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Inspiring Women in Business Podcast - Episode 26 - Is starting a membership right for your business? Interview with Callie Willows of Membership Geeks

podcast Apr 25, 2022

Pretty much anyone can start a membership business, but what does it really take to start? Also, knowing that there’s a lot of memberships and competition out there, what would be the key to having a successful one? 

In this episode, Callie Willows of The Membership Geeks talks about how she ended up with the business that she is doing now. She will also give a lot of advice on having a successful membership business from starting it to retaining it as it evolves through the years. 

Key takeaways from this episode:

  • Anyone can start a membership, but whether everyone should is another matter. 

  • Memberships are more of a slow build, and you need to be in it for the long haul and committed to that. So it's a marathon, not a sprint.

  • Anybody can start a membership but you need to go into it with the right mindset, the right idea, and the right kind of approach to what you're going to be offering.

  • You don't need a big audience, but you do need an audience, you need somebody that you are going to launch to.

  • The smaller your audience is, the more realistic you need to be about the kind of numbers that you're going to get and the growth you're going to get from the start.

  • People join memberships more for convenience because they can get everything in one place and they can be more guaranteed of a result and extra support.

  • It isn't just about the content; It's about helping someone get success and support getting there.

  • There's always going to be competition for anything, so the key to having a successful membership, even if it is a saturated market, is to work out what your thing is.

  • Memberships evolve over time so start as simple as possible.

  • You can't have a successful membership if you're focusing only on getting new members in, you've got to go into it being passionate about actually supporting people, helping people get results, and providing the best membership experience possible.

  • There are 100 different pathways to success and you need to do what lights you up and what makes your tail wag.

Episode Timeline:

00:04 Intro

01:32 Episode Intro

02:05 About Callie Willows' business

02:47 How Callie ended up with the business that she has today.

07:27 Callie's work with her business partner.

08:33 Who is right and not right for a membership.

10:31 The need for an audience to start a membership.

11:50 What to give away for free in the membership.

15:29 The competition in the industry of memberships.

17:09 Callie's advice about starting a membership.

19:27 Advice to someone who is a new business owner.

20:47 How can people find Callie and The Membership Geeks.

21:21 Outro


About my guest:

Callie Willows is the Co-Founder of the Membership Geeks together with her partner, Mike Morrison. She began her entrepreneurship journey when she was 19 years old and she created her first membership site for her first business. This led her to help people create their own membership sites and eventually started the Membership Academy.

Connect and know more about  Callie and her business here:



The Membership Academy

More about Ruth:

Hi, I’m Ruth, a business coach specializing in helping freelancers and business owners adjust their mindset and their marketing so they can get fully booked with clients they LOVE to work with. I’ve helped hundreds of self-employed women achieve the time and money freedom they craved.

I’ve started this podcast because when I first went all in and left the corporate world to be a freelancer, I was grateful for any work that came my way. After over 20 years of freelancing and working for other people, I started to realize I’d created a glass ceiling for myself.

In 2017, I finally started listening to that voice that had been telling me for a long time that I wasn’t doing what I loved and fulfilling my true potential.  It took a critical illness to give me that wake-up call.  I don’t want the same to happen to you.

You can expect practical advice, inspiring stories, and a lot of aha moments as we uncover and kick to the curb all the obstacles you have been putting in your way.

I’m on a mission to inspire women to start and play bigger in business.


