More than a decade ago, Kevin Kelly, founding executive of Wired magazine, published a blog post titled 1,000 True Fans. It has become an incredibly influential resource for upstart technology entrepreneurs, artists and do-it-yourselfers looking to start their own business.
The premise is simple. To be a successful business, you don’t need millions of customers, you simply need a small number of deeply committed individuals who will buy what you are selling. The math is straightforward, if you want to make $100,000 a year, and your product sells for $100, sell that product to 1,000 people and you’re done. Now, obviously, he adjusts the number based on profit margin and the target the entrepreneur wants to hit, and recurring revenue matters, but the general premise is the same: Don’t try to appeal to everyone, find a niche of people and make a direct connection with them. They will sustain your business and will open you up to people in their networks, providing even more revenue (albeit less guaranteed).
I thought about this during a couple of recent hearings I attended recently in various Midwestern state houses. Legislative committees were debating school choice bills and open hearings offered the opportunity for members of the public to testify on them. You would see your usual smattering of lobbyists, or researchers/advocates like me looking to chime in, but the real testimony that stuck out was the testimony from the people who would actually be served by the program—parents.
What struck me was just how few parents it took to change the tenor of the hearing. Having five or six parents talk about their child’s terrible experiences in school and the benefits that the program would have for them and their kids made a conversation that can be about dollars, cents and competing philosophies about real kids and what is best for them. The juxtaposition of parents talking about their children and the bullying, retaliation, low-quality education, and unresponsiveness of teachers and administrators they have experienced with nostrums from union lobbyists about accountability and what schools serve all children and what schools don’t made the opponents of the bill look ridiculous.
These experiences offer implications for those looking to put together a state-level coalition of school choice supporters. Yes, it is important to include researchers and advocates, representatives from schools and politicians, but, the first and most important step is to cultivate a core set of parents that will be true school choice supporters. They will head to the state capitol when there is a hearing. They will speak to the news media when journalists come with questions. They will talk to their pastors and their cousins and their friends and their neighbors to explain the urgency of the cause.
And, what’s even better, parents will be an amazing sounding board and source of strength for your efforts. If bills are designed in ways that are cumbersome or problematic, parents will tell you. If you try and fail and are discouraged, parents will remind you of your purpose and put wind back in your sails. And, lord willing, your efforts will help those parents get the support they need to get their children into schools that will meet their needs.
Too often, advocates think that they need to convince the entire populace of a state to support their initiative. They don’t. They need 1,000 true supporters, or perhaps even fewer. The webs of people and organizations that emerge from even 10 or 20 real supporters creates a network orders of magnitude larger. What’s more, it creates a network more genuine than social media mobs or wishy-washy voters and volunteers. It is much harder work to cultivate true supporters, and it takes more listening than talking. It takes adjusting and changing based on your supporters’ input. But, if you can put it together, that core group can become an undeniable force, and you can win.