How Creators Can Build a Thriving Online Community with

SPI talks with Sid Yadav, co-founder of a new, innovative platform for building custom online membership communities

When SPI launched its membership community, SPI Pro, in July on the brand new Circle platform, we were excited to integrate our world with this exciting new platform because it was made specifically for creators who want to build their own online communities.

After researching other platforms to host SPI Pro, it was a no-brainer when we realized what Circle could give us. Not only are the three co-founders former employees of Teachable (the platform we use to host all of the SPI courses), but their vision matched exactly with what we were looking for: A cohesive, private, VIP community experience for our members. The ability to customize our own white label space and not have to fit our vision into a premade template. A way to connect to other platforms seamlessly. Most of all, a way for mid-tier-and-up entrepreneurs to seamlessly share insights, learn, and collaborate.

Our vision for a membership community coalesced almost perfectly with what Circle provided, and it’s no surprise that the SPI Pro launch has been a huge success so far. As Senior Writer for SPI, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of Circle’s founders, Sid Yadav, who worked closely with Pat and our COO/CFO, Matt Gartland, to make Circle work for SPI’s audience.

Can you tell me how Circle came about?

Sid: I have a background as a designer and engineer—I was Teachable’s first designer, and I worked there for five years. I left when the company was at about $125 million in annual revenue.

Through that experience, I got immersed in the world of building products for creators. It’s really fun to build products for creators. And what I love the most is you’re basically helping people who are like Pat’s audience, and if you look into their needs, it’s a lot about wanting to start a passive income business, to make their vocation their full-time job. And [helping that type of audience] just really appeals to me.

So, with that mindset, after I left Teachable last April, I teamed up with other folks at Teachable—the [former] VP of growth at Teachable, and the [former] head of design.

We started digging into this space and having conversations with creators, but also more specifically, course creators; a bunch were podcasters, people very much like Pat Flynn or folks who might consider themselves to be Pat’s audience. And in that process, we were pretty open-ended about what opportunities there were. But we knew that we had a certain skill set, which is we can build quality products, and we want to help; we want to serve.

How did you zero in on the idea of building Circle as a platform for communities?

Sid: Two months into that process, we started honing in on the potential around [membership] communities. And what we realized is, taking Pat as an example: Pat has courses on Teachable, he uses ConvertKit for his mailing list, he has this massive audience. And from what I know, he’s had some Facebook groups that are widely open and available. And there are a lot of people like him.

And the needs then start to evolve a bit, where it becomes about not just having a presence on Facebook and Slack, but having a central hub for their members. And a version of this might be where it’s like a paid community, or it ties into a membership access level.

Another version of this might be if someone has their courses on Teachable, the comments section is very limiting. So if you’re running a course cohort with fifty or a hundred students, they need some place to interact with each other and with you and for you to share announcements and updates and so on. And there’s just a lack of a good, solid product for that.

When we entered this process, we started to see people co-opting Facebook groups and Slack for this use case. But it turned out to be very messy because you can imagine what happens when you add a ton of people to Slack or Facebook groups. It’s not cohesive, and it’s not very organized.

We realized our first value-add would be to bring a bit of purpose and cohesion and organization around a community builder. So our MVP [minimum viable product], our first version of the product, was built with that person in mind. And we had other users who were very much like Pat: Tiago Forte, David Perell. These are some known names in the online courses landscape. A bunch of bloggers and podcasters early on, too.

So, we had our first paid user in January. And we have since evolved into something a little broader, which is a community product that not just works for the creators and their specific use case—a creator supplementing their course—but it’s open-ended with our paradigms around spaces. You can think of them as like Slack channels.

Can you give examples of how your customers are using these “spaces” in Circle—what it looks like in practice?

Sid: So we’ve seen someone starting a paid community where they charge twenty members $800 a month essentially to exchange quantified data. People pay for that, and they love using Circle for that member-to-member communication and for the community. Another way it’s being used is as an open-ended community, for example in the case of Teachable. Teachable as a product had a Facebook group of 45,000 of their followers. And they’ve since moved to a customer community that’s centered on Circle.

To get into some of the value props and the differential between Facebook, Slack, and Circle: First, for a lot of these folks, it’s about white labeling and owning their brand. For example, Pat launches SPI Pro, and there’s a feeling of exclusivity when it’s on Circle versus it just being something on Slack or a Facebook group. So that’s definitely top-of-mind.

Another value prop associated with that is it’s very hard to integrate Facebook groups and Slack into other products because they’re fundamentally closed products. But you can have a community on Circle, and you can embed that onto your own website. Or you can use that as a comment section inside of the Teachable courses. We have a full API. We have Zapier integrations. We can tie it into a bunch of other products and groups. A customer can set it up just the way SPI has, where someone makes a purchase on Stripe, is added to Circle, when they unsubscribe or they move from Circle, and they’re given access to certain spaces based on the tiers they’re on.