Connect and know more about Ruth here:

Coaching: https://www.ruthgilbey.com/coaching

Free stuff: https://www.ruthgilbey.com/next-client 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ruthgilbeymarketingandcoaching/ 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ruth_gilbey/ 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ruthgilbey/ 



Ruth Gilbey  00:04

Hello and welcome to the inspiring women in business podcast. My name is Ruth Gilbey and I'm a business and marketing coach. I'm on a mission to inspire women to start and play bigger in business. Now I started this podcast because when I first went all in and left the corporate world to be a freelancer, I was just grateful for any work that came my way. After over 20 years of freelancing and working for other people, I started to realize I'd created a glass ceiling myself. It was in 2017 when I finally started listening to that voice that had been telling me for a long time, that I wasn't doing what I loved, and I wasn't fulfilling my true potential. It took a critical illness to give me that wake-up call. And I don't want the same thing to happen to you. You can expect practical advice, interviews, inspiring stories, and a lot of aha moments, as we uncover and kick to the curb. All the obstacles you've been putting in your way. Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the inspiring women in business podcast. I'm absolutely delighted to have Callie Willows with me today from the Membership Geeks, a new name, which I absolutely love.

Callie Willows  01:20

Me too.

Ruth Gilbey  01:22

And I've been following Callie for a while. And I'm in the membership Academy. And I've always wanted to get Callie on as a guest. So I'm absolutely delighted to have you here today, Callie.

Callie Willows  01:32

It's lovely to be here. I'm looking forward to talking with you.

Ruth Gilbey  01:34

Amazing. Do you want to just let everybody know a little bit more about who you are and how you help people?

Callie Willows  01:40

Yeah, so as the business name implies, I basically help people with membership sites. So it used to be a service-based business. But for the last seven years, we've actually been teaching people to build and grow their own membership site. So it's a little bit better. But now our focus is membership about memberships essentially. So anything to do with online memberships, communities, that's my jam. That's what I love. I particularly love talking about all things member retention, onboarding, engagement, and that side of things, but yeah, we've helped people start memberships, launch memberships, grow memberships, scale memberships, anything to do with memberships, that's what we do.

Ruth Gilbey  02:15

Amazing. Do you wanna just tell me I'm really interested to hear this story? How did you end up with the business that you've got today?

Callie Willows  02:23

It's kind of a long story. To be honest, it's been a bit of an evolution. So I've actually always been self-employed always run my own businesses since I was 19, essentially, but my first business was very different. Now, it was originally a natural health practice and an E-commerce store. And that was what I did, I kind of helped people with their health and nutrition got a big combination of burnout and health issues kind of meant that I reached a place where I just couldn't see clients anymore, I reached that wall where it was like, I literally cannot do this anymore. And so I still had money coming in from the online store. But seeing clients face to face had been my main bread and butter. And so I started looking for ways that I could still help people but not have to do appointments be tied down to seeing clients all the time of things. And so that led me to the world of memberships. And at the time, this was 12 years ago now. So at the time, they were still kind of not particularly well known like they are now it was kind of a bit more on the internet marketing side of things, you know, peak, I was gonna say 90s, then, but it wasn't actually the 90s. And so I ended up creating a membership site for my existing business. So all around nutrition and health and providing kind of support and community and a subscription box service as well. But I quickly found that I absolutely loved the membership model. Like as soon as I started running it, I realized that you know, I love this. It's that kind of thing, where there are so many different moving parts that you can't really get bored. There's always lots to do lots to learn lots to try. And pretty soon I had other people in the health and fitness space asking me how did you do it? How have you done this membership? Can you help me do the same thing? So I kind of accidentally started helping people create their own membership sites. And so as I said, that was about 11 years ago now. So it wasn't there weren't many people doing that out there at the time. And yeah, I liked doing that more than teaching nutrition and things like that. So I kind of eventually, not long after just had one of those middle of the nights decided I was going to shut down my existing business start a new business. And a week later, I had this business called Digital Dogs Buddy where I was helping people with kind of tech stuff WordPress, predominantly membership site stuff. And then so I got a ton of experience helping people like that. But I was getting more and more kind of complex clients coming to me people wanting more bells and whistles and I can use WordPress, I can do marketing and things like that, but I am not a developer. My partner Mike, on the other hand, is a proper developer who had a web design and development company at the time. He's a marketer as well. So he was running his own business doing that. So we started joining up working with clients together. After a few cases like that. We realized we worked really well together. We enjoyed it. It was a natural fit. So we kind of merged our businesses into this complete service. And again, initially, it wasn't we didn't go all-in on memberships. Initially, it was more focused on any kind of website-building marketing and things like that. But because of the background, most of the clients we were getting were memberships. And so those were the clients we loved working with. So yeah, after I think about eight months, we niched down just to help people with membership sites. And so that was with everything from building them, developing them coming up with the strategy, and helping people with the ongoing marketing and retention and things. And so yeah, that was that. And that was what we did for a few years. But we quickly got a lot of people asking us, you know, how can I learn this myself? I can't afford to get you to build my site for me. But do you have any resources? Do you have anyone you can point me to? And as I said, this was still seven, eight years ago, and there weren't good resources. At the time, everything was that little bit scammy side of internet training. And so we decided to recreate it. So we created Membership Academy, seven years ago, originally, it was going to be just a side hustle, a side business, essentially, to our main business, but we love to do it, we grew quicker than we expected. So within six months, we actually just shut down the service side of the business and went all-in on the membership instead. And yeah, that was seven years ago. And here we are today. Still doing it. So yeah, that was a bit of a long story. Sorry, you probably regret that question. But no, yeah, that's been the evolution essentially.

