1000 True Fans
How do you know which leads will become customers?
How do you know which leads will become your best customers?
In 2008, WIRED founder Kevin Kelly wrote an essay titled simply “1000 True Fans.”
In his words:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce.
They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued 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.

Kelly continues his thesis: you don’t need to become famous. If you can get just 1,000 people to spend $100 dollars a year, you can earn a very reasonable living.
Sound a little over the top? It may be, and the idea sparked some backlash about its feasibility.
But it also captured the imagination of artists and entrepreneurs, so much so that Tim Ferriss asked Kelly to update his original essay for the 2016 book Tools of Titans.
Fundamentally, the idea of 1000 True Fans is simple—find your best customers and get them to keep buying from you. In this post, we’ll

  • Look at the lovers and success stories from the 1000 True Fans concept
  • Examine the (entirely reasonable) criticisms of the idea
  • Show you specific, actionable ways you can use the idea of 1000 True Fans to grow your business—even if you don’t literally reach 1000 people

Some people love the idea of 1000 True Fans

The idea of 1,000 True Fans has taken the internet by storm.
Shortly after the 2008 essay was published, legendary marketer Seth Godin shared it on his blog. He wrote:

Seth Godin
Some people will read this and immediately understand.
Others will read it and start waffling over the meaning of “true.” My expansion: you need to alter what you do and how you do it so that 1000 true fans is sufficient to make you very happy.

Tim Ferriss loved the idea so much that he included an updated of the version of the essay in his wildly popular Tools of Titans.
Ramit Sethi of IWT and GrowthLab shares real numbers, showing that his top 1,000 customers are more engaged and bring in vastly more business than everyone else.
GrowthLab 1000 True Fans

Source: GrowthLab

Popular tech blogger Ben Thompson cites 1,000 True Fans as the inspiration for the membership program of his website—which costs exactly $100 per year.
Across industries and business models, people have learned that top customers are incredibly valuable to a business.
For phone apps, AdWeek has reported that whales account for 70% of in-app purchases—even though they are only 5% of users.
In an interview, Drew Sanocki, CMO of the ecommerce business Karmaloop, argued that repeat customers were the most important driver of Karmaloops turnaround from near-bankruptcy. He also argued that alienating top customers, or “whales,” was a major cause of Karmaloop’s trouble in the first place.
In the end, Drew was forced to hunt down an entirely new group of True Fans—because the previous group was so wounded.

Drew Sanocki
“There was just a lot of hatred out there towards the brand…what we did have more success in was just acquiring an all-new whale cohort. Fishing in another pond, and trying to nurture those people from scratch.”

The takeaway? True Fans are enormously valuable to a business. Having them can help you thrive—and upsetting them might make you suffer.

True Fans help small creators thrive

Of course, Kevin Kelly’s initial True Fans argument was directed at artists and other creators. In creative fields, the idea has come to life through crowdfunding—as the internet lets creators connect with their fans directly.
Since the original essay in 2008, the crowdfunding platform Patreon has become the embodiment of “True Fans” for creators—and Kelly even included mention of it in his 2016 update.
As a platform, Patreon lets artists, musicians, and other content creators to raise funds specifically from their fans. Because the platform lets people support work that they love, it gives creators the financial means to create work that otherwise would be hard to make a living from.
The Patreon page for Wait But Why

The Patreon page for “Wait But Why”

It also incentivizes creators to do more for their top fans—getting larger amounts of donations and keeping “patrons” around is a crucial part of raising money on Patreon.
There are a variety of different types of people who live off Patreon. Here are three brief examples:

  • Tim Urban runs the well-known blog “Wait But Why.” Even though blogs can be hard to make money from, he brings in $12,000/month via Patreon—and the site is so popular that Urban was offered the chance to do a rare in-depth interview with Elon Musk.
  • Kina Grannis launched her music career when she won the 2008 Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest. Alongside her victory came a deal with Interscope records—but Grannis quickly discovered that she didn’t care to be tied to a record label. With over 2000 supporters on Patreon, Grannis is able to be a full-time independent artist.
  • YouTuber “TierZoo” has recently burst onto the scene, creating zoology videos that analyze animals as though they were video game characters. TierZoo used Reddit to hit over 15,000,000 views across all videos. By using Patreon to get donations directly from fans, TierZoo was able to transition to making videos full-time.

