Patreon founder delivers a sincere and effective apology, rolls back its fee changes

Patreon, a crowdfunding site for artists and creators, screwed up with an ill-conceived attempt to change how it charges fees. Now its co-founder Jack Conte has admitted the company’s mistake and asked for a do-over. His apology is sincere, human, and effective. Learn from it.

According to Patreon’s blog, its original fee structure had resulted in some hard-to-predict service fees for each patron’s contribution, with creators taking home 85-93% of each pledge. The new proposed fee structure was supposed to raise this to a predictable 95%. But it has some side effects; in particular, tacking on fees to make it more expensive for small patrons offering a dollar or so per month. The result was an uproar from small donors and the creators who depend on them — one said it was “intended to destroy the viability of the sub-$5 per month tiers.”

Patreon says “We’re sorry.”

Patreon founder Jack Conte responded by undoing the proposed change and apologizing. Here’s his apology with commentary from me:

We messed up. We’re sorry, and we’re not rolling out the fees change.

Creators and Patrons,

We’ve heard you loud and clear. We’re not going to rollout the changes to our payments system that we announced last week. We still have to fix the problems that those changes addressed, but we’re going to fix them in a different way, and we’re going to work with you to come up with the specifics, as we should have done the first time around. Many of you lost patrons, and you lost income. No apology will make up for that, but nevertheless, I’m sorry. It is our core belief that you should own the relationships with your fans. These are your businesses, and they are your fans.

Commentary: Notice a few things that make this title and lede effective. First and most important, the title includes the key content (apology, and they won’t implement the change). It’s written in the first person, directly to the affected parties (creators and patrons). It actually includes the words “I’m sorry.” And it includes the key principle that organization will follow going forward, “you should own the relationship with your fans.” If you were a creator upset with the changes, or a patron who felt penalized, these words, right up front, would decrease your blood pressure immediately. Notice also what it doesn’t do — exaggerate with weasel words, justify the company’s actions (that comes later), or deflect blame. If you are writing an apology, this is your model; your title and lede should look just like this.

I’ve spent hours and hours on the phone with creators, and so has the Patreon team. Your feedback has been crystal clear:

  • The new payments system disproportionately impacted $1 – $2 patrons. We have to build a better system for them.
  • Aggregation is highly-valued, and we underestimated that.
  • Fundamentally, creators should own the business decisions with their fans, not Patreon. We overstepped our bounds and injected ourselves into that relationship, against our core belief as a business.

Commentary: Now Conte explains that the company is listening, and has heard the objections. By restating them, he attempts to show that he actually understands. I’m not sure what “aggregation” means exactly — probably the idea that having many small patrons is a good idea — but aside from that jargon, this section is clear. Using bullets also makes this easier to comprehend than if it were in paragraphs.

We recognize that we need to be better at involving you more deeply and earlier in these kinds of decisions and product changes. Additionally, we need to give you a more flexible product and platform to allow you to own the way you run your memberships.

I know it will take a long time for us to earn back your trust. But we are utterly devoted to your success and to getting you sustainable, reliable income for being a creator. We will work harder than ever to build you tools, functionality, and income, and our team won’t rest until Patreon is making that happen.

Commentary: Ah, the weasel words of course must creep in. “Deeply” is the worst of these, along with “utterly.” It’s unclear what “flexible” means, and “We will work harder than ever” is just silly. This is a vague set of promises. But coming as it does after a strong start, it’s forgivable. A creator or patron reading this is more likely to say “We’ll see, show us,” than “Bullshit.” Notice the focus on “sustainable, reliable income” (the bold shown here is in the original post).

If you haven’t sent us a note yet, or if you don’t see your concerns listed above, please leave us your feedback here.

Thanks for continuing to create. We are nothing without you, and we know that.


Commentary: Note the final focus on listening, and gratitude to the company’s community.

What happens now is what matters most

Conte has made a promise here. Note how personal this note is, from the founder to his key audiences, creators and patrons. If he is to fulfill that promise, he will need to develop a system that supports all contributors but doesn’t lose money for Patreon, which will be difficult.

But Conte has avoided the mistake that most people making apologies make — digger a deeper hole to climb out of. This sincere apology creates at least the opportunity for success, especially since it cancels the proposed changes that had caused the problem in the first place.

If you screw up, start with an apology like this that focuses on remorse and clarity and describes a path forward that the injured parties can believe in. Spend more time on the effect on customers and less time on defending and explaining yourself. And put the actual facts in the lede, without hedging. That way you might actually find a path out of the hole you fell into.

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  1. “Aggregation” would mean to bundle pledeges and fee them once at the beginning of the month, instead of the supposed change to “fee every pledge, and distribute them all over the month” (which on top of the additonal fees would IMHO have been the opposite of a reliable/predictable income).

  2. For Jack and millions of folks who fall into the same trap: “Rollout” is a noun; “roll out” should be used as a phrasal verb. Another example: “I’m going to work out,” vs. “I’m going to workout.”