Building in Public and Negativity

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I was invited to a Twitter space about audience-building this week, and we talked about the not-so-fun side of building in public: dealing with negativity. That’s something a lot of people are scared of.

When we talk about negativity on Twitter, we often think about flamewars and shitstorms. That’s the external kind of negative thinking; it happens when others project their negativity onto you. That’s scary indeed. No one wants to be judged and yelled at by strangers on the internet.

But I have found through my own experience that our internal negative thoughts affect our capacity to build in public even more. Often, it’s not the dissenting opinion of a peer but our own self-talk that keeps us from sharing our journey with others.

And that is something that every builder struggles with.

I certainly do. And I have found ways to deal with these thoughts and feelings that I want to share with you here.

It all starts with honesty. When the skies are clear, you can see further. And when it comes to your own thoughts, being honest with yourself is a good point to start.

Building in public is scary, and having strong feelings about it is perfectly fine. Anxiety and doubt are natural companions on the entrepreneurial journey: you’re a pioneer, an explorer charting into unknown territory, building something that has never existed before. Of course, that’s scary! Otherwise, someone else would have already done it!

As humans, we’re hardwired to avoid pain. So whenever there is even the slightest risk of failure, a primal instinct kicks in, and our brains try to convince us to stop doing what we’re doing. We come up with all kinds of stories —all fictitious and pure conjecture, but still very convincing— that try to get us to take the safer path.

But I don’t believe that toiling away in secrecy is the safer path.

In fact, it’s the opposite. Hiding your work and building in private is the risky approach to entrepreneurship. Not sharing anything with your future customers or current founder peers makes you prone to trust your own unvalidated assumptions.

You only need to look at the ProductHunt page of the day to see where that leads. A few products do exceptionally well. But almost all products launched on any given day get just a few upvotes.

And they’re usually great products. It’s just that nobody cares about them. They might be solutions looking for a problem, or they might be products with an audience of one. No matter why they don’t get the attention they deserve, they fail. And usually, the maker behind the product feels disillusioned, disappointed, and questions the value of their work.

Most of the products that fail like this were built in private. Their creators often spend months, sometimes years, on those products. They focus on features, interfaces, and solving problems. But they do so without involving their future customers: they assume the product will speak for itself.

That doesn’t sound like the safer way to me.

One of the benefits of building in public is the presence of tight feedback loops. If you share your building journey, people will point out mistakes as soon as they happen.

But that means you need to be willing to make mistakes.

And from the looks of it, that is one of the scariest things you can do in public.

When we start thinking about being vulnerable in public, we quickly conjure up all kinds of negative emotions and self-talk. We get hit by a crashing wave of imposter syndrome —the feeling that we’re not qualified to do whatever we set out to do— crippling anxiety and endless doubts about the tiniest of details.

We question our basic assumptions: if others aren’t sharing their failures, why should we? Why should we expose ourselves to criticism and judgment?

Why should we want to stand out when we have the much safer path of building in secret?

The answer is that keeping everything to yourself and expecting eventual success is a fallacy: public exposure is often the prerequisite for the success you seek in private.

There is no “build it, and they will come.” Just because you created a good product doesn’t mean that people know about it. Founders learn this every day: a business isn’t just a product. It also requires finding a way to make people aware of and excited about your work.

And that is where Building in Public shines.

But it comes with a catch. If you’re just starting out, you don’t have an audience to build in front of. It’s great to know that seasoned builders have huge groups of people cheering them on and supporting them with their launches and marketing, but where does this leave the founders who are just getting started?

I believe that the answer to this is community. Knowing that you’re surrounded by people who are doing the very same thing, who are feeling the same hesitation and doubt as you are, now that will help you find the courage you need.

Surrounding yourself with others just like you is the most stabilizing thing you can do to find your footing as a builder in public. If you see people building their businesses in front of you every day, it becomes less scary for you.

If you see them struggle, sometimes fail, and sometimes succeed, it becomes less risky to share your own journey: after all, they still keep doing it even though things can sometimes get hard. You see these founders grow in public.

And that’s the realization that made all of this make sense to me when I witnessed this in my own community: impostor syndrome and growth are two sides of the same coin.

Growth pushes us out of our comfort zone. The discomfort we feel triggers our brain’s primal instinct to avoid change, and we feel like an impostor.

This also means that we’re on the cusp of personal growth whenever we feel imposter syndrome.

And ever since I understood that, I sought that feeling. I actively look for things that make me feel like an impostor because I know these opportunities will make me grow.

But I had to do a lot of work. The thing that stood in my way the most was perfectionism.

It feels bad to share something unfinished in a world of polished final products. All throughout my school years, all that people ever asked me to deliver was the perfect final product. Nobody cared about my drafts. If something wasn’t good enough, I’d be punished with a bad mark. I was encouraged to keep working on my projects in secret.

We have all been trained to be private perfectionists.

Building in public allows us to overcome this.

Building in public allows us to become public perfectionizers.

If you’re sharing your journey, if you involve your future customers and supporters in your efforts from day one, then it’s clear that you’re starting with something unfinished.

That’s the whole point! You want people to see your progress, which can only happen when something becomes better.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be improved.

Once I reframed my public work as an opportunity to improve instead of having to present the perfect product at all times, it became significantly easier to suppress the impostor syndrome and doubting voices in my head.

One quick word about our own self-talk. I heard someone say that “when it comes to the voices in our head, our ‘self’ isn’t the voice speaking, it’s who’s listening.” That changed a lot for me. The doubt and the anxiety aren’t “me.” It’s just one instrument of many in the orchestra that is my mind. But the listener, that is me, and I can choose what I listen to.

And I choose to listen to the part of me that is ambitious and willing to make progress towards a goal, even if it means change and uncertainty.

As entrepreneurs, risk is part of our occupation. Every business that doesn’t yet exist in the world is essentially just an ambitious goal.

Building in public is talking about these goals and manifesting them into reality. Leaving traces of your ambition invites investment and support. Finding a community of like-minded creators and builders is the first step. And it doesn’t have to be a gigantic community.

Start with finding peers: individuals on the same journey as yourself. Connect with them, either on Twitter, in specialized forums or communities, or real-life meetups. Find your people, and your people will start supporting you. From there, increase your circle of influence by sharing your progress —or lack thereof— in public.

You’ll grow your following over time by showing up consistently. People love to see stories-in-the-making. They will invest their attention, support, and encouragement into you and your project if you show up on their screens relentlessly.

Give people something to relate to, and building in public becomes much less scary.

People will shout you out because they learn from what you share.

They’ll support you when you are struggling. And they’ll celebrate you when you’re going strong.

Be honest about your journey, and they’ll trust you with their time and attention.

This is what builds relationships.

This is building trust.

And that trust is what will allow you to silence your monkey mind when it makes you fear the prospects of building in public.

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