Ruth Gilbey  06:23

Ah nice, brilliant. And how amazing is that? That you and Mike had these skills that complemented each other? And you're a couple as well, that's just amazing.

Callie Willows  06:34

Yeah. And it works really well. Because Mike's really good on the marketing side. And I enjoy the marketing side. But the thing I really love is kind of the how do you make your members happy? How do you retain them? How do you engage them? So works really well in the membership as well, when it comes to creating content and things like that? Because Mike comes with that kind of more marketing brain and icon with more of the kind of customer experience brain as well. So yeah, it's a good partnership.

Ruth Gilbey  06:56

Yeah, I was gonna say what's, what's it like working with your partner? Has it always been plain sailing?

Callie Willows  07:02

It's interesting, it's definitely a lot easier. Now, when we first started working together, we lived in a converted garage. So it was this tiny space. And we were basically sitting on opposite ends of a sofa on laptops, and you didn't have any space whatsoever. So as soon as we actually got a house, we moved from there, we made sure it was somewhere we could both have separate offices because Mike likes playing loud rap music. I'm not a fan of rap music, you know, when he's coding these, he needs just to be in his zone. And I just will like, to annoy him with questions. So yeah, so separate offices are the key to a happy business relationship for us. But yeah, most of the time, we've not really had any issues. We think very similarly, we work together similarly. I think the main thing is that it does become very hard to separate life and work when you are living and working together. But yeah, touchwood it's been more good, than anything else.

Ruth Gilbey  07:51

That's brilliant. So it's, I've got my own membership as well and learn an awful lot from you and Mike and the Membership Academy. And it's interesting because I'm helping service-based business owners go from kind of being freelancers to business owners and think about ways they can add income to their business. And a lot they a lot of people are really curious about memberships. So I just wanted to ask a question, a couple of questions about who do you think a membership is right for, you know, for their business and who isn't it right for?

Callie Willows  08:22

I would say, a membership, you know, pretty much anyone can start a membership. But whether everyone should is another matter, I kind of don't ascribe to the fact that memberships are right for everyone at all, you know, might be a surprise, I teach people to do it. But it's not the best option for everyone, the people it works best for is where you've got a recurring need and your audience. So something where they're either needing ongoing training on ongoing support on something like that, where actually there's a reason for them to need to keep coming back month after month, you can provide a better service to them or better result to them by having that kind of ongoing element, but it's a marathon, not a sprint, you need to be in it for the long haul with a membership. It's not a case. You know, a lot of the time you'll hear these kinds of course launch stories where they launch and suddenly they've had a huge launch. And you know, that's all the money they need for the year. That's not the case with memberships. That's the exception, not the norm memberships are more of a slow build, and you need to be in it for the long haul and committed to that. So it's a marathon, not a sprint, we always like to tell people and so conversely kind of who they're not suited for is more those people that are either just looking for passive income because it's definitely not passive. There is work involved. And yeah, the people that are wanting the quick fix, or the easy solution, essentially, I think memberships are very much become the in thing at the minute and people are starting them because they think they should but you need to go into it knowing exactly what it means what it entails, what it means for your business, what it means for your day to day working life, what it means for your members because if people are paying you on an ongoing basis, you need to show up and deliver on an ongoing basis as well. So yeah, so I think it's really anybody can start a membership but you need to go into it with the right mindset with the right idea, and the right kind of approach to what you're going to be offering?