The idea of having both free, publicly open spaces and paid spaces is possible too, which is not possible with a Facebook group, which can only be public or private, or Slack, which is entirely private. So that’s basically the initial traction we’re seeing around the use cases and why we’re seeing folks move their communities over to Circle so far.

Sid Yadav and Rudy Santino of cofounders Sid Yadav and Rudy Santino

You mentioned Teachable migrating its 45,000-plus Facebook community to Circle. What does that process look like, and how do you assuage the concerns of someone who’s excited about Circle but worried about making the transition?

Sid: The process is very iterative. The way Teachable did it was to start small. They started with a 500-person, very exclusive cohort. They added some of their most active members from the Facebook group just to see what it was like. They started to conceptualize spaces and experiences: What are the features of the community that we’d like to offer? What things are now possible with Circle that weren’t before?

Things like product updates being posted in Circle for them became relevant, or a weekly Q&A session. Spaces dedicated to product feedback as opposed to customers exchanging feedback on their own courses. So that takes some time to figure out. And then once they felt comfortable, they went through a series of steps of adding just more and more members, into the thousands.

The other thing that happened is they consolidated their 45,000-member Facebook group, which was open to all, to something that was just open to their paid members. So the community then becomes exclusive. And by virtue of that, the hope is that it becomes a lot more tight-knit. Even at that scale, it feels like, okay, these are all paying Teachable customers. They aren’t just random people lurking in this community and trying to promote their own products. And that becomes a better experience for their members.

Did Teachable shut down their Facebook group entirely?

Sid: They did. We also find that there are other folks who don’t end up doing that, and what we ended up realizing is maybe there are two different value props. So with Facebook groups, it’s more about being discovered, being out there, being open; and with Circle, it’s more about exclusivity. And I’d imagine that’s the path that, let’s say, someone like Pat has gone down. There are pros and cons to both.

I imagine with a migration like that there would organically be some dropoff in community size. But maybe a benefit is that you end up with a more tight-knit, more committed group. Is that what you saw in Teachable’s case and what you’ve seen in other migrations?

Sid: Absolutely. It’s just cleaner discussions, more relevant discussions, better organized. Maybe a smaller amount in total, but you’re also ruling out a lot of the noise. So it’s not a bad thing to have fewer discussions if the kind of discussions you’re seeing are higher quality. And then on top of all of this, there’s kind of like the macro movement of just people moving away from Facebook. And what creators ended up realizing there is if that’s happening on a macro level, the balance between what they could get by being on Circle versus being on Facebook, starts to tip a little bit. And that’s something that Teachable realized.

Are you seeing some creators holding onto their Facebook, Slack, or other communities and using a hybrid system?

Sid: Actually, it’s about half and half. And it’s so contextual, based on where they’re coming from and what their needs are.

If someone has had a Slack community running for three years, if their members are engaged enough, maybe Circle is not the best thing to switch to. But where it could help is in getting some of the longer-form, asynchronous, better-organized discussions that are more welcoming to new members.

What a lot of Slack members find is, when your community scales up, first off, a lot of people just can’t afford to pay for the paid product, which means they’re losing—you know, they only get to keep their last 10,000 messages. So they’re losing that archive. And it makes it feel overwhelming and unwelcoming to new users because what you have is a bunch of one-on-one conversations in these channels that add up. So when I join as the thousandth member, I’m like, well, what’s happening here?

Whereas with forums and the community paradigm, like we have in Circle, it’s a little different because things are based around the concept of topics and spaces. So a new member knows where to go to start, where to go to ask a question, and the context there is, “We welcome new topics and questions.” You’re not just butting into someone’s discussion.

Or if people have a Slack community already, what they may find is it’s not a direct replacement, but it could be a supplement. So they keep their Slack for more informal chat use cases, and the Circle community is a lot more serious and longer form. That’s where they’re posting announcements and updates and more of the “content-y” side of the conversations, as opposed to the “chit-chatty” side.

You also touched on how for a new user, especially coming into a large community, Circle eases them in and gives them some structure. 

Sid: Oh yeah, for sure. It starts with the overall structure of what a Circle community is. To give you one example, Slack has the concept of channels, but channels can add up. There can be hundreds. With Circle, things are organized in groups of spaces, and the groups of spaces can have different permission levels.

You can have free spaces, and paid or premium spaces. You can have interest groups. We have this mode you can turn on within the product, where if you want your members to create their own channels or spaces, you turn this mode on and all of a sudden, your space, your group home page turns into a directory of spaces, which people can browse and find the things that interest them and then join them.

