In this episode, Nathan Hirsch interviews “The Membership Guy” Stu McLaren on how he helps clients launch and grow multiple high six and seven-figure membership sites. As an expert in this filed, he shares to us the things that separate an okay or a good site from a great one. He also talks about the community behind these sites and what they promote. For him, creating a culture for progress is always ideal in the field or industry you are in. Join Stu as he takes us to his journey of becoming the guru in membership sites and earning his title.
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My guest is Stu McLaren. Stu, how are you doing?
I’m great. It’s good to be here.
For those of you who don’t know, Stu coaches and consults New York Times bestselling authors, top-rated speakers, experts in niche celebrities on how to launch, grow and scale high-profit reoccurring revenue streams. As a former Founder and world’s number one membership platform for WordPress, WishList Member, he had a chance to serve and support over 60,000 plus online communities and membership sites.
Through that experience, he gained a unique insight into the subtotal membership, new nuances that produce massive results. He uses that knowledge to help his clients launch and grow multiple high 6 and 7-figure membership sites and shares the same blueprint at TribeWorkshop.com. We’re going to talk all about that, but first let’s take a gigantic step back. What were you like as a kid growing up? Were you a straight-A student? Were you a rebel? Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I was not always a straight-A student but I did become one. I remember Ms. McLean in grade four gave me my first A. I still remember her and that moment. I did well in school and I did get good grades. I played a lot of sports in school. That was my thing. I won athlete of the year in my last three years of high school, then went to university for business. If I’m being completely transparent, I went into business because my friends went into business. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time. What I did know was that I wanted to play soccer at university and I did that.
I made the soccer team, the varsity team. We went on to win two national championships at university. I struggled in school at university. Between high school and university, it was a different learning environment and I had struggled. I failed my first year. I got the pink slip that said, “You may no longer proceed in the honors business program.” I talked my way back in by doing some extra credits in the summer. I barely scraped by in the second year and in third year, everything changed.
It was during a marketing class and I saw this video of a guy who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, no socks or shoes, and he was running around shooting Nerf guns at corporate CEOs and I’m like, “That looks amazing. That is what I would love to do.” It opened my eyes to the fact that business didn’t have to be a shirt and a tie, and that was attractive to me. It led me when I graduated to become an entrepreneur so that I could have that control and autonomy and freedom.
Did you get a job after college? Did you go right into starting your own business?
I signed on the dotted line to start with a big corporate company up here in Canada and my parents were tickled pink. They were happy because this corporate job was going to be paying me more than what both of them earned combined. I had a corporate car and the benefits and everything. I gave myself four months from the time that I signed that agreement to when I was supposed to start. During those four months of summer, I realized that that corporate path was not the right path for me and I resigned before I started. I didn’t know what I was going to do and I was embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t know what I was going to do.
A friend of mine, Brayden, we were at a conference together and this was when I had this epiphany. Long story short, I kept going to see the same speaker and finally he’s like, “Stu, you should go and see some of the other speakers that are speaking.” I went to go to some of the other workshops but they were all full. The only one that was open was this journaling workshop. My male ego kicked in and I’m like, “Journaling is for girls. What am I going to learn from journaling?” It was the only one I could go into. I went into it and my buddy was in there. We were writing and they said like, “Part of the exercise is to do a big brain dump of everything that was running through your mind.”
I was writing about a friend of mine, Jair, who was thinking about starting his own business and I’m like, “He needs to go for it, and now is the best time to do it. We don’t have any overhead or income or responsibilities at this age. He needs to go for it. Now is the time.” My last words I’ll never forget, I wrote, “He needs to grow some balls and do it.” They stop you in the journaling exercise and they have you reflect on what you wrote, and what I realized was that I wasn’t writing about Jair, I was writing about myself. I turned to my buddy, Brayden, who was with me and I said, “I’m going to resign from Maple Leaf before I get started.” He’s like, “What are you going to do?” I felt the embarrassment of not knowing. I had publicly declared a major decision and I didn’t know what my next step was going to be and I said, “I don’t know.”
What I ended up doing was speaking to high schools and colleges about how to utilize creative thinking. That was what turned my academic career around at university. I went from failing out and barely getting by in my second year to third year and fourth year, graduating the most outstanding male top of my class. It was all because I learned how to think creatively and apply that to my schoolwork, my relationships, my job interviews, everything. That’s how I began my entrepreneurial career was making that leap and starting to speak to other students about it.
What was that first year like starting your own business? What idea did you come up with? How did you go about executing it?
Entrepreneurship gets painted with these rainbows and unicorns and it’s all success and it’s easy and you get all this freedom. It sucked. The reason is that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying everything to be able to land speaking engagements. I’ve maybe made $40,000, $45,000 in that first year. I was still living in my parents’ basement. All of my friends and peers all got these corporate jobs, buying their own houses and got all this stuff. I’m still living in my parents’ basement and I was making roughly $45,000 a year. It was hard. It was slogging through trying to figure it out.
The other side of that is that you gained so much clarity when you start doing stuff. Too often, people have great ideas of what they want to do and they plan it and they never do it. If you want the clarity, you got to get in the trenches and start doing stuff and that’s exactly what I did. One thing led to another and next thing, I was looking to expand my knowledge of how to grow my speaking business. I started attending the seminar and at the seminar I met one of the main speakers. Long story short, that speaker ended up inviting me down to work with him for 1.5 years. I mentored under him and then my mind got expanded and I saw how to grow the business.
He kept giving me more and more responsibility to where I was running his entire seminar company. Through that, I also got to see how to create wealth and how to sell and I built these incredible relationships. When I went out on my own in 2005, that’s when I had more confidence, more relationships, more wisdom, and I was able to build a lot more profitable business at that point. I started consulting and I was specifically helping people manage their online affiliate programs. That for me was a big turning point because I started to work a lot more online, start to work with a lot more high profile clients, which exposed me to a lot more learnings, behind the scenes. That’s where everything started to take off.
Do you remember who your first hire was and how that went?
It was a VA and her name was Nina. She was amazing. She helped me with all kinds of tasks that I knew how to do but took time. It swallowed up a lot of time. What it did was it freed up a lot more time that could be used in other areas. I remember Nina, she was fantastic. She was great at helping me be able to plug through and plow through a whole lot of tasks that I needed help with.
Can you talk about the structure behind WishList, how you set it up if you had project managers, team leaders, Vas and in-person? How many people were in? What did the structure look like?
The reason WishList came into the forefront was because I had begun building a successful consulting business, managing these affiliate programs for these high profile clients. The problem was that the business model sucked because I was at the beck and call of all these clients. It’s stressful enough doing an online launch, but imagine doing multiple launches all in the same month and all year long. You’re burning the candle at both ends and I had gotten married and I was like, “This is not going to create a healthy relationship with my wife if I’m working 24/7.” We wanted to have kids. I’m like, “That’s not the kind of father I want to be. I want to be present for my kids.”
I was looking for another way to be able to take what I knew and create more leverage and that’s when a friend and mentor of mine suggested I create a membership site. I liked the idea of creating a membership site and I started to try to set one up but the technology at the time, it was cumbersome and it sucked. I was moaning and groaning into a friend of mine, Tracy, and I said, “I wish that there was an easy to use platform that could work on WordPress.” Because I was familiar with WordPress and he said, “Why don’t you create one?” I said, “I’m sitting here moaning and groaning to you because I can’t figure the tech side of it out and you’re suggesting that I go and create it?” I’m like, “I’m not a programmer.” He said, “Why don’t we work together? I have a programmer that works with me who is good.”
We did, and WishList Member was born and a month later we started selling it. How that team got structured in the beginning, it was simple, it was my business partner Tracy and our lead developer Mike, myself and Ray, who helped us on the support side. It was the four of us in the beginning and that worked. It worked until we got the business to over a million dollars. We started to realize we needed to expand. We needed to expand the dev team to be able to continue to work on the project.
We needed to expand the support team and we also needed to expand the marketing team essentially. Little by little, we did that and eventually I sold my shares which were about a few years later after we started that company. We had roughly 18, 19 people and it was a multimillion-dollar a year operation. I loved my partners and loved the team of the product and I still love them. The company still does its thing and it’s still serving people and I learned a lot through that whole experience.
With membership sites, people come for the content, but they stay for the community.
Was there any bad hire that had stuck out or a bad hiring experience?
One of the things that I learned from that experience was that you never want anyone that’s part of your business to be dependent on one person. I’ll share a perfect example of this. There were four of us, and one of those people was our lead developer, Mike. He’s an awesome guy, wicked talent. As the company started to grow, Mike himself came to us a few months into it and he said, “I love you guys and I love what we’ve created, but I’ve been tremendously inspired as well. I want to go out on my own and I want to start my own business.”