Ruth Gilbey  10:01

Yeah, I totally agree with that I think you have to really want to do it has to be part of your why? Because yeah, it's not like delivering a course there's no start and end to it unless you get someone to cover you. One of the things that comes up quite a lot is the question. And this is batted around online as well about do you need a big audience to start a membership? What do you think?

Callie Willows  10:24

Not at all, you don't need a big audience, but you do need an audience, you need somebody that you are going to launch to. So for ourselves with the academy, let's use that as a first example, we didn't have an email list and an audience when we started building the academy, because we've been so far focused on client work, you know, and that most of that was by referral. So we weren't doing the lead magnet, email list, and all of that. So we started doing that about three months before we launched the academy kind of trying to build up that audience. And by the time we launched, we had just under 500 people in the audience. And in a free Facebook group, we started and we converted, I can't remember the exact numbers, I think it was about 160 people who joined our membership when we first launched. So that was a good result from a small audience. We've had members with as few as 100 people on their email list launch. And because the people on that list have really specific to what they're offering, it will often lead to convert a lot higher. You know, we had somebody on our q&a call this morning, who has an audience of 700, the launch last week, they've got 300 of them have joined the membership. So you don't need a huge audience. You don't need 10,000 people on your email list or anything like that. But you do need an audience. And the smaller your audience is, the more realistic you need to be about the kind of numbers that you're going to get and the growth you're going to get from the start.

Ruth Gilbey  11:34

Yeah, such good advice. I've thought of another question. Actually, that's not on my list. But the whole thing about what do I give away for free? And what goes in the membership question, I just love to hear how do you get the balance.

Callie Willows  11:47

So there's the obvious one, which is kind of you give away the what and the why. And you share the how in the membership and the support in the membership. So that's kind of the one that most people will be familiar with. And that definitely works. The other option is to kind of let me get this right, Michael, Mike, okay. So you can either go narrow and deep or shallow and wide with your content. So, for example, if you've got a topic on, let's say, you were going to teach a course on Facebook ads in your membership. So that course would encompass everything from setting up your Facebook ads to how to get them working, how to get them converting and things, but then you want to create some free content, that's a link to that. So the free content, you would take just a sliver of that. So it might be just you know how to set up your first Facebook ad or how to prefer your Facebook business account. And that'd be kind of narrow and deep. So you're given quite a lot of information, you're kind of giving that how-to that you're not meant to do, but it's only on this very specific, narrow part. Or the other option is you go broad, but kind of shallow, so you're not giving a lot of depth, but you're giving kind of the highlights. So that might be five things to do to make sure your Facebook ad works, for example. So you're giving five tips, but they're all quite shallow across a broad range of topics. Does that make sense?

Ruth Gilbey  12:59

100%. And I've got a Facebook ads course in my memberships. Makes complete sense that you wouldn't give away the whole course. But I suppose it's quite interesting because I can see going in narrow and deep. Might really work if you were doing a webinar or you were doing a lead magnet where it's like high value but on like the day-to-day like blog content, or you might you could go a bit wide, you could mix it up a little bit. I think it's just really helpful because I think people get really stuck on that they think they're going to give away too much value. But for as a content creator myself, I love creating content. I've just found as I create, I get more ideas anyway. Yeah, it's like a ripple effect. I just don't run out of ideas. And there's enough for my membership, and enough for my marketing, as well. 

