Building in Public: How Radical Transparency Hurts Founders

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I’ve been seeing a kind of “Build in Public purism” that I don’t agree with.

The narrative goes like this:

  • We’re fed up with being manipulated and lied to.
  • We want the businesses we interact with to be honest.
  • For that, we need them to be radically transparent, so they can’t lie.
  • We want that for all businesses around us.
  • Therefore, entrepreneurs building new businesses should be radically transparent. In public. At all times.

I understand the wish to be able to trust businesses. But we might be asking too much from founders.

Sharing your journey is a trust-building exercise — and it happens over time. It’s an opportunity for founders to build long-term relationships with their peers and prospective customers.

But I am seeing more and more people who demand radical transparency from indie hackers and founders. And that can be stressful to the point of endangering the fledgling business.

Now, trust erosion is real. I certainly don’t interact with huge businesses believing that they care about me at all. I’m yet another ID in their database. I am only relevant as long as my Lifetime Value is higher than their Customer Acquisition Cost. Of course, I want those companies to stop lying to me and start treating me like a human being.

But what does this have to do with indie founders building in public?

I believe the purist perspective in Building in Public is a wrongful application of the radical transparency principle.

Indie founders aren’t causing trust erosion. Transnational corporations and “big brands” do it. Those are the businesses we should ask to be fully transparent because they inflict damage at scale. They have caused us to distrust businesses in general.

It’s a good idea to demand more insight into how those brands conduct their business. As much as possible.

But it’s a very different situation for indie founders. Asking for radical transparency from people who are themselves trying to navigate a predatory competitive landscape without any resources to defend themselves is downright dangerous. Why should an indie hacker share all and everything about their business with the world? Someone without an army of lawyers or a budget to control public relations?

I don’t believe that asking this from builders is fair or conducive to their entrepreneurial efforts.

There is already a lot of risk in being an entrepreneur. You don’t need to add more to your existing burden, particularly if it’s almost impossible to control or predict the reactions of your audience. Consider a situation where everything is collapsing around the founder, no matter who or what is ultimately responsible. They’re struggling to salvage the pieces and save their business. Can you really expect them to be just as present in the public sphere when they’re dowsing the many fires that pop up in such a situation?

Asking them to force themselves to share everything at that point is not an empowering act. It’s not even educational to those who are watching. It becomes a voyeuristic spectacle, and no founder deserves to be the center of that particular kind of attention.

Building in Public is a nuanced activity. It’s also a founder-driven and founder-decided activity. With every founder being a unique human being, their approach to sharing their journey will also be uniquely colored by preferences, choices, and perspectives.

I don’t believe that this cheapens the act of building in public. Just because you’re careful what you share, it doesn’t mean that Building in Public is “just a marketing trick.” That’s an oversimplified view of how entrepreneurship works.

Asking for radical transparency from the get-go is a dangerous form of purism that causes damage to our community. In fact, it’s dangerous to all sorts of communities. It’s the philosophical extension of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy, the appeal to (a very arbitrary) purity. If you build in public your way, you’re still building in public, even if some of your followers would like you to share different things.

We also need to look at the act of Building in Public realistically: the more you equate “sharing your journey” with “radical transparency”, the more you devalue the efforts of those who work within constraints. Some industries are hyper-competitive, others are full of regulatory restrictions. You can’t share the same things building open-source software development tools as you can building a FinTech product that works with people’s private financial data. What constitutes “safe sharing” is for every founder to decide.

I believe there are many ways of sharing. Be as radically transparent as you want. Or just share the juicy bits. You’ll find that there are many different kinds of people who will or won’t follow you on your journey. How you approach it will determine what your audience will look like. I personally enjoy following all kinds of founders with varying degrees of transparency. Some post once a month, sharing general updates to their business, and others share almost hourly, from within the trenches of their enterprise. Both are building in public, and either are doing it right.

Sharing your journey happens on a spectrum from private to public, and there are a lot of stages in between. Building in Public is a unique journey for every single founder. I don’t think that there is a “correct” blueprint for it, either. The only thing I see produce reliable results for all variants of building in public is focusing on sharing experiments, decisions, and what Amazon calls “Input Metrics” — the things that you can control. Focusing on this kind of content creates the most opportunities for followers to learn and participate in the journey. But beyond that, building in public has no guidelines.

And that’s a good thing. We all have different motivations for the things we do. Our journeys and how we talk about them can — and will — be different as well. Some people build businesses to become rich. Some want to reach a certain level of financial stability and stay there. Others do it to learn; some do it just for fun. This is good. It’s diverse and gives us multiple perspectives to learn from.

We don’t need gatekeeping in our community. It’s hard enough to be an entrepreneur in the first place. You have to overcome a lot of fear to even start building — let alone building in public. It takes courage to share your journey. It takes even more courage to share things that are hard or painful to open up about. Overcoming the inhibition to suppress these things is hard and requires personal growth. We can’t expect this capability to be there from the start.

It takes a lot of personal work to get to this point, and even when you’re there, you’re never doubt-free. There are moments when I don’t share what I am doing or thinking about. Sometimes, I need to reflect and experience on my own. And then talk about it. Or I don’t. I want to be able to be generous, but not at the expense of my mental health or the stability of my business. I want to retain my own agency — stay in control over what, how, and when I divulge information. It’s a question of protecting my privacy.

You often see people retreating from Building in Public at some point when it attracts too much competition. I think that’s perfectly fine. You share while you benefit from sharing. Just like your business itself, this is an act of creating win-win situations. Building in Public isn’t a religion: is a business tool, not a moral philosophy. It’s something we do to further our goals and the community goals at large. It is both selfish and selfless, and therefore, as a combination of the two, has its limitations.

Building in Public is not a members club or a lifetime commitment. There is no entrance exam and no community exclusion tribunal. You don’t get invited or kicked out of the community. You either are or arent’ part of the community, by your own volition. Building in public is something we choose to do because it benefits us.

As a tool, building in public has diminishing returns at certain points. Founders are allowed to change gears mid-journey. That act itself is a public act. It’s that kind of agency that I find so intriguing about founders building in public. I want their choices to be deliberate, so I can learn from them. Forcing them to adhere to a blueprint would destroy all potential incidental learnings. Forcing them to share more than they’re comfortable with is coercion. The Build in Public community should have empowerment at its core, not enforcement.

So feel free to share as much and as little as you like.

The people who follow you and your journey will understand. Building in public is a mutually beneficial act — it serves you and your community at the same time.

You get to decide what that looks like.

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