Kevin Kelly, Co-founder, Wired
The Geeks Were Right
Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly has made a career of predicting the future of technological advances. His latest book, The Inevitable, offers a refreshingly optimistic take on how technology will shape the next 30 years.
When Kevin Kelly speaks, technophiles listen.
In his latest book, The Inevitable, Kelly lays out his predictions for how technology will shape the next 30 years—a tall order for most, but not for him. The founding executive editor of Wired magazine and co-founder of popular review site Cool Tools has long been forecasting the effects of technology on our culture.
In 2002, director Steven Spielberg hired Kelly as an adviser to help imagine D.C. in the year 2050 for the science fiction thriller Minority Report. Back in 2007, Kelly gave a TED Talk predicting the next 5,000 days of the internet; in it, he talked about a more personalized experience and a dependency on the internet. With the rise in predictive technologies and the ubiquity of smartphones, we’d say so far he’s been pretty spot on.
Given his lofty credentials and impressive experience, Kelly’s modesty is disarming.
“I’m totally unqualified for my job,” claims the college dropout and New York Times-bestselling author. And despite having written 12 books, Kelly insists, “I don’t really like to write. I love to edit. I love to package and conceive a thing, so that’s really my joy still.”
Humility aside, after decades spent joyfully gazing into the future, from the dawn of the digital age up to now, it’s clear that Kelly is only getting started.
Magazine Junkie From the Start
Born in Pennsylvania to a father who worked for Time Life, Kelly was obsessed with media early on. In high school, he started his own zine using Xerox and “cut-up stuff.” He’s also always had a serious case of wanderlust.
In the 1970s, he took one year of college and then dropped out to explore Asia. For seven years, he traveled as an independent photographer capturing images of Japan, Korea, Afghanistan, Nepal, and more. His book Asia Grace—a collection of about 600 photos without captions or even page numbers—is one of the results of his epic journey.
Upon returning to the United States in 1979, Kelly traded in his camera for a bicycle and rode 5,000 miles across the country, knocking on a stranger’s door each night to ask if he could pitch a tent in their yard. Not once was he turned away.
In 1981, he launched the first American magazine about recreational walking. From there, he became publisher and editor of the edgy tech magazine Whole Earth Review, a part of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth network of counterculture publications.
How Kelly Was Hired for Wired
It was during Kelly’s time at Whole Earth when writer and editor Louis Rossetto approached him with a prototype of Wired magazine, and Kelly volunteered to edit it. Kelly never went back to Whole Earth; he stayed on as executive editor at Wired for seven years.
It’s important to note that when Wired was founded in 1993, the co-founders had some previous magazine experience. In addition to Kelly’s experience starting a walking magazine and editing Whole Earth, Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe had worked at an Amsterdam-based magazine called Electric Word. So this wasn’t their first rodeo.
Even so, the timing was everything. Shortly after Wired launched, the first commercial web browser, Netscape, went public, making the internet accessible to everyone.
“Then we were suddenly right in the middle of everything,” Kelly says. “If we’d started four years earlier or three years earlier, it would have been too early, and of course, if we had been four years late, it wouldn’t have worked either. We were just at the right time.”
During his tenure as executive editor, Wired won two National Magazine Awards for General Excellence. After the magazine was sold to Conde Nast, Kelly stepped down as executive editor (though he still holds a title as “senior maverick”).
That would be a fine legacy for most, but in many ways, it was just the beginning for the quirky overachiever. After leaving Wired, Kelly wrote several more books and made another foray into technology news with his review site Cool Tools. He’s also the founding member of the board of the Long Now Foundation, which is building a clock that will tick for 10,000 years inside a mountain in western Texas.
Windows Into the Future
With its high-profile subjects and one-of-a-kind design, Wired has long been known for iconic covers that have transcended the medium. As Kelly reveals the process of creating those covers during his tenure, it also offers a peek into the method of his visionary madness.
True to the ethos of the magazine, its staff didn’t do things the traditional way. Instead of looking at what articles they had and then creating a cover around them, the Wired team would hold brainstorming sessions around the “revolution of the month.”
They would ask themselves, “What would be the coolest, most amazing cover we could have in general?” Anything was possible, such as a pill that would prevent you from needing to sleep. From those wild suggestions, they would then work backward to see if there was anything like that in existence yet.
“Very few of those covers would actually ever happen, because we were just making them up,” Kelly says. “But they would often lead to something that was cool itself.”
How (Not) to Start a Magazine
So what advice does Kelly have for someone aspiring to start a magazine? Don’t do it—well, at least not a paper magazine anyway.
“Paper doesn’t work,” he says. “It’s so expensive, not so much to print it, but to mail it out and get it to people.”
Traditionally, magazines have relied on advertising to turn a profit. But the revenue you can make from ads decreases every year, so to be profitable, you’ll need extremely high numbers—difficult to attain when you’re just starting out. In the digital realm, things don’t fare much better. “Banner blindness” is a well-known phenomenon that makes it difficult for online publishers to make money from display advertising.
“The problem right now with publishing is that the business models … they all suck,” he says. “No one’s figured it out yet.”
Kelly does offer an alternative: copying the model that he used when he ran Whole Earth, a technology magazine that was completely funded by its subscribers. There were no ads or grants. To imitate this model, your content would go behind a paywall, which means you’d need diehard fans who are willing to pay for your content. This in itself is a challenge. A 2015 study by the American Press Institute found that only 11 percent of millennials pay for digital magazines. The rate is much higher for movies and television (55 percent) and music (48 percent). So you’d have your work cut out for you as a magazine publisher.
Kelly’s take? “Here’s what I would say: Yeah, you can make a magazine, but I don’t think you can make a magazine as a way to make money.”
What you can do, though, is make a magazine as a way to build an audience, and then sell other products to that audience.
For example, here at Foundr, we’ve been able to monetize our magazine through various product offerings to our engaged audience, such as online courses, ebooks, and even a membership site. All of these offerings are geared toward helping our audience of entrepreneurs start and scale their businesses.
So what makes a great magazine? What’s the secret ingredient that takes it from mediocre to marvelous? Kelly’s answer might surprise you.
“It’s a really interesting editor. So the best magazines, on a consistent basis, like on a year-to-year basis, are all extensions of the personality of the chief editor.”
Kelly gives examples such as David Remnick at The New Yorker and Adam Moss when he was at The New York Times Magazine. (“Then when he left, it wasn’t so interesting.”)
He likens it to the question of what makes a good film. “A good story and a really good director.”
Find Your 1,000 True Fans
In 2008, Kelly wrote an essay defining his theory of “1,000 True Fans.” The essay went viral, and with the prevalence of crowdfunding, independent artists, and user-generated content, it’s more relevant today than ever.
The theory is simple: To make a living as a creator, you need just 1,000 true fans. A true fan is defined as someone who will buy anything you produce.
To make a living from your 1,000 true fans, Kelly says you need to meet two criteria. One, you must produce enough each year to earn $100 in profit from each true fan. Two, you need to be paid directly by your fans, no middlemen (music labels, publishers, studios, etc.).
If you can meet those two requirements, you should be able to generate $100,000 of income each year, a decent living for most.
What’s refreshing (and comforting) about this approach is it shatters the traditional model for artists and creators. You don’t need millions of fans to make a decent living; you need only 1,000. You don’t need to be famous; you just need a small, loyal following.
“So that means that, for the first time, really almost anything you’re interested in … if you could find and get—and that’s the big ‘if’—those fans and have them support you directly, you could have support for the most esoteric, niche-y, passionate thing that you’re interested in. And that’s a great new opportunity.”
And if you still find the concept of 1,000 fans daunting, consider the fact that even if your interest is so obscure that only one person in a million would be interested in it, there are about 7 billion people in the world, meaning there are 7,000 people who could become your true fans.
With odds like that, becoming a profitable creative suddenly seems much more achievable. By cutting out the middleman and having a direct relationship with your fans, you need far fewer of them in order to make a profit.
Just look at blogger Ben Thompson’s launch of paid subscriptions for his popular tech blog Stratechery.com. In 2014, he wrote that he was able to surpass 1,000 true fans who were willing to pay $10 per month or $100 per year for a membership that grants them access to exclusive articles. That’s Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans Theory in action.
Inside the Mind of a Magazine Maverick
When we spoke with Kelly, he frequently mentioned that his mind naturally “packages” information. We asked him to elaborate on the inner workings of his mind.
“I think pretty visually,” Kelly says. “That was … one of the attributes of Wired was that it was a very visual thing. And I think visually. I was a photographer first. I could do art and painting and drawing and stuff. … So when I think about ideas, I think of them as kind of a complete package with things that are on a page or on a screen.”
That explains how he created an entire book on the disappearing traditions of Asia (Asia Grace), without using any words. Or how he condensed his predictions for the next 30 years of technology into one book (The Inevitable). Kelly has mastered the art of taking complex, expansive topics and distilling them into manageable pieces of information.
The Future is AI
While we had his attention, we couldn’t help but ask Kelly to tell us where he sees things going. By far, the most influential technology for the next 20 to 30 years, according to Kelly, will be artificial intelligence.
Just as electricity fueled the Industrial Revolution, AI will fuel a new revolution. As Kelly explains it, electricity used to be distributed on a grid, and people could buy as much as they needed and use it to make things like skyscrapers, railways, cloth, and shoes in great quantities.
“And we’re doing the same thing now with artificial intelligence,” he says, “which will be distributed on a grid called the cloud, and it’ll become a commodity, and you can buy as much AI as you want. In fact, right this minute, you can … go onto Google Cloud and buy AI from Google. You can buy it from Microsoft, IBM.”
Kelly encourages people to start tinkering with AI the way people early in the Industrial Revolution tinkered with electricity to discover amazing new things to do with it.
“The question you want to ask yourself as a businessperson, it would be, what would you do with a thousand minds? They’re not human minds, but a thousand smart minds working on your problem 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What would you do with that power?”
