I have to admit I’ve been on the sidelines about this for sometime. I’ve watched makers and organizations that I really admire put their financial data out there for everyone to see or live-stream their way to building a product.
To me a lot of things feel right about this way of working, but it’s really hard to know how to put it into action for yourself. After all, many of these people doing it are internet famous with large followings, so of course people will be interested in knowing what they are building.
For someone who is still in the very early stages of a project, like me, it’s natural to think: why should I bother to put what I’m doing out there?
But in the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the right thing for me to start building in public and bringing transparency to my work. First, I’ll explain how I came to that decision, then I’ll explain what it means for my project Epilocal.
For me the first inspiration for building in public came from John O’Nolan and the organization he founded, Ghost. I was looking at potential CMS tools to use in a project, when I came across his unusual founding story: he started with a great idea for Ghost that had traction from day 1, he turned a landing page into a super successful Kickstarter campaign and then despite all of these success signals he decided to forgo potentially huge personal wealth by forming a non-profit organization, thus shutting down any possibility of selling out or following a VC path down the line.
This story really resonated with me as I was just coming off an experience with a VC-funded startup that left me wanting to do things differently. Something about the incentives of working towards an exit just seemed to skew the way I was thinking about things - rather than looking forward to work for the reason that you enjoy what you do and what you’re building, it instead morphs into something you only grind through with the hope of a pay-off down the line.
I’m not sure exactly what does it, but some combination of the pressure of growth from investors plus the idea that someday you will sell to walk away from it all makes you feel less like you’re in control of things and not building for yourself anymore.
What I really respect about John O’Nolan is he recognized this and took steps towards structuring the company in a way that would prevent him from going down the lucrative path, even if he changed his mind later on. He committed and locked into what he thought was a better way of working and building something important.
Then with that structure in place that freed Ghost from the pressure of blitz-scaling there was the ability to prioritize transparency over growth.
Models of Transparency
Ghost is one of the few but growing number of companies that posts its financials publicly for everyone to see. If you go to ghost.org/about you can see for yourself their latest monthly run rate, users, churn and a few other metrics.
As a former banker and finance guy, I was taken aback by this level of openness and transparency with numbers that are usually closely guarded secrets. But the more I thought about it I realized, if you are building something for yourself and for your customers, why not be open about what you’re doing?
Once I started to dig a bit more, I came across Buffer, which is another company that subscribes to transparency. Not only do they post their financials publicly in the same way Ghost does, but they also have made all of their salaries public along with the formula they use to calculate them.
This is something that I saw constantly cause conflicts and bad feelings at both big corporations and startups alike - where you are forced into salary negotiations that exploit your lack of knowledge about other people’s salaries and often feel like you end up with less because you stayed with the same company too long or moved from a low cost office location to a higher one.
All of that goes away when it’s in the open. As Buffer puts it, transparency breeds trust.
Building in Public
All of this is great I thought in theory - but so what? These are models I would love to follow if I grow an organization to the size where people care about my monthly run rate revenue, or I’m hiring people and need to decide what to pay them.
But as a team of one, what’s really the point of transparency?
Then I came across the idea of Building in Public - well, to be fair I had come across it before but it hadn’t really seemed like the right thing for me. I have been lurking for a while on Indie Hackers where people share stories of what they’re building and their progress, but it didn’t really feel like my style. I generally try to keep a pretty low profile and I don’t go for social media much in my personal time.
But taking another look at it recently, now that I have my own solo project, I came to see things differently. Rather than being a platform for boasting or soliciting pats on the back as I might have thought before, now it seems more like a way to connect with others who are on similar lonely journey as you, while giving you a platform to share what you are learning in exchange for some additional exposure for your project.
I think that everyone will have their own different style when it comes to Building in Public, and mine is not so much about “keeping myself accountable” as many people in the community like to say. For me, it’s more about finding my voice and giving back and hopefully through that I can get a bit more attention on a project that has social aims over profit.
So if those are the goals, then what’s the plan - how am I going to start building in public and do this whole transparency thing?
To give you an idea of where I’m starting from, I’ve been working on my project, Epilocal, since October of 2020 - so not quite 6 months. I would say I’m currently in the middle of the start, I have lots of content and some products shipped but not much traction yet. But I’ve come far enough that I think my journey will be interesting to others in the same boat.
So I have started what I’m calling the Open Blog - a space on the Epilocal website that is dedicated to a behind the scenes view of what I’m building, where I will share the vision, challenges, setbacks and thought process behind the decisions I’m making. I will also make an effort to finally get started on Twitter, sharing my posts as well as other small bits that are more suited to short-form communication.
I’ve also made three commitments to being open and transparent if and when the time comes:
- I will publish a monthly revenue dashboard once I hit $500 revenue in a month
- That same month I will incorporate the project as a non-profit organization
- When I’m ready to make my first hires, I will publish the formula that will be used to calculate the salaries
I’ve decided to make these as future commitments rather than to do them right away as there’s not much point at the level I’m at currently. (it will just create more work without accomplishing anything significant) But I thought it was important to put these commitments to paper, in the same way the John O’Nolan locked himself into the course of action that he thought was right - I want to prevent my future self from selling out what I really want to accomplish.
So this is me dipping my toe into building an open company and building in public. In the coming weeks I’ll be explaining what I hope to accomplish with Epilocal, mistakes I’ve made so far, and whatever else comes to mind.
I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride!