999 Real Fans

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This blog is an excerpt from my book, Lead The Future: Strategies and Systems for Emerging Leaders (the e-book is cheaper here).

You may want to familiarize yourself with Inequality and Power Laws before reading this blog post.

Lookin’ for all my real friends
How many of us? How many of us are real friends
To real friends, ’til the reel end
’Til the wheels fall off, ’til the wheels don’t spin

—Kanye West, “Real Friends

This section is a synthesis of the essay “1,000 True Fans” by Kevin Kelly—author and former editor of WIRED Magazine—and the self-love exemplified by Kanye West.

Kelly’s essay opens:

To be a successful creator, you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craft person, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, or entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

The impetus for Kelly to write this essay was not a discovery of these power laws or the desire to simply write a contrarian essay during the globalization of celebrity. He decided to write his essay because of the emergence of networks like Facebook and Twitter, which were facilitating direct, instantaneous communication between creators and their fans. The ability to have a conversation with your fans changed the reality of what it meant to be a fan and opened new possibilities for how one could work full time as a creator.


Depending on your specialization and cost of living, you could potentially live off having 1,000 “true fans,” or even fewer. These are fans who will purchase from or donate to you to support your craft because they love what you make and want you to focus your energy on creating.


If you lived in Rochester, New York, as a single bachelor, you could easily survive on $36,000 per year, assuming you could qualify for a low premium health care plan. If you can, then you would only need your 1,000 real fans to give you an average of $36 per year, or $3 per month, to cover all your expenses. As we’ve seen, both wealth and social media following fall into a power law distribution. The math—$36 per fan per year on average times 1,000 fans equals $36,000—is correct. However, in reality, you might have one fan who contributes a disproportionate amount of your total earnings.


If you’ve ever watched any of the top Twitch streamers—people who play video games full time—you will see this phenomenon. When Fortnite first came out, I would regularly watch Ninja play, and he would receive a consistent stream of $8 donations and always thanked each donor by name. Every time I watched him play, he would start losing it midstream: “Oh my god. Thank you so much. Really, thank you, thank you. Wow,” and then you would see that one subscriber donated $1,000 to his stream. In an interview with ESPN, Ninja told them that $40,000 was the largest single donation he had received at one time. That one donation is 5,000 times the size of those $8 donations.

Let’s now consider our confident friend Kanye West. One of the greatest surprises of 2018 for me was that I became a giant Ye, or Kanye West fan. He produced albums for Pusha T and Nas, produced and performed KIDS SEE GHOSTS with Kid Cudi, and released ye all within the span of a few weeks. The high quality of this avalanche of albums prompted me to review his discography, and I probably listened to KIDS SEE GHOSTS over fifty times. 


In particular, the song “Reborn” was exactly what I needed:

I had my issues, ain’t that much I could do
But, peace is something that starts with me, with me
At times, wonder my purpose / Easy then to feel worthless
But, peace is something that starts with me.

I had liked some of Kanye’s music in the past, but I never really understood why he had such devout fans. From the Taylor Swift “Imma let you finish” incident to listening to him sing “I Am A God,” I just couldn’t understand his extreme egotism.


My perspective changed when I heard Kanye in this BBC interview:

If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me. You’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going to make you believe you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.

In that moment, my entire view of Kanye West’s brand was reframed. 


His goal was to be the loudest, most egotistical person in the room, or even the world. While an incredibly successful career strategy, his approach had a direct impact on his fans’ lives as well. Not only is Ye able to capture our attention through his personality and antics, but he also creates that space for us all to be authentic, to be loud and assert our individuality. 


And for that freedom, I thank Kanye West. But that’s not all that Ye’s self-love has to teach us.


Let’s return to the example of the bachelor living in Rochester. Perhaps one of his real fans could choose to give him $3,000 one year, maybe even more, but that outcome is quite unlikely. However, he has one fan who can have that level of impact on his life every single year. His realest fan. Fan #1. No, not his mom, although we’ll address that too. No, himself.


If that bachelor chooses to give up drinking alcohol to focus on his writing and swaps Friday nights at bars for sober nights playing cards with close friends, he can save money, avoid liver damage, skip many hungover mornings, and create more content and products. The example is not meant to condemn drinking alcohol (although it is literal poison). 

You can make decisions that will enable you to achieve your dreams. You can view yourself as your most important fan. You can invest in your own work. You can love what you create. 


You have partners in your life who will contribute in nonlinear ways as well. The people you date. Your roommate. A business partner. Your best friend. Your parents. Your mom might give you a jacket for your birthday. Your co-founder might give you advice that enables you two to grow your business’s revenue and cover your cost of living. Your spouse might help you stay sane by being there to support you when you stretch yourself too thin.


As we’ve discussed throughout this book, your collaborators and partners will be critical to your success as a leader. Focus on building and maintaining relationships with your realest fans rather than obsessing about how you’ll get 500,000 followers on Twitter. 

ACTION: Call one of these friends, partners, or family members. If you can’t call them, shoot them a text and ask if there’s a time where you could meet up or video chat in the next week.

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