100,000 customers or 100 true fans — which is better for the creative business?

Back in 2008 Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine, came up with a riff about every small creative business needing 1000 true fans.

Not customers — but fans.

People who ‘get’ your business, promote your business, love your business. People who will read everything you write, open every email, drive miles to an event. Your people. Your tribe.

2008 was also, co-incidentally, the year that I walked away from anyone who had ever been my true fan. I stopped selling the things that I made at fairs and the garden gate, and completely changed the way I reached my customers.

I took to wholesale and was soon supplying 400 shops worldwide with things my team and I embroidered and printed in my workshop, I funnelled my retail sales through marketplace websites where customers buy on a thumbnail photo and rarely knew my name.

I stopped designing for people I knew and started to design for strangers. Instead of bubbling up from inside, my designs were guided by trend forecasts, campaign themes and sales numbers. My business became corporate.

It took 8 years for me to understand that this was a really, really bad idea. The week that we made and dispatched our 100,000th order I realised that it just wasn’t fun any more .

I was designing more than ever, I was making and selling more than ever — but I no longer loved it. More than that, I was no longer proud and excited about what I do. I had lost my creative mojo.

Then I remembered Kelly’s blog. 1000 true fans — would it be possible?

I decided to see - and as the whole point was to rescue my creativity rather than build a business - I decided to start with a smaller, less scary, number.

100 true fans and a membership site.

In March this year, I started designing again. Properly designing, the kind of vulnerable designing that I hadn’t done for years.

I shared my attempts - from pen to product, successes and failures - on Instagram and Facebook. Then, on 4th May, I launched a membership site where people pay monthly to get access to a club, with members’ prices, special editions, behind the scenes secrets.

Within the first 3 hours I had signed up my hundred true fans.

And with that 100, everything changed.

That afternoon, as I tagged them as members in my email database, I knew it was a new start— from here on in, all I ever have to do now is to please these 100 people. It is liberatingly simple.

When I am wondering whether I should write a blog about chickens, or try out a mermaid design, or add fluffy socks into a gift set — I just need to think about whether it would interest these 100 people, or better still ask them. They will let me know — they are good like that.

Most of all — I know that these 100 true fans will be happiest if I design what comes naturally and live my life as I want to. That is what brought them to me in the first place. I no longer need to constrain myself or my style — I just need to be me.

Since May 4th I have hardly stopped creating — drawing, sewing, photographing and writing, I have made videos and tutorials, I’ve shared things that have absolutely nothing to do with commerce — my mojo is well and truly back.

Since May 4th I have also received emails and postcards, photographs and packets of seeds from people who care about me and what I do.

Will I get to 1000? I don’t know, but I do know that it only took 100 to make a difference inside. It turns out that the idea of the true fans isn’t really about numbers, or sales, or having people to spread the word. It is about connection. It is about having a conversation and there being someone to reply. It is about what was missing. It is about that mojo.

I hope you enjoyed this post — I am designer and chief cheerleader for Snapdragon, an online membership shopping site. If you enjoyed this, please press the heart icon to help other people find me. You can find out more about the membership and our handmade gifts over at www.snapdragononline.co.uk. Thanks for reading, Jane x