The failure of the free memberships program

Four months and a few days ago, I wanted to try out $free and open signups at Theme Hybrid. The idea was to see if I could bring in greater numbers of signups while gaining more (or at least the same amount) of paid signups.

This was a complete and utter disaster.

There’s really no way to sugar-coat it. After the first couple of weeks of rising paid signups (typical of something new/different), numbers dropped. Now, after a few months, paid signups are at about 1/4 the rate that they were previously.

Suffice it to say, that program is getting the ax. 🙂

The good

During this time, I’ve gotten to know several awesome people who signed up under a free account. Many even upgraded to one of the higher-level accounts.

The best thing about all of this has just been seeing some new faces. So, I want to thank you all for joining me on this adventure.

Lessons learned

There are two important takeaways from this experience:

  • People are less willing to donate.
  • People are more willing to pay.

The former group seems to be shrinking while the latter group is growing. As someone who needs to make enough money to put food on the table, I don’t have much of an issue with that.

However, as someone who likes the idea of being able to share knowledge and cool-stuff with others, I’m a bit saddened.

The important thing for me is to continue balancing those two things. I think that just maybe I had some of it right the first time around. The rest, I’m learning.

As a side note: I’m also going to be launching more commercial add-on plugins in the future. So, keep an eye out for those.


  1. Adam van den Hoven

    I’m actually not surprised.

    I remember WAY back in university the student’s union wanted to get student’s feedback on some topic and they figured a free Lemon Aid stand would be a great way to get people to talk to. It was a total disaster. Practically no one took them up on the offer despite being in the most prominent and busy spots in the building. When they started asking for a quarter, they started getting lots of people.

    I suspect that the problem isn’t with donating vs. paying. Its being told the value of something vs being asked the value of something. After all, if you don’t put any value on it why should someone else? I know cost and value aren’t the same thing, but the one is a good proxy for the other when you don’t know the first to begin with.

    Maybe reboot and charge $1?

  2. Towfiq I.

    Good Luck with the New plugins Justin. Looking forward to them 🙂

  3. Hmmmmm…. come to think of it my free membership family-only site has only generated $1 in donations over the years.

    This post has got me thinking. It’s time to make (even family members) pay for the membership access to the site.

    Good luck Justin!

  4. That’s a shame. Though not surprising.
    I for one, love open source. And I’m more than ready to give back whenever I have the opportunity (code, money, testing, etc.).
    But for some reason I rarely ever “donate”. Not sure why. I think people just like the act of purchasing.

    For example, I purchased your role levels plugin. I don’t have a current need for it but I saw it as an excuse to donate.
    Making money with open source is still trial and error across the board.

    One of my favorite Linux projects, elementary OS has experimented with several ways to monetize their work. One thing they use is bounty source, where users pledge money for bug fixes and feature requests.

    Another cool idea is suggesting a price when you download the OS from their website. Check it out

    They also sell stickers and t-shirts through their web store. I actually just now purchased the terminal t-shirt when I saw it 🙂

    Just some ideas.

    1. Yep, I’m always looking for various models. It’s always going to be an experiment to see what works best.

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