Subscriptions are only getting more popular across the consumer world, there’s no denying. In just the last month, a set of companies as diverse Tesco, Nike, Sonos, and Atari have all announced new subscription services. There are a plethora of smaller new entrants every month. The first question they all face is: how do I launch my subscription business? And it's an important one. But you see, launching a subscription business in 2019 isn’t that hard. You put on something on sale, you take order, and you fulfil those recurring orders. There are plenty of providers and many how-tos. There are still a few ways this could go wrong, but broadly, every solution out there will help you do that.
So what is really the most important question? It's: how do I increase my subscription sales (and retain subscribers)? As it turns out, not every software out there actually helps you to max out your conversion and retention rates, because they don't give you true creative, marketing, design freedom in the subscriber experience. Prepare to be confused though: every marketing piece you’ll read online from software vendors will tell you that you CAN optimise the subscriber experience. They'll even tell you what you SHOULD do. The catch is that you WILL have to spend $100,000s and months in custom-built logic, apps, websites and integrations. Pretty much the same logic as ‘it’s free after you bought a subscription’.
Daniel and I, the cofounders of Limio, have been in subscriptions for a combined 20 years, so we’ve seen plenty of different setup. And plenty of failures, budgets overrunning, and very late delivery (more on that here). So we want to answer this question, as honestly as possible.
What's my options, captain?
First, let’s set the scene and mention your options (I go deeper on these options here) from a subscription management software perspective:
- eCommerce + Add-ons, for example Shopify + Bold or Recharge or Big Commerce + OrderGroove. You take a platform made for regular eCommerce and you tweak it to make subscription works.
- SaaS billing solution + build on top, for example Zuora, Recurly, Chargebee. You buy a back-office subscription billing software made for b2b software sales and you build on top, from scratch.
- CMS + add-on, for example Wordpress + WooCommerce + WooCommerce Subscriptions. You buy a CMS and you bolt on multiple add-ons until it do what you want: sell and manage subscriptions.
- Subscriber Experience Platform, like Limio. You get a fully configurable online shop CMS and subscription management software made to work together.
And how do they compare?
- eCommerce + Add-ons: Shopify is amazing. It’s has 70+ templates, thousands of apps to extend functionality, and you can go in their Liquid code to do more. The problem? None of it is made for subscriptions. So you have to bolt on an extension app, which means you end up using 10% of Shopify but you still pay 100% PLUS the add-on price. In the end, the only customisation you can do, is put your logo, put your colour scheme, edit some content and that’s it. Not great. If you want to extend functionality like adding referral deals, social proof or A/B tests, that’s hard - you’re now wrestling with two vendors, and adding something might break either logic. Very hard to optimise your conversion and retention rate in those circumstances, chances are you’ll go live with some consultants help and won’t ever dare to touch your setup.
- SaaS Billing solution: This is the way large enterprise tend to go (and sometimes VC-backed, cash-is-aplenty startups), but that’s because they have big engineering teams, lots of complex requirements, and love to custom-built things themselves. Side note before I dive into custom-built: those tools typically have something they'll call a 'customer self-service portals' (as if the web was not the main way your customer wants to interact with you). In our experience, they are one-size-fits-all website with very little customisation possible, which just doesn't cut it for consumer businesses, so we'll ignore them. So back to the custom-built. The company buys the expensive billing system, and then use their APIs to custom build their shop, their checkouts, their landing pages their manage my account, their campaign management system, the product catalogue, and their order tracking... That’s great and yes, you are looking at total creative, marketing, design freedom to optimise your conversion and retention rate, but you’re also looking at a mighty bill, especially since this often requires specialised consultants. We’re talking well over $100,000. Even if you were to keep it super simple, you’ll still have to spend a few $10,000s just to match with the other solutions would offer out-of-the-box - it’s quick how even just a single $400 per day developer spending even just a month on something quickly adds up. Want any change? The only developer who knew how the hell things worked has now moved on, so sorry. Not a realistic option for most business.
- CMS + Add-ons: Let's take Wordpress, the most popular Content Management System in the world, especially for blogs. A proven piece of kit since 1993 (though it also looks like it's still 1993), 292 Wordpress themes, thousands of extensions, some of which are made for eCommerce, which can then be further refined into subscriptions. Setting it up is quite some work, but once you’ve bolt it on, you’ve got a somewhat configurable shop with subscription management. The issue? Wordpress is a CMS with a lot of features, which are pretty complex - and that’s even before you’ve added subscriptions. Once you’ve added a subscription add-on, it gets really messy and buggy. Templates have limited customisation options and are easy to break, add-ons are often one-off, poorly maintained projects (you’re going to need a Wordpress developer), and the various add-ons will slow down your site. Also, upgrades tend to crash your site. Pretty hard to play around with the subscriber experience to find what will optimise your conversion and retention rate in those circumstances.
- Limio: Limio is the panacea, solving all your problems. Just kidding, we say we'd try to be impartial. So let’s talk about our approach. Limio is a hybrid between a Content Management System and a Subscription Management System. We built those two together, because we not only wanted to make it easy to launch your online shop but also to optimise your subscriber experience, from making it easy to acquire subscribers with various landing pages, to retain subscribers with cancellation prevention flows, to build rich visual experiences. You don't need add-ons to make it work, both your online shop and your subscription capabilities work seamlessly together, natively - we weren’t built to do something else, it's not a side-gig, we live subscriptions. But you can still extend functionality by tapping into the open-source community building React components (the most popular development framework in 2019), so you have a free, easy way to add functionality to your website without costing an arm and a leg - for example on Bit, there are over 26,688 React components you could use in Limio.