The one thing that really scares entrepreneurs away from Building in Public is the risk of sharing too much. Giving away their secret sauce. Spilling the beans. Revealing the hidden recipe. (Why are all these metaphors about food?)
For some people, that fear of over-exposing themselves keeps them from even thinking about sharing their journey. They shroud themselves in secrecy, toil away at product after product without ever getting enough traction to take off. But it’s not either or. You can build in public without handing your business manual to your would-be competitors.
Let’s dive into how we can safely build in public.
Know Your Secrets
It starts with knowing the difference between a trade secret and a business insight. Most insights are worth sharing: strategies you’ve found to work, tips for understanding an industry, and how to spot market trends — they’re all equally interesting for your followers to learn about. But some of these insights contain a kernel of your competitive advantage. Sharing too many of these will actively work against your own success.
Experience this article as a podcast, a YouTube show, or as a newsletter:
Before you go on your build-in-public journey, you should create a decision-making framework for which parts of your process you will share and which you’ll keep private. This can be a simple Share/Don’t Share list of topics you keep in a spreadsheet. This list will change over time as different parts of the business become more or less critical. Let’s say you have a unique sales pitch that successfully draws in customers from the incumbent competitors in your niche. You should probably keep that under wraps until you have diversified your market. Once you’re on stable financial footing, you can be more liberal when sharing details about your sales process.
Here’s what such a Share/Don’t Share list could look like:
What to Share
First, considering why people follow you will serve you well. They want to see the person behind the product. They want to learn from a human being, not a robot cranking out software products. That’s what ChatGPT is for. From you, they want to see human things. Ideas, decisions, concepts, and insights. Not just what features you’re built today.
So, what should you think about sharing?
- Business Strategies: High-level strategies that have worked for you. This means “I reached out to fifty prospects through Twitter DMs” instead of sharing a screenshot of your hyper-personalized sales pitch. These specific details of how you implemented your strategies should be considered proprietary —they’re your unique tone combined with your unique offering. The general strategies themselves can often be shared without revealing too much of your magic formula.
- Market Trends: Convey your understanding of the market and industry trends you’ve noticed and responded to. This tends to work best when done in “slight hindsight.” You’ll establish that you have your eye on the market and demonstrate your ability to pick a winning bet. If you start projecting and predicting too much, you can expose your bets before they pay off. If you want to share this, avoid specifics. You can be an expert in your market without immediately giving away every new emerging development.
- Mistakes and Failures: Sharing the mistakes you’ve made or the failures you’ve experienced can be very valuable to others. These things are best phrased as “lessons learned” instead of outright failure. Getting the learning without having to suffer the experience can be inspiring and educational for others. You have complete editorial control here: share only as much as you’re comfortable sharing. You don’t need to relive your experience in gruesome detail — but it might be cathartic to show the events in the context of your larger learning journey.
- Networking Strategies: People are always looking for advice on how to build and maintain a strong network of peers and customers. It’s a pretty critical part of any business adventure, and what seems perfectly obvious to you —engaging with people when they mention a subject you’re good at or replying to every single email you get— might be a novel or scary concept for your peers. You can share whole conversations if the person you’re talking to agrees. Or blur them out — but be aware that people expect their DM conversations to be private. So please ask before you share.
- Personal Development: We all struggle just to be ourselves. I think that most of us might even think we’re not even good at being ourselves. So share what you do to fix that. This can include habits or mindset changes you’ve learned to cultivate in order to succeed on your entrepreneurial journey. Do you journal? Share a photo of a page that doesn’t leak your darkest secrets. Got a workout routine? Record yourself doing the work and share a 10x-speed montage. Allow people into your personal self-improvement world.
- Time Management: For some reason, we’re all strapped for time but find hours to search for tips on managing time and prioritizing our tasks. Lean into that by sharing glimpses into your calendar —and blur out your personal events and any names that shouldn’t be shown.
- Funding and Investment Strategies: Finally, money will stop people from scrolling. Sharing your experience with raising capital (or your staunch resistance to that concept) can be highly valuable to others. Bootstrapped, funded, sustainable: while the specifics of your financials would typically be a trade secret, the general process of getting to where you are today and the strategies you employed along the way can be shared. They SHOULD be shared. This has been kept secret for too long. Too many founders never started a business because all they knew was venture capital or bank loans. There’s a massive world of nuanced financing out there, and your particular mix might be just what someone needs to make the first move.
