Building in public is the main acquisition channel for many startups.
While the number of founders using this strategy has increased over the last few years, and it has therefore become a more competitive channel, it still generates really attractive returns on the investment of time/money.
What is Build in Public?
Building in Public (BIP) consists of building a company or product and transparently sharing the behind scenes of how you do it. Founders generally share their wins, struggles, learnings, anecdotes, and business metrics.
Businesses that are built in public are called open or transparent startups. They are the opposite of stealth startups, companies that operate in a state of secretiveness.
Many years ago, founders would stay in stealth mode for many months so as to avoid “getting their ideas stolen”. As time started to prove that the benefits of sharing and getting feedback on your ideas beat the risk of getting copied by another entrepreneur, more founders began to share their journeys.
If this is your first time hearing this concept of building in public, you may be wondering who can be interested in following your ride as a founder. There generally are two types of people:
Support groups: These are friends and other founders who enjoy reading about startups and want to learn from your wins and struggles.
Customers: These are users of your product or service, who are interested in staying up to date with your business’ news.
By building in public, therefore, you’re building both an environment of support for your entrepreneurship journey and a strong relationship with customers.
How did Building in Public Surge?
Buffer’s Transparency in 2013
It’s unclear when and how building in public surged, but it can be said that Joel Gascoigne, co-founder and CEO at Buffer, was one of the pioneers.
The founder community loved Buffer’s decision and supported Joel along the way. Users became excited about the company and turned into more loyal customers. The team enjoyed a more trustworthy work environment. It was a big win for everyone.
Ghost Becomes Transparent in 2014
In 2014 Ghost.org’s yearly report, John O'Nolan, the company’s founder, claimed they would follow Buffer’s steps and become more transparent about their numbers and work.
The concept of open startups made a lot of sense for Ghost, which by the time was already a non-profit open-source organization.
In early 2018, Pieter Levels, founder of Nomad List and Remote OK, joined the build in public club with this tweet. He created an open page for each of his projects, where he shared revenue, traffic, and other interesting metrics.
Over time, he has been one of the few founders that has stayed building in public. This has led him to growing an audience of 130k+ followers on Twitter, reason why he can be considered the CEO of Open Startups.
Why Build in Public?
Building in public has a series of benefits. Here’re a 5 I’ve identified over the last years:
Get feedback early: You’re building a channel through which you can communicate with support groups and customers who will be happy to provide you with feedback on your feature ideas, designs, strategies, etc.
Increases buy-in: People love being heard. When you ask for feedback and apply your users' or potential customers’ comments, their investment in your company increases, as they feel as if they have built a part of it.
Builds trust: You’ll be building a strong connection with your customers, which increases the chances they help you when you need it, become recurring customers, and recommend your product or service to other people.
Builds your status as a field expert: If you’re the most public person in your niche, the niche will be immediately associated with you every time someone talks about it. I’ve been building Failory in public for some time now, constantly publishing about failed startups. When someone tweets about the topic, I’m generally tagged in the comments.
Attract talent and investors: The more exposure your startup gets, the more people interested in joining or investing in it. People like transparency, whether in a workplace or in a portfolio of companies.
20 Founders Building in Public
Here’s a list of 20 founders building their businesses in public:
Almost all of the businesses on the list are tech startups. It’s really common for tech business founders to build in public.
This doesn’t mean it’s not worth building a non-tech business in public. You may struggle to get the above-mentioned “support group”; yet, many of your customers will be interested in following your journey and business updates.
The above founders are building in public on Twitter because that’s where other founders and their potential customers are. However, if your target audience is on another platform, that’s where you should focus. In most cases, this platform will be your business’ newsletter or community.
Clayton Mooney is the founder of Nebullam, an indoor farming company. He has constantly been sharing the latest company news on LinkedIn, both in his personal and business accounts.
How to Build in Public?
Let me break down the process into the content you can publish and the channels you can use.
Type of Content
The type of content founders share when building in public varies a lot. What I most frequently see is:
Screenshots of their work-in-progress products or features.
Business metrics and milestones achieved.
Clever strategies related to development, marketing, hiring, etc.
Bug fixes and new features/projects launched.
Insights about unknown aspects of an industry or a company.
Obstacles they come across and how they overcame them.
Product or feature ideas and requests for feedback.
Quotes or screenshots of feedback from their users.
Updates on stuff they have shared in the past.
What they have done during the day or week and their pending tasks.
There's no reason why you should stick to these types of content, anyway. As long as it works for you to connect with and grow your audience, any kind of content is fine.
Many founders employ “launch in public” strategies, publishing content only during the one or two weeks that follow their business's launch, and then stopping sharing their journey. In most cases, that won’t bring you any of the BIP benefits mentioned above.
Keeping consistency is an important part of building in public. If you stop sharing your journey for a few months, many of the people in your audience will lose interest in it. Chances are only your customers will remember who you are and what you’re building.
Building in public can happen through many different channels, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and niche communities.
I encourage you to focus only on one channel, at least at the beginning. Staying consistent on building in public through many different channels while at the same time building your company will be super time-consuming.
The decision about which channel you build in public on can lead to the success or failure of your building in public efforts.
To make this decision, you need to search for channel-market fit. This means looking for a channel where your business' potential customers already are. If you're building a B2B business, for example, choosing TikTok as your channel would probably be a wrong decision.
However, you also need to search for channel-founder fit. This means a channel you are comfortable creating content for. Consider these two things:
What kind of content format do you feel more comfortable creating: video, audio, or text?
Which platforms do you like the most and spend most of your time in?
Let's see which are the most common channels and some examples of founders building in public on them.