In the publishing world, AI has already entered the newsroom. In fact, a Wired article written by Joe Keohane explains that, during the 2016 election, a bot called Heliograf “reported” on stories by pulling data from VoteSmart.org and plugging it into templates. The resulting articles were virtually indistinguishable from those written by human reporters.
Still in its early stages, AI is used to write formulaic stories for the most part, such as the results of football games. But the potential remains, and now is the time to get involved in this burgeoning technology.
“I would say that right now there’s very little money that could be made from AI, but we’re not at that stage,” Kelly explains. “This is the stage where you’re going to be basically investing into a different mindset, the vocabulary, the sensibility, the skills that are necessary. It’s kind of like the early days of the internet where not that many people were making money, but the ones who, like Amazon, were continually investing into it, became the giants.”
What’s interesting about Kelly’s take on technology and the future, is that most media and literature covering these two topics tend to be dystopian, describing worlds where technology turns against humanity or breaks down society. But Kelly offers a different take, one that is optimistic.
In The Inevitable, Kelly encourages us to embrace the changes brought by technology. He writes, “Only by working with these technologies, rather than trying to thwart them, can we gain the best of what they have to offer.”
Let’s hope he’s right.
- Kelly’s method for culture-hacking an audience and building a worldwide brand
- The future of print media, and how digital entrepreneurs can take advantage of it
- A rare behind-the-scenes look at the history of Wired
- The true meaning of “a thousand true fans” and what it means for entrepreneurs
- How to package every product “like a magazine”
Full Transcript of Podcast with Kevin Kelly
Nathan: Hello and welcome to another episode of the “Foundr” podcast, my name is Nathan Chan and I’m the CEO and Host of “Foundr Magazine,” also this podcast. Hope you are having a great evening wherever you are around the world, morning, good night. Just want to say thank you so much for sharing your e-buds with me. I really appreciate your time, your attention and I promise you listening to this podcast will help you level up in life and also really help you move towards building and growing the successful business and the kind of business that you and I both wanna build.
Now let’s talk about today’s guest, his name is Kevin Kelly and he’s quite prolific. He was one of the early founders of “Wired” magazine which in fact is one of my favorite magazines ever. I reckon their cover’s just absolutely incredible. They always do the best covers, always inspired by “Wired” magazine covers and also the “New Yorker” and “Time,” that’d be my top three. And you might be able to see where I get some inspiration working with Karan on this stuff which is really cool. But so we talk about all sorts of things, magazines, all sorts of things, publishing, and Kevin Kelly is a bit of a futurist as well where he predicts the future and talks about trends. And we talked about AI, we talked about also he opened up my mind. This is a really mind boggling episode where it really opens up your mind to the technology. And the way you’re now gonna think about things moving forward for your business and your start up and how you can stay on the cutting edge. Kevin was talking about as well as me, she has about some really cutting edge stuff that I need to be thinking about, you know, because we produce the magazine and you know, our core business is content. Everything we do is content its own way, shape, or form, whether it’s audio or video, book, magazine, you know. So really, really interesting stuff. We also talk about his concept 1,000 True Fans which is absolutely game changing. I highly, highly recommend you take notes for this one.
All right guys, that’s it for me. If you are enjoying these episodes please do leave us a review, five star review if you think we’re worthy. And then also please do let your friends know about this. I know you got founders that are friends, you’re friends with. I know, that you must talk shop with other entrepreneurs just like I love talking shop. It’s just a ton of fun because the life of an entrepreneur is sometimes lonely. So please do share this with any of your friends that might get a use or value from this one.
All right guys, if you are enjoying these episodes you’re gonna love this one. Now, let’s jump into the show.
Well, the first question that I ask everyone that comes on is, how did you get your job?
Kevin: I’m totally unqualified for my job. I created my own job if you want to call it that. Yeah, I just made it up.
Nathan: Awesome. And can you tell us more about like how you started doing the work you are doing now today? Like what got you started?
Kevin: My dad worked for a magazine company in New York City called “Time Life.” He brought home magazines every week, every Monday and I became a magazine junkie very early on. I just loved magazines and in high school I kind of made a little zin , we would call it zin at this point. It was Xerox and kind of stuff. Though I didn’t really ever aim for that professionally. I didn’t even take journalism in school or anything but I was into photography. And I became a photographer in Asia working for myself without I mean, you know, giving myself assignments. And I started writing to a company, writing captions to get longer and started writing about my travels and read a book about how to write a magazine articles and then started submitting articles to magazines and had success there. And eventually started working for a magazine as an editor and then became publisher and then, you know, went on to found a magazine, co-found a magazine where I was also working as an editor. And continued to write for magazines. So in some ways it’s, I haven’t gone very far.
Nathan: Why do you say that? You haven’t gone very far like…
Kevin: Well, I mean, because it’s, you know, I’m a magazine junkie. I’m just, you know, starting off and just feeding the craving. You know, I still have a magazine mentality, I like to package ideas, you know. These days magazines are kind of online. And I am actually not a native writer. I don’t really like to write. I love to edit, I love to package and conceive things and that’s really my joy still.
