Early-stage startups tend to be cloaked in secrecy, going to great lengths to keep their progress and product ideas a secret.
The founder may be worried about someone else swooping in to beat them to market, or may simply believe this is the way businesses should be run.
There’s a new trend, however, challenging this way of thinking: building in public. This trend involves a radical level of openness and transparency, giving the public an open look into the process of building your product, and what goes on behind the scenes in your business.
Read on as we take a deep dive into the growing “build in public” wave, and help you understand why so many new businesses are choosing to adopt this mentality.
The Growing Trend Towards Transparency
More and more startups are beginning to embrace the idea of transparency.
When you’re completely open and transparent about your business, it delivers a level of trust that makes it much easier to build a close and productive relationship with your customers or users.
People don’t want to deal with soulless, corporate entities. They want to deal with companies with a face - companies which are able to deliver a more personal level of service, catered towards their needs.
Transparency can start with something as little as showing the names and faces of your support team on the live chat bubble on your website, to let your site visitors know that real people are waiting and ready to help.
On the more extreme end comes truly building your product in public. This means lifting the hood to give outsiders a complete view into the engine of your startup, and the step-by-step process of building it.
What Does it Mean to Build in Public?
Building in public is more or less what it sounds like.
No, it doesn’t mean coding or designing your product from the park or the middle of a shopping mall (though feel free to do this if it’s how you’re most productive).
What it means is that you share all the details related to building your startup, along with key milestones, wins, losses, and almost everything else that goes on behind the scenes.
This could be shared via Twitter, company blog, personal blog, a podcast series, a combination of the above, or any other channel you choose.
The medium isn’t too important, and the exact content you share can vary. What’s important is that it’s open and out there for everyone to see.
Why You Should Build in Public
There are several reasons why building in public is becoming popular with today’s startups, beyond being a simple marketing stunt.
There is certainly a marketing element to it. The attention you get from building in public is a great way to get eyeballs on your startup, and avoid launching to the sound of crickets and tumbleweeds.
But there’s more to opening the door and letting people take a front-row seat to your startup’s journey.
Creating an audience
First, building in public is great for growing an audience.
A lot of people will be interested in your journey and follow along for updates. Sharing all the inner workings of your business is still a novel enough concept that it’s going to catch peoples’ attention.
Before long you’ll have a group of people out there following your journey, curious to see what happens next.
This is particularly great if your product is targeted towards other startups. You’ll end up getting a lot of your early users just from people who have been following your build in public narrative, which can give you a massive leg up in terms of getting early traction.
Build trust with your audience
Today, more than ever, people want to trust businesses they work with or give money to.
They want to know they’re not being conned by claims you make about your product, or that their personal data is not at risk when they sign up with you.
Building in public is possibly the best way to build trust in the eyes of your users. You’re offering up complete transparency, showing people you have nothing to hide.
The vulnerability of building your product in public, sharing the losses and mistakes as well as the wins, makes it a lot easier for people to believe that you’re really building something that’s designed to make a difference, rather than a simple cash grab.
Nurture a real relationship with followers and users
Do you want a cold, purely transactional relationship with your users?
Or do you want to build a loyal following? The type of customers who will ride through bugs or outages, refer friends, offer up constructive feedback, leave glowing reviews and testimonials, and stick with you long-term?
Pulling back the curtain and inviting people to follow your journey helps you build a base of loyal users from the start.
The storytelling aspect of building in public gets people emotionally invested in your startup journey. If they become users, they won’t be easily poached by a competitor, and they’ll be willing to step out and do things to help you, such as testimonials or referrals.
It’s hard to express enough how valuable this two-way relationship with your users is, and it can be the difference between stagnating or achieving exponential growth.
Get early-stage feedback and find out if you have product-market fit
When you build in private, your hope is that your time, money and other resources are going towards building something that people actually want to use.
However, if you open it up to the public, you’ll know a whole lot sooner whether you’re actually onto something. The feedback you get at this early stage can potentially save a massive amount of time and money on building the wrong feature, or shaping your product in the wrong direction.
Where other startups need to wait until after launching to get this kind of feedback, you’ll have a huge head start by inviting people in from day one.
Finally, sharing your journey can simply give you the accountability you need to hustle, grind, and do what’s needed to bring your product to market.
When you set goals in private, it’s too easy to fall short and fail quietly, lying to yourself that these goals weren’t important in the first place.
But external parties to keep you accountable let you know that people are watching you, and will know if you hit your goals or not, oftentimes giving you the drive to push the last 10% and get it done.
There’s no better accountability partner than an entire community of followers watching every update you post.
Accountability partners can give you a boost after your wins, by cheering you on, or a metaphorical kick in the rear whenever you feel yourself slacking or lacking motivation.
Examples of Successfully Building in Public
Here are some notable examples of large and successful companies that chose to adopt the radical transparency of building in public.
Buffer is perhaps the best example of a completely transparent modern startup.
Currently sitting at a little under $20 million in ARR, Buffer shows that you can build a wildly successful product while sharing what some may consider sensitive data about the business.
As explained in Buffer’s transparency report, the company made “Default to transparency” one of their core business values, and since its launch in 2010, has been committed to sharing key milestones, and a rising level of inside company information.
Today, you can find a staggering level of data from the inner catacombs of Buffer, including revenue, salaries, their formula for calculating salaries, a breakdown of diversity in their workforce, and even their open source code.
Buffer’s open blog continues to be updated regularly with articles about the company’s philosophy, processes, and product updates.
It’s difficult to get more open and transparent than Buffer is, and they show you can build and maintain a wildly successful startup while doing so.
