I’ve spent the better part of six months trying to find the perfect tools to build a membership business around my writing. It’s been a long, rather frustrating journey. But after trying Substack, Ghost, WordPress, Webflow, and a boatload of membership plugins, I’ve found the right tools for the job. It’s time to share what I’ve settled on, and the invaluable (life) lessons I’ve learned along the way.
What I’m building, and what I need from my tools
Before embarking on any journey, it’s useful to know your destination. For me, the aim is to build not one, but two premium publications, in two different niches. (And build both in public, no less.)
One of those publications is Ungated—the site you’re currently reading. This is my main business, and the one with the most stringent software needs. Ungated’s primarily a membership publication, where some articles are free, and others live behind a paywall. But it’s also a community, and will eventually have a course or two. I’m also planning to create a searchable, sortable database of creator-focused software. Finally, Ungated’s going to rely heavily on email marketing and automation, so whatever tools I use have to play nicely with ConvertKit.
Next up is my side business. It’s another membership publication called The Citizen Within, where I explore the intersection of polarization, media, psychology, and progress. My hope is to tackle the question of how to be a better citizen—of your local community, your country, planet earth, and of the internet—in a world that’s going insane. Since it’s a side business, I want it to be less complex, and easier to maintain. But it still has to play nice with ConvertKit (because ConvertKit is the bee’s knees).
That’s what I’m building. Now let’s talk about what I’m looking for from the software I use. Here are my requirements, in no particular order.
- A website that’s customizable, or the ability to buy third party themes, so I can build a distinct, standout brand. I don’t want to be “another guy writing on Medium or Substack.”
- A nice UX and UI for my readers/customers. I want the reading experience to be exceptional, and the membership process to be intuitive and delightful.
- No Code, because while I’m vaguely tech savvy, the thought of writing code makes me want to huddle up in the fetal position.
- Solid SEO out of the box. My long term marketing strategy hinges on search, so it’s gotta be built in.
- The ability to put certain articles behind a paywall.
- Openness and interoperability. There should be plenty of room for custom code (so that I can use tools like RightMessage and Fathom Analytics). And a Zapier integration is always appreciated.
- Room for growth as my businesses evolve. I’m looking for tools that “future Rob” will be stoked that I chose, because they give him opportunity to build whatever he sees fit.
For me, these are my non-negotiables. If a platform doesn’t have them, it’s a deal breaker. With that in mind, here are the tools I considered as the online home for these two publications.
The idea for Ungated first hit me in the early months of quarantine. At the time, Substack was exploding, and seeing writers like Matt Taibbi absolutely crush it with memberships got me excited.
So I signed myself up for Substack, started playing around, and within 20 minutes, knew it wasn’t a good fit.
I won’t get too into the weeds here, as my previous article went deep on Substack’s many shortcomings for serious creators.
But here’s a quick recap of the main points.
- Substack takes 10% of revenue in perpetuity. This makes sense for beginners, but for creators looking to grow a real business, it’s asking a lot. I expect Ungated to be in the high five-figures, or low six-figures in revenue by late 2021, and giving 10% to Substack, especially given all the rest of its shortcomings, just ain’t gonna happen. Nope.
- All Substack publications look and feel the same. This world increasingly rewards creators who are different or better in some way, and who stand out amidst the noise. Substack severely limits your ability to do that. You get to upload a logo, choose your brand color, and that’s it. Good luck not blending in with everyone else on the platform.
- Their UX (both for creators and their fans) leaves a lot to be desired, and there are several touch points in the user flow that are not great for building relationships with your fans.
- No categories, tags, or any way to organize your past content. This, in turn, makes it hard for new readers to dig through your past work. Not a great experience for hungry, curious new fans.
- No automation or segmentation of any kind. You get to customize a welcome email and that’s it. For me, this leaves so much money on the table, and kneecaps my ability to build meaningful relationships with my fans through email.
- It’s a closed ecosystem. There’s no Zapier integration or anything, so you can’t use a proper email marketing tool in addition to Substack.
- Community features that aren’t really community features at all. It’s got a comments section, and that’s cool. But it’s not a community.
- Putting VC-funded companies between creators and their fans has historically resulted in creators getting screwed. I have no idea if that’ll happen with Substack, but they’ve got investors to please, and that can skew their incentives to serve creators.
As you can see, Substack fails on the vast majority of my requirements. Choosing it would handicap my business in a bunch of ways that are unacceptable to me as a serious marketer and entrepreneur.
That’s why it only took 20 minutes to decide against it, and why I the next day, I set up an account on Ghost.