Nathan: Coming back to the piece around how you said you co-founded a magazine, can you share with our audience how that got started and how that came about? Because one thing we get at Foundr is we’re always asked as well, how do you start a magazine? This is like, you know, this is one of my dreams. It’s very aspirational.
Kevin: Well, it wasn’t the first magazine I started. Every one of the five editors at “Wired” had already started a magazine elsewhere. The first magazine I started actually, I skipped Empire was when I was doing my writing, I started a mail order business selling travel guides and I also started a magazine about walking, the first magazine about walking in America. And it was a pretty homebrew, you know, do it yourself. We would call it desktop publishing though this was in 1982 or something. Before there was desktop publishing but that’s what I was doing, and cutting and pasting stuff up. By the time “Wired” came around I had some, you know, experience in the difficulties of, you know, doing a magazine. And the other co-founders had also each of them done a magazine before which none of them were very successful. So the genesis of “Wired” was, one I had done these other magazines. I had gone on to work at the “Whole Earth Catalog” and I was big publishing at that magazine which I did not start. It had a fairly modest circulation of, you know, 30,000 or 40,000 people, of subscribers but it was unique among almost any magazine in America because it was completely user subscribed and user financed and user generated. So we didn’t have grants and we didn’t have advertising. We had only the money from the people who were subscribing. And a lot of the content actually came from the people subscribing. So it was sort of the precursor of a lot of the web because it was user generated content and user paid content.
And in that mix of things as we got more involved in technology, I actually did a special book in a special issue of the magazine called “SIGNAL” which was kind of a precursor to “Wired” in talking about the culture around technology. And the convergence of these digital technologies. Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe were doing something similar in Amsterdam. They were slightly parallel but different vision. They wanted something very glossy. They were the ones who came to me having done a prototype of like a glossy magazine that was about the stuff I had been talking about but with the added dimension that they wanted to talk about, the people who were doing it. And so there’d be people on the cover instead of ideas on the cover which is what I was doing.
And they, as I said, they did the hard work of paying for a prototype and getting some initial funding. They were looking for an editor so I volunteered to edit the magazine while I was trying to finish a book, while I was on sabbatical from the magazine that I was editing. So I never went back. I mean, I never went back to “Whole Earth,” I stayed at “Wired.” You know, there were other people involved in that. The designers, John Battelle who went on to do great things, who’d done a magazine in school, Mark Frauenfelder who had a magazine called Boing Boing and later on after “Wired” did the website Boing Boing, he was involved. So there was a lot of experience in doing magazines that didn’t work. And so we were lucky in that this one worked at a much bigger scale than any of us would have dared do before.
And the curious thing is in many ways, I was responsible for you know, the content inside. It was a lot of the same stuff that I had been talking about in the other magazine but suddenly we were doing it in a big spotlight. And we had a huge audience. I was talking and interviewing the same people, we were writing about the same things. Very few people were paying attention to and now suddenly, everybody was paying attention to it. And of course, we were lucky in the timing because a few years after we started, maybe a year and a half after Netscape went public and that was this moment when the web was born. And suddenly people could kind of understand, well they could see it. They could see what we were talking about because suddenly it was visual. And then we were suddenly right in the middle of everything. And so if we’d started four years earlier or three years earlier, it wouldn’t have been too early and of course if we had been four years late it wouldn’t have worked either. It was just, we were just at the right time.
Nathan: So when, what was that time?
Kevin: Nine-two, ninety-three. January ’93.
Nathan: Yeah, gotcha. So if someone wanted to get started doing a magazine today, would you recommend it?
Nathan: Why would you say that?
Kevin: Not a paper magazine. The problem right now with publishing is that the business models, they all suck. No one’s figured it out yet. The CPM, the prices for the units of ads that you’re getting paid for ads are just dropping and dropping. There’s really very little money yet a very, very high numbers to make the number which in those high numbers if you’re starting off are just really impossible to attain. Paper doesn’t work, it’s so expensive, not so much to print it but to mail it out, to get it to people. And you know, the alternatives of maybe, you know, you can go back to the old model. We had the “Whole Earth.” That would be the closest which is, you know, you’re doing something so valuable that people are willing to pay for it. But then you have to pay walls and it’s hard, you know, “The Atlantic” and a couple of other. You know, one or two, are, you know, experimenting with how you share things to get people knowing about it but then they have to pay for more. None of them are very elegant and I think it’s really tough. I think it’s very tough to figure out the economic model.
Here’s what I would say. Yeah you can make a magazine but I don’t think you can make a magazine as a way to make money. You can make a magazine as a way to have an audience, to do other things but I don’t…it’s not really a good money making model for a magazine today.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that’s really interesting, you say that, I don’t wanna talk about us because it’s not about me, it’s not about us. What we’re doing about is about you. But we have used this model. How we’ve been able to make money with our magazine is through like you described using the magazine to generate and build an audience but then doing something else but still have the same brand.
