The Flip Side: When Not to Build in Public

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In the world of entrepreneurship, there’s been a growing trend towards building in public – the concept of sharing the journey of creating a product or a business with a public audience. I’m a big fan of this approach to building something meaningful in front of those to whom it matters the most. But it is just one way of many to get where you want to be. And for some, it may not always be the best approach. Building in public is about honesty and transparency. So, even or maybe particularly as an advocate for this way of running a business, I want to share a few reasons why building in public might not be the right choice for you and your business.

The Personality Paradox

The first reason revolves around an entrepreneur’s personality traits — mostly their attitude towards public engagement. Building in public is obviously not a very private act. The entrepreneurial journey often requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and it’s important to acknowledge individual strengths and limitations. Some builders are almost exclusively technically minded. They might prefer to immerse themselves in the craft of building a product rather than talking about their work.

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I certainly remember thinking and acting just like that. I felt that being an introvert meant that marketing —which includes talking about my founder’s journey— just wasn’t for me. I’d rather code.

But contrary to popular belief, being an introvert does not mean you cannot succeed in building in public. Introversion and extroversion are not decisive factors here. Instead, it’s about your ability and willingness to interact with people who care about the same things as you. It becomes an order of magnitude easier to share your story with people who already know the vocabulary. I have found that even the most introverted founders glow up when they’re talking to an audience of their peers.

But for some people, this is just too much. If you absolutely hate communicating with others about your work and its potential benefits, or if you prefer solely focusing on the technical aspect of your work, building in public may prove to be a distraction rather than a boon.

Your inability to build in public also does not mean that you can’t be successful in business. You need to consider other marketing strategies that align with your personality traits and business goals. You could consider partnering with a more extroverted co-founder or hiring a dedicated marketing expert. There are ways to bridge this gap. But make sure you’re not falling prey to what Michael E. Gerber calls “The Entrepreneurial Myth:” You can’t run a business on technical chops alone. There is always an operational and a business development part to any successful business. Don’t skip these just because they’re more challenging than building. They are just as important.

The Nature of the Business

Let’s stick with your business. The second aspect to consider when pondering if building in public is for you is the nature of the business you’re building. Some kinds of business inherently lend themselves to a public building process, while others may be better suited to a more private approach.

Businesses that thrive on community engagement, are referral-based, or have a collaborative aspect are often more conducive to building in public. Most businesses in the educational or healthcare sector, or those involving open-source technology, often thrive when built in public because they rely on a sense of community and collective effort. The audiences you work with there tend to recommend things to each other. Word of mouth is a central marketing mechanic here, and building in public can amplify that significantly.

On the other hand, if your business provides a significant competitive edge in a hyper-competitive market, it might be better to keep some aspects of it private — maybe even its existence. A business that provides exclusive insights might lose its competitive advantage if these aspects are shared too widely. Imagine a tool for day traders that highlights the most promising real-time investments. If I were a trader, I would not want to tell my peers about this tool: it would strengthen my competitors! I’d keep this powerful tool secret to maximize my profits.

Shareability matters.

If you serve competitive players in hyper-competitive markets, you’re probably better off building a brand of being elite and exclusive. While building in public could still be an option, it would require a more selective and strategic approach in terms of what you choose to share.

The Absence of a Moat

Finally, there’s the problem of copycats. The third reason to consider not building in public is when you lack a strong business ‘moat.’ A moat is a business’s ability to maintain its competitive advantages over its competitors. These advantages could be anything: access to capital, network connections, industry knowledge, or a unique product that’s difficult to replicate. As long as it’s not cloneable in a few hours, it’s a moat.

But if your product can easily be copied and you lack other competitive advantages, sharing too much information publicly will invite clones and competitors, potentially damaging your business. This risk is particularly present for first-time founders without any prior expertise, connections, or reputation in the industry they’re serving.

In such cases, it’s advisable to establish a solid moat before starting to build in public. And this is easier than it seems: particularly in industry niches, communities will reward the people who contribute with reputation and connections. Building in public can itself create a moat over time, as it builds trust and establishes a reputation. However, this strategy pays off only in the long run, and it’s useful to have immediate competitive advantages to protect your business in the short term.

That said: there’s nothing wrong with having competitors — even copycats. The industries we serve are large enough to support multiple varieties of similar products, and our customers are smart enough to pick the product that keeps solving their problems. However, the closer the thing you’re selling is to a commodity, the less valuable it will be to build it in public.

Final Thoughts

While building in public has many benefits, it’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy. You will need to consider your personal comfort level with public engagement, the nature of your business, and your business’s competitive advantages before deciding whether to adopt this approach. It’s also crucial to remember that building in public is not an all-or-nothing decision. You can choose to share certain aspects of your journey while keeping others private, depending on what aligns best with your business strategy and personal style.

In any case, entrepreneurs should avoid thinking of building in public as the only way to achieve success. Many successful businesses have been built privately, and there are numerous other effective marketing and branding strategies available.

Remember that building in public is fundamentally about generosity, transparency, and community. If these values align with your personality and business model, building in public can be a powerful way to gain customers’ trust, build your brand, and grow your business. It’s your choice to make.

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