This article is part of The Survival Stage section of 📕 Zero to Sold: How to Start, Run, and Sell a Bootstrapped Business.
When Buffer started being radically transparent, the entrepreneurial community was enthusiastic. A brighter future of collaboration, shared learning, openness, and lifting the disadvantaged was on the horizon. Revenue, Salaries, Compensation: everything was made public for everyone to see. Recently, Buffer closed off its public revenue dashboard. Other bootstrapped companies such as Transistor.fm have gone through the same progression of opening and later closing off their revenue data. Why is that?
Two common patterns emerge when you read the explanations and comments made by those who resorted to turning off their public dashboards. Either the data is incomplete and paints a picture that is distorting the reality of the business or the publicly available gives the competition a one-sided information advantage.
I’ll show why it’s beneficial for young companies to share their data publicly, when and why it starts becoming a problem, and what consequences can be expected if a business shares their data for too long.
Transparency in the bootstrapped world became a widely appreciated topic when Buffer made their salary and revenue information public starting in 2013, talking publicly about their numbers and values on the Open Buffer blog. Many interviews and news articles followed, lauding the bold move towards transparency as a blueprint for how a successful business should be talking about how much they pay their employees and how much revenue they generated.
Many companies followed their example. The Baremetrics Open Startups page filled up with other SaaS businesses committing to publicly sharing their revenue information.
Yet, after a while, some businesses stopped sharing their numbers. A number of those reversions have happened in recent months. The most prominent example is Buffer, who dropped from the Baremetrics Open Startups page. It most recently happened again when Transistor.fm made their revenue information private after having it public for over a year.
While Buffer has been almost ironically private about not being public anymore, Transistor.fm was much more transparent about not being transparent anymore. On their podcast, Build Your SaaS, Justin and Jon talked about going public with their revenue information in May 2018. Now, in November 2019, they laid out the arguments on why they turned off their publicly available dashboard and revenue numbers.
The Transistor.fm story sheds some interesting light on why companies choose to be radically transparent. First off, let’s look into motivation to start sharing business internals with the public. It boils down to a few reasons:
- Social Proof: Fellow entrepreneurs, potential customers, and even investors can see that your numbers are real. You’re not bullshitting anyone, as your financials are right there for everyone to see. This builds a lot of trust in a world where everyone is inflating their numbers to appear bigger and more successful than they truly are.
- Public Accountability: You’re motivated to increase the numbers, not to have growth stalling. Someone, somewhere, is watching you. People will keep up with your success or lack thereof. If you commit to goals publicly, stakeholders have the means to track your progress. While this can be the source of high anxiety, it can also energize and encourage you to work towards your goals even more.
- People Love Underdogs: You will find a lot of goodwill and support when people can see that your little company is doing its best to grow and become an established business. Advice and help will appear in unexpected ways. Customers will root for you, as they might also be a small business trying to make it. In the end, this kind of transparency is marketing. You’re marketing the business as a real company lead by a real person. This kind of intimacy does not exist for most business relationships, and people will relate to your business differently than to an opaque, faceless, anonymous company.
- The “Whisper Network” Effect: By being transparent about your numbers, you equalize the playing field: historically disadvantaged groups and minorities benefit from things being in the open. This is particularly effective if you share salary information, as well. When Buffer opened up their salary information to the public, they were overwhelmed with resumes. People love an employer who is not playing games.
With all these benefits, what then would cause a business to stop sharing?
Wherever you look, it seems to be one unifying problem: Competition.
Every single one of your competitors can look into your numbers. They can see what happened when you pushed out your big marketing campaign, as they will see the immediate impact in your numbers. They can find out if your recent pricing changes worked for you or didn’t.
Essentially, you are giving your non-transparent competition the information advantage. You can only see your own numbers, but they get to see yours and their own. They get your learnings without sharing their own struggles.
Transparency may even encourage people to start a competing business because they see you not paying attention to a part of your business. A segment of your customers may be churning more than others because the product does not fully align with their needs. Competitors might find that information in your data before you do.
It may even encourage copycats that will chip away at your primary customer base. While copycat businesses don’t have the same drive, determination, and experience that you have, giving people actionable information such as how your subscription plan levels are working for your audience is a risk. You paid dearly experimenting with your plans, just for someone to copy your business model with all those learnings for free.
That is a lot of risk for minimal upside. It breeds anxiety if you always wonder who might be scheming against you after having analyzed your data. Don’t mistake this for paranoia. In a time where a SaaS business is easy to set up, this is a realistic scenario. It’s just too many eyes looking and probing at your business. It is a distraction for founders who would prefer to work on their business instead of wondering who might be inspecting their numbers.
And that’s what happened to Transistor.fm. For Jon and Justin, it felt like they had to justify having their numbers in the open. With public scrutiny come expectations. Justin didn’t want to be a performer anymore, caring more about the public image than the actual value the business provided.
And I can understand this completely. At FeedbackPanda, we did share our revenue numbers on IndieHackers. Still, we never went fully public with all of our revenue, churn, retention, and subscription details being available like on the Baremetrics Open Startup page. The public MRR was enough for us to attract interested parties. However, any would-be-competition didn’t have any additional insight.
Sometimes, it’s the nature of the business that makes accurate and comprehensible transparency practically impossible. When Tyler Tringas had the business metrics for Storemapper in the open, it quickly became apparent that they were showing an incomplete picture. So he turned off the public dashboard again.
I think that there can be too much transparency. Not just because there is competition, but also because numbers don’t exist in a vacuum. Let’s say you have a 16% churn over the last 30 days. What does this mean? Did a large number of customers cancel? Did you weed out a few accounts that were abusing the system? Did you increase prices, and while a lot of people churned, you are still making 200% profit on the ones that stayed?
The numbers are not enough. They can be misleading or meaningless. Radical transparency is highly contextual, and without knowing the context, the figures can lead to misunderstandings. For a young bootstrapped business, this context might be quite clear, as most bootstrapped entrepreneurs go through the same struggle. However, once you grow to a specific size, some factors are unique to your business, your niche, your customer base. Those might not be even apparent to you, so how could a person who knows very little about your business understand those complex interactions.
So what should a bootstrapped founder do?
I recommend being transparent but in a measured way. Share your Stripe-verified revenue on IndieHackers, and regularly communicate what’s going on in your business. Create a narrative that gives context to the numbers. Share successes and failures. Keep people who are interested in the business updated with regular summaries. Every month, talk about what worked, what didn’t, how the important numbers moved.
Make sure having those numbers out there does not detract from your overall goal of building a sustainable, life-changing business. Because in the end, transparency is not the goal. It is secondary to you achieving a life of independence and control.
Transparency is a great way to show that you are a real person working on a sustainable business. Let the numbers work for you instead of working for the numbers. Just like you want to the business to work for you instead of you working for the business.