This was a punch in the gut because we were already bootstrapping and to have our lead developer leave, we had nobody to work on the product. It left us in a tremendously vulnerable position. Immediately, we asked if we could have at least six weeks before he left and he was gracious and said yes. During that time, we scrambled to try to hire and find some more developers that could help us. We did. None of them were ever at the level that Mike was, and it was difficult.
Not only that, but we had a solution that was dependent on WordPress. Every time WordPress would make an update, it would kibosh our product and it left us scrambling with paying customers whose sites were broken. It was a stressful time and there was a moment when my business partner, Tracy, was flying to go meet with Mike, our lead developer who had left us. We had arranged to hire him for a week of consulting to help us get the product back to normal.
I said to Tracy before he left, “I want to come with you on that trip and I want to sell Mike on the idea of coming back as a part of the team.” Tracy’s like, “Are you sure about this?” I said, “Yeah,” and I said, “We should also make him a minority partner in the business.” Tracy’s like, “I don’t know if we need to do that.” I’m like, “At the end of the day, if something goes wrong with the tech, neither you nor I can roll up our sleeves and fix it.” We’re in a vulnerable situation. I said, “We’re a tech startup and we don’t have a tech partner.” I said, “We should go for it.” Tracy agreed we both fly and we’d go meet with Mike.
I’ll never forget this conversation. I asked him when we meet, I said, “Mike, how are things going out starting your own business?” He’s like, “It’s not as fun as I thought.” I said, “Really? Tell me about that.” He’s like, “There’s a lot more to developing. I thought I’d be able to put my head down and develop and create new products. There’s a whole lot of other things that are happening with growing a business.” I’m like, “Tell me about it.” I’m like, “This is exactly what I was hoping.” Long story short, the conversation continues and finally I pitched Mike on the idea of coming back. As I’m talking to him, the smile on his face gets wider and I said, “At the end of the day, we want to surround you with a team that can support you and that you can lead and mold into this incredible unit.” He was excited by that. By the end, he’s like, “I’m in.” I’m like, “Thank the heavens.” We’re excited about that.
When we were walking away after the meeting and Mike says, “Can I be upfront with you guys?” I was like, “I would hope so, you’re a partner now.” He’s like, “Before I came to this meeting, my wife suggested that I ask for my job back.” I said, “Really?” I said, “Here’s what I want you to do, I want you to go back to your wife and I want you to tell her that you took her advice and you not only got your job back, but you convinced us that you should be a partner in the business. If you do that, she is going to love you for months.”
It was a great moment. He came back on board and it completely turned the company around. He took leadership and grew our dev team and it was amazing. The lesson that I took away from that is that you never want anyone part of your business dependent on one person because it creates a vulnerability. Sometimes we can be the vulnerability in our business. If our own business is dependent on us, we are the vulnerability. The reality of it is you can only grow as fast as the weakest link in the chain. We want to be mindful of that. That was one of those big lessons from that whole era.
FreeeUp has become a software company and I’m not a developer, not a coder. We work with developers. I know communication sometimes can be tough. They think like a developer, we think like business owners. Any tips for the audience on communicating with developers and getting them to complete projects and bridging that communication gap?
For me, when it comes to leadership in general whether it’s working with developers, designers, support teams, marketing teams or anybody on your team, I learned this lesson from a good friend and former business partner, Michael Hyatt, and he said to me, “In leadership, our role is to be involved in the first 10% and the last 10%. The middle 80% is where the team executes.” What that means is the first 10% is all about casting the vision. What are you trying to accomplish? What’s the end goal here? What do you see this becoming? The middle 80% is where the team goes to work to execute on that. The final 10% is where you circle back. You look at what has been created, you provide feedback and you review it and debrief it and so forth and then the product goes out. To me, that’s what I try to do as much as possible when it comes from a leadership perspective is be clear on the front end. What am I trying to accomplish? How does this fit into the grand picture of us growing our company? How does what we’re working on now impact and affect everything else?
Trust the team to execute on the middle 80% and then the final 10%, come back and review. When you’re in the beginning stages of growing your business, you’re going to be wearing multiple hats and you may be part of the 80% of executing on stuff. I still execute on stuff in my business. I still write a lot of copy. I still do a lot of speaking, I’m involved certainly in a lot of marketing. I’m still involved in some of the 80%. Little by little, that’s where we want to land as a business owner, being involved in the front 10% and the last 10% and the team execute on the middle.
You’re an expert when it comes to membership sites. You’ve seen a lot of membership sites. What are some of the things that separate maybe an okay or a good membership site from a great one?
