Bootstrapping a paid community to $1.7k MRR with Charlie Ward

Charlie Ward tells all about how to bootstrap a Slack community to over $1.7k monthly recurring revenue — in less than 10 months.

Bootstrapping a paid community to $1.7k MRR with Charlie Ward

Today on Makerlog Stories: Charlie Ward, founder of the Weekend Club.

Weekend Club is the weekend co-working club for bootstrappers. They do weekly, remote Saturday co-working sessions with up to 50+ other bootstrappers, organised around 1-day sprints over Slack and Zoom. They've flourished into a strong community over the past year, and it's been a pleasure watching them grow.

Today on Stories, Charlie tells all about the journey (and how you can do it too!).

What are your open stats?

$1,700 MRR. 0% churn for the past 3 months. 170 Slack messages sent per subscriber in the past month.

What's your stack?

✅ Key Takeaway: A lean, mean stack using no-code tools is enough to start getting traction on your idea.

Unicorn. Slack. Zoom. Notion. Zapier. Mailchimp. Catchup app (built by one of our members, Stefan Brach).

Where’d you get the idea for Weekend Club?

Since 2018 I’ve run a London based Indie Hackers meetup called IndieBeers (part of Indie London). On at least two occasions attendees said ‘I like grabbing a drink with other bootstrappers, but it would be awesome to all work on our projects together in the same room!’

Later, I was chatting to Wil Klopp (Founder of Simple Poll) in September 2019 and he also mentioned it. I couldn’t ignore it any longer, and a month later we ran our first session in a local east London co-working space called Ministry of Startups (which is unfortunately no longer around).

In March 2020, obviously COVID happened, so we moved it remote via Slack and Zoom. I never planned this, but am so glad we did it. We met so many awesome new people from around the world as a result.

Did you do any research or pre-launch validation?

✅ Key Takeaway: Validation isn't guaranteed success, rather a risk reduction measure you should take.

I’d already spoken to a few people to get the original idea, but also made a Carrd landing page with a sign-up link, then posted on Twitter and the IndieBeers monthly newsletter. I decided to go ahead if 20 people signed up (the space’s capacity), and over 30 did pretty quickly. So I thought it had legs.

I also chatted to people about their expectations for it, which helped me create a format. I realised it needed to be on a weekend, during the day, in a co-working space (pre-COVID!), with other bootstrappers, and with some kind of familiar structure.

Sometimes, I see people (like the Basecamp dudes) say validating an idea isn’t possible. But I think they have an unusual interpretation of ‘validation’ compared to most people. Rather than meaning ‘an indication of guaranteed success’, I just see it as ‘risk reduction’. Can you put too much effort into reducing risk? Of course. But to dismiss it out of hand is odd to me.

I could have done the first Weekend Club session without checking if people were interested, or trying to understand what deeper needs it was solving (so I could create a better solution), but why make it hard for myself? The small amount of effort needed to do this was definitely worthwhile.

Where did you first post Weekend Club?

✅ Key Takeaway: Build an audience first and start there.

From running local meetups I’d built a small Twitter (~1,000) and newsletter following (~100). I posted there, and made flyers to hand out at events.

How were the initial days of Weekend Club? How did you start getting traction?

✅ Key Takeaway: Organic growth: it works.

The initial days were really fun. We were very lucky to have a great community of people early on, right through to now.

Traction happened quickly at first, then stalled. I put up a landing page to test demand in September. A month later, we had our (fully booked) free first session. Then a month after that we hit $500 MRR.

The plan was to open in more spaces around the city, but then COVID-19 hit and we moved it remote. I dropped the price at this point, and a few people left, so we were down to $375 MRR. We had to rethink how this worked online instead of in-person, and do it quickly. This was a major lesson actually. In-person experiences can’t just be dumped online without changes.

After making our co-working events weekly, opening up to people globally, improving lunch sessions (with guest Q&As and guided discussions), added 100+ software discounts and a few other tweaks, we went from $375->$1,104 in 10 months.

It’s been slow, consistent growth, with most coming from member referrals, Indie Hackers milestones, Indie Bites (which is great) podcast ads, my constant tweeting and other websites mentioning us like  

I’m a non-technical founder that's now launched 12 things over the years (with varying success), and in my personal experience, good ideas just feel different. You tell someone about it, and instead of saying ‘oh that’s cool’ then changing the subject, they ask to sign-up. Everything is just a little easier.

What do you feel is the most important factor when building a new community?

✅ Key Takeaway: Your platform should just be the fabric that connects a like-minded set of people. Culture matters as well.

The single most important factor is having the right group of people. Imagine a house party with amazing music, food, free drinks, a great location... but everyone you invite hates each other, and has nothing in common. What’s the party going to be like?

