The Pursuit of 1,000 True Fans

Pixels & Profits: Chapter 3

In the last chapter, we discussed the in-the-trenches process of performing comprehensive audience research, and what to do with that data once you have it. Now, we’re going to explore a popular theory about who to focus on in that tribe. 

The Theory of 1,000 True Fans

More than a decade ago, Kevin Kelly, an editor for Wired at the time, wrote a powerful essay called 1,000 true fans. In it, he proposes that the internet would enable an incredible number of people to make a living off their crafts, hobbies, creations, etc. 

It’s a compelling idea yet, in practically every community who’s heard of it, this idea is often discussed with mixed feelings.

Recently, we noticed the game developer community began to talk about this idea too, and the voices speaking on it claim the theory simply won’t work when it comes to indie game development:

We couldn’t disagree more.

For context…

1,000 true fans suggests that a successful creator needs merely a thousand truly devoted fans, in order to be able to live off of their craft.

Here’s how Kevin defines 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.”

— Kevin Kelly

The idea being, if you can create enough each year that you can earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan, you will earn enough to make a good living (but not a fortune) in most parts of the world.

Note that I said “profit” not “revenue.”

By the numbers, Kevin is absolutely right but, there’s more to the conversation, so, I’ve decided the Wabbits need to enter the chat. Given that we have proven the theory correct in multiple industries, it makes sense to speak up.

Speaking of numbers…

My friend André, one of the best email marketers on the planet, cautions against assuming it has to be 1,000.

“The number 1,000 is not absolute. Its significance is in its rough order of magnitude — three orders less than a million, reframing our perspective of what’s required for an indie creator to build a following that can support their work.”

— André Chaperon

As with everything else in the Living Library, no advice is absolute. We are giving you guidelines, not gospel.

Let’s get started.

The Criticisms

Some dismiss this idea as an unattainable dream for indie developers but, I’m about to help you explore the truth of the matter — because there’s a tremendous amount of nuance in this conversation, and nobody else in the community is addressing it.

So here we go!

Criticism #1:
The Math Doesn't Work Out

We’ll start with the point that games are expensive to make (in both time and money), and relatively inexpensive to buy — which is true, especially if we’re talking indie games whose average price hovers around $10 or less.

You’ll get no argument from me there.

Game development isn’t a one-size-fits-all business, and an indie game could cost anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce.

I also agree with that point.

It’s actually even worse when you consider how platform and publisher fees will quickly erode that profit margin.

In fact, on the surface, the argument appears to make perfect sense. If I’m selling a game for $10, that’s only a fraction of the $100 profit I need from each fan, each year. 

The math just doesn’t work out. 

What are the fans going to do, buy 10+ copies each?


So is that a fault in the theory, or a lack of creativity in business models and monetization strategy?

Is selling a game really the only way to profit as an indie?

No, it is not.

Even sim games about game dev studios know this, which is why you’ll see tasks like “make a movie trailer” in games like GameDev Story. Because they are good revenue channels that capitalize on skills the studio already has, and they generate positive cash flow, which is what you need to fund your game’s development.

One of the best ways to get those useful and potentially lucrative gigs is by growing your network of true fans.

(If your response to this point is that you just want to make games… I’m going to question how badly you want to do that, especially if you aren’t willing to take relevant jobs that will provide the funds you so desperately need.)

Criticism #2:
Indies Genre-Shift too Much

The argument here is that genre-shifting makes it less likely for fans to follow a developer. The examples used to support the claim often use musicians to back up the claim, suggesting things like:

What if The Rolling Stones switched genre each album!? Would you really be a fan if they bounced from Rock, to Rap, to Techno, then Classical Viola, K-Pop, etc.?

Those questions are forgetting something important:

True fans, by Kelly’s definition, would be invested in the creator’s unique perspective, regardless of the genre. They would follow the developer, appreciating their novel approach to each genre they explore.

Moreover, shifting genres has the potential to broaden the developer’s fan base.

Every new genre is a chance to attract a new subset of fans, thus diversifying the developer’s audience.

It is true, genre-switching might mean slower growth as fans from one genre may not immediately follow to the next (if at all), but it also implies diversification, which can lead to a more stable, enduring fan base.

One final thought on this point: The indie game development scene’s constant genre shifts can be seen as a response to the evolving demands of the community.

Gamers’ tastes change over time, and new genres emerge while old ones fade.

