Scaling with soul: startups that find their ‘true fans’ will win in the passion economy

Taavi Kotka, CEO of, offers an op-ed on how start-ups can scale with soul and win in the passion economy by finding their ‘true fans’?
Scaling with soul: startups that find their ‘true fans’ will win in the passion economy

Operating an early-stage startup comes with enough challenges – you wouldn’t think having too many customers would be one of them. In reality, however, plenty of startups suffer from too many syndrome: too many products, too many channels and, yes, too many customers. 

Take the recognisable example of a young startup sitting on a fantastic product or service with multiple use cases. It is difficult for founders to avoid the temptation to go after each one of these use cases, the argument being that it de-risks the business and represents a faster route to growth and profitability. Of course, the counterargument is that to pursue every potential customer at such an early stage risks spreading yourself too thin and failing to truly meet the needs of any of them.

The theory of a thousand true fans

According to the idea coined 15 years ago in a blog by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, all an entrepreneur needs to succeed is 1,000 true fans.

“A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce,” Kelly writes. “They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

The theory goes that having a small group of loyal fans rather than a large but casual customer base brings many benefits. At the time, Kelly was writing for entrepreneurs, but it’s instructive to apply the same principle to early-stage startups. Having loyal fans makes your business more resilient against new competitors, even when rivals dangle tantalising introductory offers and incentives. It also means more repeat customers and a more reliable future turnover—ultimately, better ROI than you can achieve from constantly seeking out new customers. 

Conversely, having too many customers too soon makes it harder to listen to and understand their needs in a meaningful way - a key element to scaling well.

The good news is that true fans exist for every product, however niche. One of the major perks of running an early-stage startup is that you tend to enjoy these more authentic, meaningful relationships compared to global, corporate giants. Your employees are more likely to be motivated believers, your customers are more likely to be true fans. But, clearly, the work doesn’t stop at 1,000. Kelly admits: “If you have roughly a thousand true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.”

The challenge for early-stage startups isn’t just finding and nurturing this audience of people who truly hear your message and believe in your product: it’s how to scale that audience as you grow. 

Scaling with soul

How do you grow your loyal fan base so that, no matter what kind of competitive threats emerge, the fans still buy your product? How do you find an audience of people who believe in your product and want to listen to your message? These are questions every early-stage startup should be asking. There is no simple answer, but I offer three ways of looking at the challenge.

First, focus on a shared, future-based cause. This could be a purpose beyond your immediate product, like the clothing manufacturer Tentree, which states, “Our vision is to plant 1 billion trees by 2030”. With the startup planting ten trees for every item purchased, this is a cause that customers can literally buy into and share in achieving the goal. But your future cause doesn’t have to be a lofty purpose; it could be a business-led goal to reach a certain company size, hire more staff, open new markets, and so on.

My own startup, Koos, which helps other startups incentivise their communities, was created around this notion that your company is built on a community with a shared goal. True fans want to contribute to the growth of companies they believe in and have those contributions recognised and rewarded, in this instance through equity-like stakes, or tokens. 

Second, lean into your niche. This comes back to our hypothetical startup above, which could lean into that one use case that is driving 90 percent of its revenue. Looking at it in this context, your niche is essentially your USP, that one element that makes your offer different from any other. If startups are worried about alienating a broader customer base, Kelly’s take on it should be liberating: “There is nothing — no product, no idea, no desire — without a fan base.”

Third, successful startups offer their customers a new opportunity. This difference could be anything from a new design feature or product type to a new brand or purpose. The important element to remember is that your true fans support you because of this opportunity, so keep true to it as you scale. 

These three ideas are all closely linked: a startup with a shared future cause will likely be clear on its niche and, consequently, the new opportunity it offers to its community. 

Pursuing the passion economy 

To finish, there’s one more useful way of viewing true fans, which is through the lens of the so-called ‘passion economy’.

We live in a time when pretty much anything can be monetised and commodified. In the passion economy, individuals make money from the things they’re most passionate about. Think of side hustlers, artisans, content creators, micro-influencers, bloggers, vloggers and so on, all enabled by new direct-to-consumer technologies like Etsy, Patreon, and Substack. Cumulatively these entrepreneurs make a huge economic impact, to the extent that, in 2019, the passion economy’s estimated global market value was $38bn

This is important not only for what it tells us about the way business works but the way customers see themselves and how they behave. True fans see themselves not as passive purchasers but as active creators, and successful startups leverage this by giving fans an outlet for their passion. 

To survive and thrive in these challenging times, your startup will need more than 1,000 true fans – but it’s a good place to start.

Follow the developments in the technology world. What would you like us to deliver to you?
Your subscription registration has been successfully created.