Ghost has always provided a simple, elegant CMS. But in late 2019, they launched version 3.0, which comes with native membership features right in the box. Just connect your Stripe account, and you’ve got everything you need to build a premium publication/newsletter.
First, the things I LOVE about Ghost.
- You get a custom domain, and a custom sending domain for your emails.
- There are plenty of third party themes to choose from (though most of them are paid). This makes it pretty easy to build a unique visual brand.
- Ghost has the loveliest CMS/admin interface known to man. It’s simple, intuitive, and a pleasure to work with. Plus it’s got a dark mode 😍
- Gating content is easy. You can choose to make any piece available for everyone, free members, or paid members with a single click. No additional software required.
- You can choose to send some posts as newsletters, and publish some only to the web. It’s nice to have that level of control compared to something like Substack.
- A Zapier integration, so you can make it play nice with a bunch of different apps. (The only frustration for me with their Zapier app was trying to add a new paid member when selling from a third party app like ThriveCart. That was going to be my solution for selling lifetime memberships, and I couldn’t quite make it work.)
- Really fine-tuned control over how a given piece of content shows up on social media. You get to tweak the open graph settings per social network, which is rad.
- Plenty of room for custom code across each page, post, or the full site.
- Their hosted version is a pure SaaS model, so you pay no portion of your revenue to Ghost.
So yeah, Ghost has a lot going for it right out of the gate. However, the BIG downside for me was the lack of easy customization.
For instance, I wanted to customize the copy on the “membership” page, and describe the various benefits of paying for Ungated. In order to make those very simple tweaks, I’d have to go into the theme file itself, dig around in a bunch of code, update the copy there—all before re-uploading the theme to Ghost and praying to the internet gods that I didn’t break anything.
As someone who likes to iterate constantly and make tweaks on the fly, this workflow is… not great. I’m sure I could figure it out without hiring a developer, but frankly, I don’t want to.
Likewise, I felt a bit locked in by the “one size fits all” nature of Ghost’s membership features. I never wanted to offer a monthly membership at all. Just yearly and lifetime. There’s no way I could do that on Ghost without hiring someone.
The final thing to mention with Ghost is that it’s a bit pricy—at least if you go with their hosted option (which I did). If you’re technologically savvy, you can install the open source version of Ghost on your own server, or (as I later learned), you can use a service like Gloat to do it for you.
Overall, Ghost came tantalizingly close to meeting my needs for Ungated. But I knew that I would constantly run up against the edges of what I could accomplish without code. I found myself making frustrating compromises from day one, and sensed that as my ambition grew, I would feel increasingly powerless to build my business, and the user experience, the way I want.
So, I bit the bullet, and made the move over to WordPress.
An epilogue (and happy ending) with Ghost
Like I mentioned, I’m currently building two membership publications. Though Ghost didn’t quite meet my needs for Ungated, it absolutely does for The Citizen Within.
Because I’m aiming for simplicity and low-maintenance (while still holding on to customization and branding options), Ghost was the no-brainer choice So I’m happy to report that TCW is running on Ghost.
I still ran into some of the limitations I mentioned earlier. But this time, thanks to a referral from my friend Gianluca Piovani, I had a new secret weapon to solve them.
I’d like to introduce you to Dan Rowden, who’s helped me with all my Ghost frustrations. Here are some hot tips on what he can help you with.
Hot Tip 1: For those of you interested in Ghost, but who are on a tight budget, check out Dan’s productized service, Gloat. For like 79 bucks, he’ll install Ghost for you on Digital Ocean servers, and get you set up with MailGun so you can send newsletters natively. Once you’re set up, you’re essentially paying $5/month for hosting instead of $29. I used him for The Citizen Within, and it was perfect. And hey, if you sign up for Gloat, you should pop in my referral code, which is GG7D9K.
(If you enjoy figuring this stuff out for yourself, or want to save even more money, Steph Smith has a comprehensive guide on installing Ghost on your own Digital Ocean droplet.)
Hot Tip 2: Dan’s also built a great little commenting app called Cove that integrates with Ghost’s memberships. I purchased a lifetime deal for it. And over on TCW, I had Dan set it up so that free members can view comments, and only paying members can leave comments. Since the site’s going to have some political content, I wanted to make people pay me before telling me how wrong I am about everything. 😂 And Dan helped me bring that quirky vision/marketing strategy to reality.
Hot Tip 3: As I just alluded to, Dan also does Ghost theme customization and development. I bought 2.5 hours of his time, and he made a bunch of aesthetic and functionality tweaks that would have taken me weeks or months to figure out on my own. One of those tweaks was the custom configuration for commenting I just mentioned. Another was that he set up the membership page so it only has a yearly plan. No monthly members for this guy.
