This cartoonist created a five-figure membership site to stop artists from procrastinating
Featured in this Story of Awesome: Autonomous Creative Collective
The Autonomous Creative Collective is a paid membership site offering a flagship course and community for serious artists.
Jessica’s Mighty Moment: “There’s no way that I could offer the kind of value that my members offer each other.”
Jessica Abel knew the biggest hurdle for serious artists was easier said than done: Making the time to get their creative projects done.
As Jessica, a full-time academic and part-time cartoonist, spoke to her friends and peers, they all seemed to have the same challenge. They loved their work. It was their heart, soul, and reason for being. Yet, there was a common enemy plaguing their daily lives, procrastination:
“I'm stuck. Why is it that the thing I care about the most is the thing that happens the least?”
She recognized this as a pattern she had faced–and overcome–herself. In fact, she knew the system she had developed to carve out time for her own big projects (especially with a full-time job) would help other artists, too.
From filmmakers to podcasters, writers, fine artists, illustrators, and (obviously) cartoonists like herself, Jessica knew she had a way to help more people build a more productive, satisfying creative process:
“I help creative professionals create sustainable, resilient, creative lives where we’re doing work that we intend to be doing and to make sure that what happens in our week includes the most important projects in our lives, so that we can put our creative work front and center and do the things that really matter to us.”
Jessica took her system and started by translating it into an online course called The Creative Focus Workshop on a platform called Doki.
Yet, even before it was finished, she knew that an online course was incomplete without a community for ongoing support and habit building:
“The idea that an artist (or anyone) opens an online course, watches a few modules, and gets results is a myth. Everyone needs to have peers there to talk to, motivate and reinforce each other, and get through the course together. Especially virtually.”
Initially, she followed the advice of the online course gurus and started a Facebook group. She quickly saw that it wasn’t a fit. She was building a course and community for minimizing distractions and increasing artist focus and productivity. Facebook was a procrastinator’s dream (or for the artists yearning to get their projects done, a nightmare).
Next, she moved to Slack, which seemed promising at first. Unfortunately, within a few weeks of starting the course, many of her artists stopped showing up. Not only were her people missing the thriving community she had imagined building during the course, but after the course was over? There was nothing.
Around the same time, Jessica also realized her model of selling lifetime access to her course twice a year was limiting her ability to reach as many artists as she knew she could impact. She wanted to launch a third cohort but couldn’t see doing it with everything else she was juggling.
After running the numbers, she knew that the right answer was to launch a paid membership for the alumni of her courses. But initially, she resisted the idea.
With a membership site, she felt like she would need to be always available to her members. This felt overwhelming. She had her own creative projects and worried this new community would constantly be hanging over her head:
“The idea of having to be in this group all the time felt really burdensome to me. I went through a long process of looking at the opportunity in a ton of different ways, asking myself each time: 'Can I do this? Can I figure out a way to make it work?’”
Fortunately, Jessica was a member of The What Works Network, a community run by Tara McMullin (who we met in last week’s Story of Awesome). Jessica turned to Tara to get her take on running a membership site.
Was she truly up for it?
After getting Tara’s reassurance, Jessica started to map out the boundaries around what she would and wouldn’t do for her members. This step was essential to Jessica finally feeling confident that she could merge her course and community together into an amazing paid membership for her artists on her own Mighty Network.
Always one to seize opportunities to learn, she then took Mighty Networks’ own Community Design Masterclass, which over five weeks helped her figure out how best to structure her membership site in a way that was sustainable and worked for her.
Now she was ready to launch the Autonomous Creative Collective, a combined membership subscription with access to her Creative Focus Workshop online course that she could offer directly in her Mighty Network.
She started with her “Focus Allies”, a core group of a dozen alumni she already relied on for feedback. She had made a deal with this group: she would give them free membership for welcoming new members and helping them all build this into a warm, valuable community together.
Next, she offered alumni of her Creative Focus Workshop the chance to join at a discounted price of $19.99/month or $199.99/year. About 50 people from that group of 400 took her up on the offer:
“I chose a price I thought would make it a no-brainer for people. A bunch of them are very active and this is just what they were looking for, so that's been great. The more people who are there talking, the more value they're getting out of the main activity feed, which has not just the course, but the ongoing support of other members in the pursuit of their creative lives.”
From there, Jessica shifted to a new member drive in November 2019, charging $495 for access to the course and community for three months. After that, members could elect to continue paying for membership monthly or annually at $29.99/month or $299.99/year.
This launch resulted in 80 new members. Right before the end of their three month membership, Jessica reached out for feedback. What she heard encouraged her. Together, she and these new members were charting an even more valuable journey for mastering their creative focus together.
Fast forward, and here’s how The Autonomous Creative Collective (ACC) is structured today:
- The Creative Focus Workshop
- Open for access year round as a self-paced course.
