The perils of niching down
The way we're taught to pursue 1,000 true fans is broken
The most ubiquitous piece of advice in the creator economy is to niche down. Immerse yourself in one subculture. Pick a topic. Own it. Specialize. Become known for one thing.
This advice is everywhere because in many ways, it works. Internet media is noisy and competitive, and it's easier to earn attention when your work is hyper-specialized. When you're focused on a single subculture or topic, marketing and monetization become more controllable and predictable. If your goal is to create things online, and earn a living in a somewhat reliable fashion, niching down is a smart bet.
This is why, up until mid 2021, I was fucking obsessed with niche strategy. I'd built my first business, Filmmaker Freedom, around helping indie filmmakers break free from industry gatekeepers. I did this by going deep into the mechanics of how identify niche audiences, then sell films directly to fans, instead of through a network of middle men. Even though I'm not in that world anymore, I'm still immensely proud of that work.
The early versions of Ungated were also centered around niche strategy. I figured I could take what I'd been doing for filmmakers, and apply it to all types of internet creatives, from writers to YouTubers to podcasters and beyond. As such, I started developing a business philosophy called NicheCraft, and wrote the best guide on the internet for discovering a niche you love.
My entire online identity began congealing around this one concept. I was following all of my own advice, and slowly becoming The Niche Guy™. And I was confident that my expertise in this area would result in a successful business.
And then, I blew it all up.
The problem with niche strategy, in a nutshell, is that it's a reliable destroyer of the human spirit. It's built on the assumption that we can segment ourselves, and turn one static aspect of the self into an economic engine that makes the rest of our life feel how we wish it'd feel. It's a nice idea in theory, and the kind of thing that might be true if humans were machines. But after everything I've experienced, I can't delude myself into believing it anymore.
Over the last few years, I've met a surprising number of creators who were outwardly successful, with thriving businesses, but who felt trapped and resentful. They followed all the best practices, niched down, created what they thought their audience wanted, etc. And while it often "worked" for generating income, it rarely resulted in them feeling alive, authentic, connected, free. In fact, it led to the opposite. A feeling of deadness, disconnection from self and others, and a perceived loss of agency and freedom.
This shouldn't have surprised me, because I experienced the same thing. During the 2020 lockdowns, I had an "oh shit" moment where I came face to face with a hard truth. I didn't like my business anymore, and if I kept forcing myself to grow it, I'd end up on my deathbed one day, full of regret for the life I could have lived had I been courageous enough to walk away.
My passion for filmmaking peaked in 2014, during my last year of film school. Then came a slow, barely-noticeable downward slide. By 2019, I felt no desire to make films of my own, or immerse myself in filmmaking culture anymore. But because my livelihood depended on serving that community, I felt like I had to keep going. The niche business I'd created, which was starting to succeed financially, was incentivizing me to perform an inauthentic version of myself to the world, and to spend my days on work that deadened my spirit.
Part of me could always sense I was living out of integrity. But another, much louder part convinced me I just had to work harder, force myself more, and that the passion would return once my business got big enough. "You'll feel better when you're pulling in six figures," the inner dictator would say.
So it goes.
The more I've immersed myself in the philosophy of 1,000 true fans, the more I've realized how ass-backwards our best practices for achieving it are.
1,000 true fans is, by its nature, a long game. An infinite game. Something that's not supposed to happen quickly or easily. But it's worth pursuing, over the course of years, because it leads to a life rooted in feeling how we yearn to feel. It's that combo of feelings I pointed at earlier—alive, authentic, connected, free. That's why we pursue 1,000 true fans. Not because we want an online business for its own sake, but because we want to share our creative gifts freely, connect with the people who care, and build flourishing, economically sustaining lives for ourselves.
Niche strategy, which is often presented as the best way to achieve 1,000 true fans, is a short game. It excels at producing immediate, observable results. It's the perfect approach for people who crave maximum control and certainty. Niche strategy is an effective anesthetic for those parts of ourselves that squirm and scream when confronted with ambiguity and doubt, those parts that are too impatient and scared to play long games. The inner dictator loves niches. They're one hell of a painkiller for the anxiety-ridden creative mind. And it's a drug I steadily dosed myself with for years, all the while rationalizing it as a panacea.
