A thousand true fans

4 minute read

I came across Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans essay recently, and thought it was relevant to what I’m trying to do now with the website and the newsletter. Highlights below:

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. […] you need only thousands of true fans.

A thousand is still substantial, but it’s within the realm of possibilty that it seems achievable for you and I. My immediate thought was wondering how he defines success, and who counts as a true fan. Kevin elaborates:

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. […] If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.

You need to meet two criteria. First, you have to create enough each year that you can earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan.

Second, you must have a direct relationship with your fans. That is, they must pay you directly.

So a true fan is anyone who’s willing to pay $100 yearly, or less than $10 monthly. It still seems achievable, though I wonder 1) what the churn rate on the fanbase will be and 2) what the conversion rate of fan to true fan is. I personally have rarely paid $100 or more on a one time event such as a concert, even for bands I love. However, perhaps if you’d pitched me on a $10 monthly fee for early access to music and one concert a year, I might actually be more willing to spend? [1]

The direct relationship is key though! Everyone’s always looking to intermediate in the market if they’re not a participant, and looking to disintermediate if they are a current participant. Platforms or intermediaries are helpful when you’re getting started and need the reach, but become an issue once you realise you’re creating more value for them than yourself. Look at the music, writing, or media industry, where you’re seeing more artists trying to own that relationship with the fans so that they retain value.

The number 1,000 is not absolute. Its significance is in its rough order of magnitude — three orders less than a million. The actual number has to be adjusted for each person.

This is a similar point to what I was making above. If I asked you to name 1,000 acquaintances you’d get a good way there, if not be able to name all of them. If I asked you to name a million I don’t think you’d get even 10% there.

While the support of a thousand true fans may be sufficient for a living, for every single true fan, you might have two or three regular fans. Think of concentric circles with true fans at the center and a wider circle of regular fans around them.

True fans not only are the direct source of your income, but also your chief marketing force for the ordinary fans.

Your true fans can advocate for you and are essentially free word of mouth marketing. It’s interesting that he mentions a 1 true fan : 3 regular fan ratio. I’d push back on this, and think that there are significantly less true fans compared to regular fans. Website conversion rates are not an exact proxy, but their range of 5-10% conversion makes me think it’s more likely you get 1 true fan in every 10 regular fans. This implies that you’d need to have an audience of 10,000.

Every thing made, or thought of, can interest at least one person in a million — it’s a low bar. Yet if even only one out of million people were interested, that’s potentially 7,000 people on the planet. […] the big corporations, the intermediates, the commercial producers, are all under-equipped and ill suited to connect with these thousand true fans. […] That means the long tail is wide open to you, the creator.

Since the niche interest by definition has a limited market size, you’re safe from competition against larger, better funded organisations. As long as it remains niche, they’re unlikely to take an interest in the market since it’s not worth their time. But it is for you! $100,000 yearly is nothing for any company at scale, but is nice enough to live even in an expensive city. Not extravagantly, but enough to get by.

Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum bestseller hits, blockbusters, and celebrity status, you can aim for direct connection with a thousand true fans. […] It’s a much saner destiny to hope for. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.

I wonder about this though. I’d think that most people with dreams first dream big, but then succeed with an initial niche audience. I’d be interested in seeing any examples of people or companies that didn’t first roll out a minimum viable product targeting a subset before trying to expand.

Footnotes

  1. I wonder why the western music apps aren’t doing something like this already. The Chinese ones are slowly adding features to make membership more worthwhile for the consumers. Meanwhile Spotify gets me…less adds and unlimited skips?

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