1000 True Fans Revisited and Updated – Kevin Kelly

Tools of Titans (Timothy Ferriss)

- Your Highlight at location 5075-5186 | Added on Thursday, 28 December 2017 20:11:15


1,000 TRUE FANS—REVISITED I have recommended Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” to literally millions of people. Many guests in this book have done the same. “If you only read one article on marketing, make it this one” is my common wording.

Here’s a highly simplified synopsis: “Success” need not be complicated. Just start with making 1,000 people extremely, extremely happy.

Kevin’s orginal piece has grown outdated in a few places, so he was kind enough to write up a newer summary of core concepts for readers of this book. Since I first read the original nearly 10 years ago, I’ve tested his concepts across dozens of businesses, many of which are now multi-billion-dollar companies. I’ve added some of my core learnings and recommendations at the end. Enter Kevin I first published this idea in 2008, when it was embryonic and ragged, and now, 8 years later, my original essay needs an update—by someone other than me.

Here I’ll simply restate the core ideas, which I believe will be useful to anyone making things, or making things happen.—KK To be a successful creator, you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, clients, or fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only 1,000 true fans.


A true fan is defined as “a fan who will buy anything you produce.” These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audio versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine, sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free YouTube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month; they will buy the superdeluxe reissued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version.

They have a Google Alert set for your name; they bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up; they come to your openings. They have you sign their copies; they buy the T-shirt, and the mug, and the hat; they can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans. If you have roughly 1,000 fans like this (also known as superfans), you can make a living—if you are content to make a living, but not a fortune. Here’s how the math works.

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.

That is easier to do in some arts and businesses than others, but it is a good creative challenge in every area because it is always easier and better to give your existing customers more, than it is to find new fans.


Second, you must have a direct relationship with your fans.

That is, they must pay you directly. You get to keep all of their support, unlike the small percentage of their fees you might get from a music label, publisher, studio, retailer, or other intermediate. If you keep the full $100 from each true fan, then you need only 1,000 of them to earn $100K per year.

That’s a living for most folks. 1,000 customers is a whole lot more feasible to aim for than a million fans. Millions of paying fans is just not a realistic goal to shoot for, especially when you are starting out.

But 1,000 fans is doable. You might even be able to remember 1,000 names. If you added one new true fan per day, it’d only take a few years to gain 1,000. True fanship is doable. Pleasing a true fan is pleasurable and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that true fans appreciate.


The number 1,000 is not absolute. Its significance is in its rough order of magnitude—3 orders less than a million. The actual number has to be adjusted for each person. If you are able to only earn $50 per year per true fan, then you need 2,000. (Likewise, if you can sell $200 per year, you need only 500 true fans.) Or you many need only $75K per year to live on, so you adjust downward. Or if you are a duet, or have a partner, then you need to multiply by 2 to get 2,000 fans, etc. Another way to calculate the support of a true fan is to aim to get one day of their wages per year.

Can you excite or please them sufficiently to earn what they make from one day’s labor? That’s a high bar, but not impossible for 1,000 people worldwide. And of course, not every fan will be super. While the support of 1,000 true fans may be sufficient for a living, for every single true fan, you might have 2 or 3 regular fans.

Think of concentric circles with true fans at the center and a wider circle of regular fans around them. These regular fans may buy your creations occasionally, or may have bought only once. But their ordinary purchases expand your total income. Perhaps they bring in an additional 50%. Still, you want to focus on the superfans because the enthusiasm of true fans can increase the patronage of regular fans. True fans are not only the direct source of your income, but also your chief marketing force for the ordinary fans. Fans, customers, patrons have been around forever.


What’s new here? A couple of things. While direct relationships with customers was the default mode in old times, the benefits of modern retailing meant that most creators in the last century did not have direct contact with consumers.

Often even the publishers, studios, labels, and manufacturers did not have such crucial information as the names of their customers. For instance, despite being in business for hundreds of years, no New York book publisher knew the names of their core and dedicated readers. For previous creators, these intermediates (and there was often more than one) meant you need much larger audiences to have a success. With the advent of ubiquitous peer-to-peer communication and payment systems—also known as the web today—everyone has access to excellent tools that allow anyone to sell directly to anyone else in the world. So a creator in Bend, Oregon, can sell and deliver a song to someone in Kathmandu, Nepal, as easily as a New York record label (maybe even more easily).

This new technology permits creators to maintain relationships so that the customer can become a fan, and so that the creator keeps the total amount of payment, which reduces the number of fans needed. This new ability for the creator to retain the full price is revolutionary, but a second technological innovation amplifies that power further.


A fundamental virtue of a peer-to-peer network (like the web) is that the most obscure node is only one click away from the most popular node. In other words, the most obscure, under-selling book, song, or idea is only one click away from the best-selling book, song, or idea.

Early in the rise of the web, the large aggregators of content and products, such as eBay, Amazon, Netflix, etc., noticed that the total sales of *all* the lowest-selling obscure items would equal, or in some cases exceed, the sales of the few best-selling items. Chris Anderson (my successor at Wired) named this effect “the Long Tail,” for the visually graphed shape of the sales distribution curve: a low, nearly interminable line of items selling only a few copies per year that form a long “tail” for the abrupt vertical beast of a few bestsellers.

But the area of the tail was as big as the head. With that insight, the aggregators had great incentive to encourage audiences to click on the obscure items. They invented recommendation engines and other algorithms to channel attention to the rare creations in the long tail. Even web search companies like Google, Bing, and Baidu found it in their interests to reward searchers with the obscure because they could sell ads in the long tail as well.

