Reflections and updates after the first year of a membership program, and how the core work is evolving in its next year.
Published January 1, 2023 · 8 minute read
I started on my current line of research in 2019, and went full-time in 2020. At the start of 2021, I began publishing lab notes, which document my explorations. And at the start of 2022, I kicked off a membership program, which helps make this work my full-time focus.
In this article, I’ll share an update on how this work went in 2022, and where it’s headed in 2023. I’ll give you the numbers on my experiment in funding this work with a membership program, and what changes I’ll be making to it with what I’ve learned. Last year’s article is here: 2022.
The new experiment in my work last year was a membership program. It started on January 1, so we now have a complete first year’s worth of experiences and data to review and reflect upon.
In its first year, I tried to avoid thinking about ways to boost memberships, or what I could create that would entice new members. I wanted to take the time to see what natural outputs of my work might serve as good member perks. I didn’t want to contrive something that I wouldn’t be able to sustainably or organically create in the future. For its first year, the plan was to let the experiment take its time to find a good fit between me, my work, and the members, and avoid fettering the work in the future.
This experiment went well: I now know a few things that worked well, and a few things that didn’t. And while it isn’t anywhere near providing a salary, it’s a promising start. But that wasn’t the goal for its first year; the first year’s goal was to learn.
Something I like about Patreon is that membership numbers are public. This gives other creators and researchers a good idea of what they could or should expect with this approach to funding. My membership program is not on Patreon, but in keeping with this spirit, I’ll share these numbers in the hopes of helping others, and the field at large, as we collectively consider potential funding methods for future work:
- 57 members joined in 2022
- Currently active: 49 members. Per tier:
Here's what the tier breakdown looked like in 2022:
- 35 Enthusiasts
- 13 Contributors
- 1 Sponsor
- 6 members churned some time after signing up, another 2 deactivated their subscription right after signup, and 1 downgraded their tier.
- Most new signups happened in months when I’d released big members-only content.
- 15 in the first, launch month
- 22 in the three months when big members-only content was released (Feb, Sep, Dec)
- 20 in the other eight months
Two things stand out to me here: First, churn was at a high percentage, but this likely had to do with the lack of focus on member exclusives. Second, member exclusives were the big driver of new signups.
Last year, the primary member perk I structured around was the Member Magazine, of which I published two. Though this did lead to an increase in signups and some interesting conversations, I wasn’t always happy with this as a member perk: given the limited audience for these, I found myself tending to hold better articles back for some other outlet for publication, to be sure they would be well-read. This would create a distressing feedback loop: less interesting articles attracts less readership, less readership invites less interesting articles, and on it goes. There are some ways of restructuring this perk so that it would not suffer these effects as much, but I’ll likely wait some time before experimenting with this perk again. The amount of time I spent editing 5,000 to 10,000 words only to gate the writing to a few dozen people did not seem to fit within the aims of this work (more on that in a moment).
The most promising member perk came towards the end of the year: I sent members an early demo of an experiment I’d been working on, along with some discussion of what I liked and didn’t like of the work so far. This led to lots of insightful conversations, and the early demo being members-only for the time being led to more folks signing up than in any prior month since the first. I’ll continue to experiment with this direction in the new year; it improves the value for members and potential members, it helps iterate the core work, and it is a natural part of my existing process. In fact, it likely motivates me into more impactful directions for the work, since it invites outside influence from a small group of thinkers in the field during its gestation phases, and the pressure it induces is towards making more legible demos of the core ideas.
My working theory on member perks is this: Ultimately, if members get more detail on the work being done, that detail should not be in the results of the work, which should be published for all — after all, the goal is to contribute knowledge to the public. The increased detail members get should be in the process of the work; this is specifically where members, and potential members, are interested in more detail than the general public.
In addition to reorganizing the membership program around its new primary perk of early demos, experiments, and member updates, I’ll also give it a fresh identity.
In its first year, my membership program had no name or distinct identity. This led to a fairly disenchanting sender name on emails: members would receive lab notes and other publicly-released things via my regular newsletter from “Alexander Obenauer”, and they would receive member exclusives via the membership program from “AlexanderObenauer.com Membership”. It was similarly uninviting wherever there needed to be a logo or unique name, such as in emails, on receipts, and during checkout.
I think of my practice as a “little lab” — a sort of indie research lab-of-one. This is the framing I’ll give the membership program in refreshing it for its second year in service: You can become a member of the Little Lab to support its work, most of which is published for all, and you’ll receive access to members-only updates with early demos and experiments. It’s like an annual membership to your favorite museum: you support its core work, and as a member, you get special access to it.