Kevin: Right, exactly. Right, yeah conferences or these other things, as part of an integrated thing, yes that can be an element of that but standing alone is just not gonna hold it.
Nathan: So talk to us about “Wired” because this is actually one of my favorite magazines especially the covers. I love covers and you guys have very prolific covers, as well very iconic, you know. So tell me about that like they’re so cool man.
Kevin: First of all I should make it very clear that I don’t work on the magazine today. In fact there’s a brand new editor, Nick Thompson who I really like, a young guy, he came from newyorker.com. So you know, I give them my advice which they mostly ignore as they should and I do maybe one piece a year for them which I do even though I have a title at “Wired.” But while I was there the way that we would do covers was we would talk about the revolution of the month. It was like what’s the disruption, what’s the revolution this month? And it wasn’t like this month because we would be working many months ahead. But we would work back. We would actually do this exercise where we would say, what would be the coolest most amazing cover we could have in general? Like you could say like, you know, pill…that, you know, so you don’t have to sleep. Whatever, you know, we just like make up crazy amazing cool covers. And then we would work back from that and then we would say, “Well you know, well is there any possibility? Does this exist? What would happen? What would we need?” And very few of those covers would actually ever happen because we were just making them up but they would often lead to something that was cool itself. So rather than I mean, rather than trying you know, like well, you know, you’re, all these articles come in and you can say, “Well let’s make a cover out of this article because it’s in a magazine.” We would try and actually work the other way around saying, “What would make the coolest cover?” And list and assign that article and work backwards from the cover.”
So that was, you know, and then that’s just the concept. And then there was the execution of the artwork which is what the designers would do and you know, like anything there would be concepts and prototypes and blah-blah-blah. But the idea was always to try and in some ways start with a cover idea and then try and make that happen rather than trying to make a cover out of something you already had.
Nathan: I see. And what do you think makes a good magazine? What are the key, like if you could boil it down to the key elements?
Kevin: It’s a really interesting editor. So the best magazines on a, you know, consistent basis like on a year to year basis are all extensions of the personality of the chief editor. So for a long time Adam Moss at the “New York Times,” Sunday magazine was funny and it was a really interesting magazine and when he left it wasn’t so interesting. David Remnick at the New Yorker, you know, it’s fantastic. It’s great. He has a…you know, he brings a breath and an interesting surprise to it. You know, magazines in the past, you know, “Spy” Magazine, wow. Andersen was running it. You know, it’s really, you know, The Rolling Stones on “Winter.” It’s really an extension of the personality of the editor or editors and so that’s what it takes. When Chris Anderson was running “WIRED” it was, you know, it was pretty good. You know, consistently when Scott was running it I wasn’t as interested. So you have to have really good, it’s like what makes a good film, you know, a good story and a really good director.
Nathan: So why did you leave?
Kevin: Oh well that’s a very complicated story. I mean, it’s simple in one way. And that’s because the founders, we the founders who own the majority of stock lost control in a complicated way. And the magazine was sold against our wishes. And…
Nathan: To who and why?
Kevin: Well, it was sold to Conde Nast, and of all the people to be sold to, was by far the best outcome because Conde Nast did the absolute right thing which is they left it alone, they gave it a few more resources and kept it in San Francisco, the only magazine that they have that’s not in their office in New York City and so it prospered. But I did, you know, as somebody, you know, while we were running it, it was absolutely fantastic because we could do whatever we wanted but, you know, I had no intentions of reporting to a billionaire. And so we all left that very sad day, when it was forced. And the other thing was that they broke up the brand. When the magazine was sold and in the online area we had our own search engine, we had the first you know, digital properties. Wired.com was sold to something else and “Wired” magazine was prevented from owning wired.com. We couldn’t do the digital side. So it was like, “Man, there’s nothing there.” So yeah.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s interesting. So you actually broke up the different entities between wired.com and “Wired” the actual magazine publication?
Kevin: Right, the “Wired” magazine to not have wired.com or a digital version or a digital property, it was prohibited. So for all through the 2,000s, “Wired” could not even participate in all this you know, all the stuff happening. And so it wasn’t… Chris actually was able to buy back wired.com for almost nothing because it had been sold through a whole series of mother entities. And by the time it ended up they weren’t doing anything with it, it was worth nothing. So for, you know, pennies on a dollar he bought back wired.com. And that was just, I remember, maybe four years ago five years ago, something very recent.
Nathan: That’s good, that’s interesting. And how did that sell come about?
Kevin: I mean the fore-sale in the beginning
Nathan: Yeah, yeah, the fore-sale.
