Guilt can’t scale

I had a conversation with a creator recently. What we talked about gnawed away at me all weekend. It’s something I hear all the time. It’s something that impedes so many creatives from moving onto the next level.

He was bitter because nobody he knew wanted to buy his book.

He went to them hat in hand and couldn’t get anybody to take a chance what he had to offer. He didn’t understand why his family would forsake him while they bought whatever celebrities told them to buy.

“It’s not personal,” I told him.

“But why?” he asked me. “They are my family. They should be supporting me more than some celebrity.”

I only had one reply. “Guilt can’t scale.”

You can’t guilt people into buying something. It makes them bitter and resentful. They see your panhandling as an obligation that they want to get rid of as soon as possible. They won’t become long term customers. Even if you do somehow get their money, all you’ve done is make yourself a nuisance. You haven’t made a customer for life.

Make no mistake, that’s what you are after in the end. One of the biggest predictors of overall success is customer lifetime value. Obligation does not build a happy customer. Obligation is never appreciated.

Think about the things you are obligated to do. You are obligated to pay your mortgage. You are obligated to do chores. You are obligated to take your dog to the vet.

All those things suck.

Nobody willingly takes on obligation with a smile. You can only force an obligation on somebody. And you don’t want to force anybody into buying your product. You want them to buy it happily. You want them to buy all your products because it fits a need in their life, even if that need is just edifying their soul.

Let me give you some statistics. I’ve run three Kickstarter campaigns in the last year. The first one for Katrina Hates the Dead raised $8,500 from 294 backers. The second one for My Father Didn’t Kill Himself raised $3,300 from 155 backers. The third for I Can’t Stop Tooting: A Love Story raised $2,100 from 65 backers.

Now, I have over 20,000 twitter followers, 2,000 Facebook friends, and 7,000 Instagram followers, on top of 2,000 people on my mailing list. That’s a reach of around 30,000 people.

And yet I only had a total of 500 people back those projects combined. That’s a little under 2% of my reach that decided to buy from me.

I could be really mad about that. I could sulk. I could cry. I could pound my fist in the air. I could yell at the people that didn’t back.

But what will that get me?

It won’t get more people to back. It won’t make me more money. All it will do is ruin friendships and destroy family ties. On top of all that, it would make me an angry, spiteful, vindictive man. That’s no way to go through life.

So I left the 98% alone and focus my products on the 2%. Those are the people that really like my sense of humor. They are the ones who resonate with my message. Those people want to buy my products. They have the highest customer lifetime value. They are my target audience

That’s no different than every other company. This is how all companies succeed. They focus their message on the 2% of the marketplace that resonates with their message.

If I know that 2% of people will back my projects, then I can develop a plan to find more people that are just like my ideal market. It’s incumbent on me to cast the biggest net I can so that 2% is as big as humanly possible. If I have 3,000,000 people in that net, then the 2% that buy will get me exponentially more revenue than the 30,000 I have right now.

There are multiple ways to increase your profit, but focusing your attention on who isn’t buying from you isn’t one of them.

You don’t want people to buy things out of obligation or guilt anyway. You want them to buy because they WANT to buy. Those are the people who are in your ideal market. Those are the people you can build a business around. You will never convince somebody your product is cool if they don’t see a need for it.

Maybe along the way you’ll guilt a couple people into buying from you. But those people are short term gain. They aren’t going to buy every one of your products. They aren’t in in for the long haul. They aren’t going to support your entire career.

You will do well to remember that and become okay with it. In the short term it hurts when your family doesn’t buy from you, especially when you are just getting started. In the beginning you are clawing for every dollar, but that’s why strategic planning is so important. That’s why you can’t focus on the short term. You have to focus on the long term.

And in the long term, understanding that it’s not personal is one of the most important skills you can learn for your business and for your sanity. After all, guilt can’t scale.

If you would like to discuss your own short term and long term goals, I’m offering free 30-minute strategy sessions. You can book yours by clicking here.

Russell Nohelty is a writer, publisher, and consultant. He runs Wannabe Press ( and hosts The Business of Art podcast ( His stuff is awesome.