You’ve seen the numbers and you know that subscription businesses are on the rise. You want a piece of that action — but there’s a problem.
You’re not a coder, and you don’t have the capital to pay a developer or the time to learn how to code, so a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business is out of the question for now. And a physical subscription business feels overwhelming — you might want to tackle it later, but right now, you want to start with something digital, to simplify logistics and fulfillment.
Not to fear. We have three examples of non-SaaS — or “XaaS,” if you will — digital subscriptions below. They can help you brainstorm some ways to start your very own subscription business.
“XaaS” is an emerging term which means “anything as a service.” It’s a play on SaaS, which refers to software being accessed online through a subscription basis. XaaS refers to the now extremely wide range of products accessed through an online subscription outside of software, some of which we’ll talk about today.
Read on to learn more about these products, see examples, and get started:
“Content” is an extremely broad umbrella. If you think about it, pretty much everything on the internet is content, right? But for the purposes of this article, we’ll use it as a catch-all term to cover downloadable or streaming media (whether written, video, audio, etc.).
There’s a chance you already use one or more of these in your day to day life, like…
- Audible (audiobooks)
- Hulu and Netflix (TV shows and movies)
- Xbox Game Pass
But there are also examples that aren’t household names, which can include subscriptions like:
- Digital magazines
- Paywalled newsletters
- A wealth of examples from indie artists, including paywalled novellas, comics, podcasts, and more — found everywhere from Patreon to Gumroad to self-hosted sites
Generally, you’ll find subscription-based content falls into two categories:
- Entertainment — fictional content designed mostly to entertain
- Instructional — content that’s designed to educate you about a specific topic or teach you how to do a specific thing
Sometimes, as with larger companies that have a huge library of content, these two intersect. You can watch a documentary on Hulu, or catch up on your favorite sitcom; Audible has Lord of the Rings right next to the latest books on physics.
For most smaller businesses, though, you’ll choose one of these two areas to focus on. There’s no hard and fast answer about whether it’s better to focus on entertainment or instruction. Instructional content can be an easier sell (especially when it involves giving your money to a relatively unknown person), but there are multiple examples of independent artists creating a thriving business — as long as they’re willing to market it and can consistently create content.
You may want to go this route if:
- You have ideas for stories to tell and either have a backlog of content created, or know you can keep up with a steady release schedule
- You have a set of knowledge that you can break down into lessons for other people to consume
- You’re skilled in some kind of media creation (whether it’s writing, audio/video production, art, or a combination)
Example content-based subscriptions:
- Friends at the Table is an actual-play RPG podcast whose Patreon campaign is based entirely on behind-the-scenes and exclusive content (and is currently just shy of $20,000/month)
- Money Words Monthly is a monthly B2B subscription, which sends templates that business owners can use to create sales and marketing content
- Revry , a streaming video platform for independent LGBTQ+ filmmakers
- The Great Courses Plus , which offers a monthly subscription for streaming access to a library of college-level courses on topics ranging from philosophy to economics
A teaching or mentorship subscription is typically either a group coaching or teaching program (with, for example, X group calls a month for $Y), or an individual coaching/subscription (X 1:1 lessons a month for $Y).
Often, these subscriptions are combined with content — videos, worksheets, or other content that helps reinforce the lessons and gives the subscribers something to do. Sometimes, the group calls and/or 1:1 time is the main product being provided.
The biggest difference between this and a content-based subscription (even if it’s instructional content) is that there’s an element of interactivity and personal time, even in a group call. If you have a question about something in the lesson, you can ask the teacher, instead of trying to figure it out on your own. Because of that, there’s often an added element of accountability — so people in these kinds of subscription programs may be more likely to take action on what they learn.
You may want to go this route if:
- You have a strong unique selling proposition and the ability to write compelling content that conveys why you are the person someone should pay to learn about this
- You have an existing customer base and/or email list to market to (as selling teaching and mentorship with you to people who already know who you are is going to be much easier than cold-selling someone)
- You have case studies, professional credentials, or other things that you can showcase as a reason that your expertise is worth paying for
- You’re a skilled communicator who can convey information in an effective, actionable, and easily-digestible way
Example teaching/mentorship subscriptions:
- Frontier Tutoring has one and two hour-per-week subscription options
- The Mom Center is a group-coaching program for mothers in need of support
- Ama La Vida offers group life coaching memberships
Usually, a community-based subscription looks like a forum or chat channel, where you can ask questions, get input, and chat with other people. The key difference between a community-focused subscription and a teaching/mentorship-focused subscription is that the customer is paying for interaction with and access to their peers, as opposed to interaction with a teacher or mentor.
These are typically organized around a hobby or interest — especially more niche hobbies or interests. They’re often combined with content or a very light amount of teaching, to create a business that’s relatively “hands-off” to run, but can still provide a lot of value to the members. And in many cases, there’s a free version available, but paying a subscription fee gets the user access to premium areas and/or forum features (custom emoji, a badge for their avatar, etc.).
You may want to go this route if:
- You feel passionately about or have recognized a specific group of people whose problems would be solved by having access to their peers
- You’re more interested in fostering interaction between other people than creating content, teaching, or mentoring people
- You’re willing to be active in the community and start conversations as it grows, to make sure that people are getting the most out of it
Example community subscriptions:
- #Workfrom is a paid Slack community for people who work remotely (or want to), with over 3,000 members
- The Bullish Society is a subscription-based community for feminist business owners with an online forum and in-person meetups for members
- The Puttytribe is an online community for people with multiple passions and projects
There are a few other ways you can go with digital subscriptions, but the majority of digital subscription businesses are one of these three models — or some combination of them.
Pencil Kings is a great example of a hybrid model. It’s an art community which combines instructional content (including both longer lessons on specific topics, and bite-sized daily pieces of content) with community forums of peers for feedback and accountability, and access to a success team of coaches.
The options for digital subscriptions are endless. Now that you’ve seen these examples, hopefully you have some ideas of how you can create your own and join the subscription economy today.
Once you’ve decided which path you want to take, make sure that you’re set up for success. If you’re looking to start a subscription business or want to make sure you’re on the right track, check out our Six-Month Success Checklist. Download it today and set yourself up to win: