From Zero to 50,000 Members in a Year

We recently had an excellent conversation with a MemberMouse customer named Matt Curney. Matt operates an extraordinary membership site called Pianu. Aside from building and growing Pianu, Matt is a world-class piano player (watch him nail Moonlight Sonata here).

Pianu is an interactive piano education resource designed to help anyone learn to play piano. With Pianu, you can plug in a MIDI keyboard to your computer and be playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the Beatles Let it Be, or even the Star Wars theme song within minutes – all from your browser.

In under a year, Matt grew Pianu from 0 members to almost 50,000 members. Here’s what he shared with us from his experience:

  • Strategies for growth
  • How to convert free members into paid members
  • The gamification of membership sites
  • And more

Matthew Curney

Matt’s Background

Hey Matt! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. We’re big fans of Pianu. To get started, could you tell us a little bit about your background?

Sure! Piano is my trade. I went to the university for music, and then attended a jazz school after college. I played and taught piano throughout my 20’s. During this time, I learned how to build websites for bands and was just tinkering around with things online. I am completely self-taught as a web developer. Eventually, I got good enough to be hired as a developer and worked my way up to the agency level. From there, it just became time for me to combine my two pursuits into one. Pianu is what came out of that organically.

Origin of Pianu

What was your original vision for Pianu? Did you always see it as a subscription-based business? Or did that evolve over time?

The model for Pianu definitely evolved over time. It took a while to get there. I was so green going into building this business. I knew how to build a good website, and I loved the idea of running my own company, but I really didn’t know anything when I started it.

The first version of Pianu wasn’t monetized at all. It was really just an exploration of what I could do with code and a website. After that, we really focused on trying to figure out we could monetize the site.

How did you end up monetizing the site?

At first, we were offering a piano lesson course as a one-time $35 purchase. But once I realized that I could create a scalable music library, I saw that I could follow more of a Netflix model with lots of new content. From there, the membership model made a lot of sense for us.

I feel like now in 2018 especially, the membership model – as opposed to the a la carte iTunes or the single-purchase model – really makes sense to a lot of people. There is something powerful about the subscription model. Times are changing and people are smarter and savvier than ever about identifying value online.

How did you grow Pianu from a pet-project into a thriving business?

It happened organically with consistent effort. I believe that if you really have a reason for what you are doing and stay focused on the product, it naturally gets to a point where there is enough value for someone to pay for it. Through that process, you also attract the kind of people that keep you going in that direction.

At the end of the day, you have to deliver value. You have to be focused and really care about your customers. That’s what it comes down to. If you really care about what your customers’ experience is with your site — what they need, what they want — it’s really easy. I was watching a Jeff Bezos talk and he said “the customer will always lead your forward.” This is the approach I’ve taken as opposed to looking at competitors.

Did you start out using MemberMouse?

No. My first attempt at solving the e-commerce/membership idea was with a different plugin. It was not designed for subscriptions and was an absolute nightmare to use. Support was terrible and I ran into numerous bugs. Once, I updated the plugin and it crashed my entire site.

When I switched to MemberMouse it was like the clouds opening up. I was like “Oh, this doesn’t have to be difficult. I don’t have to wait a week for a response to a support ticket.”

It really made sense too with the all-in-one subscription business model that I finally landed on. This is what you guys do. So, it was a perfect fit.

One of the most compelling things about your site is the fact that when you land on the page, within 5 seconds you are already playing the piano. There’s something really special about that.

Thanks! That’s an idea that took me a little while to figure out. But I realized that what I want people to do is to visit the page, hit a key and immediately just hear it.

Free vs. Paid

From going through your site I notice that you’re using a free-to-paid model. You make it incredibly easy for anyone to sign up for a free membership and then you offer paid options on the backend. How do you decide what content to give away for free, and what to charge for?

When I first created Pianu, I just wanted to give everyone access to engaging piano education. At the beginning, I gave away a lot for free. We started out with more or less a non-profit mission. But at this point, pretty much every song and lesson are locked up behind the paywall.

I’m definitely of the mindset that people should get to try a little bit of everything and get a full taste of the site before they pay. I want to give everyone a nice introduction, have them earn a couple of badges, see everything the site has to offer, and then move on to the paid membership.

What has been your experience so far with a paid membership option? Any surprises?

I’m always surprised by what I find out! It’s an ever-changing ecosystem. Pianu is pretty global — only about half our traffic is from the United States. It’s funny, sometimes we’ll get a traffic spike from kids in Vietnam. I’ll see all these free signups from kids who are just playing around on the site. Given this, I made sure to keep the interface as universal as possible. There’s not a ton of text on the song pages.

Another one of our missions is to give teachers the opportunity to use Pianu in their classrooms for free. So, whenever we do school education outreach, I’ll see a spike in lifetime sales from schools unlocking it.

