Forget 1000 true fans. Start with 1.

The first edition of newsletter² — a newsletter about newsletters — goes live tomorrow. In preparation for the launch, I’ve been thinking about 1000 True Fans, a 2008 essay from Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired Magazine. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do so now. Kevin perfectly captures the reason I’m launching newsletter² when he describes a new model of making a living as a creator of things:

  1. You need ~1000 true fans who will eagerly buy anything you produce.

  2. You need to be able to earn ~$100 per year in profit from each true fan.

  3. You need a direct relationship with your fans so you can keep 100% of the profit.

Sounds great, and much easier than “millions”, but finding 1000 true fans is still daunting. It’s hard to get people to type in their credit card number to buy something from a nobody online, and subscriptions are even harder. It takes some creators years to gather that many paying fans, and many more never get there at all.

It can be tempting to think about trying to find a way to make things that could get you there faster. After all, if there’s a big hungry audience, or you know that people are willing to pay a lot for a certain type of thing, why not create that and cut your risk?

It’s not that this kind of market-driven approach can’t work, but I think it’s usually the wrong question to ask, especially for creative things where you are trying to find fans who would eagerly fork over their money for anything you make.

Instead of trying to find something that you imagine would appeal to 1000 true fans, consider what would appeal to just one: you.

What would you eagerly pay for? What would you share with others?

It helps to start by separating out the question of whether you feel qualified or interested in actually producing that creative work. Just think about what you’d like to consume so badly that you’d be happy to pay for it.

Most of my successes have been things I would have paid for myself, and most of my failures have been things where I was chasing money. That’s not to say that anytime I’ve created something for myself it was successful. But it seems to make it more likely.

You might think that your interests or tastes are so esoteric that you could never find 1000 true fans out there, but you’re probably wrong. The internet is a big place, and you probably aren’t as unique as you think. Sorry.

There are several benefits to starting as your own first true fan:

It’s easier to stand out — yes, I mentioned above that you’re not as unique as you think, but your interest in “growing exotic culinary mushrooms” is a lot more unique than something like “travel” or “the latest fashion trends”. And even if your thing is travel, there’s probably specific aspects, areas, styles, trends, etc. within that segment that really interest you enough that you’d pay for anything related to them. Focus there.

It’s more sustainable — it’s really hard to create something good, especially if that thing is an ongoing creation like a podcast, newsletter, vlog, etc. If you pick something you’re super interested in, you won’t have to slog your way through it.

It’s more authentic — your audience isn’t stupid, and they know what true fandom looks like. It’ll be obvious if you’re creating stuff you don’t care about just to make a few bucks. But if you pick something you love and let your passion shine through, people will respond to that. Even people who didn’t previously have an interest in your thing may respond and get into it.

It’s more enjoyable, even if you fail — when you create something you love yourself, it’s more enjoyable, and it feels like less of a waste if it ultimately fails to get traction like you hoped. At least you had fun creating it along the way!

What would you eagerly pay for?

Much love,
Ryan

PS - if this topic interests you, you should definitely join newsletter². There are many ways to connect with your fans and have them support your work, but if the things you create can be delivered via email, I think it’s hard to beat the medium as a way to satisfy those criteria. Email is old and boring, but it’s also simple, reliable, and decentralized. Even if you gather and connect to your fans through other channels like social media, podcasting, vlogging, ecommerce stores, whatever, it’s still a good idea to make it a priority to connect via email as well, since that’s a channel you own completely.