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Ask HN: What's the most simple way to accept monthly subscription fees?
109 points by arnorhs on Mar 20, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments
I've got a web application with monthly subscription fees. What's the easiest way to implement monthly billing? Is there an app out there that handles that kind of stuff for you?

Side-question: what's the cheapest way? That is, requiring the lowest transaction fee.

Simplest is probably http://cheddarGetter.com or http://spreedly.com or http://chargify.com (they store and abstract the payment gateway apis for you, and do recurrence, along with managing and handling the user data, and exposing a super simple api to your end). But the catch is they also charge a fee...

The cheapest is to use a service like Paypale/FirstData/etc which are a bit more tricky to setup that the cheddary/spreedly but also offer recurrance charging. The catch is you'd have to keep track of the user data and management, and slighly more tricker to change providers .

That's exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Chargify looks really good. The whole thing is explained nicely in the video even though it doesn't go into any details about the gateway.

Do you guys have any idea which one of those three are the biggest? Because I would assume the one with the most customers is the most reliable one... Even though that logic might be broken.

The elephant in the room with all of those systems (we use Chargify) is that you still have to sort out getting a merchant account on your own, which depending on how well set up your company is, may be non-trivial.

If, as it would seem from your profile, you are in Iceland this will be especially hard since you'll probably need an American entity with a bank account to be able to use many of those systems.

Braintree offers managed recurring billing and is also a merchant account provider. http://bit.ly/braintree

Yep, we talked with you guys as well and liked a lot of things about the organization and product, but honestly, the terms aren't very early-startup-friendly. (Multi-year exclusive contract and high base rates are the ones that come to mind.)

We (Braintree) have never had contracts or termination fees. Customers can cancel whenever they want and port the credit card data elsewhere.

As for our pricing, it's actually very competitive. It may look higher because we disclose all our fees. Nearly every provider we know of obscures fees both during the sales process and in the monthly reporting statements so merchants never really understand what they're paying. Here's an example of pricing trickery http://bit.ly/9NSZCa .

Prospective customers regularly do thorough pricing comparisons and we are consistently among the most competitively priced.

This is pasted from the terms we were sent in October:


That's language that one of our sponsoring banks unfortunately has not yet removed from the agreement. It's boilerplate language that is optional for us to enforce. Regardless, we're working with them to get it removed because we maintain that merchants can cancel their services at any time without a termination fee, and that language is clearly inconsistent.

Since that language is in there, we have always provided an addendum to the agreement that provides assurance to merchants that they can cancel whenever they want without having any termination fees. The addendum is located right next to application and is completed with every new customer that signs up. It states the following:

"WHEREAS, Braintree wishes to assure Merchant that Merchant will not have to pay any termination fees for the Merchant Agreement with Braintree or any of the processors used by Braintree; NOW THEREFORE, for good and valuable consideration, the receipt and sufficiency of which is hereby acknowledged, the Parties agree as follows: Merchant may terminate the Merchant Agreement with Braintree, and any processor utilized by Braintree. If Merchant exercises this termination right then Merchant shall not have to pay any termination fees."

We have never had contracts and have never charged a termination fee.

That definitely looks like an attempt to bind you to them for a period of three years with a termination fee of 250 usd + the remaining monthly fee's due immediately. More importantly, because they wrote it in all capital letters they are super serious and extra aware about this clause ;)

As for our pricing, it's actually very competitive. It may look higher because we disclose all our fees. Nearly every provider we know of obscures fees both during the sales process and in the monthly reporting statements so merchants never really understand what they're paying.

We're with SecureTrading in the UK and I can confirm that they have no "hidden fees". This is scaremongering at best. Braintree is expensive. You may have good service (so I hear), but don't make claims of being "competitive". You ain't. Braintree is a premium payment provider that costs extra compared to the competition.

I'm unsure if you are comparing apples to apples on the pricing as it looks like SecureTrading is a UK only provider. The UK and the U.S. have entirely different credit card processing fee structures. The wholesale rates, known as interchange, in the UK are lower and are structured differently. So a direct comparison is not applicable. I was specifically referring to U.S. providers.

In terms of your other comment regarding scaremongering, that is not our intent. We're just trying to raise awareness of hidden fees in the industry. We see it all day every day in competitor proposals. Credit card pricing is inherently complex and difficult to present to merchants. We've tried to simplify the complexity of pricing and buying merchant services by posting our pricing online and not hiding any fees. We try to raise awareness because at times it feels like we're the only provider out there that doesn't hide fees. I am sure that there are other providers that do not hide fees or present them in a way that hinders a merchant from properly understanding rates they'll pay - we just rarely ever see it.

We're about to move ahead with Braintree and there's no multi-year contract anymore...the fees are a bit high but so far the integration has been super easy, and I like the lack of needing to deal with PCI-DSS since they do everything on their side (but still within your interface). I figure it's better to move ahead fast with the implementation and optimize fees later once we've proved the model...at least we can get our data out down the road if we need to.