Kevin: Well, so I’m, you know, I’m simplifying a lot of complicated stuff but basically the VCs, we had a failed IPO. We were gonna go… They were gonna go public, they wanted to cash out and it’s they wanted to go public and it was just right, the very beginning of the tremors or the top bust, so during the road show, you know, very last minute Goldman Sachs was a lead on the IPO, they misjudged whatever it was and the last minute the IPO failed. We were already scaling up to…we were scaling up for the you know, the money coming in. We missed a benchmark, VCs took over the board and they forced a sale while it was hot. And the magazine got, the magazine which was making money sold for very little and the digital site which had no profits at all was sold for some crazy amount of money. So the VCs that’s what they wanted to do, is they wanted to catch that peak, so they broke up the company.
Nathan: Yeah gotcha. So what happened next Kevin? Because you’ve done a lot of other cool stuff since.
Kevin: Yeah, first I went on to write, to start my Cool Tools website which from the very first day was a blog that made money and still makes money today. So and I started writing books, more books. I guess that’s mostly…and I did quantified self which was this thing with Gary Wolf who was a “Wired” writer. We started this movement to, you know, to quantify the self, to Fitbit the whole tracking yourself, movement which continues today although it’s not as hyped as it was. And I’m still involved in the Long Now Foundation which is building this clock that would tick for 10,000 years in the middle of the mountain in West Texas which is funded by Jeff Bezos. And I did a graphic novel, I’m doing another photography book on vanishing Asia. So I am still packaging ideas.
Nathan: Yeah it’s interesting that piece that you said, you know, since, you know, any of your ideas, you know, you still treat it like a magazine, you package those ideas. Can you elaborate a little more on that for people?
Kevin: So I think pretty visually, that was one of the, you can say the virtues of, one of the attributes of “Wired” was that it was a very visual thing. And I think visually, I was a photographer first. You know, I do art and painting and drawing and stuff. So I think very visually and so when I think about ideas, I think of them as a kind of a complete package with like things that are on a page or on a screen, you know. I design my own book for Taschen, the photo book I did for Taschen I designed that and designed my Cool Tools book which we published. I did all the design for that. So I approach ideas as in kind of seeing them as in this media whether it’s video or web or book or magazine as kind of as an artifact, as a complete thing. So when there’s complicated ideas, I kind of like the way my mind works is like what would that look like? How could you get that on to something that could then transmit itself and these big ideas to people? And that’s sort of where I just naturally go to some people…but Warren Buffett spends all his time to cycle just thinking about the valuation of stocks, he just can’t help it, that’s just what he does, you know. Designers walk in a size room and they begin to think about the architecture. I was just traveling with a builder who he just can’t help doing. He’d see something and he’d begin working out, how would you build that? Well what’s that process? We were looking at this huge, in Uzbekistan, this huge underground observatory. It was a very complicated thing and he was like, “If I had to make this, what would I…what’s the rigging like?” You know, he just naturally went that direction. So my natural direction is just to think about how you’d move at and simplify it or distill it or communicate it in some ways and that’s just how my mind works.
Nathan: Yeah, interesting. So one thing that I found from your work that is quite prolific in my view is your concept around 1,000 True Fans. Can you tell us or share with the audience kind of that concept and how that came about and why it is so relevant in today’s age?
Kevin: The concept very, very briefly is this idea that with today’s technology you have the means or any creator has the means for very cheaply to connect with the audience. So whether you’re a sculptor, photographer, documentarian, painter, author, whatever your audience is, is you have the means to actually have a connection directly to them at scale meaning as you know, as many as you want. And that unlike say in the past when like even today, it’s like the New York publisher, the people who publish some of my books, they have no relationship, no contact, no information, about the people who buy the books. You know, he goes to the bookstore, even the bookstore doesn’t have that information. So they have you know, hundreds of thousands of people buying the books and they don’t know who they are, they don’t know anything about them, they don’t have direct contact, they don’t have their address, their names or anything. And because of that you have to have much larger numbers as an author or creator going through this process. But if you have direct contact with your fans, with your audience, then you need much smaller numbers of support if you’re being paid directly by them directly. So if your fans are paying you directly instead of going through a publisher or studio or label, if they’re paying you directly you need far less of them to support you. And so you can pick up some numbers and you can say well let’s say you could get $100 a year from somebody. You know, let’s say a day’s wages from a fan and we’ll define a fan, what I call a true fan as somebody who will literally buy anything that you produce. They just are true fans, they’ll travel 200 miles to see you sing, they’ll come to every open thing, they’d buy the box at the paperback, the hardcover, you know, they’re true fans. And if you can get $100 a year from them and then if you have a thousand that’s $100,000 a year and you know, for a lot of people that would be a good living. If you can get that much from them maybe you need 2,000, but the order of magnitude is in the thousands, it’s not a million. You don’t need to have a million fans. You don’t need to have even half a million fans. The order of magnitude is in the thousands.
