May 2, 2021

1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly - why you shouldn't focus on the millions


I’m talking about something a little bit different this week, it’s not a book, but an essay. And one that is talked about and referenced regularly on podcasts and in other books.⁠

I have quite strong feelings about the fact that more books should be essays. Some of the books I’ve enjoyed the least, would have been very fine essays. But no, they had to go and stretch it beyond its capacity over a mediocre 250 pages.⁠

Luckily, Kevin Kelly didn’t do this. He either has more sense, or doesn’t need the money (or both).⁠

You can read the essay right here.

About the Author

Kevin Kelly is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor for its first 7 years. His most recent book is The Inevitable, which is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. His other books include the best-selling New Rules for the New Economy, the classic Out of Control, and his summary theory of technology in What Technology Wants. From 1984–1990 Kelly was publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Catalogs. He co-founded the Hackers’ Conference, and was involved with the launch of the WELL, a pioneering online service started in 1985. He also founded the popular Cool Tools website in 2003.

Source: https://kk.org/biography

Also check out Kevin’s blog: https://kk.org/thetechnium/

Big idea #1 — You don’t need millions

This is the fundamental idea that you don’t need millions of fans or dollars to do good work and make a living. You just need 1,000 true fans who will pay you say $100 a year for your work, which gives you a very good living of $100,000 per annum.

These are your super fans. They will follow you, buy your books. Maybe they even buy the audio book and the hard back. They’ll come to all your workshops, and they’ll drive a hundred miles to see you perform.

It’s important to note here that it’s easier to reach or sell to your existing fans, and give them something new, than to find new fans. Of course, you will also have ‘other’ fans who may pay you for your work, but probably less consistently.

The numbers aren’t absolute, there’s plenty of examples in the essay where the dollars maybe go up, if you can make more than a hundred dollars profit per fan, and therefore the number of fans go down and vice versa. And if you know that you have an expensive lifestyle and you need $500,000 a year to live on, then you would of course need to redo the maths and work out the numbers based on what you need and what you charge for your work.

Big idea #2 — Go direct

This essay was originally written in 2008 (back in the dark ages) before lots of the current social media, websites and tools were available, Kevin has updated the essay relatively recently, which is most relevant to going direct to your fans.

Kevin says you need to hold the relationship directly with your fans, cut out the middle person of the old models of publishing or stores or labels etc. This is even easier today, and we’re seeing this in everything from music, or book distribution through to beds. Many of the old model intermediaries didn’t have the richness of audience data and relationships that most creators do today.

You’ve also got new funding models, for example, Kickstarter. Interestingly, the average Kickstarter campaign gets 241 backers in order to be fully funded, which is a lot less than 1,000 true fans. We’ve also got things like Patreon and even more recently, NFTs (non fungible tokens) which are making creators and artists serious money through the way of distributing the ownership of art.

The internet has also meant that more obscure needs can be met for both the creator and the consumer, and matched in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even just 20 years ago.

Big idea #3 — The magic in the long tail

You may have heard of the long tale in the context of sales numbers for a company, or from an aggregator like Amazon. You’ve got the head, which if you imagined the bar graph of sales, will probably be a small number of big, chunky lines that go up the left hand side. And then the tail, which is everything else. It comes back to the 80/20 rule; 20% of the products might create 80% of the sales.

Companies often talk about ‘chopping off the tail’ because maybe the return on the investment isn’t quite there. You might as well put more effort into the top selling products or services. However, this tail is where the magic is for creators, as the area of the tale is often the same or greater than the area of the head, it’s just more distributed.

This means that there is more to go around, and you can spread those sales across a lot more people. This is where those more obscure needs and tastes will create tiny, profitable, niches for you to find your 1,000 true fans.

It’s worth mentioning that this is not binary. You don’t ‘do the 1,000 true fan thing’ or not. You can mix and match; maybe 50% of your work is funded by the 1,000 true fans with a direct to consumer relationship. But you might also write a book through traditional publisher.

And Kevin Kelly shares his own examples of this, where he has self published some work, but he’s also done some books through traditional publishers. He’s crowdfunded projects, but he’s also had projects sponsored. It’s a case of choosing the best approach for your project and fan base.

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