750+ Supporters: The Bitcoin Pub Built a Successful Business by Treating Patreon like a Product
John and Peter Saddington are engineers, educators, brothers, and cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
They’re also the founders of the Bitcoin Pub and Decentralized TV, a community built around communication, education, and better crypto software products for all.
In Aug 2017, the brothers pulled together some open source code to serve as their MVP (minimum viable product) for the Pub: a Discourse forum completely dedicated to blockchain technology, bitcoin, and the like.
(By the way, Patreon has an official Discourse integration if you’d like to build a forum for your patrons too.)
They wanted to see if people were interested.
Interested is an understatement.
In just two days, the Saddingtons’ fledgling site served over 80,000 people.
After a month, they’d served over one million visitors.
Clearly, they were onto something big.
But servers that can handle 80,000+ visitors in two days don’t come cheap, so the brothers knew they needed a way to cover their growing technical costs — and quickly.
With shared backgrounds in education and business, the brothers went to work, treating their experiment like a startup.
Using their background in lean software development, they used “sprints” to test ideas quickly, rapidly iterating on ideas until they found the ones that worked the best.
In just six months, the brothers have attracted 750+ paying supporters on Patreon with an average pledge of around $15 per month, numbers that continue to grow as they develop the project.
We interviewed the brothers to learn more about their story.
In what follows, you’ll read how the Saddingtons’ chose Patreon over other monetization strategies.
You’ll also read the exact strategies they used to grow their revenue — plus their best tips for anyone who’s just starting out.
Why the Saddingtons’ Chose Patreon
Patreon wasn’t on the Saddingtons’ radar at first.
They explored popular crowdfunding sites, VC funding, and YouTube monetization, but none of them really ‘fit’ with what they were trying to build.
Why YouTube Monetization Wasn’t an Option
YouTube might have worked.
But YouTube — for whatever reason — has been a dead end.
The Saddingtons’ signed up for the YouTube Partner Program — YouTube’s method for sharing ad revenue with its creators.
Their channels meet all of YouTube’s requirements for the program — it far exceeds 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch hours in the last 12 months.
But in six months of trying, the Saddingtons have not been approved for YouTube’s monetization program. YouTube also temporarily shut down their ability to live stream.
As of this writing, “We’ve have made $0 from YouTube monetization since we began,” Peter told us.
The Patreon Experiment
With no option to make money on YouTube, the brothers looked elsewhere.
The Saddingtons came across Patreon while researching crowdfunding options. They decided to try it for the following four reasons:
Patreon naturally fit their business model.
“Patreon is an answer and a solution to those dysfunctional ways (like YouTube monetization) of supporting creators.”
Patreon gave them an easy way to collect feedback as they built the Pub.
“It allows us to differentiate between people who are there to get some information and then peace out and people who are really committed to the vision that we had. What we wanted most of all was a feedback mechanism, and Patreon allowed us to do that exceptionally well behind a committed paywall.”
Patreon integrated with their tech stack
“When you pledge on Patreon, you’re assigned a corresponding tier within our forum. That tier allows you private access to certain boards, forums, and conversations. It also turns off native advertising on the forum, which is a huge bonus because everyone hates advertising.”
Want to learn more about how Patreon automatically grants patron-only access to a Discourse forum? Read more here.
They believe Patreon will be around for a long time
“We took a look at some of the data and signals around venture capital. We’re in the tech space, and we want to make sure that we were placing our bet on a platform and a system and a team that isn’t going to disappear in six months because we’re not planning on disappearing in six months.”
To make it work, they decided to treat Patreon like a product.
As John told us,
“We knew that if we were going to “make Patreon work” (and this is exactly how you have to think about it), then we’d have to allocate and invest serious time, energy, and resources to maximize its potential.”
Iterating Toward Perfection: 6 Business Lessons Learned from Experimentation
As the brothers experimented with different strategies on Patreon, they took detailed notes.
Some strategies — like offering t-shirts as rewards — sounded great in the beginning but logistically didn’t work for their global audience. Others — like high-dollar tiers — worked brilliantly.
Here are six strategies they found that worked extremely well:
Lesson #1: Stalk Successful Creators
Before they even launched their page, the Saddington brothers looked at what other successful creators were doing.
“Because we were entirely new, we looked at the top flight creators within Patreon and tried to create ballpark figures around what they were charging, what their perks were… your typical due diligence,” Peter explained.
They knew that their prices wouldn’t be perfect the first time around, but it gave them a reasonable starting point.
Lesson #2: Don’t Be Afraid to Apologize
During their experimentation with tiered rewards, they created a $500 tier that offered physical merchandise like t-shirts and coffee mugs.
They quickly realized they’d gotten in over of their heads.
With all of the new work they were doing for the Pub and other reward fulfillment projects, physical merch just wasn’t something they could produce at that stage of their business.
So, they ‘fessed up.
“We were like, ‘Guys, we f***ed up. There’s no way we can deliver t-shirts to everyone around the globe in a timely fashion. Sorry.’ And the responses were, ‘Totally cool. We’re not worried about it,’” John recounted.
You can see the way they handled communication in the original post on Bitcoin Pub.
What could have been a complete disaster was handled gracefully by both the brothers and their supporters.
Lesson #3: Engage, Engage, Engage
One of the easiest strategies the brothers recommended? Post a lot to your community.
After just 109 days, they’ve published 1,000 posts!
John’s advice for communication is “Document; don’t create.”
They’re already creating new features and planning a great future for the Bitcoin Pub.
Why not share in-progress items like concept art for the products they build?
That way, they engage fans with something they had to do anyway.
They’ve also started using Lens to document their creation process more easily.