And if you imagine this experience in Slack, it’s an alphabetical, top-down list of hundreds of channels, which become a nightmare to navigate around for new users. But in our case, it’s all neatly sort of bundled together in an interest-group section. So that’s one example.

And the other thing is, when you’re having a conversation in Circle, you’re not just shouting into the ether; you’re starting a topic. So things are based around the concept of topics and discussions as opposed to just random back-and-forth.

So is the discussion framework like Quora in that respect?

Sid: More towards Quora than, I’d say, Facebook right now. But you also, as a community creator, have the power to choose one or the other. This is one of the other key elements of Circle, which is, you can customize what a space looks like. So if you want it to look more like Facebook, you can do that. If you want it to look more like a forum, with its titles, you can do that. If you want it to look like a blog with “cards” of stuff, you can do that. And similarly, on the actual post level, you can enforce titles for stuff if you think that’s important, or you can make it more like Facebook, where it’s just, “Write out anything you want and post it.”

Interesting. Can you have a mixture of those different structures? 

Sid: Absolutely. And we do this in our own community. For example, we have a space where we post our product updates, and we find that a linear list isn’t the best form for that. And then we have a “showcase” space where members post screenshots and videos of their communities. So they’re showing off to others. And in that mode, the better format is something more like Facebook, where you can just scroll through and see a real nice view of screenshots and videos in one view, as opposed to having to click into each one.

You went into beta in January, but you’ve already got some key clients. What has surprised you about how they’re putting Circle to use and shining a light on other possibilities for the platform?

Sid: We never expected a customer like Teachable to emerge. That’s not who we were building for in the early days. But they did a ton of vetting. It’s not like we got any preference having worked at Teachable. They spoke to everyone, they got all the demos, they evaluated us, alongside everyone.

And what they found was, our structure and our way of approaching community, was pretty open and welcoming to them as a customer. So one thing that was surprising was, if we manage to actually nail the fundamental paradigms around how we’re thinking about community, it’s not just a product for specific course creators to add a community to their course; it’s actually a very open-ended product.

So to that effect, we never imagined that there’d be that community I mentioned before—that $800 paid, quantified self, tight-knit group of people, exchanging data. And they were able to get that up and running with just Stripe. We never imagined those kinds of use cases. And we’re seeing a lot more of that, of the premium, paid, exclusive type stuff. And one thing we’re realizing is, it’s not about the amount of users—of DAUs [daily active users] and MAUs [monthly active users]. You can have a very profitable, functioning community with twenty people.

So we don’t actually measure ourselves on that, although our numbers look pretty good. It’s more about the quality of the experience that the member has.

Sid Yadav of founder Sid Yadav

If someone is thinking about starting their own membership community on Circle, are there characteristics of their audience or their business that predict success? Another way of asking this is, who is not a good fit for Circle?

Sid: The first persona that comes to mind that’s probably not a fit is someone, let’s say, with a hobbyist interest group.

They’re not a brand themselves. They’re not trying to build an audience. They’re just trying to get together with like ten folks to talk about X. So in that case, I actually think for them, Facebook groups are a perfectly good option. Like Telegram groups, WhatsApp groups, all of that, that stuff may lend itself better for what they’re trying to do, because it’s not things like white labeling, embedding, all the integrations we have, like having multiple spaces and multiple types of conversations—they’re just not that important. So that’s who comes to mind at first.

And then, maybe you can extend that to extremely large Facebook groups. You may find that there are a million people in one Facebook group dedicated to some kind of interest, maybe movies or politics or whatever. We’re probably not the best suited for that. So it’s, again, the lack of a brand and a presence there.

An example [of a good fit] that comes to mind is Makerpad. They had a Slack community and charged, I think, a one-time $900 fee, before they switched to Circle. And what they found is that Circle just gives them more organization layers, better integrated with the product. They’ve actually embedded Circle into their website, in multiple ways.

And it lended itself much better to their key value prop. So they are now starting to think around the features of the community, which are not the features of Circle. It’s about, okay, “If I’m charging $900 a year or whatever it is for a customer, what are the value props that my community is giving to them?”

The thing that people don’t tend to instantly latch onto is this: The factor that decides whether or not your community is successful is more about you defining the features for your persona, which are very nuanced, than it is about the tool. The tool can help. We like to make a lot of those use cases possible with our spaces and free and paid and video and all of that stuff. But ultimately it’s going to be, if you’re charging for a community, is a member getting that value from it? And that’s just so contextual. 

I wanted to zoom out a little and get your thoughts on how you see Circle evolving.

Sid: In the one-year horizon, it’s a lot about just making everything feel like it’s not just good but the best. And we’ve talked about this with Pat and Matt a lot. So, things like the product feeling like it’s completely real-time, having live video within the product, having group messaging, so people can form their own tight-knit group within the SPI Pro community. We have basic versions of all this stuff. So we’re very heads-down on improving the product and nailing it so that it feels differentiated and special, as opposed to more of a commodity. And a lot of these things come down to specifics. They’re like a thousand micro-decisions and micro-improvements versus one large thing. Maybe live radio, group chat.