You need a critical mass of people who are going to have similar interests and some kind of chemistry to build a strong community.

This is the most important thing, but it’s still not enough. You should also ensure your member’s common interests align with the community’s purpose, the rules and rituals foster the culture you want, and you have an environment that doesn’t get in the way of these things (digital or otherwise). In fact, if you plan these things well, you’re more likely to get the right people too.

What do you feel is the most important factor for community growth?

✅ Key Takeaway: Build community first, focus on growth later.

Once you’ve started, probably referrals. If you’re not getting at least a few people inviting their friends without prompting, most of your growth efforts will be wasted, and people might not stick around. It’s more efficient to build a community people enjoy first, and focus on growth later.

However… if unlike Weekend Club, your community is originally built off the content you create, then continuing with that is a good strategy. There are many examples like Ness Labs, Lenny’s Newsletter’s Slack and Visualize Value that quickly built large numbers (and continue to grow), partially because they had large pre-existing audiences for their content. ‘Come for the content, stay for the community’ is a real thing.

What strategies did you use for community building & growth?

✅ Key Takeaway: Serendipity, humanity, events.

There were 3x main factors that I think helped build a vibrant community:

  • Weekend co-working: The weekly, Saturday remote co-working sessions have given our members lots of opportunities to talk and get to know each other better. It also provides a sense that ‘we’re all in this together.’ Video is the next best thing to in-person when it comes to building community.
  • Make it human: I feel strongly that communities shouldn’t only serve a single, rational purpose. While we are very much about building your projects and escaping your day job, no one wants to talk about this 24/7. Two of our most important Slack channels are #memes and #strugglebus, for sharing when things go wrong.
  • Introduce serendipity: If you create an environment where random interactions between members can happen, a stronger community will follow. The nature of Slack makes this easier, but the Catchup app makes auto-introductions between members simple. Also, on our Saturday morning standups, everyone gets randomly matched with their accountability buddy for the day afterwards.

How did you gather user feedback? Did you build in public?

✅ Key Takeaway: Build with your users, build in community.

Three main ways:

  • Ad hoc feedback: I try to speak to Weekend Club members (aka Weekenders) every day, plus just observe how things are going. Sometimes when people think they’re in a ‘user interview’ it can bias the results. It’s better to just pay attention. (Okay, I have done some user interviews as well…)
  • Product market fit surveys: I’m one of those annoying people on the Superhuman product market fit bandwagon. It’s a survey to figure out whether you have product/market fit, which people to focus on and what they want. I highly recommend this if you have at least 20+ members or users.
  • Building in community: Sharing early versions of upcoming ideas (for example, ‘what should we name this channel?’, ‘what do you think of X?’) doesn’t work when it’s too public, like on Twitter, as most people don’t understand the context. But I suggest ‘building in community’ with a group of trusted people. Share early and share often.

What advice would you give to new makers out there, looking to build a community?

✅ Key Takeaway: Founder-community fit is essential to building community.

I haven’t mentioned the importance of ‘founder/community fit’ yet. If you don’t love talking to the people who will be your members regularly, you will struggle. Unless you’re good at pretending, in which case I’d question why you’d want to do this.

This matters not only because it will make you happier, but it’ll literally make your community better. You’ll be more persistent, people will notice you’re authentically showing up to help them, and over time you’ll understand your members more, which in turn makes their lives better.

What are your future goals in the coming year?

We recently launched Americas time zone sessions (10am-5pm Central), rather than just European ones. This has gone really well, everyone’s so enthusiastic, and it’s great to meet such a diverse group of people. I’d love to do the same in Asia and Australia.

In the medium term, after over a year of people asking, we’re finally going to introduce a midweek version of Weekend Club, for those full time on their projects. I promise I was listening, I just didn’t have time! It’s tough to balance a full-time job with side projects.

Longer term, in a post COVID world, we’ll re-introduce Weekend Club IRL - in local co-working spaces. We’ll always keep the remote version of course, but the in-person sessions were super popular, so I’m excited about bringing them back again.

As is Makerlog Stories tradition, what music motivates you?

If the music has a lot of lyrics, I can’t work to it! So usually some kind of electronic music. Some favourites here and here.  

I always throw this one in at the end of the interviews, it’s always fun. Spotify links welcome!

Editor's comments

Charlie Ward's formula for community success is being human, building in community and building lean. This sounds simple, but it has propelled his community towards incredible MRR growth in just a few short months.

Connect people and care personally – and you too can build a fantastic community like the Weekend Club.

Thanks Charlie for hopping on our site. Do let us know any feedback through the discussions thread or via socials!

Big news!

Weekend Club is live on Product Hunt today! Go check it out and drop an upvote.