Founders Series: Part Two - It's Really Free...

👋 Hey, folks!

Ian here, back with another edition of the Founders Series. It's been a long time since either Jacob (fellow Helium co-founder) or myself have decided to expand upon this uniquely personal blog series. Alright, a very long time. Part One was written back in October! 😬 Anywho...we're here again. And, the reason for the reemergence of the Founders Series is to transparently answer a question we consistently receive...

How can Helium as a business survive if its services are free?

A totally fair question! And the simple answer is, it can't. At least, not forever. Now, for those of you that don't know, Helium delivers library books to the residents of Milwaukee County (WI) - for the time being, at no cost to the reader. They pay nothing (zilch, nada, zero...). There is no catch. This is how it's been since our launch in 2019.

Understandably, some of you may be scratching your heads - and I'll to dive into the realities of co-operating a business with a non-revenue-generating core service in a second - but first, I'd like to discuss the motivation behind the initial decision to charge $0.00 for what we do at Helium.

Why Helium Is Free (For Now).

The decision to launch back on September 3, 2019 as a free service was not an easy one, but one we felt was necessary to make. Necessary for two primary reasons, one of which was a logical business decision, the other...not so much (and is rather embarrassing).

1️⃣ Reason #1 | Business Decision

Who's heard of a 'Freemium' business model? If so, awesome. If not, no worries, I'll explain. A 'Freemium' business model is something you likely encounter more often than you think...Spotify works as a 'Freemium' model, as does Youtube and many others. We at Helium use several third-party services that operate as 'Freemium' models. So, what are they exactly? Put simply, the 'Freemium' business model refers to services with 'tiered' pricing structures. Each tier -starting with the free tier - grants the user certain features, functionality, access, etc., but...the more you want, the more you pay - hence, the tier metaphor. Here's an example of how this may manifest in reality:

- Free Plan: $0.00/mo

- Pro Plan: $9.99/mo

- Premium Plan: $14.99/mo

- Corporate Plan: $49.99/mo

This is likely ringing all sorts of bells now. Good! When launching Helium, we knew of this model, which succeeds quite well in turning 'let me try this'-customers into paying customers (if your service offering is sound). Thinking our service, which is somewhat dissimilar to our traditional book-buying behavior (cough, Amazon, cough), would generate some confusion and need time to grow accustomed to, we took a play out of the 'Freemium' playbook. We made our service completely free, but without tiers. This would be the perfect stress-test for our idea. If people didn't want books delivered to their house for free, within 48 hours or less, let's be real...they wouldn't use the service if it cost them their precious dollars either. From a business perspective, if we wanted to build this idea into a long-lasting, valued company, we had to know if it had any legs to stand on. Was it even worth our time to pursue? Making our service free would eventually give us the answers we needed to progress confidently.

2️⃣ Reason #2 | It's Kind Of Embarrassing...

Look, neither Jacob nor myself know how to build nice, clean, functional, feature-filled websites with robust, crisp computer code. We have business degrees. Plain and simple, we didn't have the skills to build in a payment processing application into our website that would incorporate a dynamic pricing model based on a variety of variables. And, upon talking to skilled, experienced website developers about doing so, it doesn't seem so easy, even for them (which does make me feel better, yes).

So, yes, one reason we do not charge for our services (though not the primary reason) is because we simply do not know how to do so in the manner we desire. 🤷‍♂️ It's embarrassing to admit, but, it is our reality. Worth mentioning, because of our belief in Reason #1 above, we have never considered burdening ourselves with the cost of hiring external software developers. Once we believe the time is right to begin charging for our services, we will look into our options. But, the time is not yet right and money is a real thing...and, as I'll touch on below, we don't have much of it at the moment.

How Helium Operates For Free.

Running a business that brings in zero dollars from its core service demands creative thinking. That demand is only amplified when budgets are stretched thin. Helium was started with a few thousand dollars, a chunk of which went to 'startup' costs (materials, filings, etc.) and a fixed amount of dollars per month goes to the pockets of third-party partners. Any business incurs similar costs - they're necessary. However, with what we have to 'play' with, we force ourselves to get creative. After all, those funds are not getting replenished, at least not quickly by way of revenue generation.

So, to answer the question, How does Helium operate for free?, we would boil it down to one word: thrift. Every expense is examined with a fine-toothed comb. We look for the best bang for our buck wherever we throw our dollars - service providers, marketing spend, etc. We have no choice but to...lest we'll run ourselves dry before we ever have the chance to get off the ground. Oh, and having no employees certainly helps us control our spending. Of course, we know that external funding would give us the ability to really kickstart what we have going on - in all areas. Yet, until we are able to earn such investment, we have to maintain our sense of thrift.

That was a lot I just threw at you. Now, I understand that, at this point, you may have several questions, the primary one likely being:

When will you decide to charge for your services?

The answer is indefinitive, unfortunately. As mentioned, when we feel the time is right to start charging, we will, assuming we are capable from a financial and/or personnel basis. What does this mean? To us, the time is right when we feel there is consistent value placed on the services we provide. Of course, this cannot be measured objectively, but we do believe we are approaching this milestone!

To summarize, before we launched Helium we made the decision to offer our service for free because we felt it was the right thing to do, not only for us, but for the people we aim to serve. What's better than free books, right!? Day in and day out, we operate the business knowing that money out the door is not coming back, at least not soon, which shapes and hones our decision making.

And, look, maybe we got it all wrong! Is it fun making no money? Eh, 'fun' is a strong word...Would it be more fun to do what we do and make money? Probably, yeah...

Maybe we should have plunked down the cash up front for software developers to build out a platform that allows us to charge for our service from day one. Maybe that would have worked, helped us attained funding, and lead us off to the races. Maybe...

But, we always have choices in life. All we can do is make the one that feels right in the moment - with a clear mind and strong will. That's what we did. We hope you understand why we did it and how we continue to do it every day.


It's been real, ya'll! I really hope you enjoyed this newest edition of the Founders Series! No telling when the next one is coming, but hopefully in less than 7 months...If you have any other unanswered questions, hit up the comments down below! Promise I'll be honest! If you want to reach out to me directly, feel free to email me at Alright now, be good, take care, and stay true. ✌

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