And so with 1,000 you know, if you added one a day then in a couple of years you’d have 1,000 true fans. So not only is that but with the potential audience of the entire internet of a couple billion connected, even the most obscure interests that you might be producing, even if it had like one in a million…if only one in a million people were interested in it with several billion people potentially almost any subject that you could possibly imagine would have at least 1,000 true fans. So that means that for the first time, really almost anything you’re interested in you could if you had, if you can find and again, that’s the big “if,” those fans and have them support you directly. You could have support for the most esoteric niche, passionate thing that you’re interested in. And that’s a great new opportunity. It means that you need to shoot for something much smaller than a million. Of course if you have a million you go onto it, you’re not going to turn them away, nobody would. And if you have 1,000 true fans you still might have another 1,000 occasional fans or semi fans or just fans. And they can add to the mix but the point is that that works if you have direct contact and by the way not every creator is cut out to deal with fans. It’s certainly a job, a chore. And some artists would just, they only want to paint or write, they don’t wanna deal with fans and that’s fine. You can add people but again if you have direct, if they’re sending you the money directly you still have much smaller numbers necessary even if you have additional people involved then aiming for a million. And so that’s the thesis of 1,000 True Fans.
And I actually first thought of the mathematics about it before there was much evidence that it was happening, before there was Kickstarter, before there was… It was a theory more than anything. I said, “Well this is a theory, let me see if there’s anybody who’s actually living this from the start.” There are a lot of examples of people who made their career with book publishers or music labels or something and then left them to go on their own. But when I first proposed the idea there was very few people who had actually come up from the bottom and had only ever been supported by the fans. But by now which is like almost 10 years a little later there are lots of examples of people who have actually gained livelihood by having true fans.
Nathan: Yeah, and look there’s all sorts of tools that support that now even Patreons.
Kevin: Right, exactly. So all the crowd funding from Kickstarter to Indiegogo, Patreon, and many others, several hundred others. These are all examples of ways in which you can fund this from your fans.
Nathan: Yes, this is a great concept and something that I thought about. I think it’s especially humbling in the early days because it’s easy when you are building a brand, business brand or personal brand. It can be very intimidating when you look to, you know, other companies that have a million Facebook followers or Instagram followers and all these other things which mind you are only vanity metrics. They don’t really represent true fans that would pay for something but…
Kevin: Right, and the larger those numbers are the higher percentage of bots there are too by the way.
Nathan: Yeah, 100%.
Kevin: So smaller numbers have not so many bots, but as it gets larger, a larger portion of them are bots and so you have to discount that when looking at those numbers.
Nathan: But it can be quite intimidating. So you know, I love this concept because it’s so simple and it really is true and it can be something that people don’t need to be intimidated by when they are starting a brand or a personal brand or a business because you know, really if you have a thousand true fans, you know, paying you $100 a month or 100, sorry, $100 a year on, you know, even on a subscription for a software product or whatever, it can be extremely lucrative.
Kevin: Yeah, so do you operate with 1,000 True Fans?
Nathan: 100%. Like we would have more but yeah we, you know, we have many ways that we’ve enabled our audience and fans to support our project. Like we did a Kickstarter campaign, you might find this really cool. So we’ve been running Foundr for about four years now and we’ve interviewed some of the greatest entrepreneurs and founders of our generation. Like you know, Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, Seth Godin, many more, the list goes on. And we started digital purely because of, you know, many of the reasons that you are describing, as you’re some guy who was starting a magazine. But a lot of people like that print product. Still it changes the relationship with the person Kevin, you know, if you compare physical…
Kevin: Oh I know. I mean, I did a paper book from our website after 13 years because it’s a huge oversized, weighs almost five pound artifact and there is absolutely something about sitting in front of this big huge expanse of paper and turning pages that is different from clicking through web pages. So there’s no doubt about it. The economics of it are a little tricky and it sounds like you’ve made them work in your favor which is great.
Nathan: So, yeah look, we did a Kickstarter campaign, bundled it altogether to create this beautifully designed coffee table book. I’d love to send you a copy of it. I’m very proud of it. It’s probably one of my best bodies of work but you know, crowd funded through Kickstarter, two and a half thousand fans brought that to life.
Kevin: Exactly, that’s perfect. I did a Kickstarter graphic novel, same thing. It was a magnificent piece of art which, you know, almost 500 pages, oversized, huge, good foldouts, and it was Kickstarted and we actually did a Chinese version too as well. So these things work as you say. They work and people should be inspired by the fact that so many people have got to use. And also I did an analysis of Kickstarter. The average number of supporters for a successful Kickstarter campaign is like 250. You know, that’s even way less than 1,000. So yeah, it definitely should be in the toolkit of anybody trying to do this.
Nathan: Yes, 100%. I think it’s one of the best ways to validate a concept as well using crowd funds.
Kevin: Yeah, right.
Nathan: So look, we have to work towards wrapping up mate. I’m really enjoying this conversation. We could talk all day but we have to work towards wrapping up. So I wanna move to kind of the finishing piece around the future. I know that you just launched a new book not too long ago, “The Inevitable” book around technology and things that are happening. Talk to us about that like where are things going? Like you know, this is your bread and butter, you know, the future, web, AI. Like where do you see things going? Magazines even, like can you talk to us about… Just give us a little bit of insight the way you’re thinking about things.