I have worked with tens of thousands of membership site owners in all kinds of different markets, from photography and calligraphy to fitness and finance, dog training and all kinds of stuff. At the end of the day, there are a few key areas. Number one is marketing, how are you getting people not only to see your offer but to convert and join the membership? Number two is the content inside the membership. A lot of people think that membership is, “I’ll throw a whole bunch of content behind a paywall and leave it up to my audience and my members to figure out and find the stuff that they need.”
The worst thing that you can do, the number one reason that people leave a membership site is because of overwhelm. You can’t throw a whole bunch of stuff at them and hope for the best and think that people are going to stay. Marketing, the content and last piece is retention. Often, what happens is people are focused on always getting new members in, they never have the focus on how do we keep people happy. The reality of it is that people will stay part of a membership site for not just months but for years if they are happy and making progress. I’ve never heard of somebody canceling a membership site because they’re making too much progress, that doesn’t happen.
As long as the focus is on keeping people happy, helping them make progress, they’re going to stay. At the end of the day, I see mistakes being made on the marketing for example, they should have a closed membership when they are open for business all the time, and that’s a mistake. I know it’s counterintuitive, but I’ve been working with tens of thousands of membership sites in all kinds of different markets. Closing the membership for the vast majority of memberships is a huge benefit from a marketing and strategy perspective.
The second area is content, and the way you fix that overwhelm as you create what we call a success path. It’s a path to help your people go from where they are to where they want to be and it doesn’t happen overnight. Learning one strategy is not going to take them from one end to the other. It’s a series of stages that people are going to go through, it’s a journey. Clearly mapping out that journey helps create a focus for your members and through that focus, they’re going to create more progress. From that progress, they’re going to stay longer.
Number one is marketing. Number two is content. Number three is retention. Putting focus and attention on how do we keep people happy and continue to support them in the progress that they’re making and build a culture of the progress of people using the products and the material, making a transformation in their life. You do those three things well, you have a membership site that will be rocking.
Can you talk about the community behind the membership site? I’m assuming some of the best membership sites, former community, where the people get to know each other, because they know each other they stay on. Any strategies or thoughts on that?
You can only grow as fast as the weakest link in the chain.
I’ve been saying it for years and people have been ripping me off left, right and center, which is okay. The reality of it is that people come for the content but they stay for the community. The whole key around a community is that you want to rally this group of people around a common mission of making progress along that success path. One of the keys to a great community is that number one, people are supporting and cheering each other on along the way.
Number two is in order for that to happen, people have got to be willing to share the progress that they’re making. When they make progress, you’re going to be intentional and conscientious of celebrating that progress. When you celebrate it, it’s naturally going to spur more people who are going to want to share their progress. If I were to fire up my phone and look in our Slack channel, we have a Slack channel that is dedicated specifically to sharing the successful results in our community. I’m scrolling through here and every single day there are screenshots of the story after story of people making progress in our communities.
What’s happened now is because we focus on it, because we celebrate, it is naturally occurring. It creates this culture of progress. If people are making progress, they’re not going to leave. At the end of the day, the community is important because when we are on this journey, whether it’s going from a dog that is misbehaving to a dog that is well-trained or going from kids who are having difficulty learning to kids that are sharp readers, from not knowing how to play the guitar to becoming a guitar master or starting a brand new business to having a thriving business, whateverthe journey is, we’ve got to be intentional about making it clear upon the stages of that journey, what to focus on during each stage and supporting and cheering people on along the way. Through that, you create a culture of progress and that culture is what keeps people happy and paying month after month.
Stu, it’s been incredible. Thank you for coming on. Where can people find out more about you and what are you most excited about going forward?
I get excited about a lot of things. There’s one that everybody wants to go and visit, GetTribeGuide.com. This is where I walk through the fundamentals of launching a highly successful online community and membership site. The other thing I would say is that I too have a podcast, and I would highly recommend people go and subscribe to that. It’s Marketing Your Business podcast. It brings you behind the scenes of what we’re doing in our business to grow it.
Stu, thanks again for coming on.
Stu McLaren coaches and consults New York Times best-selling authors, top-rated speakers, experts and niche celebrities on how to launch, grow and scale high-profit recurring revenue streams.
As the former founder of the world’s #1 membership platform for WordPress, WishList Member, he had the
chance to serve and support over 60,000+ online communities and membership sites. Through that experience, he gained a unique insight into the subtle membership nuances that produce massive results.
Today he uses that knowledge to help his clients to launch and grow multiple high 6 and 7-figure membership sites and shares the same blueprints at TribeWorkshop.com.
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