Lauren Macpherson
CCO
March 26, 2021

Building in public or private

It might seen crazy to not only share your idea in public but also to build it publicly - with your faults, failures and data on show. But this trend has not only been proving to be successful, it’s also gaining momentum in the indie builder community.

Who’s doing it?

  • Shopify share live sales on Black Friday.
  • Ghost.org is a non-profit organisation that builds open source technology for journalism.
  • Remote OK, the online remote job board, is an open startup that shares metrics like revenue and traffic.

When it comes to bigger companies, Buffer are one of the most high-profile ‘sharers’. They post salaries (which led to a huge upturn in job applications), diversity and inclusion data, their code is open source, and they share the company’s product roadmap (so everything they are researching and building). 

“Open source software generally evolves more quickly because more people have access to it”, explains Niel de la Rouviere, a developer at Buffer. “As it happens, open source code is generally more secure than code that isn’t open. The more eyes you have on your code, the more vulnerabilities one can detect due to the diversity of all the input. It’s almost like an immune system that gets stronger through more exposure to the environment”.

Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia has written candidly about the successes and failures of the popular online platform that helps digital makers sell their products direct to consumers. At one point he had to shrink the company from twenty employees to five, which eventually “fizzled to one” - Sahil himself. The interest in his the transparency of his open admissions led the company to now host open board meetings.

The pro’s and cons of building in public

Transparency

Pros: Building in public builds trust and awareness. You’re inviting others to help and collaborate when you find issues. It’s also a great way to hold yourself accountable for any targets you set.

Cons: You open yourself up to imitations and copycats. If you publish data consistently, you will also be required to do so even if you aren’t doing so well.


Feedback

Pros: By opening yourself up to the public you will get more feedback faster. This includes both validating your idea with an audience, as well as iterating it after launch.

Cons: Feedback can come from anyone - qualified or not - and lack the necessary structure to correspond to your needs. You need to learn when to listen, and when not to.


Focus

Pros: You are more accountable for the targets you set and the community will push you to challenge yourself further.

Cons: Your network can be distracting and the relationship is reciprocal. So you will need to help others too.


Launch

Pros: You can launch quickly and iterate over time. This means you can both fail fast and move on to the next thing - or succeed fast and invest your time more effectively.

Cons: You have to compromise on quality and be open to failing in public.


Marketing

Pros: Your existing network will help you to share - and therefore sell - your product. If you’re lucky, they might buy from you too.

Cons: Your flaws have been exposed, which could affect your credibility.


Data

Pros: Audiences like stats - and there is good engagement with companies that regularly share honest updates.

Cons: If you overshare you could lose your competitive advantage.

The pros and cons of building in private

Transparency

Pros: You protect your idea and intellectual property from the market. Especially good to do if your product doesn’t have a moat.

Cons: You’ll be launching from a place of obscurity and have to launch within the market from scratch.


Feedback

Pros: You can be selective and actively approach your ideal audience for qualified feedback.

Cons: Incurs time and money costs. And you’ll likely be getting feedback a bit later in the process.


Focus

Pros: You have the space to focus and create without distraction or criticism.

Cons: You can get stuck in your own bubble and create something less relevant to the market.


Launch

Pros: Launching your product when it is ready will ensure you have a credible, quality-controlled product.

Cons: There is an opportunity cost to waiting too long.


Marketing

Pros: You will have the time to prepare a fully fleshed-out campaign.

Cons: Building behind closed doors mean you launch from scratch with no existing knowledge of your product.


Data

Pros: Protecting your data means you keep all of the insights to use to your advantage.

Cons: You lose out on the attention and trust that comes with sharing data openly.


The key questions to ask yourself

When considering whether to build your startup or corporate venture in public or private the most important thing is to figure out if you have a moat. This term is literally derived from the moats that medieval castles used to have and means your ability to prevent copycats stealing your idea, maintain competitive advantages, and protect your share of the market (and therefore income).

After this, you want to ask yourself why you are sharing and who cares about this story or this data? Is this something important to your prospective customers or employees? It could be as simple as holding yourself accountable to your promises. But if there is no purpose to sharing, then it will be extra effort and risk taken for nothing.


Lauren Macpherson
CCO
I'm an avid sharer of the latest news, tools, and tricks relating to all aspects of product development. My main aim is to stay true to our Explain-Like-I'm-5 roots: keeping things simple and easy to understand. My other is to find any excuse to talk about gaming.

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