Callie Willows  13:44

And at the end of the day, like these days, especially pretty much most information is out there already for free on the Internet somewhere. So it's not necessarily a case of oh, well, I can't say this because then they won't join the membership because people join memberships more for convenience, because they can get everything in one place they join because they can be more guaranteed of a result of extra support or all kinds of reasons like that. They're not just joining because oh, well, I want to learn this one thing, and the only way I can do that is because it's behind this paywall. So there's a lot more to it as well. And yeah, it's that thing, if you look at our podcast, we've got podcast episodes on pretty much all aspects of memberships. Now there are over 300 episodes, but we still have people joining the membership every day because it's that more in-depth content. It's that guided pathway. It's that support.  Yeah, that's something I learned from being in the membership academy that it isn't just about the content. It's about helping someone get success and support getting there, which you wouldn't get with a blog post. That's a bit of information. But if you want that accountability and help that's where membership can really help you.


Yeah, and it's definitely that accountability element without people necessarily even thinking I need some accountability on this. But there's that saying that people who pay attention, and you're far more likely to take action on something if you've actually paid money to learn that thing or to get that result versus just having 16 browser tabs open with blog posts that you're going to read that some point which sure that's not just me I, you know, it's that thing of kind of you're making a commitment when you join a membership that this is something that's a priority for you and you're going to focus on.

Ruth Gilbey  15:19

I agree I agree. There's a question that I'm asked a lot as well, as well, there's just so many courses out there, and there are so many memberships out there, do I need a digital product or, or a membership in my business, what's your feeling about the industry and memberships,

Callie Willows  15:33

It's definitely a fuller market than ever before. So more and more people, even before kind of the pandemic, we were already reaching this peak of people creating courses and memberships that kind of, especially in the online business market, it became the done thing to do. And then obviously, the pandemic hit. And it became even more popular because more people looking to transition from the current businesses or the current work, and more people have time to actually sit down and do it as well. So there definitely are more courses and memberships in the marketplace than ever before. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it. There's always going to be competition for anything. And if anything, you know, people buy you and your particular approach to doing things. So the key to actually still having a successful membership, even if it is a saturated market is to work out what your thing is, why should somebody learn this from you, not somebody else. And that's where niching comes into things as well, you know, so it definitely is a much fuller market now. But we're seeing people still get huge success, even in markets where there are lots of options. So we have one of the biggest areas in our membership in terms of our member base is people with music-based memberships. So we have members who have really specific music-based memberships, like blues guitar, you know, and we have three or four of them who all actually help each other out work together, they've got pretty much identical client bases, but they all attract different people because they're doing it in a slightly different way. And so yeah, so there's still space for everyone, but you need to either niche or find what makes you different and why people will learn from you. And that's where building your audience comes in. Because those people want to hear from you.

Ruth Gilbey  17:04

Yeah, that's I love that. I love that story that even though people are in a similar niche, they're helping each other. That's really loving what you do, and having the confidence to just do that thing and know that people want to work with you. What advice would you give to someone who's thinking about starting a membership?

Callie Willows  17:19

Absolutely, start by keeping it simple. So memberships evolve over time, you know, your membership on day one will look very different from your membership at the end of year one, or year three, or year five. So you want to start as simple as possible, for yourself to make it as manageable as possible. But also because you're you're going to evolve based on what your members actually want. We can think our members want all of these things. But actually, when it comes down to it, what they actually want is XYZed instead. So start as simple as possible. Think about what's the minimum viable product I can create to give somebody a result. It's not about the kind of undeserving people, it's about keeping things as easy as possible for them. So if you strip things back, what's going to help them get a result? And how can you deliver that is the easiest way, it's far easier to add things later than take things away. And one of the key things we see is people trying to do too much too soon. So maybe they're trying to do a live call every week because that's what they think is needed and a live training every week or recorded training every week when actually what their members really need is one q&a A month and a new workshop every month, you know, so the simpler you keep it to start with the better able you'll be to kind of take your members feedback and evolve based on their needs.