My point with all these hot tips is this: Dan Rowden is a Ghost superstar. If you’re intimidated by code, or on a tight budget, Dan can help you get what you need out of platform at a reasonable cost. I spent maybe $500 with him in total, but I saved myself so much time and frustration. Not to mention the money I’m saving each month by hosting on my own Digital Ocean account. In my view, Gloat, Cove, and Dan’s development services are worth every penny.
I’ve hated WordPress with a burning passion since I started in online business in 2015.
Yes, I know it powers 27% of the internet or whatever. But it’s clunky, unintuitive, somehow both overwhelming and underwhelming, and it requires so many moving parts that it’s forever prone to breakage and entropy.
But if there’s one thing WordPress offers that its competitors don’t, it’s the ecosystem. Whatever you want to build with WordPress, there’s some combination of third party plugins that will get the job done, usually without code.
So, my third iteration of Ungated was built on the following WordPress stack.
- The Genesis Framework with a StudioPress theme.
- Managed WP hosting from Flywheel. (If you choose to build on WordPress, for the love of God, don’t skimp on hosting. Choose Flywheel or WPengine or some other premium, trusted company. Avoid low-cost shared hosting providers like BlueHost, Hostgator, and others like the plague. You’ve been warned).
- Memberful for gating content, managing user accounts, processing payments, and keeping data synced with ConvertKit. The only thing that bugs me about Memberful is that they take 4.9% on top of charging a SaaS fee. It strikes me as a tad excessive. But hey, it’s a capable tool.
With this set of tools, I got what I was missing from Ghost. I could easily build multiple membership options—including lifetime—right in Memberful. I could tweak pages and copy to my heart’s content. And I could rest easy, knowing that whatever crazy schemes I may dream up in the future, the WordPress ecosystem would make it possible.
But, of course, there were limitations.
Since I wasn’t using a page builder like Elementor, I still had frustratingly little control over my design. Even when using the Design Palette Pro plugin, there were quite a few things I couldn’t change myself without code. Most frustratingly, I couldn’t seem to make my post archives look good, no matter what I tried.
And here’s a point I can’t stress enough. Every time I logged into WordPress, I felt a sense of existential dread. Was I really going to commit the next chapter of my life to WordPress?
The whole ordeal felt like like moving into an ugly house, in a neighborhood you don’t much care for, and making the commitment stay there for years, all the while hosting a bunch of dinner parties.
One of my biggest decision making tools throughout this process was: will “Future Rob” be happy that I made this choice? When it came to WordPress, I could feel Future Rob kicking and screaming inside of my head.
So, through much of the summer and fall, I was actively searching for an escape hatch. I realized that I was willing to make some compromises, as long as it got me out of the dreaded WordPress experience.
I found just such an escape hatch in Webflow.
Membership Wildcard: Pico
Before we embark on the final leg of our journey, there’s one more tool I’d like to bring to your attention.
During my stint with WordPress, I looked at quite a few membership plugins/solutions. There are a ton of them out there, and they mostly blend together into a giant sea of mediocrity. But Pico’s one tool that piqued my interest. (You might even say it “Pico-ed” my interest… I’ll show myself out.)
Unlike most WordPress membership tools, which are largely geared towards course creators and such, Pico is relentlessly focused on journalists and membership publications. It comes with features like “metered” paywalls out of the box, is insanely flexible, and can power everything from simple membership blogs all the way up to multi-faceted news organizations. It’s legit.
I’ve encountered a few sites that run on Pico in the wild, and I just dig the experience. It feels slick, focused, and professional. The latest encounter for me was a new sports site called Defector. Here’s what their signup modal looks like.
By the time I’d found Pico, I was already happy with Memberful. But if I’d found it earlier, there’s a good chance I would have given it a real test run, and perhaps committed to it.
I also looked into using it on Webflow, but it likely would have required a developer to get it integrated with Webflow’s CMS the way I wanted. Reading the documentation on how to make it all work made my head spin. But for you WordPress peeps, they’ve got a plugin, so you likely won’t have to deal with any of that.
We’ve now arrived on the final leg of our journey.
I’ve been curious about Webflow for years. But every time I’d open an account to play around, I’d give up within minutes. The interface truly is overwhelming, like opening Photoshop for the first time.
However, I was looking for any reason to leave WordPress, and the Universe, it turns out, was keen to help me.
