When should you talk openly about the business you’re building, and when should you keep quiet about it?
Several entrepreneurs promote the benefits of talking about your business while “building in public.” This differs greatly from the traditional “stealth startup” model that most of us have seen and experienced. When I ran my solo design agency during the Dot Com Boom, many of the early-stage startups I helped were in stealth mode. They didn’t share any information publicly, and they certainly didn’t broadcast their experiences during the journey. For one thing, social media didn’t exist yet. But, blogs sure did.
So, what does it mean to build in public?
Building in Public (BIP) consists of building a company or product and transparently sharing the behind scenes of how you do it. Founders generally share their wins, struggles, learnings, anecdotes, and business metrics. (source)
If you’re active on Twitter, I’m sure you’ve seen quite a few startup founders, creators, and even investors talking about it.
Arvid Kahl: “This is why I build in public…”
Tibo: “Here’s how to test an idea in under 2 weeks…”
Andrew Gazdecki: “How to generate leads for your startup on a budget...”
Benefits of building in public
Here are some key benefits of building in public:
You can get early feedback on your product or service that will shape its future and hopefully increase your odds of success.
You can start building a community that believes in what you’re doing and supports you.
Transparency builds more loyalty and trust with your customers and community.
You can create friendships with other builders who are on a similar journey.
People can share helpful advice if they know what you’re trying to accomplish.
You will build a reputation as an expert, develop a stronger network, and gain a following on social media.
The more visible your business is, the more likely you’ll attract the attention of relevant investors (i.e., if you want that).
The more visible your business is, the easier it is to attract potential talent (i.e., if you want to hire employees or contractors).
When it’s not a great idea
This is a pretty good summary of why one entrepreneur stopped building in public. He switched from being “radically transparent” to something he calls “thoughtfully transparent”.
While I agree with the premise of sharing your journey, there are times when it’s a bad idea to build in public. For example:
When stealth competitors can use your data against you (e.g., pricing strategies, where you find great talent, your business plans and forecasts).
When there is a significant first-mover advantage and you don’t want competitors to see what you’re planning before launch.
When you’re still not sure what product or service you want to focus on for your business, so things may radically change (e.g., you end up offering an entirely different service from what you originally planned, and it’s no longer relevant for the people who followed your journey).
When you’re spending so much time managing your online presence and community that you’re not spending enough time building your business, product, and services.
When sharing data transparently hurts your business (e.g., you share churn data, and it scares away new customers).
When your side hustle jeopardizes your 9-5 job.
I want to talk more about that last point. My “Employee to Solopreneur” strategy assumes you can safely test the waters with your new business concept before giving up a steady paycheck. Funny thing, you can think more clearly when you aren’t worried about paying rent or buying groceries.
Building in public is all well and good when you’re an entrepreneur fully committed to your new business. You’re not risking a day job. If you do decide to quit your job and go “all in” on your new business, you can choose if building in public is right for you.
However, it’s quite another thing if you still have a 9-5 job and you’re experimenting to see what business idea will work. You don’t necessarily want your employer aware of your side hustle.
If you're trying to validate your business model and land enough customers before you go all in, you don’t need the extra stress of losing your job. Quite simply, if you’re still employed, building in public is a very risky strategy. You could very well lose your job if your boss finds out.
Now, some employers are more understanding than others. Some countries, regions, and states encourage the entrepreneurial spirit more than others and support it legally. For example, here in California in the tech industry, most people assume everyone is working on some sort of side hustle or startup idea.
NOTE: If you’re currently employed by someone else, review your employment agreement and local employment laws and business practices before working on your business idea. For example, most employers have non-compete agreements — even if they’re not fully enforceable everywhere (e.g., California). However, you’ll be interested in what the FTC recently announced.
Why and how to keep your business secret
How would you feel about an angry customer showing up at your home?
Do you want your friends and family to question your business idea?
Are you really ready to let everyone know about the business you’re creating?
Are you ok with everyone knowing about your business if it fails?
Do you want to wait until your business is successful before you start talking about it?
I do share quite a bit about the businesses I’m running. I’m pretty sure all of my friends and online connections know about Invincible Career, Invincible Solopreneurs, Invincible Life, and Brilliant Forge. Yes, I know. I publish and post a lot!
I also practiced building in public for my tech startup, Voicekick. We shared our journey, and we also shared our failures. That was painful.
However, I’ve also tested dozens of other business ideas over the past 13 years. Most of those happened in secret. I didn’t see the point in talking about them until I thought there was a there there. Most of them didn’t get traction, so I quietly shut them down and moved on to new ideas.
An insulating layer of anonymity isn’t a bad idea in the early days of testing your business. Also, some distance between your personal life and your business entity is always a good idea.
Here are some things to consider and steps you can take to protect yourself and keep things a little quieter while you test ideas:
Anonymous domain registration (e.g., Google Domains offers free WHOIS privacy).
A business website that’s all about the business brand (i.e., you don’t have to mention your name).
A business email address (e.g., create a new Gmail account for your business).
A separate phone number from your personal number (you could even get a virtual number).
Business social media accounts (e.g., sign up using your business email).
A business suite for a physical mailing address (e.g., UPS offers business mailboxes).
An LLC or corporation protects you and your personal assets a little more from lawsuits.
You may want to take additional steps to hide your ownership of the company.
A separate bank account for your business.
Always use your own equipment (e.g., laptop, phone).
Always use your own internet service (i.e., not your employer’s network).
Always work during your personal time (i.e., not during hours your employer expects you to be working for them).
Another benefit of keeping your business secret is it frees your creativity to consider wilder ideas. You might be worried about your friends and family being aware of what your new venture is. You might fear damage to your personal reputation if a crazy business idea fails.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve spun up and quickly tested dozens of ideas for new businesses. No one knows about those dozens of failures. Well, I do, of course. But, I could lick my wounds and sunset the idea without people constantly asking me, “What happened to that new business you started?”
In the end, you know yourself and you know what business ideas you’re considering. You’ll have to decide if you’re ready to build in public — with its pros and cons — or if you should keep your business a secret for now (or maybe forever).
“And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.”
— Jonathan Ive
Hi, I’m Larry Cornett, a coach who can work with you 1-on-1 to design, launch, and optimize your business. You might also be interested in my “Employee to Solopreneur” workshop (coming soon). I currently live in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with my wife and our Great Dane while running my businesses 100% remotely.
If you’re a solopreneur like me, it’s easy to put your head down and work for long hours without a break. But, it’s not the healthiest to sit in a chair and stare at a computer screen all day. So, I’ve been sharing my workouts every day to help keep myself accountable. You’re welcome to comment and talk about what you’re doing to stay active!