review on Amazon, how can you fix that, and a bunch of other things. It’s been really exciting.

The Built Something More conversations are some of my favorites. Because again, it’s a little less formal. I’m not on as much. I’m still on but I know it’s me and my members. It’s a little bit more relaxed for the guests too. I warn them, they’re ready. And they’re generous with their time. So the why, is to help small business owners take it one step further, because everything I’m offering gives them more access, more information. They can ask specific questions of specific guests. So I want to give them more surgical approach to using technology. That’s my why. And how I’m doing it is the benefits.

Outro: Thanks so much for listening to this episode. Thanks to Restrict Content Pro, Outgrow, and TextExpander. I really appreciate their support. If you’re interested in signing up for the Creator Crew, you can do so over at Remember the first 100 people get 25% off with code FOUNDER. That’s right on the page.

And if you want to learn exactly how I put this episode together in an app called Craft, if you want to learn how much money I made during my Patreon experiment, or if you want to learn… I guess I got into how I came up with the benefits but maybe I could tell you who I stole my previous benefits from. We’ll cover that in Build Something More. Thanks so much for listening. And until next time, get out there and build something.


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