First, I stumbled across Nat Eliason’s (excellent) article on starting a personal blog. Upon hearing him vigorously recommend Webflow, and hearing that his blog was built on it, the seed was re-planted.
Then, I joined a rad writing community called Compound. It was there I met Ben Issenmann, founder of Supercreative. Turns out, Ben used to work at Webflow, and he graciously offered to help me work through my frustrations.
The Universe sent one positive omen after another—all pointing in the direction of Webflow. So I heeded the call, and dove in head first.
Making memberships work with Memberstack
The first big hurdle was making Webflow work as a membership publication.
Unlike the other three options on this list, it’s not particularly easy or intuitive to restrict individual pieces of content on the Webflow CMS. However, Memberstack is a capable tool, and when combined with Webflow, there are numerous ways to solve the problem.
Here’s the solution I came up with for Ungated.
- Create a custom field in the Webflow CMS to designate which content is premium.
- Set up Memberstack to restrict all articles on the following domain path: ungated.media/article/p-
- Make sure premium articles have a slug that’s prefixed with that “p-”
- Build a “this content is gated” page in Webflow that non-members are redirected to when they try to access premium stuff.
To be honest with you, this solution is kinda clunky and inelegant. I miss the simplicity of just changing a single setting in Ghost’s editor. But hey, it gets the job done.
If you’d like to build something that functions a bit more like Ghost or Substack, there are ways to make that happen with Memberstack. But personally, these felt even more hacky and clunky than what I landed on.
Dynamically linking to article discussions in my Circle community
For Ungated, the goal was never for it to be just a fancy blog, but a full-on community experience. Arming people with information is important. But connecting entrepreneurial creators to one another can be genuinely transformative.
Plus, I view community as a moat in this business. If I do it well, it’s the kind of thing no one else can replicate. My working hypothesis is that members will come for premium content, but stay for the world-class community.
Platform-wise, it was a no-brainer to choose Circle. For my other business, I rely heavily on Mighty Networks, but it’s a bit too clunky and overbearing for what I’m doing here. Circle, on the other hand, is lean and mean, and you can customize the crap out it. Not to mention it’s got native SSO with Memberstack, so my members don’t need to manage two separate accounts. Like I said, Circle was a no-brainer.
Anyhow, my goal was for every article on the site to be an entry point into the larger community. I wanted people to be able to discuss the ideas in the articles, then go off and make new friends, share their work, get feedback, etc.
This is the one area where Webflow really shines for me. In the CMS, I added a custom field called “Community URL.” So whenever I create a new article, I simultaneously create a discussion thread in Circle, then add that URL into the Webflow CMS. It looks like this.
Then, at the bottom of each published article, you’ll notice a blue glowing box. That CTA button will always dynamically link to the right discussion in the Circle community. So no matter what, you’re always just a click away from telling me when I’m wrong. 😂
Sure, I could have done something similar on the other platforms by manually linking a CTA at the bottom of each article. But I love that it’s native in Webflow. It’s a small thing, but it’s a differentiator. It’s a cool feature that sets me apart from the other gazillion people doing paid blogs and newsletters now.
Plus, from a marketing standpoint, it’s a constant reminder for non-members that there’s conversation happening behind the paywall. If they’d like to participate, I even link them right to the membership page so they can join us. Speaking of which, if you’d like to join us, here’s where you can learn more.
The Truth About Webflow
Overall, I’m thrilled I decided to go with Webflow. This platform makes me feel powerful. I know it will grow with me, and give me all the tools and flexibility I need to create a unique brand, and a great experience for my customers.
However, Webflow isn’t for everyone. It’s the best tool around for building bespoke websites without code, but the learning curve may be too steep for many creators, especially those looking for simplicity.
So here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of using Webflow.
The upside of Webflow
- Radical amounts of power and flexibility. Nearly anything I can dream up in terms of design or functionality, I can create with Webflow without code. That’s not to say I’m skilled enough to create those things. But I like knowing that I can.
- The CMS goes way beyond blogging, as it lets you build custom databases that can be displayed in creative ways across your site. For now, it’s powering the articles and categories, but I’m already planning a cool sortable database of creator-focused software. That wouldn’t be possible on the other platforms here, at least not natively.
- Webflow University is AMAZING. Not only is it an invaluable resource, but holy shit, they’re some of the funniest, most entertaining tutorials anywhere.
The downside of Webflow
- The tool is intimidating and the learning curve is steep. So steep I damn near tumbled back down the mountain a few times. At least once a week, I’d think to myself, “Wow, I might actually hate this enough to move back to WordPress.” But I’m glad I soldiered on and figured things out.