All of this would be fine if niche strategy resulted in creatives feeling great about their lives. But it doesn't. More often than not, it leads to a downward spiral of decisions that feel inauthentic and forced. Those decisions pile up, one by one, until we've constructed a machine that meets our economic needs, but at the expense of our spirit. Rolling out of bed in the morning, we feel no spark of aliveness or connection with this work. But we persist, because the inner dictator spins up catastrophic stories of what will happen if we change course. So we keep plodding away, propping up this shoddy, lifeless structure with every ounce of energy we have. Even if we have 1000 paying customers, and everyone in the outside world thinks we're living the dream, this thing we've built isn't 1,000 true fans. It's hell.
I wish I could point to a single moment where I knew I wasn't The Niche Guy™ anymore. That sure would make for a tidy ending to this story, wouldn't it?
But truthfully, it's been a messy and frustrating journey. Just as my identity as a filmmaker dissolved over five long years, so too did this truth emerge slowly, bubbling up from some deeper inner knowing. And much like the years I spent grasping onto film, trying to make it feel alive again, I spent most of 2021 trying to ignore the voice within saying "this ain't it, chief" whenever I'd talk about niches.
Practicing the art of NicheCraft didn't feel good anymore. I knew this, yet I was terrified to let it go. It felt foolish to walk away from the intellectual capital I'd accrued during my years of niche obsession. It finally felt like I had real control over my future. If I stuck on this path, I would be known for something, and my bank account would be full. I was certain of it. But no amount of "head knowing" could drown out the "heart knowing" that NicheCraft was not leading me towards an enjoyable, worthwhile life.
There's one other piece to this story that feels important. Somewhere in 2021, I stumbled into a corner of twitter colloquially known as TPOT, or This Part of Twitter. In addition to being a subculture defined by friendliness and openness to experience, TPOT's got a large contingent of people doing deep emotional and spiritual work. As is the custom, I made friends with many of them, and so began 18 months of unfucking my worldview and enlivening my spirit.
Western modernity conditions us through our upbringing, education system, and work culture, to view ourselves as rational, economic machines. Homo Economicus is the water we swim in, and is the default set of instructions for how to navigate the world. We're also conditioned not to trust ourselves, especially those pesky inner voices, but instead to defer to Experts and External Authority. When I was mired in that worldview, NicheCraft made perfect sense, and was the obvious choice for how to approach Ungated.
But through 18 months of emotional and spiritual work, that worldview fell apart. My friend Michael Ashcroft introduced me to the frame of non-coercion, and created space for me to start trusting myself more deeply. In short order, I started listening to the inner voice, and heading its call. I gave up on NicheCraft, and instead started being more of myself online. Instead of Adding Value on twitter, as I thought I should, I became a silly lowercase shitposter. I started having fun, following the aliveness, and making friends. And the strangest thing happened. My business didn't fall apart. Instead, I started creating a small handful of true fans who didn't see me as The Niche Guy™, but as Rob.
Turns out, there's a stark difference between creating true fans around one narrow, rigid aspect of yourself, and creating true fans of a dynamic, evolving human. Niche strategy is great at the former, but the latter requires something else entirely.
I can no longer deny that I’m a fluid, evolving, self-renewing human. My life is richer and more vibrant when I’m not locking myself in a box. That's why I am no longer striving to build a carefully calculated personal brand designed to Add Value or create the maximum amount of customers. I could go down that road and make a fuck ton of money, but the expense to my spirit would be far too great. Instead, I want to be fully myself, fully alive, and keep connecting with people who value the full expression of my vitality, and who who want to partake in the journey with me. Those are true fans. And that's why Ungated exists.
The first version of this essay had a totally different ending, but I ended up re-writing it from scratch. If you’d like the read the first version, along with why I chose to re-write it, check out this post.
Rob's Daily Invitation
Every time I talk about 1,000 true fans, I'm probably going to point you towards The Frontier. This is my annual membership for fellow creative homies who are looking to break away from niche strategy and come alive in their work. It also happens to be the best way to become a true fan of me, and support the work I'm doing.
love that. following the things that make you feel alive is what kids do, it's what comes naturally to us, and it also works as a career strategy if you're brave enough to keep reinventing yourself and get comfortable being uncomfortable. you're clearly on that journey. and i back it 100%.
you, sir, should feel rightfully proud of this. thank you.