But no options outside the US :(

Yes, you're correct, I am in Iceland. I was hoping to use a merchant account in Iceland with Authorize.net. I'm still waiting for an answer from Authorize.net's customer support, but I'm hoping it's possible.

Authorize.net should be able to help you. They also offer a subscription add-on to their merchant accounts for around $10 a month. You should be able to start the process through their website now. They've made numerous improvements to the registration process over the past year.

I was happy with Spreedly too. Yes, getting the merchant account is majorly annoying (went with FirstData).

The fastest and cheapest way to set it up is Paypal subscriptions - I have done this many times using their IPN notification system. But I'm afraid to do it again because they keep screwing over websites (google it for the horror stories), so while I'm tempted - it's probably better to go the Spreedly/Chargify route at this point.

Chargify is led by EngineYard founder Lance Walley, and came out of Grasshopper's (http://grasshopper.com) inhouse incubator. I would not hesitate to go with them.

Spreedly has worked really well for us. They have at least 57 services using them, through their kickstart program ( http://spreedly.com/info/kickstart/ ), but I imagine there's a good deal more that simply don't have / want to put $699 upfront (to avoid all monthly flat fees, and reduce per transaction fees to $0.10).

We went with Spreedly because of the kickstart program. $699 upfront was so very enticing and, though we've not launched our service yet, knowing our per-transaction fees are capped at $0.10, it makes cost forecasting that much easier.

Don't miss http://recurly.com. They have the best payment gateway support and the most flexible pricing model of them all.

We're planning on using Spreedly on http://seoaholic.com, however, unrelated to Spreedly, which is easy to configure, getting the merchant account is the hard part.

'From scratch' it has taken close to 60 days - creating a company (LLC), securing a bank account, having the bank verify your physical location (even though you don't have one - don't ask) - total about 20 days.

Next, FirstData for the merchant account - talk to an account manager, then fill out a paper application, which leads to an online application via a relatively inflexible javascript-heavy website, then faxing supporting documentation, then applying for a state DBA license because the company name and the physical name don't match. Then, faxing personal bills with addresses that must match the physical address of the business address, even though there isn't one. All-in, this phase took about 20 days.

Next, website edits - They didn't like the word 'forever' on the pricing page, because it was too open ended. This phase has taken about 10 days.

We think we'll get it all done this week, at this point we're just waiting for an answer, but we had no idea how long it could take.

getting the merchant account is the hard part

Swombat wrote great article on this: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=530055

Hey, thanks to all who have mentioned Chargify. We definitely appreciate it!

The issue of long-term viability is a valid one... I would ask the same thing when evaluating vendors, and, in fact, I used the same logic in choosing to join Chargify last Fall.

I really like my co-founders' 6-year history running Grasshopper.com, and they architected things right - based on roughly 10 million telephony transactions that their existing system rates each month.

And, for what it's worth, my first company is still selling Basic Stamp computers 23 years after we founded it, and Engine Yard is growing every month.

I can speak for all 3 founders of Chargify when I say that we enjoy building utilitarian businesses that deliver good value over a long time.


--- Lance

Basic Stamps came out >= 23 years ago?! Suddenly I feel old :(

Most of the responses here have been in response to whether or not there are apps out there that do this for you.

However, if you want to go down the road of building this yourself, it's not really that involved. Take a look at ActiveMerchant if you're doing Rails. It helps you integrate with a good list of payment gateways. Then, sign up for that gateway + get a merchant account. This is probably the best way to get the lowest fees.

For example, I believe CDGCommerce offers merchant accounts at $10/month with a free payment gateway. The typical $0.30 + 2.9% (or whatever your rate is, depending on risk, etc.) applies.

Another path for this is Website Payments Pro via Paypal. With IPN you can easily sync your user subscription status with the latest payment information.

Doing recurring billing via subscription fees, like all programming is handling corner cases. For this domain, the corner case is a combination of invalid credit card numbers, expired numbers, perpetual zero-balance but valid numbers, overzealous anti-fraud filters, overdrawn accounts, or even temporary credit card numbers. Which ever service or integration path you choose, make sure you're covering the these corner cases.

Based on all this, my advice is to build in-house so you have the flexibility of changing policies on-the-fly with regards to how you handle those above cases. YMMV.

Thanks for the mentions of Recurly, we built our subscription billing engine from the ground up to make it as simple and easy to deploy subscription as possible. The untitled startup did a great unbiased review of the various subscription billing options out there (which you can find here: http://www.untitledstartup.com/2010/02/accepting-payments-on...). They ended up choosing Recurly for their subscription billing.

There are several items to consider when choosing a subscription billing option. Many have already been mentioned (cost, implementation time, the country you're doing business in) but you should also consider the size of each transaction you're doing.

Will you be doing lots of small transactions? Fewer large transactions? The answer to that question will have a big impact on the fees you'll pay for the off the shelf solutions (as well as your merchant account/payment gateway).

In addition to transaction fees, there are a number of other hidden challenges and "gotchas" to be aware of when billing online. You can see some of our suggestions on our blog here: http://blog.recurly.com/2010/01/lessons-learned-in-online-su...

