Ward Sandler is cofounder of MemberSpace, a company that helps turn any part of a website into members-only. Brian Ardinger, Inside Outside Innovation Founder, sits down with Ward to talk about the no-code movement, what it takes to build a remote workforce, and all things entrepreneurship.
Brian Ardinger: Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, founder of Inside Outside.IO, a provider of research, events, and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking, tools, tactics, and trends, in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.
Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. With me this week is Ward Sandler. Ward is the co-founder of MemberSpace. Welcome to the show Ward.
Ward Sandler: Hey Brian, thanks for having me.
Brian Ardinger: Hey, I’m excited to have you on the board. I actually got connected with you because I had written a blog post about the whole no-code movement and how there really are no more excuses that people can have about, I can’t find developers. I can’t find different ways to build my stuff. And I mentioned MemberSpace as one of those no code movement platforms out there that’s making this democratization of innovation a little bit easier. I want to have you on the podcast to talk a little bit more about what you think about this whole no-code movement.
#NO-Code Movement & Members Only
Ward Sandler: We started MemberSpace before “no code” or #nocode was like really a thing. We’ve been around since 2015 and no code I’d say has come up more in like the last two years really. But that being said, we’ve always been really focused on non-technical entrepreneurs. Especially for what our software does, we allow you to turn your website, any part of your website into members only in a few clicks. Like that’s what we do. And for a lot of folks, that’s what they want, but they don’t want the headache of having to hire a developer, dig into code or anything like that. We’ve been “No-code” from the jump. And that’s always been an ethos of ours, is we want to make this really easy for anyone to use.
Find Product Market Fit
Brian Ardinger: Tell me a little bit about MemberSpace and how did it get started and your journey as an entrepreneur.
Ward Sandler: We used to be a consulting company. We did everything from custom software or to eCommerce sites. Then we narrowed in on Squarespace just building, designing, and supporting Squarespace websites. Funnily enough, it was very specific, but it was a huge need. Lot of volume of customers. And from there we found that one of the biggest requested features was membership because Squarespace doesn’t have it out of the box. People wanted to have member only pages on their Squarespace site.
We figured that out by visiting the Squarespace forum and sorting the list by most voted. And that was like one of the top features. And we read through the comments and basically realized, you know, there’s no real good solution for that. We built a real quick MVP in like a month or two launch that had great feedback and then kept iterating and adding features. And it’s taken off since then and we’ve expanded outside of Squarespace. Now we’re available on basically any website.
Bootstraping a Business
Brian Ardinger: Talk about bootstrapping a company versus, you know, hear a lot about the tech crunch, whole unicorn world. Talk a little bit about how you got to where you are and what are your thoughts on that space.
Ward Sandler: Just to caveat it real quick, we did take a small amount of funding from a great organization called Ernest Capital, who is more about funding bootstrap businesses like ours. We took that last year and more for the mentor network than anything else. Not really. We didn’t actually need the money. It was more just to be part of that group and community, which has been fantastic. But the way we’ve approached things is we always wanted to get funding from customers, right? Which sounds simple and obvious, but, especially in the Valley, that’s not necessarily the default.
We always were like, okay, we’re going to build this thing and we’re going to have customers pay us from the beginning, and that’s how we’ll know how things are going. If this is something we can really make a go at and can we stop doing consulting work, which you know, at this point we don’t do anymore. For a while we were doing consulting in parallel with software, which I think is one of those quasi-secrets out there for a lot of SAS and software companies is that a lot of them were started by people who generally were doing consulting first. Cause that’s almost always where everybody starts, who first learns how to do design development work online.
They start with consulting because it’s the lowest hanging fruit and then he can get paid right away to do it. But a lot of those people keep doing consulting. While they’re building up a software, because anyone who’s tried to build a software, especially like a SAS product, knows it’s a long ramp. It takes a while to, you actually are generating enough recurring revenue for this to be your full time source of revenue. And we were doing that as well for a while, but it helps you focus, it helps you learn what’s working, what’s not right. If people aren’t paying you, if you have a lot of people canceling, if you’re not growing, you have to iterate, and you’ve got to figure out what to do next to kind of get things moving in the right direction.
Developing a SaaS Business
Brian Ardinger: Talk about your process of developing a software as a service business, like the minimum viable product, or how did you actually go about converting it from a consulting practice to, Hey, we’re going to create a product and sell that.
Ward Sandler: Yeah. So back to my initial story about searching the Squarespace forums. This is a head nod to Amy Hoy, her Sales Safari methodology. But basically, whenever you want to do out there, what I always recommend, and I got this from Amy, is you want to solve problems that people already have. It’s a lot easier to do that than to have some brilliant stroke of insight and to have this amazing idea you came up with.
