December 21

100 True Fanatics

10 years ago, Kevin Kelly said that if 1000 true fans supported your work, and each paid you $100 a year, you could earn a living, not a fortune. But the internet is different today.

  • People are overwhelmed by information overload
  • Their inboxes are flooded with blogs, podcasts, and newsletters, and their social feeds are flooded with an infinite stream of status updates

Even though creators have access to better tools and more distribution channels, the demand for attention is higher, and the supply is lower than it was in 2008, which makes it far more challenging to build an audience of 1000 true fans.

Start With 100 True Fanatics

photo of persons doing rock hand sign

Look at the early stages of any musician or comedian’s career, and you’ll see a progression in the capacity of venues where they perform.

  • A local bar/comedy club that can fit 100 true fanatics
  • A theater that can accommodate 1000 true fans
  • Sold out stadiums with true fanatics sitting in the front row

In a sea of noise, an audience of100 true fanatics is the path out of obscurity and key to the survival and success of any artist, entrepreneur, or creator who wants to build an audience in the creator economy.

Fans vs. Fanatics

true fanatics

The mass marketers and industrialists need everyone. You don’t. You need to merely matter to a few. The dangerous addiction is to keep expanding the the audience until we find people who hate our work.

Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

Fanatics are different than followers, fans, true fans, or super fans. They are borderline insane, a little off their rockers, and obsessed with the creators they admire (without acting like dangerous stalkers).

  • Fanatics show up and buy every book, listen to every podcast, read every blog post, attend every concert, and watch every movie a creator makes.
  • Fanatics will silence your critics and come to your defense when someone who is not one of them attacks you.
  • Fanatics are like a small army who see it as their duty to keep you out of harm’s way. When someone messes with you, they do so at their peril because they’ll face the fury of your fanatics.
  • Fanatics won’t just miss you when you’re gone. They’ll attend your funeral, volunteer to give the eulogy, organize tributes, and your family will wonder if they are somehow related to you.
  • Fanatics are evangelists. To them, your art is a religion, and their job is to convert people. They will move heaven and earth if it means making you successful.
  • In the eyes of fanatics, you belong to them. You are theirs to protect, promote, and publicize. Ask any woman who was a Justin Bieber fan as a teenager.

Dave Matthews Doesn’t Have Fans

He has fanatics. When Dave Matthews is on tour, fanatics attend multiple concerts in multiple cities. If there’s a concert in LA on Friday, another in San Diego on Saturday, and another in San Francisco on Wednesday, fanatics go to all of them. Any die-hard Dave Matthews fan reading this article can attest to that.

The Bucks

Small market teams in professional sports are usually an afterthought…. until they’re not. When the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship for the first time in 50 years, it was clear they didn’t have fans. They had fanatics who had stayed by their side from one losing season until the next.

When my old roommate talks about the Bucks, he doesn’t refer to them as the Bucks. He always says “we won”, “we lost.” The way he talks about the Milwaukee Bucks would make you think he owns the team. He and his dad aren’t fans. They are fanatics.

Fanatics Are Fervent Believers

As a creator, you have a profound responsibility not to abuse your power or take advantage of your fanatics or their admiration for you. They don’t exist to serve you. You exist to help them.

Converting people into fanatics is the most challenging work you’ll ever do as an artist. It requires what Seth Godin calls emotional labor. As crazy as they are, fanatics can detect bullshit from a mile away. If anything about you isn’t genuine, fanatics will turn on you like a North Korean defector, or you’ll end up sharing a prison cell with Keith Raniere.

Why 100 True Fanatics Is More Viable Strategy Than 1000 True Fans

It might seem like I’m poking a sacred cow by challenging Kevin Kelly’s idea. To be clear, I think Kelly is brilliant. He’s been a guest on the Unmistakable Creative, and his ideas have influenced me in immeasurable ways. But as John Nash said about Adam Smith in the movie a Beautiful Mind, “Kevin Kelly needs revision.”

The Smallest Viable Audience

Every successful founder, investor, and artist has said some version of the following in the thousands of conversations I’ve had on the Unmistakable Creative.

If we look at any home run, modern success of the last 10 or 15 years except for Google, it’s not about the network effect. They have succeeded with a very tiny audience. A company like Tesla is the number one best-selling luxury car in California to a rounding error. No one in the United States has a Tesla. It’s less than 1%. Fewer than one out of every 300 people has a Tesla, yet it has become the most valuable car company built in the last 50 years because that’s enough.

Seth Godin

People who own Teslas are not customers or fans. They are fanatics.

  • Talk to anyone who owns a Tesla, and they will tell you why it’s the greatest car ever made and try to convince you that you should buy one.
  • Even people who don’t own Teslas are fanatical about owning one.
  • Elon is their leader, and their job is to convert the rest of us to his religion.

The paradox of focusing on the smallest viable audience in the short run is that it enables you to reach the largest possible audience in the long run. If you do an exceptional job solving a particular problem for a specific audience, they’ll become true fanatics. Your competition will become irrelevant.

It’s Inspiring, Not Impossible

1000 true fans is an inspiring goal. But in the early days of building an audience from scratch can feel almost impossible. When the top of the mountain seems so far away, it’s easy to give up and call it quits. Because 100 True Fanatics isn’t the top of the mountain, staying motivated and reaching the top is easier. Two principles from behavioral psychology explain why.

The Progress Principle

A few months ago, my old roommate Matt and I were building a Lego Mustang. Sometime in the first few days, we lost a piece and had to order a replacement on the lego website. According to Teresa Amabile, visible progress is one of our greatest sources of motivation. When our progress on our Lego Mustang came to a halt, we lost our motivation to keep going. Let’s apply the same concept to building an audience of 100 true fanatics.

  • Imagine using a set of tally marks to track your progress.
  • For each new fanatic, you draw a mark.
  • When you have gone down and ninety-nine to go, your progress is much more visible than having one down and 999 to go.

You’re more likely to stay motivated when you feel like you’re making progress towards a goal.

Success Accelerants

Shawn Achor says that you progress towards a goal based on the perceived distance to that goal. The perceived distance between zero and 100 true fanatics is far shorter than the distance between zero and 1000 true fans. As counterintuitive as it might seem, you will build an audience of 1000 true fans much faster if you start with 100 true fanatics. But there is no formula, no map or growth hack that will help you do this. You show up, do work that matters and change the people you want to serve.

To serve an audience of 100 true fanatics, you make it all about them, solve their problems. As Simon Sinek said in leaders eat last, “you can either sacrifice the people for the numbers or sacrifice the numbers for the people.”

If you want to build an audience of 100 true fanatics, do the latter because your future depends on it.

If you need some help, subscribe and listen to the Unmistakable Creative to hear the stories of insanely interesting people who have converted followers into to fans, fanatics and friends for life.


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