Recurly also supports the largest amount of international payment gateway (you can find the full list here: http://support.recurly.com/faqs/payment-gateways/payment-gat...

Let us know if you have any other questions we can assist with, we're happy to help. Thanks! Tim

I've had very good experiences with Spreedly... you'll need to get a payment gateway, but they handle all the work of renewals, expiration dates, plan upgrading/downgrading, etc. They have a RESTful API so you can check status at any time, and will also ping a URL you specify when somebody's status changes so you can clear any cached data. They also do a pretty great job of support via their Get Satisfaction site and via e-mail.

http://chargify.com/ - the front page does a good job of selling it. It has a good API and they take care of almost everything - you just need to list the stuff you want to offer and either point people at a special Chargify page or pass info through the API.

We use Google Checkout. Fees are comparable to PayPal.. documentation is much better. There are plenty of other 3rd party solutions, but GC and PP are probably the best two.

http://recurly.com is another similar option.

There were even fewer options when I wanted to go this route 2 years ago, so I just went with a standard payment processor (BMT Micro) and charge one-time payments for users to pre-pay for time. e.g. $19.99 for 3 months or $59.99 for a year.

If you want to get from zero to charging ASAP, this might be worth considering. You could probably be integrated in a day or so. They are mainly geared toward downloadable software vendors, but I just use the "serial code" field as an Activation Code that the user enters into their profile page.

BMT Micro's royalty rate is around 10%, have awesome customer service, and just added a recurring option. The main downside is limited control over the template. I would also look into FastSpring since they are newer and seem to have more flexibility with the store configuration.

Great article comparing the assorted vendors you can use (with pros and cons): http://www.untitledstartup.com/2010/02/accepting-payments-on...

There was a pretty good comparison between the main ones mentioned here some time back. Worth checking into.


If you want quick, easy and cheap, go with PayPal. They have a button generator tool that takes the hassle out of submitting html forms to them. There are plenty of libraries out there that will listen for their IPNs (instant payment notifications) so that you can update the user's subscription record on your site. And there are no start up costs, win! ;)

That said, personally I'd start with PayPal, see if anyone gives you any money, and the moment users start paying switch to a proper merchant account and CC processor ;)

A bit unrelated, but I found http://pivotallabs.com/talks/88-demystifying-online-billing to offer a good explanation for managing recurring payments and what to watch out for.

If you are based outside of US or Europe, 2checkout.com may be the best bet. I have researched this question to th death and it seems 2checkout may be the best one. With others you will need a US bank account.

Anyone know if there's similar services for non-recurring payments?

I'm currently planning on using e-junkie but its kind of a piece of crap. Looking for a slicker integration similar to spreedly or chargify.

I actually run a site called BitBuffet that let's you sell individual files (like PDFs). Or are you wanting to charge a one time fee for access to a site?

Check out http://www.cariboucms.com - it's great for recurring billing and managing members. Supports multiple gateways as well.

Take a look over here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1182653

I posted the same question 10 days ago :P

Don't forget the SaaS Rails Kit at http://railskits.com/saas/ if you're writing a Rails app. :)

www.amember.com - Its a script you install to your server and gives you the ability to accept over 50+ gateways. Very nice and only a one time fee.

Just used amember for a small project I needed to get up and running quickly. Easy to use, simple to setup. Downsides: requires apache/php.

Does anyone have any experience with Amazon Payments? I Was considering them as a viable alternative to our existing PayPal solution.

The best cheapest and easiest one is Paypal.

Until they steal all your money.

PayPal never steals all of your money. The worst that can happen is a 180 day freeze before funds are turned over to you, which is exactly the same way all payment processors handle risk issues. That's how long Visa/MC tells MAPs to hold the funds because that's the standard time limit on customers performing chargebacks, which becomes the basis of the policies set by the 3rd party processors that are in contract with MAPs to do the actual card charging.

Results 1 - 20 of about 32,000 for "paypal stole my money". (0.29 seconds)

No, Paypal's thefts are not generally about issues with Visa/MC, but rather with Paypal unilaterally deciding that an account is "fraudulent", and Paypal deciding to permanently keep all funds in that account. This is in addition to their broken dispute resolution process as well. Using Paypal is a risk that a corporation should be required to disclose to all investors in bold print. "WARNING: THIS COMPANY USES PAYPAL TO PROCESS PAYMENTS AND THUS MAY BE PUT OUT OF BUSINESS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE."

The worst that can happen is your company goes out of business. http://whiteelephantmedia.com/ - Paypal requested $600k to keep the account open.

That is a pretty amazing story, the likes of which I've never read before. I can't even imagine how that situation came to be!


I used Amazon Payments for CustomerFind.com. It's really easy to use, but the documentation is kind of outdated. If you want I could tutor you, send me an email.

I liked the developer side of Amazon Payments, but had a lot of complaints about them from non-US customers, who found that they couldn't pay without a US credit card or address.

To be clear they should be able to use international credit cards, but not international bank accounts.


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