And then there are aspects like, let’s say, the SPI Pro community networking with each other and finding like-minded entrepreneurs. Obviously one aspect of that is a community manager enabling those types of connections, but products like Circle can and should help. So things like members defining or admins defining custom profile fields, almost like a LinkedIn profile. That’s important, so members can express themselves, and they can be more granular and looking through others that may be of interest to them. Because if you’re in a community with a thousand-plus people, you probably want to reach out to folks that are interesting to you specifically, and you can’t just do that by looking at their name and one-line bio.

So these are all the areas in the next year which we’ll focus on. And then there’s other obvious ones, like, we’re launching an iOS app this month. We’re working on an Android app. Soon we’ll work on a desktop app. We want to be across all the platforms.

Over time, where I’d like Circle to be is, it needs to be very easy for someone to start their own community, and our product needs to be friendlier to a broader persona of users. So not just someone who’s established a course and an audience already, but someone who’s more in the long tail or just starting out. And I think we have work to do before we become a viable solution for them, but it’s definitely where we’re evolving to. 

And we’d like Circle to be the central hub for members. That’s, again, a nuanced thing because, you call it a community, but in a lot of cases, on the internet right now, communities elsewhere—you go to a website first and there’s a “community” tab, or somewhere else to go to. And we would like to question that and see if we can make Circle almost like the default experience for a lot of folks.

I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Pat and Matt, who are both advisors to the company—how that came about and what that’s meant for Circle. 

Sid: Yeah. We’ve known Pat since our affiliation with him at Teachable. I’ve always respected the fact that, in Teachable’s early days, Pat was extremely instrumental to everything that went down at the company from $1 million in ARR to $10 million-plus. 

So we’ve known Pat for a while, and with Circle, my sense is SPI was very much in the evaluation phase of the tool of choice for their membership. And near the end, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time. 

We connected with Pat and Matt, who both showed a great level of interest. I think there was a three-day period where Matt literally flew down to New York. We spent a whole day whiteboarding everything from the SPI Pro community and Circle at large and how we’re thinking about the product and roadmap and all of that stuff.

And it’s been a very mutual, co-evolving experience where we’re learning from them and they’re learning from us, and the ways in which they’re using Circle are things that we’re observing and we want to improve at the same time. 

When we launch new features, they’re mostly the first people we go to to say, Hey, what do you think about this? Or would you like something like this? To get feedback. With both of them, we have a quarterly call where we go in depth on both the SPI side and the Circle side.

So it’s just been great overall because we want to be the best product, and these guys are very in tune with the product and the audience to help us get to that. And there’s a distribution aspect of what Pat enabled for Teachable, where his audience has a set of needs that products like ours and Teachable can cater to.

In terms of the membership community space as a whole, it seems fair to say that there’s a lot of growth in store. How do you see the industry evolving? 

Sid: I think that’s accurate. And one of the recent things that’s happened in this space, as you know, with COVID, is there’s been the added emergence of a need for virtual communities over in-person communities. So we’ve seen a lot of folks transition or start to supplement their in-person thing with a virtual community. And so it’s been interesting on that level, on a meta level. Who knows what’s going to happen after COVID, but that’s just given it that extra push.

And then a couple of other macro trends that we are a part of. So there’s one, the sort of passion economy, creator trend, of creators owning their audience and making a living by doing something they love to do and monetizing their passion. So there’s just no way I can see that going in the opposite direction. Given where we’re at from a meta perspective, in the world at large, unemployment having skyrocketed.

Then there’s the no-code emergence of tools getting easier to use and enabling a lot more use cases for someone who doesn’t know how to code. So I don’t have to know how to code to stitch together Stripe with Circle using Zapier. And our version of that, as I was saying before, would be to have an ecosystem and almost like a marketplace for plugins, a marketplace for experts. So previously, if you wanted a very custom experience with your community, you would have had to build it yourself, and that’s just cost prohibitive. You have to hire engineers, and do we really expect thousands of people invest in all the specifics around engagement? How notifications work, and all of that stuff?

Our answer to that is, well, we can do that for you, and we can make it extensible enough so that even for someone who’s not technical but is willing and wants to build something that feels special, that doesn’t feel cookie-cutter like every other Facebook group, we become a viable solution for them. And it’s not just us, as I said—it’s all these tools emerging in this landscape . . . that are making it possible for someone to do a lot more without having to invest their time and effort and money into what they want to achieve.

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  • Ray Sylvester

    Ray is a writer, editor, movement specialist, and SPI’s former senior writer.

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