- Members pay a one-time fee of $495 for a three month “semester” of the course, which also includes a monthly coaching call.
- 1-2 times per year, Jessica leads a workshop “sprint” — a one-month live cohort with weekly coaching calls. Any current member can take part.
- The Creative Focus Workshop Alumni Membership
- At the end of the semester or year, members have the option to continue by paying a subscription of $29.99/month or $299.99/year.
And her premium program:
- The Creative Focus Workshop Momentum System
- Offered once per year.
- A maximum of 12 artists are in the program.
- Members pay a one-time fee of $1,395 for one year.
- Includes additional bi-weekly coaching for the Creative Focus Workshop
One of the biggest surprises for Jessica has been finding a better and more productive model for delivering her program than “lifetime access,” which is as expected of online courses as a Facebook group (and works just as poorly):
“People think they have to give lifetime membership to a course. But this is a marketing ploy. It’s not helping anyone finish a course.
People who joined the Creative Focus Workshop in the past would get through five modules and say, 'Oh, it's the end of the course. I guess I didn't do it. I'll come back to it.' And then they didn’t.
Now at the end of three months, they're getting emails saying like, 'Your time's coming up. You should hurry up.' It’s the combination of course and membership that’s getting people to learn the system and prioritize their creative pursuits. That’s my real goal.
The course continues to be a critical foundation and common touchstone for all members, which the membership allows them more time to internalize:
“A lot of alumni go back through the material. The course isn’t tactical—it's very much about investigating yourself and your creative practice. Some have done it three and four times.”
Despite her initial fears, Jessica has found the practice of running her membership site is much less work than she had initially expected:
“I have a repeating task in my task manager in the morning, which is called 'ACC care and feeding,' and I go in and I check my notifications, I make a couple comments, I cheer some things, then I leave.”
Thanks to the structure she’s put in place with her Community Design Plan, her membership site is a source of energy and creativity for her:
“I have monthly themes related to course material and to themes of building a sustainable and creative life. This month (January) is “Big Picture” month, so we're doing a big annual review and five-year vision.
We're going to cycle through these themes every 12 to 15 months. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel each time. I've actually said, 'We're going to revisit all these things that we really care about on a regular basis, maybe annual or a bit more than annual.'”
Throughout the week, Jessica and her assistant Lou also stick to a manageable and consistent plan that helps members create habits and keep coming back.
On Monday, they kick off the week with a “Top 3’s” post, where members comment with their weekly “Word of Intention” and “Top 3 Priorities”.
Tuesday Jessica writes a short post related to the monthly theme with a challenge for members to complete.
Wednesday features a question or poll to spark conversation, followed on Thursday by a “Member Spotlight” article, which is a conversational member question-and-answer interview.
Finally, on Friday, they prompt members to do a “Weekly Reflection” based on a process outlined in the Creative Focus Workshop.
Once her Community Design Plan was implemented, something pretty amazing happened next.
Jessica went on vacation.
For two weeks over the holidays, Jessica handed off the community to her “Focus Allies” and members. And it worked! Her members stayed engaged, supporting and encouraging each other without Jessica:
“Of course, I peeked! But what I saw was awesome: People were talking and supporting each other without me. That's the thing about building the expectation that members are there for each other.
It's not about me coaching everybody who's in there. The point is to have mutual support. There's no way that I could offer the kind of value that my members offer each other. It's just not possible for me to do that as one person. ”
Jessica has also discovered some unexpected perks of running her Mighty Network:
“Before when I was between cohorts, I would sort of forget what I had learned earlier about people’s concerns. I would get rusty and it would show in my writing.
Now I'm in touch with my artists all the time. I see them having conversations daily, mostly as an observer. I’m never out of touch.
So, where does Jessica take the Autonomous Creative Collective next? Like many of us, first, she’s getting comfortable with a new normal:
“My launch ended like a week and a half before the world blew up. Total chance.
At first, I spent a few days feeling like, 'Oh, what I do is not that important. Maybe I should just kind of shrink away and not do anything for a while.'
But then I thought about it for five minutes and said, 'No, no, no.'
What we all have right now is extreme lack of boundaries and structure. That's exactly what I help people figure out. It matters right now, and I’m going to ensure I’m there to help artists and their families.
Meanwhile, the doors to the Creative Focus Workshop remain open. Jessica is also going the extra mile by offering her flagship book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life, free on Kindle from April 2nd-5th.
- Running a membership site doesn’t have to be a burden. With the right structure in place and the right culture, your members make it more valuable with each new person who joins.
- Urgency creates action. Don’t be afraid to limit the time people have access to your course. This can provide the motivation they need to get it done now rather than putting it off indefinitely.
- Our new world needs artists and creators now more than ever. If you are bringing people together online to do the work that matters to them, then you are serving them today. Keep going!