It’s something their patrons appreciate greatly.
One supporter messaged them and said,
“I unsubscribed to all the other Patreon channels that I watched in the cryptocurrency space and only subscribe to you because they only give us content once every two weeks.”
While it’s not a pace that suits every creator/audience relationship, it’s been well received by the Bitcoin Pub supporters.
Lesson #4: Relaunch Your Page
When they launched in Sept 2017, they did a ‘time-boxed’ revenue experiment, looking at which tiers were successful and why. At the time, they were seeing the “average” pledge from their supporters of around $7-8 per month.
Then, they found a TechCrunch article that claimed the average per month value of a pledge on Patreon was $12/mo.
“We thought, ‘Well we have an engaged audience, and we believe we’re providing as much value as the average Patreon creator,’” John told us.
They believed they could raise their average pledge to the “Patreon average” of $12/month.
Armed with what they knew about their fans and with that average value, they decided to relaunch their page, concentrating their efforts around their $15/month tier.
When the Saddingtons relaunched their page in January 2018, they doubled their patron count while more than doubling their pledged amount.
Much of what they previously offered at the $5 tier level was made exclusive to the $15 level, driving patrons to the higher monthly commitment.
Lesson #5: Offer High-Value, High-Dollar Tiers
The brothers offered a $1,000 tier as soon as they launched their Patreon page.
They didn’t expect anyone to fund them at that level, but they were wrong: two patrons supported them at the $1,000 tier while it was offered (one sticking around for a full three months at that level of support).
They don’t offer the tier anymore (they didn’t feel they could offer consistent value at that level), but it opened their eyes to how dedicated some patrons can be.
When in doubt, they said, add the high-value tier: someone might just take you up on it.
Lesson #6: Use Public Posts for SEO
All posts you put on Patreon as “Public” are search engine optimized. You can even view traffic information for each post:
Knowing that, the brothers carefully plan which posts to make public and which posts should be for supporters only.
Whenever they run a campaign, they share more public posts than private.
Doing so encourages new readers to sign up and support the Pub.
Communication Strategies: Keeping the Audience Engaged
From the language they chose to the frequency of communication, John and Peter planned all contact with fans to maximize engagement and understanding.
Here are their best communication tips for keeping fans happy, encouraging engagement, and maximizing conversions.
Strategy #1: Emphasize That It’s All an Experiment
“We have clearly made it known that everything that we touch, Patreon included, is all an experiment,” John said.
“And so the context for all of our consumers was already established: things are going to change. We hold nothing sacred,” he added.
By making it clear that tiers wouldn’t stay the same forever, they improved patron loyalty when changes did come.
Strategy #2: Frame the Discussion
While patrons knew to expect changes, it also helped to know that changes weren’t just coming randomly.
Instead, any changes were all part of improving the Bitcoin Pub for everyone.
The brothers recommend using language like the following:
“Hey guys, we love giving you great content. However, we want to figure out the best way to do that.”
Sometimes that means combining tiers, raising prices, or retiring inefficient offerings.
Strategy #3: Do an ‘End of the Month’ Push
At the end of the month, John & Peter post about how much their patrons’ support matters, what they have planned for the future, and other exciting tidbits.
They make sure they’re especially active during that time so that patrons feel encouraged to continue their support.
And once the new month arrives, they post a big THANK YOU message that always receives high engagement.
Fans feel connected and appreciated, which makes a big difference when they review their budget for Patreon.
Strategy #4: Sort Email Messages by Tier (Using Zapier)
Using Zapier, the brothers send certain messages to patrons according to their tier level.
“We have an automated email go out to Patrons with some fairly standard verbiage, but we personalize it based on their pledge amount. That’s been great,” Peter explained.
It makes communicating with each group significantly easier.
Strategy #5: Reach Out After ‘Declined’ Pledges
A declined credit card means you’re going to lose that pledge… right?
Well, not necessarily. In fact, the Saddington brothers regularly re-capture about 30% of their patrons with just one email.
First, they compose a message to ‘declined’ users only.
They don’t straight out ask why the users’ card was declined — no need to embarrass them, after all — but they do ask for feedback.
In many cases, they get responses like these within a day:
In March, that one email to ‘declined’ accounts was worth approximately $500 in monthly revenue for the Pub.
Do You Need a Huge Audience to Be Successful with Patreon?
Looking at the Saggingtons’ story, it may seem like their success is directly tied to the huge number of YouTube subscribers or the flood of traffic they’ve seen on Bitcoin Pub.
But the brothers don’t believe you need to have a massive following to be successful on Patreon — especially not at the start.
When they first launched their Patreon page,they had less than 3,000 subscribers on their BiteSize Bitcoin channel (and hadn’t launched Decentralized TV yet).
“You don’t need a massive following to have substantial revenue figures,” Peter said. “I think it’s important not be discouraged just because you don’t have high follower numbers: those don’t necessarily translate to good recurring revenue.”
What’s more important is knowing your audience — and what’s possible with your creative process.
Experimentation, iteration, and treating your Patreon efforts like a startup: that is the recipe for success.
“What Peter and I walked away with after all our research was that there is no right answer to this,” John explained.
“We have to determine for ourselves what makes sense for our timetables, for our availability, for our community, for our needs, and for what we’re creating. The sum total of that will be distinctly unique for each creator.”
Instead of worrying about which decision is the “right” one, they recommend just starting.
“You can never know all your risks, because risks only emerge through the act of execution,” Peter urged.
As Peter told us, even if you launch a Patreon page and only three people sign up, “well, now you can talk directly with those three people and get feedback from it.”
“Create that feedback loop so you can do better on the next round.”