The result was that the most obscure became less obscure. If you live in any of the 2 million small towns on Earth, you might be the only one in your town to crave death metal music, or get turned on by whispering, or want a left-handed fishing reel. Before the web, you’d never have a way to satisfy that desire.


You’d be alone in your fascination. But now, satisfaction is only one click away. Whatever your interests as a creator are, your 1,000 true fans are one click from you. As far as I can tell there is nothing—no product, no idea, no desire—without a fan base on the Internet. Everything 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 a million people were interested, that’s potentially 7,000 people on the planet. That means that any 1-in-a-million appeal can find 1,000 true fans.

The trick is to practically find those fans, or, more accurately, to have them find you. One of the many new innovations serving the true fan creator is crowdfunding. Having your fans finance your next product is genius.

Win-win all around.


There are about 2,000 different crowdfunding platforms worldwide, many of them specializing in specific fields: raising money for science experiments, bands, or documentaries. Each has its own requirements and a different funding model, in addition to specialized interests.

Some platforms require “all-or-nothing” funding goals; others permit partial funding; some raise money for completed projects; some, like Patreon, fund ongoing projects. Patreon supporters might fund a monthly magazine, or a video series, or an artist’s salary.

The most famous and largest crowdfunder is Kickstarter, which has raised $2.5 billion for more than 100,000 projects. The average number of supporters for a successful Kickstarter project is 241 funders—far less than 1,000. That means if you have 1,000 true fans, you can do a crowdfunding campaign, because by definition a true fan will become a Kickstarter funder.

(Although the success of your campaign is dependent on what you ask of your fans). The truth is that cultivating 1,000 true fans is time-consuming, sometimes nerve-wracking, and not for everyone. Done well (and why not do it well?) it can become another full-time job. At best, it will be a consuming and challenging part-time task that requires ongoing skills. There are many creators who don’t want to deal with fans, and honestly should not.


They should just paint, or sew, or make music, and hire someone else to deal with their superfans. If that is you, and you add someone to deal with fans, a helper will skew your formula, increasing the number of fans you need, but that might be the best mix. If you go that far, then why not “subcontract” out dealing with fans to the middle people—the labels and studios and publishers and retailers? If they work for you, fine, but remember, in most cases they would be even worse at this than you would.

The mathematics of 1,000 true fans is not a binary choice. You don’t have to go this route to the exclusion of another. Many creators, including me, will use direct relations with superfans in addition to mainstream intermediaries. I have been published by several big-time New York publishers, I have self-published, and I have used Kickstarter to publish to my true fans. I chose each format depending on the content and my aim. But in every case, cultivating my true fans enriches the route I choose.


The takeaway: 1,000 true fans is an alternative path to success other than stardom. 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 1,000 true fans.

On your way, no matter how many fans you actually succeed in gaining, you’ll be surrounded not by faddish infatuation, but by genuine and true appreciation. It’s a much saner destiny to hope for. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there. Some Thoughts from Tim Kevin distinguishes between “making a living” and “making a fortune,” which is an important starting point for the discussion. However, it’s worth noting that these aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Creating 1,000 true fans is also how you create massive hits, perennial mega-bestsellers, and worldwide fame (be careful what you wish for). Everything big starts small and focused (see Peter Thiel, page 232). 1,000 true fans is step #1, whether you want a $100K per year business or the next Uber. I’ve seen this with all of my fastest-growing and most successful startups.


They start laser-focused on 100 to 1,000 people, niche-ing down as necessary with their messaging and targeting (demographically, geographically, etc.) to get to a manageable and cost-effectively reachable number. So, you may ask yourself, “Why aim for a mere $100K when I can try to build a billion-dollar business?” Two reasons:

1) Aiming for the latter from the outset often leads to neglecting the high-touch 1,000 true fans who act as your most powerful unpaid marketing force for “crossing the chasm” into the mainstream. If you don’t build that initial army, you’re likely to fail.

2) Do you really want to build and manage a big company? For most people, it’s not a fun experience; it’s an all-consuming taskmaster.

There are certainly ace CEOs who thread the needle and enjoy this roller coaster, but they are outliers. Read Small Giants by Bo Burlingham for some fantastic examples of companies that choose to be the best rather than the biggest. And, as Kevin noted, the number of your true fans can actually be far fewer than 1,000.

This is particularly true if you

  1. produce content that attracts a niche but well-heeled group, and then
  2. invite and look for indirect revenue opportunities not based on onsite transactions (e.g., paid speaking, investment opportunities, consulting).

These can be far more lucrative than most advertising, tip jars, and the like. One reasonably common critique of “1,000 True Fans” comes from musicians, for instance, who say something along the lines of, “But I can only sell an album for $10, and I can only produce one per year. That’s only $10K and not enough to live on. ‘1,000 True Fans’ doesn’t work.” Scores of book writers have a similar argument, but it’s flawed. Remember, a true true fan will buy whatever you put out.

If they refuse to purchase above $10, you haven’t done the work to find and cultivate real true fans. If you have true fans, it’s your responsibility to consider (and test) higher-priced, higher-value options outside of the $10 paradigm. Don’t be locked in the pricing model of the incumbents. In 2015, Wu-Tang Clan sold a single bespoke album at auction—in a handcrafted silver and nickel box made by British-Moroccan artist Yahya—to one person for $2 million.

There are a lot of options between $10 and $2 million. See my “free or ultra-premium” approach on page 290, which has provided me with complete creative and financial freedom. You do not have to sacrifice the integrity of your art for a respectable income. You just need to create a great experience and charge enough. Not sure what to charge?

Perhaps you should figure out your Target Monthly Income (TMI) for your ideal lifestyle and work backward. For examples and a simple worksheet exercise, visit Tim Ferriss website: fourhourworkweek.com/tmi

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