Robbie Kellman Baxter ‘85 on Returning to Menlo Park, Subscriptions, and Finding Your Passion

5 mins read

This is the 58th article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni.

Robbie Kellman Baxter ‘85 is the founder of the consulting firm Peninsula Strategies. She helps businesses build deeper relationships with their clients through the subscription model, which she discusses in her two books The Membership Economy and The Forever Transaction. After graduating from Harvard, living in New York, and attending Stanford’s School of Business, she returned to Menlo Park and lives next to M-A. “I can hear the bats, pool whistles, and loudspeakers,” she said.

The Forever Transaction by Baxter
Baxter’s second book (2020).

When people asked Baxter what she wanted to do after high school, she recalled, “I always felt my favorite subjects were whichever was with my favorite teacher. I liked biology and English, and I loved German, but I didn’t want to be a German teacher or go into the Foreign Service or something—I just liked learning from somebody who could teach me. When I went to college, I really didn’t know what I was going to study.”

Baxter recalled her German teacher at M-A as charismatic and fashionable. “She wore stiletto heels and blonde platinum wigs. She was strict, she only spoke German from the first day of class.”

I sat outside in the G-wing on a Zoom call with Baxter, and she remarked, “I’m looking behind you, it’s so gorgeous. Proposition 13 happened when I was in middle school, changing the way schools were funded. When my daughter graduated in 2016, there was construction going on all the time. Now, there are so many beautiful spaces like the library, the PAC, two-story buildings, and all the vibrant lawns.”

Having seen her three kids attend M-A, Baxter added, “I think the school is better at integrating and celebrating all of the diversity than [it was] when I was there.”

Baxter (second from the left) at her daughter’s M-A graduation.

At Harvard, Baxter explored many fields of study. “I took Russian, math, and more, but I ended up studying poetry. It makes me sad that very few young people now are going into liberal arts because of the emphasis on STEM. I think a lot of what you learn in STEM, you can kind of learn on the job. What’s important is learning how to think and how to look at the world and say, ‘Okay, I see there’s a lot of perspectives and this is where I am and this is where that other person is.’ It’s important to be challenged to think about your values and ethics.”

About getting her first degree in poetry, Baxter said, “It was pretty hard to get a first job. The interviews were rough because I was interviewing for banking and real estate jobs and they were confused, thinking, ‘What? You studied poetry.’ With such practical jobs, I had to prove that I could be quantitative and get things done instead of thinking about what would be the most beautiful thing.”

Despite this challenge, Baxter stayed in New York and worked in urban government. She remembered, “We were doing huge real estate projects like Times Square redevelopment. My company claimed all the space, tore everything down, and rebuilt it all working with private partnerships.”

Then, Baxter returned to the Bay Area to attend business school at Stanford. She considered going into law, but realized she would rather be in business. She said, “I think lawyers are paid to anticipate what could go wrong. You get married; Well, here’s what could happen if you got divorced. You’re starting a partnership, here’s how to protect yourself in case they tried to cheat you. I didn’t think it would be healthy for me to spend my days always thinking about what could go wrong for people. I wanted to be on the side where I’m thinking about what could go right and I’m hiring somebody to worry about what could go wrong.”

Baxter worked in product management for five years and in strategy consulting for two. While on maternity leave, she got laid off. She then decided to become an independent consultant, and realized she needed an area to focus on—she chose subscriptions. At the time, she said, “I believed that everybody was going to move to subscription.”

Baxter studied subscriptions in-depth and then began working with companies like Netflix, SurveyMonkey, Microsoft, The Wall Street Journal, and the NBA. “I decided I had to write something so that people could understand what I was talking about,” she said. 

Baxter’s first book.

In 2015, Baxter published The Membership Economy, where she explained the power of a subscription model to businesses.

Baxter then began doing more public speaking, which she enjoyed because of the blend between practical work and communications and marketing. A large part of Baxter’s work is traveling to present at conferences. She said, “There’s less travel after COVID, but every other week or so I’ll travel for a day or two.” When she’s not traveling, Baxter has meetings, writes proposals and speeches, and creates presentations.

On gaining clients, Baxter said, “People would read my books, listen to my podcasts, or follow me on LinkedIn and then look at my website and call me. I’d help people start subscription models, improve what they had, and grow their subscribers. Sales is not my best skill, so I focus on marketing and then prospective clients call me.”

As a consumer, Baxter cautioned, “You should pay attention to what you subscribe to because the whole point of a subscription is that you make it part of your habits and forget about it. Take a step back and think which subscriptions are worth it to you. The average American is spending $217 a month on subscriptions, which is a lot.”

From a business perspective, Baxter advised, “Think about your customers. It’s very easy to want to go after transactions. But, for example, if you’re selling donuts every Friday, you might push them on people to get them all sold. You’re much better off thinking about the lifetime value of that customer. Instead of selling them for a dollar each time, say ‘Hey, there’s 30 weeks of school, pay $25 to get a donut every single week.’ Now, you know how many donuts you’re selling and it’s going to be easier to manage. That’s the value of a subscription.”

Baxter’s advice to M-A students: “You don’t have to decide your passion now. Pick a couple of things and do as much as you can with them now and in the next four years in college. People might say, ‘Try everything,’ but I think, go deep on a couple of things and see, one, if you like it, but, two, what it feels like to be really good at something. I think that’s really important and it keeps doors open. In figuring these things out, be curious and ask questions—there’s a lot of people in the community that want to help. As much as it can be a very stressful time, high school is also a really fun time of exploration and building deep friendships.”

Baxter’s advice to students interested in business and marketing: “There’s always opportunities to do business marketing. In high school, you could be a social media marketer probably pretty easily. Getting those experiences will help you build your resume and learn. I’m not totally sure that getting a degree in business is required to get a job in business, there’s so many different ways you can come at it because there’s so many skills involved; You can be really quantitative and math oriented and be great in business, or you can be a great communicator, manager, or good at sales.”

Celeste is a junior in her second year of journalism. She is the co-writer of the weekly column Bears Doing Big Things, featuring alumni. She also is a copy-editor and manages the publication's Spanish translations and social media. She enjoys covering issues affecting the M-A community through features and writing Bear Bites about local restaurants. Her story on La Biscotteria was recognized as a top-10 NSPA Blog Post of 2023.

Latest from Blog