Robbie Kellman Baxter is a bestselling author, speaker, and consultant with more than twenty years of experience providing strategic business advice to major organizations including Netflix, Consumer Reports and LinkedIn. She is author of the bestselling book The Membership Economy; her newest work is The Forever Transaction.
She is a true expert in membership and subscription business models, and a wonderful writer and speaker as well.
She’s also a friend, and generously spent time talking with me about:
- Her own experiences establishing her area of expertise
- Why she wrote her books
- The difference between one-pound business cards and books that change careers
- The fears that keep conscientious authors up at night
Listen to our conversation here (or read the transcript below.)
Find out more about Robbie at RobbieKellmanBaxter.com.
Anne: So, Robbie, we first met about five years ago when you had just published The Membership Economy. We met at a conference, and you were doing a keynote speech. So you were already very much in the role of an expert in that part of the economy. What I want to understand better is, what happened before we met—how you got to that role. Because we’ve known each other the last five years, but wait, there was a Robbie before the book.
Tell me about what inspired you to the book The Membership Economy, which was your first book. You are now publishing your second. That your first book and it came out in 2015, right?
Robbie: Yes. It was a long time coming, that first book. About ten years prior, actually 15 years prior, I got laid off while I was on maternity leave, and said, “Okay, I need to be in control of my own career, at least for the next five years.” So I started consulting. At first I dipped my toe in, and I pretty quickly realized that if I didn’t want to be a contractor but actually wanted to be hired for my expertise, as opposed to being hired for my arms and legs, I needed to have some expertise that people could identify as unique and valuable. So in the back of my mind, I was doing consulting engagements for friends and colleagues, and thinking, “what would be my thing that I could be an expert on?”
My fifth client—this is now in 2001—was Netflix. I was working with them on some acquisition related projects, and I fell in love with their business model, for a whole bunch of reasons. I think you and I both love the subscription model.
I thought to myself, this is something that is really meaty, it’s really interesting, that nobody else seems to be looking at in a disciplined or thoughtful way. Maybe this is my thing!
As I was thinking about that, people started calling and saying, Hey, we want to hire you. We heard you worked with Netflix. We want to be the Netflix of whatever—software, hardware, insurance, pain medication, travel.
These companies, people would call, a friend of a friend, a friend of a colleague, a colleague of a friend. I started learning that of what I learned at Netflix, this is applicable, this is not. I started to make distinctions between “these are general principles” and “these are the differences and nuances.” I was thinking to myself, is this different by industry? Is it different by company sophistication—a private company, a public company, a venture-backed company?
It started very organically. I was learning and noting things that would allow me to come into a new client and almost predict what their problems were, what their challenges were, and have useful ideas to help them based on these frameworks I was working on in my head.
That took a while, and I started to make notes, thinking I should really write a book about this. If you want to be an independent consultant, you should have a book, an area of expertise, a one-pound business card to explain who you are and where you’re coming from. So I really started taking notes on the book ten years before—I have notes going back to 2005 on the membership economy. I have notes calling it premium services, premium recurring models, recurring business models, subscription—all these different names. I ended up with membership, which you and I talked about quite a bit, because I realized it wasn’t just about subscription pricing. It was about the whole model and the mindset of treating customers like members. And that is a metaphor for helping organizations focus on the long term, which justifies the subscription process.
So, that’s the business story of the 15 years before we became friends and colleagues.
Anne: There’s a couple things in there that really jump out at me. First is that you started on the consulting path when you were pregnant. There’s this whole thought that as women we can’t step up and do the important work if we also having children. In this sense, the children were an impetus to have more control over your life, over your time, which is very cool. And they’re now in college, so well done on two fronts. You’ve launched the books and the children.
Robbie: They are like children, aren’t they, Anne?
Anne: They are. It’s very interesting. Second is the fact that you chose your area, it chose you. You were in a great place at the right time, Netflix in 2001, but you had the curiosity and the analytical mind to look around you and say, okay, I’m diving deep on this. I’m going to look and see how this applies across organizations. So, it’s a combination of your actively choosing but also actively listening and paying attention to what’s happening around you, and who’s contacting you. Your audience organically reached out and pulled you along this path in many ways. That’s a really interesting story of being intentional and aware, and at the same time open to see what’s happening around you.
You got a book contract, a publisher. So tell me about how having that book has changed your practice or your life or the way you spend your time?
