How we signed up 10,000 paying subscribers in just over a month

It’s not easy launching a new subscription business. The subscription economy overall may be thriving but relatively few companies ever make it to scale.

For example, have a look at the data from subscription platform providers. Compass data shows only 7% of subscription companies made it to 10,000 users. And Baremetrics benchmarks suggest that less than 25% of their 600+ SaaS customers ever exceed more than a few thousand subscribers.

Even famous subscription brands didn’t necessarily rocket off overnight. Wix took 9 months to reach 20,000 paying subscribers once they introduced their premium offering. And Zendesk took 42 months to get to 10,000 customers.

Reaching the 10K milestone

In that context, we’re thrilled our new design subscription, Envato Elements, reached 10,000 paying subscribers in just over a month since its beta launch.

To mark the occasion, I recently took some time to reflect on our experience and to identify lessons for others who are seeking to launch a new subscription. Obviously your specific situation will be unique, but hopefully this gives you a useful perspective to help you find your own way to scale.

Here are five things I believe were vital to the rapid uptake of our new subscription, Envato Elements:

  1. Insights
  2. Design
  3. Value Proposition
  4. Distribution
  5. Focus

Insights

Envato has run marketplaces for digital assets for 10 years. But we realized even that deep industry experience was not enough by itself. We needed an even deeper understanding of our target customer and their needs.

To do this, we ran interviews and surveys using the Outcome Driven Innovation method. The end result of this research was a robust and prioritized list of customer needs and pain points.

Armed with these insights, we could confidently make bold product decisions. For example, simplifying down to a single commercial license for all items; offering unlimited downloads; and emphasizing library quality over quantity.

So if you’re developing a new product, ask yourself: what’s your special insight? What do you know about your target customers and their needs that others have missed? Without a a good answer, it’s unlikely you’ll grow fast.

Design

With design-savvy target customers, design was essential to our subscription’s credibility. Our goal was for subscribers to love the experience of using the site — to feel inspired and creative, so they enjoy coming back often to use it.

A well-deserved hat tip to our designer, Luke Farrugia, for his awesome work and to our front end developers for bringing that design to life on the web.

The lesson here is that great design is not just about looking good. Design has a vital role to play in delivering on people’s emotional needs and in enhancing the core value of your product. Plus it can spark conversations and make it much more likely people will tell others about your new product.

Value Proposition

Before starting work on Envato Elements, we explored various business models. With a two-sided business like this, we knew that to succeed we needed a strong value proposition for both subscribers and contributors.

Our first step was to map out a framework for all the key choices (see hexagon below) and start playing with options.

Along the way we explored exclusive vs non-exclusive content; download credits vs unlimited access; an all-in-one library vs separate libraries per item type; and many more options. For each viable option for a business model, all decisions had to fit together into a coherent (and compelling) whole.

We came up with 3–4 viable alternative models. But we still had a nagging feeling that our critical risk was not getting enough traction with subscribers. (In investment circles, offering “10x customer value” is often cited as necessary to encourage customers to switch to your new product).

So in the end we chose to offer “unlimited downloads”. This was necessary for a compelling and distinctive value proposition to subscribers. Then, to make it work for contributors too, we opted for non-exclusive content, set an attractive revenue share, and pioneered “subscriber share” for fairer payouts.

Distribution

Entrepreneurs often overlook the power of distribution. It’s not just about having a great product: you need to get it in front of customers and convince them to buy it. And this is where established businesses have a distinct advantage over startups.

For example, Envato already has tens of thousands of designers who create digital items and sell them on our marketplaces. When we invited those designers to join Elements, we saw a 2x higher conversion vs people selling elsewhere. And 10x higher compared to a general designer audience. That’s the power of having an established relationship and credibility.

And on the customer side, we were fortunate to be able to leverage the huge audience that Envato has built up over the last 10 years. This includes an online audience of millions of people who visit Envato’s sites every month, plus a massive list of over a million people who have opted in to our emails.

That said, distribution alone doesn’t guarantee success. Envato has launched plenty of other products in recent years that haven’t caught fire like this one.

Nonetheless, strong distribution helped kickstart our new subscription and get it to sustainable scale. Now our challenge is to build up additional distribution channels that help us scale the subscription to 50K or more.

If you don’t have existing distribution channels, one great way to start is to set up a ‘coming soon’ landing page up as soon as possible, so you build up a list of qualified prospects to notify when you launch. It’s also worth finding other organizations with distribution channels that reach your target customers, and then negotiating ways to access those channels to promote your product.

Focus

You need a small dedicated team to focus purely on the new opportunity. This enables the tough (and sometimes controversial) decisions needed to shape a remarkable product. It provides the necessary speed to market, without getting distracted by other issues. And it helps protect the resources of the new venture from being re-directed to urgent needs elsewhere.

For startups this may be a given, but for intrapreneurs inside an established company it’s not. This is discussed at length in the innovation literature. The established business is always bigger, more profitable, and less risky than the new thing. So rational resource allocation means that companies — despite their long-term strategic intentions — tend to starve a new venture. And one of the few effective ways to prevent that is to set up an entirely separate team.

Our CEO recognized this need and therefore set up a separate team to create & launch Envato Elements. We had a clear deadline, big ambitions and a strong mandate to move fast and do something remarkable.

But even with that CEO support, there was still significant pressure from the main business to do things their way or to integrate with existing systems. There’s a time and place for that, but I firmly believe it’s not at the start.

The other aspect of focus is about how the team operates. You need to focus on the absolute essentials and avoid scope creep. It’s far better to do fewer things, and do them really well. This means saying “no” or “not now” to lots of things that are good ideas and that you’d love to do …which is really hard.


Conclusion

So there you have it: insight, design, value proposition, distribution and focus. Take away any one of those and the launch of Envato Elements would not have been nearly as successful.

If you’re working on a new product or venture, I encourage you to think about how these factors will affect your success. Which are you strongest in? Where are your blind spots? Are there things you’ve overlooked or de-emphasized?

Remember, it’s rare that one factor alone will lead to success, but the absence of a necessary one can stop you! Your new product is like a chain — it’s only as strong as its weakest link. That’s because good strategy is almost always a combination of things working together in a mutually reinforcing way.