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

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?