- With unlimited flexibility comes unlimited opportunity to procrastinate. The real work of being a creator is creating. In Webflow, it’s soooooooo easy to distract yourself with round after round of design tweaks, all of which make you feel productive, but don’t move the needle.
- The CMS, despite its power, is not a fun place to spend time as a writer. It’s clunky, ugly, and has some quirks. When it comes to laying out your content, it’s nowhere near as flexible as WordPress’s Gutenberg editor, nor as intuitive or delightful as Ghost.
- Speaking of the CMS, I’ve learned the hard way—more than once—that it’s unwise to make too many changes there, as there are a handful of ways for your work to be nuked without saving. For instance, I was just updating a post in one tab, then opened my site in another to grab a link to different post. I got an error message saying the site was open in two places, and upon closing that dialogue, 20 minutes of updates were gone. 😑
- My “gating” workflow with Memberstack is dumb and hacky. Frankly, I wish Webflow would build native gating functionality, or someone would integrate more tightly with them, so that it’s easy to gate individual CMS items without a bunch of workarounds.
Ultimately, these downsides are what they are. I’ve learned to either live with or protect against them.
The finalized tech stacks for my businesses
Now that we’re a solid 4,000 words into this article, it’s probably time to share the full set of tools I landed on for each of my membership publications.
- Webflow - $196/year
- Memberstack - $275/year + 3%
- Circle - $39/month
- ConvertKit - $29/month
- Fathom Analytics - $14/month (Split across 4 sites that I use it on)
- RightMessage - $79/month (Split across 3 sites that I use it on)
- Zapier - $20/month (Split across 2 sites I use it on)
The Citizen Within
- Ghost (installed through Gloat) - $5/month for hosting + whatever it costs to send emails through Mailgun.
- Cove Comments - $199 for lifetime access
- ConvertKit - Free plan for now, as I don’t need to automate yet.
I’d like to point out the obvious. The tools I’m using here are not cheap. Ungated alone comes with over $200/month in software expenses. Granted, I’m already paying for a handful of these tools to run my first business, so they’re subsidized. But still, the solutions I landed on are not inexpensive.
Here’s how I like to think about this.
In my experience, going for the cheapest options feels great at first. Using free platforms like Substack—or relying on random deals you got from AppSumo—makes you feel savvy. But you start running into limitations quickly. It’s not long before you realize those limitations are hampering your business, or leading to bad experiences for customers. Eventually, you’ll decide to switch to better tools, which is often a tedious, time-consuming, and costly process. Having done this myself more times than I care to admit, it’s just not worth it to go cheap. At least for me.
I’d rather choose the best tools for the job, knowing that they’ll still be the best tools for the job two years from now. And that’s what I’ve got here. Even if it costs a little more up front, I know that this decision will pay dividends for years to come. Future Rob is stoked about these choices.
The life lessons at the heart of this article about software
There’s an idea from Derek Sivers that was always top of mind for me throughout this journey.
“When you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia.”
What I’m building here is mine, and mine alone. It doesn’t matter that there are easier solutions, or cheaper solutions. What matters is that I build something I actually like. Something that’s aligned with my values, that I’m excited to spend my time on.
It was important to me to build the kind of platform and membership that I would gleefully pay for myself. It took awhile to get to that point, but I did it.
So the first lesson is this: refusing to settle for average can be a competitive advantage, and lead to you building a universe that’s uniquely your own. It’s a hell of a lot more work, but in a world drowning in mediocrity and conformity, that’s a choice worth making.
That said, lesson two is there’s no such thing as perfection. Not even close.
All of the tools on this list are viable options for building a modern membership publication. All of them have strengths, and all of them come with their fair share of tradeoffs.
What matters is knowing what’s important to you, and what your non-negotiables are. Then, choose the solution that ticks the most boxes, and has the least downside. Get it working, and move on. Yes, you’ll iterate over time and make it better. But if you spend too much time on this up front, like I did, you’re likely shooting yourself in the foot.
If this year has taught me anything, it’s that chasing the perfect setup is a LOT of fucking work. And though I’m happy with the setup I landed on, I can’t help but wonder where I’d be if I spent more of that effort on writing.
As a creator, that’s what moves the needle—creating. Perhaps I’d already have my first 100 customers and true fans.
Then again, this Webflow site is pretty bitchin’.
Update: Ok, so I might have gone through a bit of an existential crisis a few months after writing this piece. Turns out, Webflow is great, but not for perfectionists and serial tinkerers/over-complicators. So yeah, Ungated is back to living on Ghost, and I'm extremely happy about that. If you're curious what happened, here's the full story.