How Do You Monetize Community? This Founder Struck Gold With Lifetime Subscriptions and Sponsorships

For most SaaS businesses, recurring subscriptions are the standard for reliable revenue and low churn. But you might limit yourself when you use them to the exclusion of all else, especially during the early growth phase of your business.

I recently talked with Fed whose startups The Hive Index and Gummy Search capitalize on community marketing. Today, the two applications make the solo founder almost $75,000 in annual revenue. He credits both successes to experimenting with pricing models and strong community support.

Fed’s dive into the founder community began when he left his engineering job to build apps. He spent months browsing the world of bootstrapped founder communities for ideas, compiling the best ones into a list that he shared with friends looking for inspiration. He later turned his master list into the website, The Hive Index, which was a near-instant hit.

But Fed couldn’t monetize The Hive Index with monthly subscription fees or referral programs. Once people found a community they liked, they no longer needed The Hive Index, so it didn’t make sense to charge periodically (he accepted sponsorship deals instead). 

His next product, Gummy Search, started as a script he wrote to find Reddit threads where he could promote The Hive Index. He released the tool to customers but many churned because they only wanted to use the tool once or twice. To capitalize on infrequent and on-the-fence customers, Fed offered a lifetime subscription and brought in $50,000 in just two months.

Fed has since stopped his lifetime deal promotion but insists it was crucial for Gummy Search’s initial marketing success and revenue. Here’s how he created not one but two successful community engagement applications in under two years.

Emulating Pieter Levels

Fed’s first foray into entrepreneurship was shortly after he graduated college in 2014. With two friends, he started a peer-to-peer recruitment app that helped people find jobs for their friends. The project failed, but Fed learned he needed a longer runway to survive as a founder. “We were always making short-term decisions because we were low on cash and time,” he says.

After his first startup’s failure, Fed joined an early-stage startup in 2015 as an engineer. During his six years at the company, it grew from a small team with a single coder to a large business with 150 people. Fed looked up one day and found he’d changed from a product engineer to leader of an entire dev team. Instead of feeling proud, he felt incomplete.

“I’d switched my focus from building things to the people-related things that you find at large companies,” he says. “I was most passionate about building early-stage startups. I quit my job in 2020 and dove into the world of bootstrapped entrepreneurship.”

Fed, Founder of Gummy Search
Fed’s Twitter profile on his popular account

While building apps, Fed mimicked Pieter Levels, a well-known founder who had famously challenged himself to launch twelve startups in twelve months¹. By the time Pieter reached month seven, he’d built the now-famous digital nomad destination platform, Nomad List. Today, many founders emulate this “hardcore year” when they want to create new products on a timeline.

“I didn’t want to go as far as twelve products in twelve months, but I wanted to get into the habit of launching things quickly,” says Fed.

Fed spent his early months in bootstrapping communities on Indie Hackers forums discussing ways to grow his businesses. For fun, he developed a master list of bootstrapping groups that he would give to friends working on startups. Following Pieter Levels’ lead, he made it into a completed product: a website with one hundred online communities other people could access for free called The Hive Index.

“I found these Reddit conversations where people asked for such a resource,” says Fed. “Whenever I would see one of those conversations, I would hop in and write, ‘Oh, here you go. Here’s a list that I’ve been keeping.’ People appreciated that. They wanted to find like-minded souls to talk with.”

The Hive Index grew with the help of Fed’s little sister. She was looking for work while at college, and as Fed managed coding and operations, she crafted lists of every interesting startup forum she could find. These manual lists differentiated The Hive Index from competitors using soulless, programmatically generated lists. The communities his company collected were all valuable because he’d personally inspected them. Many of their administrators became friends – inviting him to podcasts and meetups in real life.

Today, The Hive Index includes one thousand different groups from marketing, to Web3, to skateboarding. They are further classified by features like paid memberships, newsletters, and job boards.

“Some people want a paid community. You would think people want everything free but some want to make sure the people in it are motivated to be there,” he says.

Fed monetized his index purely through sponsorship deals with group admins, listing them at the top of the page for a fee. He says this was the only method that felt natural to the website. “The Hive Index is a content site and there are many ways to monetize those. I tried ads and affiliate marketing and hated how they looked so I chose sponsored listings.”

Today The Hive Index makes roughly $500 in MRR from sponsorships. Fed’s happy with that as he runs it for free and it opened the door for his next, more successful SaaS, Gummy Search.