Baremetrics - a revenue and financial dashboard for startups - is famous for making their own financial data public as a live demo for their product.
In the blog post from Baremetrics founder Josh Pigford announcing this back in 2014, he actually credits Buffer as an inspiration for opening his own company’s financials to the public. He also openly discusses the risks and fears that business owners (including himself) have over being so transparent with their revenue data.
They also provide a list of open startups, businesses using Baremetrics who agree to share their own financials - from new businesses making just a few hundred per month, to the likes of ConvertKit, which has over $2 million in monthly recurring revenue.
GrowSurf is a bootstrapped company that touts themselves as an open startup, and backs it up with extensive transparency with their revenue, core metrics (such as traffic, users, conversion rate), and revenue goals.
What’s particularly interesting is the story of building their product up from version 1.0, a self-described failure making less than $100 MRR. It discusses their initial mistakes and struggles with radical honesty, and the process by which they turned the business around to reach profitability.
CopyAI founder Paul Yacoubian also uses Twitter to give the public a view into the company’s journey, with updates on revenue metrics and other key milestones.
CopyAI was able to achieve significant traction in an extremely short time, largely down to their strategy of building in public on Twitter and Facebook. It’s quite clear that Yacoubian himself values Twitter strongly in the company’s growth.
Showing you don't only need to share positive milestones, he's also open about mistakes and missed opportunities, which helps your build in public story feel authentic.
How to Build a Product in Public
There’s no set way you need to go about building in public. It could look a little different for every business, from Twitter status updates, to sharing revenue data on Baremetrics, to complete and radical transparency like Buffer.
The exact formula of what and how much you share is up to you, but here are some tips to successfully build in public.
Get your story out there
There are a number of different platforms you can use to put your story out in front of the public. But whatever you choose, make sure you’re out there.
The idea is to get out and reach new people with your story, and build an audience of people who are invested in your startup’s journey.
Twitter is great for this, as it’s easy to generate engagement on your posts, and to reach new people who otherwise would not have heard about your business.
Then there are a ton of communities, like Reddit, Quora, Medium, Linkedin, Hacker News, Indie Hackers, or even smaller communities or masterminds you may be a part of, with whom your story may resonate.
You can also share your story on established publications, such as blogs, magazines, podcasts. These platforms are always looking for content, so as long as you’re willing to tell a compelling story, you’ll have no problem getting on and reaching a whole new audience.
People will be more invested in your story if they get regular updates.
Platforms like Twitter are specifically tailored towards people who post regularly, with a short life cycle on each individual post. So by posting regularly, you’ve got a better chance at reaching new people.
Sharing consistently also helps build a habit. You might not feel comfortable being open and vulnerable at first, but with practice, it becomes second nature.
Share wins, losses and lessons
People want to see the real story of your business, not only a sugar-coated version.
Sharing when you hit key milestones, like reaching your ARR goal, launching a new feature or onboarding your first user is a great start.
But the best build in public stories are the ones that are willing to be vulnerable, and share the downs with the ups.
You might be hesitant to tell the world about a feature that didn’t work out, or a goal you missed, but it’s these snippets that really build trust with your audience.
It’s even better if you can break down the lessons you learn from your wins and losses (particularly the losses). Breaking key moments down into actionable advice is firstly something you can use for yourself, but also makes your startup journey really worth following along for outsiders.
Communicate the future direction of your company
Building in public is a great opportunity to constantly check in with people in regards to the direction your product or business is headed, and to know whether or not the features you’re working on are going to hit the mark with your target audience.
By sharing a public roadmap, or even just open-ended musings about what you’re thinking of building next, you might save yourself from breaking ground on a feature that no one really wants to see.
On the other hand, it might validate your decision. You could also get valuable feedback from your audience that helps shape your next feature.
Besides the benefits to your product development process, people just love to get an idea of what’s coming next. This helps get your followers really invested in the project, as they’ll be curious to know if you hit your goals for the next quarter, or if your next feature release takes off.
What Can You Share?
There are a host of different ways you can approach this. Financial metrics are a great way to start, like Baremetrics and Buffer do.
It’s even better if you turn this data into a story. Explain the process that got you there, and let your audience feel the emotion you feel through the ups and downs of running your business.
Audiences love to see you share “real” things. Real data, real goals and milestones, real interactions that go on behind the scenes.
A screenshot (names redacted) of a conversation that goes on in your Slack workspace, for example, is an awesome way to give people a look “under the hood” at how your business operates.
You can do similar things with interactions or feedback you get from users via your support channels.
Threads are huge on Twitter today, and are a great fit for founders building in public. You can start with a milestone your team recently hit (or missed), and follow on with a thread breaking down what you learned from it, or invite people to ask questions.
Can you share too much?
The detractors of building in public might claim that it’s awfully risky to share everything about your business to outsiders - especially if you’re an early-stage startup with few customers and little revenue yet.
It can be a legitimate concern. You should take a moment to think about what kind of harm could come from outsiders knowing insider information about your business.
Generally, if someone can easily take notes from what you share and just go ahead and build a better competitor, your business model may not be strong enough in the beginning.
An idea, or even a process, is not enough on its own to take your startup from zero to profitable. You also need execution, and the right team of people involved, to grow your business. That’s your moat - not the sensitive information and processes that other companies keep under lock and key.
Resources to Learn More
Check out these resources if you’re interested in learning more about how modern companies are finding success with an open and transparent “build in public” approach.
- Build in Public: interviews with founders who have built or are building their startups in public
- Buffer’s transparency timeline
- GrowSurf’s build in public story
- Podcast: How to Build a Product in Public
- Public Lab’s guide on building in public