The ability to get paid by your fans and best customers is important—and the ability identify and cater to those fans is a huge part of growing your business.
But how can you get 1,000 True Fans? Is the theory really all it’s chalked up to be?

But… there are criticisms of 1000 True Fans

The 1,000 True Fans idea has sparked as many critics as it has fanatics. Although, as Seth Godin wrote, some people “immediately understand” the value of the idea, there are also a lot of entirely valid criticisms.
The most important? A “True Fan” isn’t so easy to come by.
Let’s take another look at the definition of a True Fan.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce.
They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued 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.

It’s a pretty demanding definition.
I have many artists, creators, and products that I love—but just loving the product isn’t enough to become a “True Fan.” I’ve never followed someone on tour, I don’t really buy merch, and my interest (though strong) fluctuates over time.
In any given group of people, what percentage do you think are True Fans? It’s got to be pretty small.
This is far and away the most common criticism of the 1000 True Fans idea. In theory, a creator could survive off “only” 1,000 dedicated people. But in practice, finding 1,000 people dedicated enough to support you means reaching a much, much larger total audience.
Even in the examples I’ve given, you can see that the first step to reaching a small audience is reaching a large one:

  • Musician Kina Grannis has 1.2 million YouTube subscribers…but only around 2,200 Patreon supporters
  • YouTuber TierZoo has over 15,000,000 views…but only 590 supporters on Patreon
  • Ramit Sethi’s top 1,000 customers spend more…but he reaches an email list of several hundred thousand people, and has tens of thousands of total customers

The idea of 1000 True Fans is that you don’t necessarily need to be famous to be successful. But in order to get to 1000 fans, you do need to become a little famous.
Science fiction author John Scalzi added to this argument in a very cogent response to Kelly’s original essay.

“The available universe of ‘true fans’ is not the entire US (or the entire Internet), but the subset of those who are willing/able to spend a significant sum of money on a single creative person.”

As I mentioned, I’ve never followed someone on tour and I don’t buy merch. I’ll see an artist if they come to my city, and I support two creators with small donations on Patreon. But that’s about it.
Most people are like me. People might spend a bit to support stuff they like, but not everyone will and not everyone will spend a lot.
A final criticism of 1000 True Fans comes from Robert Rich, in another response to Kelly’s original essay.

“A further caveat: it’s easy to get trapped into the expectations of these True Fans, and with such a tenuous income stream, an artist risks poverty by pushing too far beyond the boundaries of style or preconceptions.
I suppose I have a bit of a reputation for being one of those divergent – perhaps unpredictable – artists, and from that perspective I see a bit of a Catch 22 between ignoring those expectations or pandering to them.
If we play to the same 1000 people, and keep doing the same basic thing, eventually the Fans become sated and don’t feel a need to purchase this year’s model, when it’s almost identical to last year’s but in a slightly different shade of black.
Yet when the Fans’ Favorite Artist starts pushing past the comfort zone of what made them True Fans to begin with, they are just as likely to move their attention onwards within the box that makes them comfortable.”

Rich’s argument clearly applies to artists and creators—when you rely on True Fans, you need to keep pleasing those True Fans even if your creative ambitions lie elsewhere.
But the same principle can apply to other business.
Karmaloop alienated its “whales,” or True Fans,” and nearly went bankrupt. Recovering from their mistakes meant building an entirely new group of True Fans—the ones they had lost were never coming back.
When I worked at an agency, we had a $1.5 million project that accounted for a huge percentage of our revenue. If that client wanted something, they got it—but repeatedly giving in to a client’s changing demands didn’t produce the best work or the best results.
These criticisms of the practical use of 1,000 True Fans are very real and very challenging. I would also argue—they can be overcome.
And even if you don’t literally focus on having exactly 1,000 True Fans, the principle of focusing on your best, most loyal customers can have a powerful effect on your business.