Twitter is one of the most common channels where building in public happens. It works the best for founders of tech-related companies or products, either B2C or B2B.
The greatest advantage of Twitter is its virality. With only a few retweets and likes, your building in public tweets can reach hundreds of people who aren't following you.
Austen Allred, founder of Bloom Institute of Technology, Domm Holland, founder of Fast, and Suhail Doshi, founder of Mighty, are some tech company founders that have a massive number of Twitter followers due to building in public.
Due to LinkedIn's characteristics, this channel works well with all kinds of B2B products.
If you check your LinkedIn feed, you'll see there's a lot of content from 2nd or 3rd connections, rather than 1st connections. This means that even if you have a small network or audience, if these people interact with your content, your posts will reach many more people.
Justin Welsh has been building various digital products in public on LinkedIn for some time, and he currently has a huge audience of +165k followers. He has shared on various occasions how building in public has got him hundreds of sales.
Your building in public efforts can be focused 100% on your existing customers, with the objective of developing a stronger relationship with them and getting them involved in the decision-making process of your company.
If that’s what you want to achieve, you can simply run a newsletter sent to your clients, in which once per week or per month you share what you’re been working on, the recently-launched features, ask for feedback, etc.
Arvid Kahl did this when building his SaaS, FeedbackPanda. He shared in the business newsletter progress updates, milestones achieved, screenshots of what he was working on, and asked the community for help. He was able to build a big audience of FeedbackPanda’s fans who were happy to share the tool with their colleagues and in online communities.
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Just as many people post daily TikToks sharing how they're building their vans or refurbishing their houses, you can share your journey building your business.
The biggest benefit of TikTok is its virality factor. A well-crafted video that makes users stay watching it and interact with it can reach thousands or even millions of people.
It works the best for founders of B2C businesses, mainly oriented to kids, teenagers, or young adults.
SideHustleStack is an example of a product that fits these characteristics. It's a website where young people can find side hustles to work in. The website went viral on TikTok on variousoccasions.
If you go to TikTok and search for hashtags like "#entrepreneurlife" or "#buildingabusiness," you can find hundreds of examples of founders building their companies in public.
5) Niche Communities
When building in public in social networks, like Twitter and TikTok, you'll be mostly reaching people who probably aren't your business' potential customers.
If you build in public in a niche community that's related to your product, instead, a bigger percentage of who you reach might be interested in purchasing what you're working on.
This works for founders of pretty much every business, as long as there's an active community around the business' industry.
These niche communities can come in the form of online forums, Facebook or LinkedIn groups and Slack or Discord communities, among others.
If you've been into your business' industry for some time, you've probably heard about a few of these communities in the past. If not, you can find them on Google or by asking other people in the industry or your customers where do they hang out online.
One of the places where I build in public my 2nd business, Scouth, is Trends.vc, a community for founders and business-related people. There’s a section on the community called "Standups," where people share every day what they'll be working on and what they accomplished the previous day. This is an excellent place to talk about what I’m doing at Scouth and be read by some potential customers.
6) Streaming Platforms
Livestreaming your work on platforms like YouTube or Twitch takes building in public to its extreme example. Many people enjoy watching how other people code, design, or do any other aspect of a business.
Unfortunately, discoverability isn't good on most streaming platforms. Discovering new creators and content happens naturally on Twitter and TikTok. In streaming platforms, it first has to be of the user's interest to find new stuff.
Having said that, the benefit of using this channel is that it won't add to you an extra workload, as other channels do. You already have to design, code, or whatever you have to do, so you can just record how you do it and stream it.
William Candillon, of Start React Native, streamed how he developed a UI Kit on Youtube, figuring that even if no one watched, it’d still force him to be productive. Lots of people joined his streams and +90 viewers purchased the Kit.
Why Have Some Startups Stopped Being Open?
Over time, many of the startups that were once transparent, have stopped being so, partially or completely.
Buffer has stopped sharing most of the data they used to share, though they still have this Transparent Revenue Dashboard. Transistor, instead, has completely stopped sharing their revenue metrics by deleting their Open page (they talked about the reasons in this podcast episode).
In this great article, Arvid Kahl analyzes the reasons why some founders decide to stop building in public and being so transparent. They can be summarized into four:
Non-transparent competitors have your data: All of your competitors can see your numbers; they can see the results of your marketing strategies, pricing changes, and launched features. This gives them an information advantage.
Surge of new competitors and copycats: Seeing how the traffic and revenue of a product or service grows can motivate other people to build a competitor in the same industry, or even worse, a copycat.
Caring too much about the public image: When being public, both your customers and support groups will form expectations about your business. Some founders struggle to manage these and feel the pressure to justify their numbers and results.
Numbers can be misleading or meaningless: A decrease in the number of users isn’t necessarily negative. Neither is a high churn. Numbers can sometimes provide an incomplete image of the business’ situation. This is why Tyler Tringas stopped building in public.
So what should you do? Up to a point in a startup’s journey, I think the benefits of building in public overcome these disadvantages.
I recommend being transparent only with what you feel comfortable sharing, and to work on ignoring what people and other companies do with your data.
If the business grows up to a point where the information advantage you’re giving to competitors beats the benefits you’re getting from building in public, you can easily limit further your transparency, or completely stop being an open startup.
Wrapping Up: How to Start Building in Public
If you’re building a startup, building it in public can be a great customer acquisition and retention strategy. I encourage you to put into practice:
Think in which channel your target audience hangs out online.
Think which channel you’d be comfortable creating content on.
Decide which channel you’ll be building in public on.
Decide which types of content you’ll be sharing.
Experiment with new types of content and stay consistent over time.
If there’s anything I can help you with, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.