Finding the Best Conversations on Reddit

To grow Hive Index, Fed frequently used the social forum, Reddit, to refer people looking for entrepreneurship groups. “I love using Reddit to distribute content and products,” he says. “I didn’t have money to spend on ads and didn’t have time for SEO, so I found people there.”

While Fed swears by Reddit, it has a notoriously bad reputation for banning self-promoting founders who drop links to their websites. Fed claims this is avoidable if you avoid promotional posts and remain in the comment section. Only one of the fifty groups he used to promote his tool has banned him.

“I haven’t had many negative reactions from these communities. Sometimes it depends on the community you’re promoting in and sometimes a little bit on luck. When you have good conversations, you’re rarely kicked out.”

Since Reddit was Fed’s primary source for site visitors to The Hive Index, he sped up the discovery process by creating a program that found potential conversations where he could link his product. All he needed to do was enter keywords and the tool would compile a list of relevant Reddit topics, cutting down marketing time to only ten minutes per day.

Because his tool was so useful, Fed decided he’d share it with the public as soon as possible. In 2021, he built a webpage with a place to log in, sign up, and save data. Then he dropped the product into a few choice online marketing communities.

“That was one of my biggest lessons: The Facebook community can make or break your business.”

Soon, customers were using Gummy Search for much more than discovering conversations. They used it to conceive new business and content ideas and research competitors. Fed immediately added other tools to his platform helping customers perform these tasks too.

“I loved building a solo SaaS with the guidance of my users because it meant I could make a product they wanted. Eventually, I used Gummy Search to find people looking for the tool. People were very excited about it.”

Offering a Tactical Lifetime Subscription for Early Runway

While people loved Gummy Search in doses, Fed found it laborious to identify a price point that would maintain steady subscriptions.

“At one point, I had thirty customers and one of them churned,” says Fed. “I asked him why and the feedback was so valuable that it opened up fifty thousand dollars in revenue for me. He said, ‘I love your product, but I don’t need to use it every month. If you had a lifetime subscription, I’d go for it.’ So I said, ‘Why not?’”

“I agree that the North Star for SaaS should be recurring revenue. But doing a lifetime subscription in the early stages validated my product, earned revenue, and attracted new users.”

Fed opened a lifetime subscription option for Gummy Search equivalent to ten months of monthly subscriptions. People on the fence about a regular commitment snatched the lifetime deal almost immediately. Fed sold hundreds of subscriptions in two months and ended up with $50,000 in his bank account.

“There are tons of lifetime deal communities on Facebook that share things like this,” says Fed. “That was one of my biggest lessons: The Facebook community can make or break your business. People were in these groups answering questions on my behalf because they liked my product so much.”

After those first two months, Fed shut off the lifetime deal. He’d validated his product and earned the runway to improve it. He now suggests all founders experiment heavily with monetization early and continue indefinitely. He recently began capturing on-the-fence customers with a popular day-pass option on top of his monthly subscriptions.

“I agree that the North Star for SaaS should be recurring revenue. But doing a lifetime subscription in the early stages validated my product, earned revenue, and attracted new users. SaaS businesses shy away from lifetime deals, but that fifty grand from the initial deal was like preseed for me,” he says.

Don’t Stress – Talk to Your Customers

To date, Fed has made roughly $75,000 from Gummy Search. He prefers not to call it ARR as much of the money is from one-time payments. Still, he brings in between $1,000 to $1,500 every month. He wants to keep growing the tool to work across other forums too.

As a founder in the community space, Fed continues marketing primarily through customer interaction online. He builds in public with his Twitter account (@foliofed) and posts on multiple Facebook, Reddit, Hacker News, and Product Hunt groups.

“I think you should do freelance and contract work to provide yourself runway and scale back when your products take off.”

“While building an early-stage SaaS, you’re riding a roller coaster,” he says. “You often think you’re crushing it, but then you see churn and you start to doubt everything. Talk to current users when you’re in these low moments.”

He also recommends people pace themselves when making new startups.

“I find people who bootstrap either build at zero or one hundred. They work full-time and bust their ass on nights and weekends or do nothing at all. I am in the middle. I think you should do freelance and contract work to provide yourself runway and scale back when your products take off.”

Resources

¹https://levels.io/12-startups-12-months/


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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdeckihttps://microacquire.com
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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