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You can make a living from a thousand true fans — Ben Thompson is proof

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Earlier this year, I wrote about Ben Thompson — who writes about technology and strategy at a blog called Stratechery — and his decision to launch a membership-based paywall. At the time, I wondered whether someone without the kind of national following that Daring Fireball’s John Gruber or The Daily Dish’s Andrew Sullivan have would be able to make such a plan work. As it turns out, the answer is yes.

In a follow-up interview, Thompson told me that while there were some touch-and-go moments in the early days of his plan, the subscription part of his model has worked out far better than he ever hoped it would. Membership signups and the associated revenue have “vastly exceeded my expectations,” he said.

The Taiwan-based blogger, who previously worked as a product manager for companies like Apple and Microsoft, said that he was hoping to get about 500 members to sign up in the first year, and his most ambitious dream was that he might get a thousand — a goal that was based on veteran technology writer Kevin Kelly’s advice about needing only “a thousand true fans” to survive as an independent artist.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”My realistic goal was 500 in the first year, and my sort of crazy goal was to get a thousand — and I did that in the first six months. I’ve actually gone quite a bit past that now.”[/blockquote]

Direct to the reader

Those 1,000-plus members are paying $10 a month or $100 a year for access to what Thompson calls the Daily Update, which is a collection of several posts with his take on or analysis of topical events — such as singer Taylor Swift removing her songs from Spotify and the implications for the music industry, or the future of the Uber car service. Members can access the content online, or via email, or through a private RSS feed.

So Thompson will soon be bringing in over $100,000 from membership-based subscriptions, and has managed to get recommendations from fans like Gruber and Box CEO Aaron Levie along the way. He is now making the vast majority of his living from those memberships (although he also does some consulting on the side). He says he used to have sponsored posts, but they made up too large a proportion of the content — since he only posts a few items a day — and they involved too much administrative work.

Thompson also echoed something that Andrew Sullivan told me about his model at the Daily Dish, which is that he prefers to keep the relationship between himself and his readers as pure as possible — to feel as though he is working directly for them, and pleasing them is all that matters.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”I really like what it does for my incentives — my pay comes from my readers, so my job is to just deliver a kick-ass daily update every day and to write great stuff for the blog. What I like about it is it’s very clear: it feels like people value what I have to say, so what you’re getting if you subscribe is more of what I have to say.”[/blockquote]

Since I wrote that initial post, Thompson says he has simplified the model even further, to the point where there is only one level — the $10 a month/$100 a year level. In the beginning, he had three levels of support, including one that gave readers things like a T-shirt, as well as a higher level that cost $30 a month or $300 a year, and included private meetups and the ability to email Thompson directly and get advice or analysis. Those have been dropped.

The internet is good for media

The membership structure now is much simpler (those who had paid $300 were given the option of either a refund or a credit, or to donate the excess to Thompson — about 20 percent chose the latter, he said). But the blogger notes that without those initial members paying $300 for a year, he wouldn’t have had the money in the bank with which to continue, or the confidence that he would be able to survive. “They were like my VC investors in a way,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Thompson said that while he is still making less than he did as a product manager at a tech company, he is making more than enough to live on, since his costs are so low. And that’s one reason he wanted to talk about his success, he said — because it might encourage someone else to try it, and because it might help counter some of the prevailing narrative in the media world about how the internet is going to be the death of newspapers and therefore of serious writing or journalism.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”It’s striking to me how many people in the media only see the internet as a bogeyman, and completely fail to see the potential that it enables — what I’m doing would be totally impossible without the internet. Yes, the world is going to look totally different than it did during the glory years of newspapers, but we have only scratched the surface of what’s possible.”[/blockquote]

As Thompson notes, he is not exactly getting rich from his blog, and whether he will still be able to make a living from it a year or two from now is unknown — but it is encouraging to see someone without a built-in national audience succeed with such a strategy, just as it’s encouraging to see people like my friend Jesse Brown succeed at crowdfunding a podcast, or see Contributoria and Beacon having some success with their direct-to-readers model. Let a thousand funding models bloom.

Crowd image courtesy of Flickr user Libertinus

8 Responses to “You can make a living from a thousand true fans — Ben Thompson is proof”

  1. Craig Matsumoto

    It’s great, and highly encouraging, that Ben is able to do this.

    I don’t think it means online journalism is saved. There’s a limited number of things I’m willing (or able) to pay $100/yr to subscribe to. And that number shrinks drastically if I have to subscribe to one journalist at a time. There’s a scaling problem here.

    Ben shouldn’t worry about that, though. We need new models, so it’s good to see some success coming out of a new idea.

    • Derek Kerton

      “There’s a scaling problem here.”

      Really? I don’t see it. I think that’s the point of the article. That a mere 1,000 dedicated fans can support a career. Just that model alone could fund more content than we ever saw in the days of William Randolph Hearst.

      And as described, the content is never biased away from the author’s intent. Of course, a risk is that Monsanto or Koch Industries could similarly fund many authors, and increase their reach and influence. Wait, you say that is the Heartland Institute and numerous other blogs and think tanks already!! Well, then this new model might level that playing field a little.

      To a certain extent, it reminds me of the era before Hearst, of patronage and of benefactors.

      You close your comment well. There’s a lot more yet to come from the Interwebs.

      • Ellen O Day

        Ah yes, it is those evil Koch brothers or even perhaps than awful company 3M.

        Excellent example of the child’s mind at work. Either that or a fine example of another poorly educated American inculcated with lefty claptrap from their college professors.

        Woo. Woo.

    • Russell Sadler

      Ah, Paul. You’ll never make it at self-employment. The lad is NOT making $100K. He may be grossing $100K. There are expenses, of course, and they are certainly lower than print publishing and distribution. But there are unexpected expenses and he needs to hoard some of that cash until he sees what his renewals materialize. He is paying both the employer and and employee share of his Social Security taxes. There will be surely some state taxes. Saving some of that cash for next year may be the difference between failure or giving his enterprise enough time to develop the subscriber base he needs to succeed.

      I am retired now, but I made a living as a self-syndicated reporter and columnist for the last 45 years. Using I.F. Stone’s weekly newsletter as a model I created a printed regional newsletter in the Pacific Northwest during the 1960-70s and switched to web distribution in the 1980s.

      Ben is off to a promising start, but he will need reserves to weather lean times ahead.