Robbie: It’s funny because people told me, my mentors on the consulting side said, you really have to have a book to set yourself apart, to help people understand your point of view, and when and if they should hire you, what they might expect. So I really felt a fire to write a book, and as you pointed out, I’m a big researcher. I’m very analytical. So I of course called everyone I knew who had written a book, to learn from them.
One person, Andrew Sobel, actually said, for some people and some books, it changes your life and changes your business in ways you cannot imagine. For the vast majority of people, it’s just one more useful marketing tactic, one more thing you’ve done, you can say you’ve written a book. Because I’m a very cautious person, a conservative person, I wasn’t all that optimistic about what my book was going o do for me.
In my mind, this was my criteria: it needs to be a book that is not embarrassing to me. When my friends read it—I was an English major and I have a lot of friends who have written books—I know they’ll read this book because I wrote it and I asked them to read it. I don’t want them to say, “Huh. This is not a very good book. That’s kind of surprising. Robbie’s pretty smart, but oh well, I guess she didn’t put a lot of effort into it.”
That was my biggest fear, that people I respected would not think it was a good book. The other thing is that experts in the field, like you, who wrote Subscription Marketing, would say, “There’s nothing new in here” or “Her frameworks aren’t true, they don’t hold up.” That was my biggest nightmare. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and think, “Oh my God, I don’t have a definition for what is a membership economy business and what isn’t, and I know everybody’s going to ask. I have to have a distinction. What’s the distinction?” You worked with me on the more recent book, so you know about my little panics, where I realize that, wait, this isn’t logical! Wait, somebody could poke a hole in this! What am I going to do?
So, that’s all I really wanted, a book that wasn’t embarrassing and that people in my field thought was credible. And it turned out that the timing—it was a good book. It’s a book I’m proud of. It’s well written, it’s well structured, it doesn’t repeat itself, it doesn’t use the same word twice in a sentence.
Anne: It’s an excellent book, Robbie.
Robbie: It’s a solid book, but there are a lot of solid books that very few people read. My book has been read by a lot of people because the timing was right. I had no control over that. You asked if it’s changed my life? It has completely changed my life. It’s changed the kind of work I do, it’s changed my reputation, it’s changed how I get work. It’s changed how I spend my days. It’s really been one of the most important milestones in my life, other than getting married, having children, graduating from college… this is a big one.
Anne: Isn’t that interesting. I love that you express your fears for the book—that people would read it and say “Oh, that’s not very good,” or that people will read it and say, “Oh, it doesn’t hold water.”
Robbie: Anne, I’m sure you’ve had this experience. You’re a writer’s writer. You’ve written books about writing, you’ve advised writers, you read all the time. I’m sure that you have read books, written by people you love and respect that you don’t think are very good.
Anne: Sometimes it just happens that I decide I’m not in their core audience. I think, “Ha. Okay, this isn’t my genre, or I’m not the audience for this. And that’s fine.” That’s usually the decision that I make, and that’s legit. We each have our own core audience.
What happened to you, and a little bit to me with my subscription book, was the timing. All of a sudden, the audience was there looking. You had a good book, and it did speak to a broad audience. You have a good book, and you have another good book coming out. I love that you express your fears, because I know now, having worked with you a little more closely on the second book, that you are probably the most heavily researched, most prepared, most diligent, most conscientious kind of author that one can encounter. So this thing that you have a fear that “Wait, someone might poke a hole in that statement in chapter 13” is a great insight into the fact that every author stresses about these things.
Robbie: You are very nice by saying … you’ve implied that you’ve never read a book that you’ve said, “It doesn’t matter whether I’m the audience or not, this is a badly written or lazily written book.” I’ve read a lot. If a friend of mine writes a book, I read it. Period. If they ask me to, if I know about the book, I buy it and I read it. Sometimes, I know there’s a whole school of thought around consultant/author/speaker types, to just get it written, and don’t over think it. Just get it out there. There’s a lot of good in that. After having worked with me, you might say, “Gosh, Robbie, maybe you needed a little more of that, a little less agonizing. Maybe you over thought it.” I’m sure I overthink pretty much everything, including what to have for dinner.
But, some people under-think it. You read it and go, “Wait, you had this story three chapters ago. Did anybody proofread this? You used this same word four times in a paragraph and it’s a really distinctive word. And you make this claim and don’t back it up. And this chart is meaningless.”
