How to Launch a Membership Site in Less Than an Hour (And Make a Living from It)

How to Launch a Membership Site in Less Than an Hour (And Make a Living from It) post image

A few weeks back I started a membership site. It generates enough income that I could live off of it. My plan, however, is to invest the income back in to the community to make it better.

Here’s the kicker: the site took me less than an hour to set up.

Of course the hard work in building any online community is building an audience. I can’t help you with that in 1 hour. But if you do have an audience, you can add a ton of value by offering them a robust community to interact with each other in. Best of all, it’ll take you less than an hour to do (even if you count reading this post!).

The software we are using is better than what I toiled on for months trying to create myself. We were trying to piece together open source solutions like WordPress, with classic membership gateway stuff like Amember. I believe the experience for our users is way better than anything I could have pieced together on my own.

Before you make a decision about membership site software, it’s worth looking at Sean’s excellent How to Build a Membership Site in 48 Hours.

Don’t worry, reading Sean’s article is part of the 1 hour :)

The Current State WordPress Membership Site Solutions.

Like many bloggers and internet marketers, I was interested in setting up a private site for the readers and listeners that shared my values, and wanted to interact with me and my team more closely. At the beginning of the summer we set out to create a private forum for the folks on our mastermind call…

8 Weeks Later We Had Run Through Virtually Every Solution on the Marketplace, and Spent Well Over $400 USD

Wishlist. Amember. Buddypress. Simplepress. Vanilla Forums. Aweber. Paypal pro recurring payments (60 bucks a month!?!!?)… on and on.

Nothing felt right. We wanted a site with robust features. We wanted a smooth, highly professional experience. We wanted people to be able to create groups, become each other’s friends, send DMs, have detailed profiles, and have a real identify on the site.

Robust User Profiles and Social Networking Features Were a Must for Us

I got the same advice over and over– “you’ll need to build it.”

So I turned around and gave the same advice to everyone I met. “If you want to start a business, get in the membership site solutions business! Tons of opportunities there!” (Still are).

Despite all the challenges involved in piecing together a custom solution, we decided we’d do it anyway. At least, we thought, we could launch our membership site with a robust profile feature.

In the middle of seriously considering throwing big money at a software team to get this done, everything changed in a moment.

In the middle of all this silliness- building out our own custom plugins and such– I looked over the shoulder of one of the attendees of the Tropical MBA summit in the Philippines.

HIM: “Want to see Simon Black’s membership site?”

ME: “Sure, I love that blog.”

::::looking over his shoulder::::

ME: “Holy shit, what is that?

HIM: “I think it’s Ning.”

ME: “NING!!!!!????!!?” :::turning to my developer guy::: “That’s exactly what we need!”


I had totally written off Ning. Back in the day it was the hot start-up on the scene built around letting users create free social networks. Long story short– they made a huge pivot and started focusing on charging clients (the entry level network is $30 bucks a month).

The Pros and Cons of Using Ning vs. A Self-Hosted WordPress Solution


  • Focus your energy on building great content and a great community. Not on technical tasks.
  • Huge traffic, engagement, and tons of user-genearted content. My 2 month old private community has better content on it than both of my blogs combined, and the traffic and engagement stats back that up.
  • Better software and social features than almost all other platforms. There are some good white label social software, but they have the same frankenstein/technical issues that wordpress ends up having with these implementations.
  • You are standing on the shoulders of giants. There are like a whole bunch of very smart, very good looking developers in San Francisco cranking on Ning’s software platform. Further, Ning is now profitable and doing well as a company (as I understand it).
  • Uptime and reliability. People are always dealing with technical issues with their frankenstein wordpress sites. With Ning you can set it and forget it.
  • Ease of use and customization. This site can look completely different tomorrow, we can launch and roll out new features with ZERO dev support. We can focus 100% on content, marketing, and having a good time in the community.
  • No feature creep. This is a very real, and difficult cost to quantify in businesses that take on software projects. I have only one response to my users when they ask for a new feature: “I’ll make the request to the development team at Ning.” That bulkhead in our workflow keeps us focused on what counts.


  • If Ning Doesn’t have a feature you really really want, you won’t get it. I’ll admit, there are some things I’d really like to see integrated. I’d love to be able to respond to threads from my email inbox, for example. Probably not going to happen anytime soon. That’s life!
  • Your content is on Ning’s servers. This is a problem for certain businesses, especially if your users are extremely sensitive about their security.
  • No advanced content control. It’s difficult to near impossible to create time-released content or other highly interactive-customized content experiences at the domain.
  • Domain mapping. It’s a bitch to set up email addresses, splash pages, sales letters, etc. since the domain is mapped over to Ning’s servers.
  • Your developer friends will think you are lame. They think you are lame anyway though, right?
  • No recurring billing support yet. They say soon. But common guys!!!