The ability to adapt and switch genres allows indie developers to stay relevant and exciting to their fans.

Criticism #3:
Developers Aren't Celebrities

The last argument I’d like to address is that 1,000 True Fans doesn’t work because fans don’t fall in love with developers in the same ways they do celebrities, etc…

The argument here is that players fall in love with genres, characters, and stories — not the developers themselves. And I think there’s something to that point, but perhaps this has more to do with personal brand-building than anything else… 

“Most indie devs don’t even show their face on social media. The number of indie twitter and discord profile pictures that are either a company logo, an abstracted illustration of their face, a design, or heaven forbid an anime character, isn’t helping fans relate to them.”

— Chris Zukowski

Famous people are in the business of building, growing, and maintaining a personal brand. They’ve done the work, and they’ve grown very skilled at it. That’s why they are better at it than developers — well, that and PR teams but, you don’t get one of those until you’ve paid up, or made some waves already.

By the way, we cover the topic of personal branding in Volume 3 of this guide.

In any case, we can agree, being famous isn’t common.

Most people have never experienced it, and never will.

What this should tell you, is that only a small percentage of humans get to experience celebrity — meaning, regardless of industry, achieving fame is hard.

But getting 1,000 true fans isn’t the same as becoming famous.

We aren’t trying to get ALL the attention, we only want a tiny fraction.

That’s the magic.

The Big Secret.

And also where the average startup goes wrong.

The Mille Strategy

Most marketing “plans” consist of blasting ads indiscriminately (which is my way of saying the average marketer really sucks at targeting) as a way to generate leads and conversion.

Sure, it can work but it can be really expensive to get worthwhile results.

Yet, like so many of us who leverage lean principles in our work, Kevin Kelly offers a more focused and efficient approach: 

Identify your ‘Smallest Viable Audience’ (SVA), delight them, and watch your business flourish.

Said another way: Find your people, and get to work.

But it isn’t just any work that you should be doing…

We want to start with specifics.

Pay close attention here, when you hear us talking about Avatars and Personas, remember they are built off of this concept.

Look at the intersection of these four elements. That’s the bullseye. Your Smallest Viable Audience.

Why smallest?

Because smallest isn’t trying to be all things to all people.

It’s specific. 

If you’re only going after 1,000 people out of all humans, who are they?

Who are your dream customers?

What would you say to attract them?

What could you bring to your people that would utterly delight them?

If you are to get to a place of serving 1,000’s of True Fans, you have to be very specific about the change you intend to make by solving the problem you’ve chosen.

If you can put in the work to make that solution happen, you will attract your first 100 True Fans.

Then 1,000.

Then, if you’re committed, and maybe a bit lucky…who knows?

But before you can ever arrive at that place where you’re serving 1000s of True Fans, you have to narrow your focus to the first 10, and then 100, and then 1000.

You go specific.

Your smallest viable audience.

Then you can build yourself a movement.

A sustainable, viable business.

One that matters to those you serve.

A business that would be missed if it went away.

And yes, this can take a very long time to do. 

Don’t be deceived by how easy getting 1,000 true fans can sound. It is not.

Simple, yes. Easy, no.

How to Attract Your True Fans

The initial stages of amassing your true fans will require dedicated work and patience. Yet, once you’ve hit your stride, this process can grow exponentially. 

Because word-of-mouth is still the most powerful form of marketing in existence. 

Each true fan you win over has the potential to share their love for your work with others, organically expanding your fanbase in the process.

Just like a puzzle, the first few pieces may be tricky, but once you have the edge pieces in place, the rest of the puzzle comes together faster.

Because this is about more than building a following on socials (which isn’t all that hard to do), this is about building a deeper relationship.

Which is why we begin with identifying the smallest group of people whom you can obsess over and delight.

This process isn’t any more complicated than that.

In his book, We Are All Weird, renowned marketing expert Seth Godin explains it like this:

The distribution of a population is often shaped like a bell curve.

For example, if you asked all the kids in a school to line up in order of height, the graph of how many kids were of each height would be shaped like the classic bell — you’d have as many 4 foot kids as 6 foot kids, and a whole bunch more in the middle at 5 feet.

Not surprisingly, this curve is called a normal distribution.

It’s incredibly common in almost any phenomenon you look at (Internet usage, miles commuted to work, length of hair).

Something surprising is happening, though: the defenders of mass and normalcy and compliance are discovering that many of the bell curves that describe our behavior are flattening out.