Kevin: So yeah, I just released the paperback version of “The Inevitable” which was a New York Times bestseller and it’s talking about the next 20 to 30 years mostly in the digital realm. And by far the most important force trend technology in general, in this timeframe will be artificial intelligence. And there are several things to say about it but for the purposes of maybe of these folks who are listening, it is that AI, artificial intelligence is becoming a commodity or I should say a utility like electricity. It’s sort of like more powerful as electricity was to industrial revolution. It’s electricity was kind of distributed on a grid to everywhere. You buy as much as you wanted to, you didn’t have to generate it. And this artificial power was a force that enabled people to make skyscrapers, and railways, and clothe by the mile, shoes by the ton. And we’re doing the same thing now with artificial intelligence which will be distributed on a grid called the cloud. And it will become a commodity and you can buy as much AI as you want. In fact right this minute you can purchase, go onto Google Cloud and buy AI from Google or you can buy it from Microsoft, IBM. and start playing around with it just like the early industrial revolution, they had tinkerers playing with electricity and discovering all kinds of things, imagining new stuff to do with it. And that’s what people should be doing now, is just buying AI, or working with like the Amazon Lex app just tinkering with the capabilities because this is going to be getting better and better and better every year. It’ll become…it’s very transformative.
The question you wanna ask yourself as a business person would be what would you do with 1,000 minds? They’re not human minds but 1,000 smart minds working on your problem 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What would you do with that power? What can you do with 1,000 minds? And so this is you know, in the past what would you do with 250 horses? The power of 250 horses, well you’d put them in a car and you’d have a pretty cool car. And so you know, that’s where we’re going to. These minds are not human, they’re very different. They’re alien intelligences. They’re kind of specialized in certain dimensions. Right now the main thing you can buy is perception so you can have it recognize images which is retailing is gonna find lots of uses because you can, you know, you can watch a TV show and identify all the products that are for sale. And the clothes that people wear and then you can sell those. Okay, so that’s the kind of thing you can do. It can do perception of sound, it can understand speech. That’s what Lex is doing. It can understand patterns which is what the recommendation engines in Netflix and Amazon do. And so that’s saleable to anybody who wants to buy it and it’s cheap, six cents a hundred hits so that’s what’s exciting me these days.
Nathan: And as a magazine publisher, what should we be thinking about AI? Should we be concerned, worried? Where would you, yes, if you were at the helm of WIRED where would you be focusing your attention if you want to ensure that you guys were staying relevant with AI?
Kevin: Well, AI is actually being used in several ways. One is it’s actually in some newsrooms, not “Wired” but some newsrooms they’re playing around with the idea of it writes. You have AI write these sort of formula stories. It’s like the way it works is, you know, a lot of like sports reporting or financial reporting is very formulaic where it’s looking at data and information and writing a story based on previous stories. And they’re pretty solid. And so it’s not gonna be a big cover story but it can, you know, it’s better than nothing. It’s better than just a table of charts. It can actually tell you a little bit of a story.
And the other places, you know, they’re using AI to do kind of investigative sourcing where they wanna go through large amounts of information comparing documents to each other, things that just would be really difficult for human to kind of keep loaded on your brain when AI can kind of help with that. But there would be tons of other little experiments, that seem kind of trivial and toy-like right now that are more playful. But I think that’s exactly where you want to be. I would say that right now there’s very little money going to be made from AI. We’re not at that stage. This is a stage where you are going to be basically investing into different mindset of the, you know, the vocabulary, the sensibility, the skills that are necessary. It’s kind of like the early days of the internet where not that many people were making money but the ones who, you know, like Amazon were continually investing into it became the giants. And so you have to kind of be a little bit more research oriented, or a little bit more experimental in that sense.
Nathan: You know, that’s interesting. I love the way you think about things. Also well look, last question Kevin, where’s the best place people can find out more about your work, you know, “1,000 True Fans” book, “Inevitable” book, or, you know, “Cool Tools,” everything, you know, going on.
Kevin: Yeah I have a website with my initials, kk.org, @kevin2kelly on Twitter but besides Cool Tools which does link from kk.org which we do a user generated review of a cool tool just about every day. Tool in the broader sense from a hand tool to an app to a map or kitchen utensil, whatever. It’s anything that’s useful but we also have something really…besides, we have a podcast, the weekly podcast on we interview somebody interesting and they tell us their four favorite tools. But the most recent thing for the past few years we have something called recomendo with one M, recomendo.com and we send out Mark Frauenfelder and I and Claudia send out six very brief recommendations of good stuff, not just tools but you know, things that we’re watching, podcasts that we’re listening to, destinations that we’re going to, tips, you know, just cool stuff, very brief, one page. And we send that out every Sunday so recomendo.com.
Nathan: Awesome, fantastic. Well look, thank you so much for your time Kevin. I really appreciate it, it’s a great conversation.
Nathan: It’s been a pleasure, thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Kevin Kelly
- Checkout Wired magazine
- Follow Kevin Kelly on Twitter
- Learn more about Kevin Kelly
- Checkout Kevin Kelly’s book: The Inevitable