So if Recurring Payment isn’t Supported, How do I Handle Billing?

In Paypal payments standard (free service, you just need a bank account hooked up to your Paypal account) you can set up a custom product to bill at a set time period. Then, set up a sales page on an alternate domain (say, or on your primary blog like I did. You could also set up your community at “” and then put your sales material at “”.

When people sign up for your site you can auto-send them an email with a sign-up code generated from Ning. You’ll need to manaully approve new members, but that’s a one-click step. When you get a notification from Paypal saying somebody cancelled their subscription, you’ll need to remove that person from your network manually. Again, one click.

That’s it! That’s about one hour between reading the two articles, and you putting your credit card information in to Ning’s site.

Have fun!


PS, in many niches where I would have previously considered setting up a monetizable blog, I’d totally set up a Ning site now.

PPS, I could really go on forever. For marketers, Ning represents a huge opportunity.

Want to hear more from me?

Published on 09.22.11
  • Hi Dan, Got to say I love the way that Ning works on your site, and am thinking of using it in the future for two projects I have in mind.

    A few things worry me though (but I;m sure these issues are easily addressed).

    One of the sites will be video rich, yet the maximum storage size is 20 gig (on the best plan) this seems low. I’d need to keep the videos private, so can’t really host on youtube. I guess that I could host them on a different server and point the people there.

    Secondly, with hosting on a separate server, do you still have control over the content. Say I build up a nice site and they suddenly they put the prices up drastically, I’d be in no position but to accept the new charges as I would be unable to move the site over. Same problem if the company goes under (though it does look healthy).

    Just a few thoughts, like I say I am seriously considering it as there are a lot of things that I really like about it.

  • Ditto on this. is taking off because of your call on this. Sickkk.

  • I would recommend hosting your videos somewhere other than your site no matter what membership platform you choose then just embed a video player on the page you want the video to play.

    Amazon S3 and Libsyn are 2 video hosting solutions I use.

    If prices get raised on you, hopefully, you’ll be making enough that the cost in time and money to export your site will be less than the cost of the increase.  The pain of disconnect is a scary problem when using someone else’s platform, but a good platform would be worth the bit of uncertainty of a major price increase.

    If Ning goes under, they will most likely let people know so owners can export their sites.

  • Dan mentions the drip/sequential content problem with Ning.  If you are building a content site instead of a community site, you may want to go with a different membership platform.

    If you don’t mind a new member getting access to all of your content right at the beginning, then Ning would be an excellent choice.  My friend, Izzy, has people pay for 6 months up front and they get access to the entire library of content so Ning would be great in that situation.

    Another choice, though very manual, would be to put different content into different groups inside Ning and then add that member after a time period (ex every 30 days or quarterly).  You’ll need to use some tool to remind you to add that member — probably have Boomerang for Gmail remind you.

    To me, this is a bigger hassle than using a WordPress-based membership plugin to protect time-delayed content.

    Dan is right about the Franken-system that gets created when you have a dozen plugins working together to make your membership site function.  I spend a couple hours a month dealing with technical issues and sometimes I can’t find why a bug comes and goes.

    Hope that helps readers make a decision.

  • Dan

    Very helpful here Tim. Another way to structure content for users would be to have it drip out on payment rather than time. So when they pay for access to a group they get it. Ning now supports charging for groups, but since they don’t have recurring payment integration worked out yet it’s not really viable to automate this yet.

  • Dan

    Yeah buddy.

  • Dan

    Deano– I’d love to discuss your projects with you. Knowing your business just a bit, I think Ning platform could be superior to other CMS type approaches to content niches. Regarding video: you might be able to use “unlisted” youtube videos if you want to go free, or you could also pay 199 annually for Vimeo and have it free. Amazon is a great option as well. 

    I share you concern about content but love Tim’s attitude about it and share it– net net I’ve been pulling in profits on my content after 1 hour of tech work, whereas I wasted 8 weeks of my time (and David’s) trying to set up a solution I “owned.” Well.. who really got owned. There are a few notable examples of Ning communities that recently got exported to other services with success, so I’m not worried about the potential fire drill of moving to something like WordPress/VBulletin if necessary.

  • Hey Dan,

    I’ll shoot you an email in a couple of days time about a few of my plans.

  • traveltrish

    I used Ning three years ago to coordinate a large group of volunteers and loved it!  Glad to see it’s still around!