Anne: I do, as a reader, what will happen is sometimes I start skimming because … the thing that is most difficult, as a reader, to stomach is the thought that the author didn’t care enough to spend the time, to get it professionally edited. You and I have read books that were clearly a collection of blog posts pasted together without any overarching narrative. I’m not talking about Seth Godin, who can do that beautifully and of course you read it. I’m talking about other books. I think that as a reader, I would like to sense that someone is not just painting by numbers. I will pick up a book sometimes and think, this is their 10-pound business card, but it’s not .. it’s just to impress me with the bulk of the book and not the content.
Robbie: Someone said that you just want a book that lands with a thunk on your prospect’s desk.
Anne: Yes, and I have been given those. If they were not by a friend, I will look at it briefly and not read it. So there is that, the friend thing. But I think we owe it to readers to be diligent. And, to open up that possibility. If you’re being generous with your work, and your thought, and sharing your ideas, as you do in your books, then you open possibilities for other things – for the book being something other than just a big thunk on a desk but something that goes out and represents you in the world beyond and expands your voice, expands your reach, expands your impact.
You’ve shared your biggest fear. You’ve got the new book out. Tell me about the origins of this latest book [The Forever Transaction]. I know a bit about it because we’ve talked about it…
Robbie: You know a lot about it.
Anne: I know a lot about it. And it’s a wonderful book. But why the second book? Why The Forever Transaction? Explain how this came out of the practice after you built it out of the first book.
Robbie: First of all, writing the book taught me a lot about how I think and how I come up with ideas. You teach this really well. I felt like I stumbled into some of this. I learned that I can write my answers to the hardest questions. Like, what’s the difference between a business that could be in the Membership Economy and one that shouldn’t be. I did freewriting on that, and came up with some answers and some distinctions that I use almost every day now. That one hour freewrite, or whatever time I spent, pulled out the idea. Learning that forcing myself to write a book actually forces me to take everything I’ve done and make frameworks and distinctions and rules that can be helpful on an ongoing basis—having learned that, I knew I would probably write another book. Although I have to say, kind of like childbirth, when the firs book came out, I’m like “I’m never doing this again. That’s my one book. I’m done. Check. I’m moving on.”
But of course, a year later, you remember it with rose-colored glasses, and you’re really enjoying your toddler (my toddler book) and you’re like okay, I could do this again. So, that was going into it.
In terms of the content of the book, I realized that we were entering a different time. I wrote The Membership Economy because people didn’t get what I was saying. I would say—this was seven, eight, nine years ago—I would say ‘You should really consider subscription pricing, you should consider a membership model, it can work for you to smooth out your cash flow, improve your valuation on the public markets, be more attractive for acquisition, learn more about your customers’ behavior, better predict what products they’re going to need in the future, if you take this long-term mindset. CEO after CEO would say, “Well, Robbie, it’s not really relevant for my business because we sell cat food or we sell insurance” or whatever.
At the same time, a lot of subscription business leaders were saying, “Hey, we have subscription pricing—we’re good!” Even though you could see all the problems subscription businesses have. I could see them emerging. They’d acquire a new customer but they wouldn’t effectively onboard them, then the customer would fail to launch and cancel a few months down the road. Or a well-established company that had subscriptions would focus too much on their existing members and nobody would join and they wouldn’t understand why people didn’t want to join, and it was because they were no longer relevant. You’d see these problems over and over again.
At the same time, companies were coming to me and saying, “Okay, Robbie, we get subscription, we’re trying it and we’re struggling.”
I wrote The Forever Transaction to help companies that were struggling. Wherever they are in their subscription maturity, there’s a special set of challenges that are different from business-as-usual transactional business challenges. I wanted to share what I’d learned in the trenches, working with dozens, if not hundreds, of subscription companies of all sizes and shapes and org structures. This book is really about the how more than the why.
Anne: Again, it’s driven from two things: what you’ve learned. But you made me so happy when you said “writing the book taught me how I think.” We’re talking about the difference between the books that seem like they’re not making and effort and the books that are. You can tell, as a reader, when the author has delved deep and thought, that writing has become a kind o deep thinking for them. It shows up, and it makes you so much more willing and able to go along on the journey with them, as a reader. Your books definitely demonstrate that, which is wonderful
Robbie: Thank you.
Anne: You have put out two books in a rapidly growing, changing business field, which is another reason to keep listening, paying attention, and thinking deeply. It sounds like the process of writing the books has actually transformed you and your practice and your life as well, which is very cool.
I’m a member of the Robbie Baxter fan club. I will get any book you write. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your story with me. I appreciate it very much and I’m sure others will find it inspiring, because it is an inspiring story of somebody finding her place, finding her area of expertise, building on it, and being generous and sharing it in her books.