Memberships are a unique source of funding: they only influence the work according to how I’ve set the expectations up for members. Other sources of funding often induce pressure or influence in ways that make it distinctly fettered. The pressure that memberships induces on my work is healthy; in fact, I’ve found it to be a great source of motivation to keep exploring, and I have not yet found it to influence or fetter the directions I take, other than the influence that working with the lab door open already had — but this is a good and wanted influence.
A huge thank you to everyone who became a member in its first year, for any amount of time. You’re helping make this work possible, and maybe more importantly, you’re helping to make it feasible to fund unfettered research with the community at large. It means a lot — I’m floored every time I see a member signup or renewal notification. Thank you.
There is one new method of funding I’m kicking off in this new year: sponsorship.
A company or individual can sponsor my work each month. During that month, their support will be thanked with a message in the footer across my entire website, in my newsletter, and in social posts, along with their link, text, logo, or other image.
I’ve opened up slots for the first six months of 2023 on the sponsorship page.
Publishing & collaborations
In 2022, I published 15 lab notes, down from 19 in 2021, with roughly 15k words. Although the two Member Magazines, with another ~15k words among the two of them, marked a slight increase in words published.
My publishing lab notes slowed a bit last year as I spent much more of my time connecting with fellow thinkers and tinkerers, supporting others, and being supported by others, in various conversations and collaborations. This was a real joy: getting to see others’ demos, helping folks iterate on the thinking in their work and vice-versa, supporting folks as they ventured into their own forms of research, and forming friendships with individuals around the globe as those asking the same questions got in touch; my year, and my year’s work, were defined by these connections with others. Almost every first chat featured a demo of some kind. Our field is highly collaborative, curious, and hard-hat (always building).
My work continues to be primarily shaped by exploring the operating system of the future. I’ll continue publishing lab notes that document the concepts I tinker with. The lab notes are a great place for regular, short explorations of individual concepts, which may or may not yet mesh with some of the others. They serve as good thought-starters and conversation-starters.
In 2023, I hope to invest more time and energy in producing essays and experiments as the larger outputs of the “little lab” to complement the lab notes. The first experiment I’ll publish this year will continue developing in member updates first, before being made fully public. And my next essay is coming together now: it should be a bit shorter than my 2021 essay, though it will serve as something of an outline to everything I’ve explored over the last couple years.
This year, I’ll also start publishing pieces of my ongoing project, WonderOS. Its website will go live this month, and like the experiments, I’ll start sharing early demos in member updates and talks, before sharing more polished pieces publicly.
The ongoing project explores an itemized user environment. By composing the system with items, WonderOS can think about well-known features in new ways. Here are two examples from recent lab notes:
Workspaces: Instead of volatile desktops in which you arrange needed windows for a task, in WonderOS you can simply open the task and use it as your workspace. Then, the items you need and use in working on that task become references within it, which you can return to in the future. See more on this in the recent lab notes. Two lab notes which explore this: LN 031: Fluid workspaces, and LN 033: Swappable reference views.
Notifications: In an experiment for rethinking notifications in WonderOS, users only receive notifications for the items they keep within their present system views. This allows users to have a clear, visually defined focus at all times, which often assembles as a result of the work they’ve already done in simply managing their workspace. See more on this in last week’s lab note. A lab note which explores this: LN 034: Live items & Contextual notifications.
Something an itemized environment does quite well: it makes wide experimentation fiercely easy. This helps me in my explorative work, and it implies that it would help future operators of such systems to evolve them for their own times and needs.
Serving as an itemized testbed, WonderOS becomes home to other experiments that seek answers to more specific questions or explore deeper ideas within the itemized user environment. The first is OLLOS, an environment which organizes your things on the dimension of time. The first member update that demos this experiment: Experimenting with spaced review in OLLOS.
With WonderOS and the other experiments, I’ve been able to live inside itemized environments in more of my personal computing life lately. The more I live within the initial ideas, which seemed like obvious improvements, the more I start to see far more interesting ideas for these environments; ones which seem to question increasingly fundamental assumptions about the software we use every day, or which prod our intuitions for how personal computing might better meet its aspirations and our expectations. That is my big plan for this year: live within these environments as much as possible. Because the more I do, the more I find myself able to evolve the core ideas, from good-but-obvious to truly interesting.
It’s funny to think: two years into publishing lab notes on the OS of the future, and even more years into tinkering with these ideas, that now is when I feel that I’m getting into the truly interesting thinking.
That’s what’s on my mind for 2023: “Now it’s getting interesting.”