You can tell from these examples that the focus of what you share isn’t really the “what,”; it’s the “how much of it.” When in doubt, under-share. I have a clear process for this: if sharing anything could mean that someone might take advantage of this insight to directly compete with me in 6 months or less, I make my description more vague. If someone could build something of equal value or more in under a month, I don’t share it at all.
No point in making your life harder yourself. Leave that to your eventual competitors.
What Not to Share
Let’s dive into what you should never share.
- Trade Secrets: These are the ‘secret sauce’ that gives your business its competitive edge. For software businesses, it’s a previously unexplored algorithm, a smart integration of several tools that hasn’t been attempted before, or any other special recipes that are hard to invent but easy to follow. Revealing these could put your business at risk. In fact, in the digital world that has easy copy-ability built into every technology, sharing these secrets WILL put your business at risk. It can be tempting to show how smart you are to have figured these things out. Leave this for your memoirs.
- Confidential Information: Have you ever seen a coding live stream? People who program live on Twitch go to great lengths to hide their secret API keys or passwords. They blur their screens when they work on sensitive files or switch to a scene that only shows their face. These creators have understood a very valuable lesson: all it takes is a single frame of your secrets to be visible. This extends to every visual we share. Screenshots containing your full browser with all your open tabs likely give away what tools you use, what online banking system you’re logged in to, and many more things an attacker could use to impersonate you. Any visible username or email address should stay private. I recommend using screenshot tools like Xnapper that allow you to redact sensitive information. This includes information about your clients, partners, customers, or employees.
- Detailed Financials: The same goes for your bank account balance. While general financial health and strategies may be shared, detailed financial statements and cash-flow information are a no-go. As a business owner, it’s your obligation to protect your company’s financial security and avoid revealing too much to competitors. When discussing money or sharing your MRR updates, limit yourself to rough numbers or aggregates. The moment you share detailed breakdowns of your demographics and revenue structure, there’ll be a few too many prying eyes (with better vision than you!)
- Unverified Information: Never share information you haven’t personally verified or aren’t certain about. Don’t lie. Don’t guesstimate. Spreading false or unverified information will harm your reputation and might even lead to legal issues. Most people have a sensitive bullshit radar and have a surprising amount of time for fact-checking. Don’t inflate your numbers when you share them: no need to lie to yourself and your audience. Just stick to what’s real. An authentic journey consists of many authentic steps.
- Negative Opinions About Competitors: Don’t stir up controversy either. It’s unprofessional and —more importantly— unproductive to bombard your followers with negative views or criticisms of your competitors. Not only does this sabotage future partnerships (or even acquisitions), it will make you look petty and unable to control your emotions. Now that customers have shown their appreciation of founder-led businesses, the acts of the founder become a representation of the business itself. Be kind and compassionate instead. That’s what your customers will genuinely appreciate.
- Internal Disputes: Externalizing drama is a big red flag for any business. Conflicts between team members or partners have to be resolved internally. Never air these things publicly. This will backfire immensely, particularly when it’s about your subordinates or smaller partners.
As you can see, most things you shouldn’t share are related to keeping your cool in stressful situations and being acutely aware of how what you share could be used against you.
And one final thing: it’s okay to wait. When you’re in a pickle, when you’re dealing with a massive onslaught of issues —you know, a regular Tuesday for any entrepreneur— you’re allowed to delay sharing your journey. It usually takes a while to overcome a challenge, and even longer to turn a loss into a learning. Give yourself that time.
Nobody expects you to be perfect at this. Well, I guess for most of us, only one person expects us to be perfect at the whole entrepreneurship thing: ourselves. Don’t listen to that voice. Listening to voices generally doesn’t turn out too well for most people.
Instead, consider that even a person who has done something for just a few months looks like an absolute expert to someone who is just starting. Your willingness to share and talk about your journey itself is already a massive gift to the people who are coming up behind you.
So go ahead and carefully —and intentionally— talk about the path you’re on as you walk it. The evidence of your ambition will be there for the right people to find at the right time.