What do Dispatch, an American Indie-roots band from the East Coast, and successful startups have in common? The answer is 1,000 true fans.
I first became a fan of Dispatch in 2011. I was working at a summer camp in Connecticut, America. Our music specialist used to play one of their songs, ‘The General’, on guitar. I heard the song and liked it right away. I then followed them on Spotify and entered the rabbit hole of albums and EPs that goes back to 1996.
Here is a video of Dispatch playing ‘The General’ live in Jersey in 2012:
Mainstream ≠ Successful
I hope you noticed a few things about this video:
- The music is an Indie folk sound. It’s not for everyone and certainly not mainstream.
- The band look kind of funny. They are not polished. Chad, the lead singer, has big wild hair that sort of covers his face. They don’t wear stereotypically fashionable clothes.
- The fans in the crowd absolutely love the performance. Watch from 3.36 onwards and you’ll see dancing, clapping, jumping and singing.
The point is that being successful and being mainstream is not the same thing. In other words, having some people that love you is different to having a lot of people that like you.
1,000 True Fans
“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 craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.”
He goes on to define a ‘true fan’ as someone who will buy anything you produce. The number 1,000 itself isn’t important, but rather a signal of magnitude. The takeaway is that one way to be successful is to do something that a few people really, really love, rather than something that loads of people sort of like. This is true for both musicians and startups.
Mass Market Means No Market
Creators can often get caught in the appeal of ‘mass market’. An ambitious entrepreneur wants everyone to be their customer. This can be the case in writing a book, building a YouTube channel or starting a company.
But in trying to build a product for everyone, it can be hard to build a product for anyone. Why? Because in trying to appeal to everyone you dilute what some people love about you in the first place. If Dispatch started singing songs that were pop-y, you can be sure that their Indie-folk following would soon disappear.
The startup world echoes this sentiment:
- Paul Graham & Paul Buchheit of YCominator say ”it’s better to make some users very happy than to make a lot ambivalent”
- Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky says ”make 100 people love you”
Aiming For An Encore
The reason why Dispatch is successful is that of the fans they do have, the fans adore them. They leave youtube comments admiring ‘one of the best around’1.
They volunteer (for free) at their gigs to help support the show. Their fans even buy tickets to their latest gig whilst 2,000m above land on a gondola in France (that was me)2.
When starting a project, it is worth asking yourself who are the 1,000 fans you are aiming for. And what would it take to make them scream for an encore? (Or another post, book or product3). This was the startup lesson that Dispatch reminded me of, as I screamed for an encore with 1,000 other fans last week (below).
Image taken from the video referenced above on 21st Sep 2019.↩
I happened to be on a ski trip in Avoriaz when SongKick informed me that tickets had gone on sale. The 3G in the alps just about managed, and I got my tickets.↩
I used startup in the title but this idea refers to any creative project.↩