  • Dan

    Me too! Actually never considered it for business / blog applications– I think I typcasted it. Anyway, nowadays its really a delight for me to use the software. In the past 4 weeks our members have visited over 6,000 times and average stay on the site for 8-9 minutes. I think the software helps a lot with that. 

  • George

    Thanks again Dan, I would love to shoot you an email about some business questions. How would I contact you?

  • Dan

    dan at tropical mba dot com

  • Thanks for the excellent tips! FYI you ranked #5 in google for the term “ning and wordpress”

  • Dan

    Yeah buddy I’ll take it!

  • Cool. I’ll have to check this out. I started a membership site called canadianfreeflyers and I’ve been using S2Member. It’s also good but I’m looking into this.

  • Dan

    Cheers! Hope it’s useful.

  • Dan

    BTW – another way hack this would be to put users on an Autoresponder when they join your group. The autoresponder would send them access codes or passwords or even just hidden URLS to access content, say, 30, 90, 120 days after they sign up for your group. This could easily be done by putting WP at a subdomain called “” and you could easily drip that way.

  • Lon David

    Curious? Since this thread seems to be around a year old, what are your thoughts now? I’m going through this and seem to be running into the same issues. Want wordpress, want forums, want reoccurring payments. Hard to put it all together.

  • Dan

    Hey Lon, thanks for checking the article out! So far I wouldn’t change anything about what I wrote above. Ning does seem to have some limitations relative to solutions like VBulletin if you’ve got a huge number of users and content… say 500+… so if you intend to have 1,000’s of users, something like Vbulletin could be superior. But I still like Ning better and we won’t be switching our membership to another software for a while.

    I have been a part of many private communities on the web and so far I’ve never seen anything that approaches the look and feel, engagement and “stickiness” of DC. I go there all the time just b/c it’s fun to hang out and see what’s going on.

    Their Ning feature roadmap has been a little slow coming as of late, but there are rumors that they are working on distributing the networks across the globe to increase community load time.

  • Lon David

    Appreciate the feedback. Just signed up to give it a try. Wish I would have thought about the “manual” billing you described before. I can make that work. Thanks for the tips.

  • martin

    hey Dan, I wish I found this article a year ago. I’m planning on launching a fitness site. Do you think that Ning is good for uploading videos and media? Would you recommend starting a blog to promote the paid site?

  • Dan

    hey Martin thanks for that. Ning can work for both photos and vid although something like Vimeo pro is probably worth getting. I would use a blog for promotion, much like TMBA promotes DC

  • mergelane

    I went through the ning presentation and discovered in the search feature that there was not a feature for multiple languages. Is that true? I need a site in French, Spanish, English and Brazilian Portuguese.

  • Dan

    I cannot be sure. You might be able to use a search feature from Google on your community (if it’s open).

  • mergelane

    I wasn’t going to buy in until I was sure it could be done and listing my credit card information wasn’t a good solution as I forget things and then get billed later. Hmmmm I keep searching google thanks.

  • Dan thanks for this helpful post!

    Discovered this when searching Ning vs vBulletin … you’ve convinced me to re-look at Ning again.

    (The reason why I had written off Ning is because I’ve been part of a dozen Ning groups over the years, and never engaged with them… why is it that no Ning groups I’m part of ever seem to send notification emails… is that hard to configure? That’s really important for engagement it seems, and that’s one reason why Facebook groups have high engagement… users get lots of emails :)

    Have you also considered ~ created by ex-Ning Founder

  • Dan

    Agreed re: groups feature that sucks. We’ve asked our group leaders to send emails to groups. Used MB didn’t suit my current needs.

  • Claudia

    Thanks, I am considering using Ning. But still haven’t wrapped my head round it. How do you deliver content? It can’t be dripped right?

  • Dan

    Correct, it’s not great if you have a content approach. You’d have to use an autoresponder to drip content.

  • Carol

    Hi! Thanks for helpfull information! Just want to say that I saw an interesting solution recently – a private sale script from Plumrocket. A number of magento extensions and magento private sales theme. The good thing that they sell complete e-commerce script and you dont have to worry about buying some separate extensions, modules. I think it is worth seeing :)

  • Jiro Tayor

    Hey- just wanted to revive this debate, as researching now what platform to go for- any opinions on Ning vs, Xenforo, vs, Freshmember? thanks a lot!

  • Chuck Quinton

    Surprised you didn’t mention YouTube as a marketing tool. It’s something I used to help build my site to over 250,000 members. It meets my criteria for online marketing – it’s FREE, it gets loads of traffic and the traffic lasts forever unlike PPC and paid ads! I did a great video on it here

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