How to Build a Subscription Service on Rails: A Noob's Guide

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There are few things as nerve-wracking as pushing your first subscription website into production. Am I covering all the bases? Will everything break and leave me in a pit of customer support sadness? How do I even take payments? Are they just going to laugh at me?

Some Background

My friend John makes awesome AngularJS training videos. They are short, topical, and presented clearly. He loves making training videos, but has very little interest in building out a website and marketing the content. "Selling things on the internet" can be a chore. If you're just selling one off digital things, it is fairly straight forward, but if you are looking to build out a website, allow users to register, and charge them on a recurring basis it can be anything but.

As it happens, I'm very interested in these problems. For the last couple of years I've been taking classes and going to conferences that boil down to selling things on the internet. Recurring revenue is alluring. My gurus are all about finding pain and providing immense value to people in exchange for money. This is what I want to do too.

Wonder Twin powers; activate!

Digging in: The Stack

We have content, traffic, and a solid reputation. What's the next step?

To actually build something, of course. Rails was the clear choice when it came time to decide what framework to use. It is mature, easy (enough) to use, and has a metric shit-ton of resources for building this type of thing.

It is also astonishingly easy to deploy Rails apps to Heroku. This has been a huge win. Using the free Heroku tier has allowed me to have a production and staging environment a few keystrokes away. For production, Heroku quickly becomes not free as you add in background workers, SSL, and other essential pieces, but you can go a long way with free.

ZOMG There is so much to learn!

I've been developing software professionally for a few years. My roles are primarily on the UI side of things, but I've built a few full-stack solutions in the past with Django. Over the years I've always wanted to learn Rails, I just never had anything real to build. Tutorials and books can be boring, especially with no context of something "real" that you actually care about to build. That said, there were a few excellent resources that helped me on the way:

Michael Hartl's Rub on Rails Tutorial: Outside of basic Ruby syntax, this is where you want to start. The web version is free, and he guides you through building a "real" app with Rails in a clear, easy to understand manner.

Daniel Kehoe's RailsApp Project: This was a huge boost for me. It covered all the bases. I wanted to build an app with Rails. Check. I wanted to use Twitter Boostrap with Rails. Check. I wanted to have authentication and authorization in the app. Check. I wanted to integrate recurring subscription payments. Check.

Peter Keen's Mastering Modern Payments: If you are going to sell stuff via a Rails app, buy this book today. It saved me so much time and instilled a confidence that I might never have had without it. RailsApp is pretty good, but for me it started to break down when I wanted to add payment. I needed deeper understanding and control, and Pete's book delivered the knowledge I needed in a concise 120 page guide. I'd recommend getting the verion with the code, because it was a huge help to me.

Giles Bowkett's Software as a Disservice is a direct critique of RailsApp. It is harsh, but constructive. It addresses code smells that I had noticed, enforced some of what I learned in Pete's book, and lays out some solid practices that a Rails noob like me won't learn in 1000 searches that result in a Stack Overflow answer. It's an opinionated style and practices guide. note: RailsApp has its flaws, and it was extremely useful to me. Daniel is passionate and has put out a lot of excellent material, but charging people real money for a product or service is terrifying. I needed this critique to plug some serious holes in the implementation. It is important to recognize that Giles is critiquing the code and not the developer that wrote it.

These four sources were keys to the successful launch of egghead.io's Pro subscription service. Along with countless posts, Stack Overflow answers, and documentation written by the Ruby/Rails community. It is amazing. Now is a very good time to be a nerd.

Taking Payments: *scared face*

It really is terrifying. Maybe it isn't as scary if you've done it before and know what you are doing. I didn't qualify.

Luckily we live in a fantastic age of modern convenience.


What an amazing service.

They handle a huge amount of the drudgery invloved with taking payments from people on the internet. They remove the horrors of PCI compliance by providing an implementation that allows you to take credit cards without ever actually having the actual credit card numbers touch your system. They travel over secure-socket-layer directly to Stripe, who responds with a token that allows you to initiate an authorized charge. It is beautiful. Once you've authorized a subscription, Stripe manages the recurring billing for you.

To help with the subscriptions, I found the Koudoku gem to be a great resource. While I had to fork it and manipulate it to some extent for my specific needs, it does a lot of the heavy lifting. I'm on the fence about using a gem to handle all of this. On one hand, it is very easy. On the other, having your subscription implementation tucked away in a "black box" can bite you when the shit hits the fan. Give and take.

What would I do differently?




It is tough, as a noob, to get in and write proper tests. All of the resources I listed above discuss testing. I skipped it. You know what is really hard? Going back through a non-trivial system and writing a solid test suite.

This can't be said enough. Tests should guide design of code and when they are tacked on later, they lose a big chunk of value. This isn't to say they don't still provide immense value, but "test later" often means "test never" and this isn't a good situation to be in.

I'm working on retrofitting tests, but it is a chore. Test early, test often.


Building a subscription service is scary. Luckily the internet is stuffed full of open source projects, examples, and helpful people sharing knowledge. Some of it is free, but some of the best resources cost a few dollars. Worth every penny.

Rails is a great framework for this sort of thing. I'd recommend it highly, if you are trying to build an application that requires recurring billing for your users.

Test early, test often. It's an additional thing to learn and understand if you are just starting out, but it is worth the effort. If I could go back and do anything differently, it would be to write solid tests along the way. Don't make the same mistake with your apps!