Ruth Gilbey  18:26

 Yeah, I 100% agree it was interesting, because in the last year, I took a two-week holiday and got a couple of people to cover me and I took a break over Christmas, and no one left my membership. Yet I told myself a story possibly do that. And actually, people are great. I can implement some things. You know, it was interesting. It's the thing we can get into that content machine of just churning out more and more content. But it's more about listening, isn't it, and understanding what they need?


Yeah, it's about helping members get a result. And content isn't necessarily the thing that's going to do that or not more content anyway. So it's, you know, memberships? I think people think it's about the stuff so people are paying money every month. So you've got a pile it with stuff, but that's not the case. You know, so yeah, it's, I would say, number one, keep it simple. And also bear in mind, memberships are a retention business, you know, you can't have a successful membership if you're focusing only on getting new members in and not on taking care of the members that you already have. So you've got to go into it being passionate about actually supporting people helping people get results and providing the best membership experience possible.

Ruth Gilbey  19:31

Brilliant. And last question, what advice would you give someone who's a new business owner? What was that? You know, that thing that you wish you'd known when you first started your business?

Callie Willows  19:41

I think if we're talking just really broad, it's actually listened to your instincts that are no shoulds in business. So just because other people are saying this is the one thing you've got to do or you've got to have this in your business to be successful. That's not true. That just means that that's what's made them successful. There are 100 different pathways to success and you need to do what lights you up? What makes your tail wag? So it's fine to kind of read the books and listen to podcasts and take courses and follow in the footsteps of what people you admire are doing. But you've got to filter all of that through, is this something I actually want to do? Is this something that I want to get up in the morning and base my life and my business around? So I always like to kind of pass things through that filter of like just doing this thing or saying yes to this thing. Take me closer or further away from my goal. And does it make my tail wag? If it doesn't make you tail wag, then yeah, there are some basic things in business you have to do anyway. But if the bulk of your business doesn't make you happy, it's not going to be going for long.

Ruth Gilbey  20:34

You know, I'm going to use that now in a social media post. Does it make your tail wag? 

Callie Willows  20:39

I bought a t-shirt with it on.

Ruth Gilbey  20:42

Have you? I love that. You love to send me a photo.

Callie Willows  20:46

Yeah, so one of our own because I say it on our q&a calls all the time. So it's just kind of that thing. But yeah,

Ruth Gilbey  20:51

Your qualification process does it take you further or closer away from your goals is one of the questions I ask on my coaching goals as well. So yeah, I love that. Thank you so much, Callie. How can people find out more about you and the membership geeks?


Yeah, so you can find out all you ever wanted to know about memberships over at membershipgeeks.com, or if you want to connect with me personally ask me any questions or just see what I get up to in my spare time, which is actually quite boring. And then you can find me on Instagram @calliewillows.

Ruth Gilbey  21:19

Amazing. Thank you so much. And also I'm really looking forward to your masterclass into the membership in my membership. Yeah, in April. That's going to be amazing as well. Thank you so much for your time.

Callie Willows  21:31

I'm looking forward to it. It was great chatting with you.

Ruth Gilbey  21:40

Thanks for listening to the inspiring women in business podcast. I hope you found this episode helpful. If you did, I would love it if you would leave me a review. Also, I would love to connect with you on Instagram. That's where I hang out most of the time. I'm @Ruth_Gilbey. I'll put a link in the show notes for you as well come and connect with me. Tell me about your business. And also tell me what you'd like to hear next on the podcast. And lastly, go and check out the business building hub on my website. There you can find more amazing free resources to help you take the next step in your business. And you can also find out other ways that you can work with me. I'll see you soon.