Instead look through the web. It’s littered with data of people complaining about problems or solutions that exist and problems with those existing solutions. And that’s essentially what we did with Squarespace is we went to the forum, saw that there was all these people, tens of thousands, I think it was like 100,000 that were voted for this topic of adding memberships to Squarespace.
I didn’t have to think, Oh, I wonder if people want this. I know people want it. Proof right there, that unsolicited feedback that people said, this is a problem and I want a solution. And then I literally read through every single comment in that thread. So this is the hard part that is manual and not fun and not sexy, but it’s vital because by reading every comment of people in that thread that I found, I was able to really figure out what are the current ways people are solving this problem, and what are the problems and what do they like about those current ways.
Then from there we were able to build the most minimum viable product possible, which was literally just logging in and signing up. By signing up, it means literally adding an email address to create an account. After you do that, now you get access to certain pages on the website. That was all it did. There were no other features, not even charging. It was as simple as possible.
Brian Ardinger: And then I’m assuming from there, when you have your first customer, beta, customer, user, et cetera, then you go even deeper into that customer discovery process from the theoretical, here’s what they said that they wanted based on a forum, but here’s how they’re actually using it. Here’s what the problems are. Here’s how you can iterate and build from there. Is that correct?
Ward Sandler: Yeah. So really that Sales Safari concept I talked about, that’s for the beginning and maybe early stage of the business, right? Because that data’s right there. You don’t have customers yet. So you need data from something and you don’t want to just make it up in your head. it’s a good way to kind of anchor your thinking to, instead of, I think this is what people want, go with what they actually wrote they want.
It sounds so like stupid and obvious, but it’s amazing when people don’t actually follow that and nothing’s going to be guaranteed to be successful. But this at least set you up to be much more likely. After you get traction and by traction I mean actual people using your product, and actual people paying you, that’s when you can start to use that feedback as the main point of data in terms of what to build next and all of that.
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MemberSpace’s Member Only Content
Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk a little bit about MemberSpace and how are your customers using your tools, what are people using member-based content for, and how is that whole space evolving?
Ward Sandler: It’s a pretty crazy space. If you could step back a bit, because the ability to basically have member only content is pretty general, right? There’s a lot of tools that do things like that from teachable and Thinkific, to Gum Road to us. There’s a lot of ways to have courses or member only stuff. And where we’re different is that we allow you to keep everything on your site. Nobody leaves to go to some sub-domain. Everyone just is on your website, so it’s your pages that you’re protecting.
It’s not like a MemberSpace generated page. It’s your own websites, pages. For a lot of people, that’s amazing because it allows them to have 100% control over the look and feel of the content that their members are consuming. It’s an interesting space because it’s growing every day, right.
There are more people today than yesterday who want to have a member only business, and I think that trend is going to continue for the foreseeable future. I think as more and more people, go online and it tried to create their own businesses and anyone who’s trying to create a business these days, it has to have an online component.
A lot of people have realized that the recurring revenue business model is very powerful, especially once you can get to a certain level of, you know, let’s say like 10,000 a month of recurring revenue. It’s pretty amazing way to do things because it’s unlikely to shift up or down very dramatically in any given month. It’s a relatively stable way to make money instead of a roller coaster of consulting where you get a project and you don’t have a project and you get to do more projects, et cetera. I think a lot of people like the level I’m in, the stability of having a recurring revenue membership business.
Building a Team & Remote Workforce
Brian Ardinger: And what I like about that and the way you, again, tied it into the no-code concept, it unlocks a lot of that innovation that people have in their heads, but may not be the technical person to get that out there, but it gives them a platform and a means to do that without having to build it all themselves. Talk a little bit about how you built your team. I understand that you have a lot of remote employees, maybe all remote employees, but how did you build out your team and grow from there?
Ward Sandler: Yeah, we’re fully remote. Which has been great. There’s also challenges to it. Just like everything. The way we built it out though, it wasn’t some grand plan. It was, most of the team is friends. We’re all friends. Most of us are from college. You know, a lot of people I think out there would say, don’t work with your friends, and that’s not a good idea. And I think there’s some merit to that in some cases.
But in our case, it’s worked out so far, and I think the upsides of working with friends is you know them and therefore you trust them. Right? They’re not some random human. I don’t have to worry about their intentions. For us, that’s been nice. We’ve been able to just kind of trust people to do the work and to keep things moving forward. But yeah, working remote is its own set of challenges in terms of how you communicate. You lose a lot of information, right.
