The history of the subscription-first business category

Back around 2012, a few new businesses emerged that were different in one main way: they required their customers to subscribe. Over time, these businesses, including Graze, BarkBox and Dollar Shave Club, took the ecommerce world by storm.

The meteoric rise of these early adopters inspired many entrepreneurs to start their own subscription businesses or add their own subscription models in an attempt to soak up the perceivable addressable market and capitalize on the holy grail of recurring revenues. This led to a "subscription boom", and many questioned if it was a fad or here to stay.

Meanwhile, Shopify and Amazon continued to help facilitate the mass adoption of transactional ecommerce by businesses and consumers. Shopify's app store in particular allowed developers to push the limits of transactional online ecommerce with clever and innovative ways to maximize profit.

Between 2014 and 2020, the subscription industry matured and expertise flourished in a sort of "gold rush", with various flavors of subscription models continuing to be adopted by wave after wave of new and existing businesses.

Models including curation, replenishment, access, and more became more defined under the umbrella of "subscription". Key metrics and terminology were adopted from the more mature SaaS industry, which had already been using a subscription-driven model for quite some time.

Consumers slowly became used to subscriptions as their exposure to them increased. Not only did they love the convenience, but they also grew fond of this new breed of brands that they could both experience and relate to.

In 2020, the pandemic took hold of the world, and further accelerated the adoption of online retail as well as the need and willingness to subscribe to services. Many local retail businesses adapted by introducing subscription models.

Having been right at the forefront of this burgeoning industry, we witnessed all of the above happening, and recognized that there was a lot of fragmentation and confusion emerging due to some new key trends:

Transactional commerce and subscription commerce were colliding, and hybrid businesses were starting to appear.
Despite the emergence of multiple models within the subscription category, the word "subscription" was still synonymous with the mechanics of "recurring billing". The definition of the word was different depending on your level of expertise.
Online retail businesses had become far more advanced and sophisticated in both the subscription and transaction commerce branches, let alone as hybrids.

There was a huge amount of dissonance growing — yet no one was talking about it, although all the symptoms were there:

Subscriptions bolted on to existing transactional businesses, buried away on inner pages
Multiple brands disconnected in order to facilitate the introduction of a subscription model
Subscription models being introduced with incompatible products
Businesses using multiple platforms leading to customers having to create and manage multiple accounts
Poor churn management due to lack of understanding, insight or analytics
Subscriptions being sold passively leading to low uptake
Businesses running subscription models on a plethora of plugins (Plugin Soup)
Bad CX/UX making it difficult to subscribe and purchase
And more...

Thus, many abandoned their subscription models due to generally poor execution.

Entrepreneurs and businesses were stuck on “this or that” thinking, lacking the mental framework and technology to seamlessly merge their business model while prioritizing subscription. This led to the perpetuation of poor execution as newcomers didn’t have good examples for inspiration. The market was awkwardly yet admirably trying to create a different type of business, but despite entrepreneurs having an idea about what they wanted to achieve, they didn’t have the means to bring it to life.

This is when we recognized that amongst all the noise, a new type of business had emerged. In a sense, it wasn't completely new — the companies mentioned earlier were all perfectly valid examples and had already been around for a long time — it just hadn't been articulated yet.

This new type of business isn't transactional, nor is it subscription-based or any of the sub-models within it. It isn't digital or physical, and it isn't online or retail. It's any and all of the above, but with a specific priority: subscription-first, where the primary sales intent is selling subscriptions.

Subbly is over 7 years old, and was started with a sole focus and goal to make starting and running a subscription business simple. Back then, we identified a need for these more complex business models that were growing in popularity, especially curated "box" businesses.

The market naturally evolved and so did our product, but when we truly identified this new breed of business, we realized we had already been building the only subscription-first platform all along.

This new type of business is more value-aligned with customers than anything that came before it. It's also more advanced due to the complex needs of the business model behind it, which requires more sophisticated technology.

The businesses mentioned in the introduction required teams of engineers and millions in funding to bring their visions to life. Their only alternative was a shoehorned setup using multiple platforms and/or plugins.

We've identified the principles that make up a subscription-first business that other solutions fail to solve for, which largely explains many of the symptoms mentioned above.

Additionally, we strongly
believe that:

All businesses are subscription businesses, as no business wants to sell to a customer only once and never again.
Subscription-first businesses deserve a subscription-first platform.
Subscription isn't just a recurring billing feature, it's a business model.
Business models that involve both subscription and transactional commerce are more sophisticated than their individual counterparts and have unique characteristics. These businesses are typically subscription-first.
Our mission is to continue to build software for subscription-first entrepreneurs, by innovating for and supporting the next generation of impressive and exciting businesses that we fondly consider to be rockstars.


Online subscription retail emerged around 10 years ago. Transactional and subscription models naturally converged, but the execution was generally bad due to a lack of mental frameworks, education, examples and tech – it was only accessible to well-funded businesses. We identify this new type of business as being "subscription-first", which is a hybrid business model with a primary focus of selling subscriptions. Our goal is to make it more accessible and easy to launch and run a well-executed subscription-first business that lives out the principles.