In terms of sales, MemberMouse has really helped me comb through all the data that comes in. I’m getting better at understanding why sales come in when they do.

Do you do any sort of advertising to get traffic to your site?

Not yet. We are definitely going to in the future. At this point in our business it seems that we’ve just won the SEO lottery through a lot of hard work. Almost all the traffic that comes to Pianu is free traffic. I’m working hard at getting the site to convert well from any page.

I’m always trying to see the site from my users perspective. One MemberMouse tool I love is the Login As Member feature. I like that I can go to manage members, click on any member and actually log in as that member. When I do that, I actually see my user’s progress: what badges they’ve earned and what songs they’ve learned. Being able to instantly log in as a member is slick. I don’t think I would have attempted to do that if you guys hadn’t built that button.

I’m very product focused and obsessed with my customers. I spend a lot of time trying to hone the experience for them rather than doing a bunch of marketing. From what I’ve seen so far, the conversions happen for Pianu based on site and product improvements rather than fancy ad campaigns.


One of the things I love about Pianu is that it’s like playing an arcade game. Could you talk a bit about the gamification aspect of your site?

Absolutely. The game-based design of the site was something I prioritized from the beginning. I think I just saw an opportunity to make learning fun, to bring Piano out of the dark ages, to make it feel like a game. The accomplishment that comes from completing levels and lessons encourages our users to keep learning.

Where did the inspiration for that come from?

The inspiration came from watching my nieces and nephews play Guitar Hero. I would watch them and think: “I wish I could combine this with a real instrument.”

I used to teach piano lessons on the side. It would be hard to keep the kids feeling like they’re making progress. It’s hard to learn to play the piano. So, I’ve learned that keeping people engaged is an important aspect of getting students to stick with it.

Have you found that gamification has increased conversions from free members to paid members?


Advice for Readers

What piece of advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?

When you bring your business live for the first time, it’s never going to be what you think your company is going to be. It sounds funny, but what you think your business is, is not what it is.

My advice would be to get something in front of customers as fast as possible because they are quickly going to show you what it really is. Embrace all the feedback you get from your customers. Put yourself in their position and focus on what they need, not what you need.

Starting a business is a never-ending marathon – it’s not like a race you win. Pianu has gone through thousands of iterations, small improvements every single day. The quicker you go live and the faster you can engage in the iterative improvement process, the higher your chances are for success.

Oh, and perfectionism is the killer for sure. It doesn’t have a place in startups.

Do you have a MemberMouse tip or trick to share?

I’ve got to call out the reporting suite. It’s one of the best parts of MemberMouse for me.

But something I use every day is the activity logs. The logs have been amazing because early on, customer support for Pianu was kind of a nightmare. A customer would send an email upset about a bug they ran into or an error they hit. But now, if I have someone saying, “I canceled my membership but I still got charged…” I can pop open the activity log and see exactly when they did it. It simplifies that part to have all that data in one place which I couldn’t find elsewhere.

One other thing, the save-the-sale page is killer. That’s something that I’m still working to optimize. When I was working with the other plugin, having no save-the-sale process was a pain point, for sure. When people canceled their membership, I had no way to interact with them at that point.

What in the reporting suite do you find yourself looking at the most?

I’m a huge fan of the average customer value report. And obviously, I keep tabs on daily sales and the number of new member sign ups per day. What I look at most in the reporting suite is the average daily and monthly revenue. It’s fun to look back and see the month-over-month growth and to see the churn. Those kinds of metrics would take quite a few calculations to complete without MemberMouse.

Last question: What do people love about Pianu?

I think what it comes down to is that people love to play their favorite songs. People learn piano because they love Adele or Michael Jackson or Elton John or Ben Folds. They want to connect with their favorite artists. That’s how I learned piano and it’s the best way to learn – through the songs you love. But people also love being told “Good Job,” they love being scored and feeling like they accomplished something. So, I’d say those two things.

Thank you so much for your time, Matt. It has been an absolute pleasure speaking with you and learning more about the history of Pianu.

To learn more about Pianu, check out their site: pianu.com/about-pianu

Have you had success with converting free members into paid members or using gamification on your site? We’d love to hear about it! Leave us a comment below.

Matt Brown

Over the past 6 years, Matt Brown has worked closely with some of the world's most successful membership and online course entrepreneurs. He's seen first hand what works – and what doesn't – when it comes to starting, building, and growing online businesses. On top of that, Matt was responsible for screening all the guests we've had on the Subscription Entrepreneur podcast. This allowed him to hear the best membership marketing and growth strategies from top authors and experts. Now, he shares everything he learns with you here on the MemberMouse blog. Subscribe today so you can discover cutting-edge strategies that can help you grow your membership, subscription, and online course business.

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