Distributions of behavior remain, but as the anchors holding that behavior in place have loosened, the bells have spread, like a thawing ice sculpture.

There are now many bell curves, not just one. We don’t care so much about everyone; we care about us — where “us” is our people, our tribe, our interest group, our weirdness — not the anonymous masses.

If you persist in trying to be all things to all people, you will fail.

The only alternative then, is to be something important to a few people.

If you cater to the normal, you will disappoint the weird. And as the world gets weirder, that’s a dumb strategy.

— Seth Godin

It’s easier than ever to reach particular pockets of people with things/stuff/ideas they’re obsessed with or problems they care deeply about solving.

We live in an enormous world, and in a time of incredible connectedness. In this kind of environment, it is far better to be everything to the right someone, than to flail around trying to make something for everyone.

Drill down.


Start visualizing the persona of your customer.

What are they like?

What do they do?

What do they dream about?

How do they spend their time?

That’s the secret Judo move of the whole thing: Instead of focusing on what we want, we shift our attention to what our audience wants. We become as intense about meeting their needs and desires as we are about meeting our own.

Imagine what could happen if you studied your audience so intently that you knew their innermost fears, dreams, and desires, and how those relate to the value you create in the world?

What if your ‘vision board’ represented what your audience wanted most, and you organised your time, energy, and attention around creating that for them?

Thinking and acting “small” has become one of the best ways to achieve BIG RESULTS.

It is worth sitting with that idea for a minute.

Being all things to all people has now become RISKY.

Specificity rules, and that will become even more the case in the years to come.

But wait, you may say, what about me, what about my needs?

Here’s the problem — that’s a false choice, a red herring.

We’ve been led to believe that financial success is a deliberate result of:

  • Hard work and ‘hustle’.
  • The right (often ‘secret’) method.
  • Some hidden reality known only to insiders.
  • ‘Billionaire habits’ and hacks.

The reality is that financial success is an emergent property of effectively meeting the needs and addressing the fears and hesitations of an audience that values the benefits you’re able to create specifically for them.

That idea may make you uncomfortable.

Let’s let the master himself say more on the topic…

In the end, the “1000 true fans” theory doesn’t promise a carefree life of luxury and relaxation. 

It doesn’t promise you’ll get to ship your title and sit back on a pile of Scrooge McDuck money.

You will still need to work hard.

You will still face challenges.

You’ll discover that not all of your followers spend the magical $100 per year but, they will still contribute to your success in many ways.

  • They share your content
  • Introduce new fans
  • Provide valuable feedback, and
  • Create a community around your games.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see a fan’s value isn’t solely defined by their monetary contribution.

I’ll say it again to drive the point home: You’re not going to be able to release one game and call it a day. 

You’ll need to develop other revenue streams, and new ways to monetize the attention you’ve earned. 

In our world, we refer to these “other ways” as flywheels because of how they stack to create momentum.

(See our piece on Systems Thinking for more on the topic.)

What Does it all Mean?

The theory of 1,000 True Fans offers a viable pathway for indie game developers to make a sustainable living by doing what they love – creating unique, engaging, and delightful experiences for their fans. 

At the same time, it is not easy, or quick.

Nothing worth doing is.

Kevin’s theory is not saying you’ll live like a king, or that you won’t have to work hard, or that the struggle will end.

He’s saying you’ll be able to make a sustainable living.

And he’s right.

Even the famed venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz gives the theory their endorsement.

Today, it’s simpler than ever to reach particular pockets of people with things they’re obsessed with or problems they care deeply about solving. 

With the vastness and incredible connectedness of the world, it’s far better to be everything to the right someone, than to be lost in the crowd trying to make something for everyone.

The same is true for indies.

Meaning it is time to niche down, and learn more about your audience, their dreams, their fears, and their desires. 

What if you could create an experience that specifically addresses these elements?

What kind of bond would form between you and your audience if you did?

In today’s world, thinking “small” has become one of the best ways to achieve big results. This is great news for you because the same idea is the very spirit of indie game development – a playground of possibilities where specificity rules.

Your true fans are waiting, and your indie game might be exactly what they’re looking for.

But they’ll never know it if you don’t position yourself in a way that works for them. 

That term (positioning) is all about making sure your audience (your fans) sees your game in the right places, in a way that inspires them to take action.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about next.

Click below to keep reading…

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