Personal Finance and 1,000 True Fans

Over the last year or two, I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about where I wanted The Simple Dollar to go in the future. The site had become quite popular, but I didn’t know what that meant. I had started The Simple Dollar mostly as an outlet for my desire to write a lot of words every day and also to thoroughly explore my experiences and growing interest in personal finance (and other areas related to it, like time management).

To be honest, I didn’t ever expect you to be here. Sure, I had big dreams – who doesn’t have passing fancies about having their articles read by several hundred thousand unique readers a month? – but I was also realistic about things. My original goal was to attract a couple hundred semi-regular readers who might send some articles along to their friends and that maybe I’d help a handful of people with their personal finance problems. Instead of what I thought would happen with The Simple Dollar, I got what I dreamed about.

Right around the time I made the decision to write full time, I read an article that changed my perspective on everything. The article was called 1,000 True Fans, written by Kevin Kelly. The article makes an argument that a person who wants to make a living with a creative endeavor (which The Simple Dollar is) needs to cultivate a thousand true fans that are willing to support a writer/musician/etc.

Let me put that in a bit of a different perspective. Let’s say I was a skilled musician, but I wasn’t signed to a big record contract. All I had was a lot of concert dates around the country in small clubs and a contract with a small record company that really couldn’t afford to promote me at all. The 1,000 True Fans argument is that all I would have to do is strongly connect with just 1,000 truly loyal fans – those who will come to my shows no matter what, buy my albums, buy my t-shirts – and I’d be able to survive.

(Don’t worry, I am going somewhere useful with this. Just be patient.)

This led me to a big realization about The Simple Dollar: people might visit for the first time for personal finance advice, but that’s not why they’re sticking around. There are thousands of sources for personal finance advice out there – books, other blogs, professional magazines. There’s something inherently different about The Simple Dollar (and the same applies to Get Rich Slowly and Zen Habits and other blogs) that causes people to come back to this site specifically instead of other sources.

In effect, those people that keep coming back and keep reading the emails are my “thousand true fans.”

You guys don’t support me through financial contributions (though many have bought my book and have even picked up a few of the downloadables), but you find other ways to support The Simple Dollar. You comment. You send me emails. You send articles to your friends. You “friend” me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. And, I do believe that if I did need some sort of financial contribution, quite a lot of you would drop a few dollars my way.

So where’s the useful lesson in all of this?

I write articles for The Simple Dollar. I put them up here and share them as freely as I can. I communicate by email and IM with a lot of readers each day. Where this gets interesting is that many of those people return the favor in some way even though they’re not obligated to. They do the things I mentioned above – they send articles along to their friends, they talk about what they read here, they leave comments, and, yes, sometimes they buy my book and look at the ads.

All I did is start the ball rolling by writing – and giving my sincere effort in that writing, every single time. All of the value exchanges from there add up to enough to support me and my family. The interesting key, though, is that I started writing The Simple Dollar without thinking I would get a single thing in return for it.

There’s an exchange going on here, of course, but it’s an exchange that you can have in your own life as well. It’s easy to start: give what you know to others without expecting a thing in return. Do it regularly, consistently, and without reservation.

It’s easy to do. Help people. Share what skills and talents and ideas and gifts you have at every opportunity. Be generous with your time and your love. Help your friends, your neighbors, and even strangers. Most importantly, though, expect nothing in return.

After some time, you’ll come to realize that there is a bedrock of people in your life that are willing to help you out whenever you need it. These people might be your close friends or your family, or they might be people you see only a few times a year at community events. It might be the guy down the block that you’ve helped a few times when his car didn’t start. It might be the mailman. It might be the single mother that lives next door with two young girls.

These are the “thousand true fans” in your own life. You give of yourself to them as much as you can – and when you need it, they reciprocate in kind. What’s most amazing of all is that this builds up over time with hundreds of little exchanges – and before you know it, you’re receiving far more back than you’ve ever given.

Thank you.

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