If you and I were standing in front of each other right now having this conversation. It’s different than what we’re doing right now, where it’s audio only. We don’t have any video. There are social cues. There’s information that’s lost. If you abstract that even further where it’s just text-based communication, which is what most remote work is, there’s even more nuance that’s lost to the communication information. So if you’re really careful with tone and how things are phrased and all that kind of thing, you have to be intentional about things like the social things like you know, what, what books have you read and movies have you seen lately? Things like that.
It’s not all just work, work, work. Cause you want to foster a community of people who know each other, not just from a work perspective. All those kinds of things are things we’re still working on. We don’t have it perfect yet. Basecamp, the company, I think it’s done a great job of presenting publicly, some examples of how to do this. How they keep their culture vibrant and all that. So it’s interesting though so far.
Tools for Remote Teams
Brian Ardinger: I was going to ask what particular tools that you use, or have you seen particular tricks or tips for folks that are building out a remote team that have worked for you.
Ward Sandler: Nothing that’s going to surprise anyone out there. We use Basecamp to kind of run everything when we use Zoom for video calls and all that, but to be honest, I don’t think the tools are that important. I think it’s more of the systems that you put in place to proactively make sure everybody’s staying engaged with each other.
Trends in Entrepreneurship
Brian Ardinger: Yeah, absolutely. What are some of the new trends that you’re seeing out there in this particular space? Again, we’ll go back to the no-code thing, but what are you seeing out there that’s changing the way entrepreneurs are getting up and going, or corporates are innovating with startups.
Ward Sandler: I guess the word that comes to mind is speed. And I think that’s related to no-code as well. Just how fast and easy it is today to start an online business and to charge people a dollar, at least for something. Like that’s never been easier in the history of the world than it is today. And tomorrow it will be a little easier. And it’s just, that’s crazy to me, like in a good way, like how easy it is to start something.
So that means. The barriers to entry for anyone who has an internet connection and a functioning brain, you know, it’s really your ambition level a and time that you can put into something to figure out, okay, there’s no longer these technical barriers anymore to start something online. Now it’s more about the challenges of finding an audience.
There’s so much noise out there now, right? Because of these lowered barriers to entry, there’s a lot more people trying to do things, and so therefore more noise, harder for the signal to cut through. So that’s where the new challenges are. How do you build an audience? How do you create content that’s not just, okay, put something online and charge people money?
No one’s just going to pay you money, right? Nobody’s looking for way money. It’s harder because you’re competing with higher quality content that’s out there too. I think the challenges have shifted, but I think it’s a good thing to shift, right? Instead of saying, Oh, well, maybe you’d have a good business, but you’re not smart enough to figure out how to program a membership software, and it’s like, well, that’s no longer our problem, which I think is fantastic. Right?
Stripe, the payment gateway, I think is a wonderful company. They’ve really made it as easy as possible to integrate payments and billing and all of that. That’s the payment gateway we integrate with, and that’s the only one we integrate with. Because we just like the way they do business and the way their API works. But I just think that it’s an amazing time to start an online business and I’m really happy that we’re part of that wave.
Building a Company Through Content
Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. You mentioned content, and I know that you have a podcast as well, the Member Maker Podcast, talk about how you build your company through content.
Ward Sandler: We’ve always had pretty good SEO and we never really had too much of a content presence to be honest when we first started. Our main way that we got people was through customer support really, and people being evangelical about MemberSpace. Like we tried to really treat people well and they liked that surprisingly. And they would tell their friends and post on Facebook groups and all over the internet about how great we were, and they’d create videos and tutorials.
And that really got us a lot of good traction, but more recently we’ve been more proactive about creating our own content in terms of step-by-step guides and business strategies, specific to memberships, and the Member Maker Podcast that you mentioned, which I find really interesting just to talk with folks who have started membership businesses that have varying levels of success, and not all just like giant memberships. Some of them have like 50 members, right? Just so people can get an idea of the reality of what it’s like to get to that point. And what were their challenges along the way, what they do right when they do wrong, that kind of thing. I find that really interesting and so far, it’s been resonating with folks.
In terms of the traffic that is generating, you know, we’re not too obsessed with the numbers to be honest. We try to put things out there that we think are valuable and useful and we’re hoping that if other people agree with that, that that will naturally lead to people, you know, learning about and potentially using MemberSpace.
For More Information
Brian Ardinger: Ward, it has been a pleasure to talk to you about all this kind of stuff. If people want to find out more about MemberSpace, about the Member Maker Podcast or yourself, what’s the best way to do that?
Ward Sandler: For MemberSpace just go to memberspace.com and then in our resources section we have a link to the podcast right there. For Twitter you can get at me @wardsandler and MemberSpace is @memberspace on Twitter.
Brian Ardinger: Well, thank you again for being on inside outside innovation. Look forward to continuing the conversation in the days to come.
Ward Sandler: Great. Thanks Brian.
Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out insideoutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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