It goes like this:
If you want to make a living doing what you love — playing guitar, writing books, drawing webcomics, podcasting, reviewing movies, playing video games, making YouTube videos or filling Pinterest boards — all you need to do is find 1,000 True Fans. When you have one thousand people each spending a hundred dollars on you every year, that’s a $100,000 salary. Now you can quit your job and focus on your art!
And assembling a thousand-person fanbase is a much easier target to aim for than achieving Taylor Swift-level fame.
To get 1,000 true fans, you just need to add one new fan every day for three years. That means three years from now you can quit the job you hate and follow your dreams.
Well, unless you go a full week without convincing any new people to spend $100 on you. Every year. Forever. And that also doesn’t count if some of those original true fans get tired of waiting for you to entertain them and they stop supporting you.
So maybe it’ll take you five years.
You can wait six years to be happy, right?
Is ‘1,000 True Fans’ a Scam?
Well, it’s definitely not as easy as it sounds.
Author John Scalzi wisely points out that going from zero fans to 1,000 true fans is nearly impossible. It’s way more common that a creator with hundreds of thousands of fans can convert a small group of them into true fans or paying subscribers. Plus, it’s rare that any of us spend a full $100 on our favorite creators in any given year.
In the first one, musician Robert Rich pointed out a big problem: if you are beholden to a small group of paying supporters, you will get trapped stylistically. For example, if your supporters expect another country album and you want to release some EDM or hip hop, many of them will stop supporting you.
In the second one, musician/cartoonist Scott Andrew argued that your chances of success are better if you aim for 5,000 fans that will spend $20 a year on you. Then his commenters pointed out that this may work for a solo artist, but if you’re in a band you need to multiply it by four. Your rhythm section’s gotta eat too.
So that’s 4,000 fans at $100 each or 20,000 fans at $20 each.
Wait, now we need to find 20,000 paying fans?
You’re kidding me, right?
Who Actually Has 1,000 True Fans?
Many creators use this model to work fulltime on their art. Author Amanda Hocking, comedian Louis C.K., entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk and artist Hugh MacLeod all have a hardcore group of superfans who will buy anything they make.
Blogger Ben Thompson charges his Stratechery subscribers exactly $100 a year and is often used as proof that this model works. Pando Daily has a clever “story unlocking” paywall which costs, of course, $100/year. They are well on their way to a goal of 5,000 subscribers — and their goal of remaining an independent publication.
Musicians Jonathan Coulton and Kina Grannis both make music funded directly by passionate fans — myself included. Alt-rock icon Amanda Palmer gave the epic TED Talk “The Art of Asking” and has more than 6,000 monthly supporters.
So it can be done, but like Scalzi pointed out, you are more likely to end up with a small paying fanbase if you begin with a huge casual fanbase.
“It’s not impossible to build a small business in today’s economy. All you have to do is open a large business. And wait.”
How Do I Find My 1,000 True Fans?
There’s no easy answer. It’s a different path for everyone. Every audience is different and every creator’s relationship with them is different. Someone with 5 million Twitter followers could fail to get a hundred people to subscribe to them, while someone else with 50,000 Twitter followers could get 5,000 to subscribe to them.
There are some common things that all of these creators who have reached 1,000 true fans have done.
First, they give themselves permission to ask for support. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Second, successful creators take marketing and sales and funnels seriously. It’s a cliché that all artists suck at business.
Third, they build a big casual fanbase on a service like YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr or DeviantArt. Then those creators find a place where they can interact with their smaller inner circle of true fans, like Recurrency.
What’s the Catch?
It turns out that finding your true fans isn’t the finish line.
It’s actually the starting line.
Once you’ve found your true fans and you’ve begun your career as a fulltime creator, there’s something else you need to do.