Building in Public

Article by 
Roger Farley
The Always Invert newsletter and community continues with an inquiry into the questions and doubts we all invariably face about building in public and why it might be the right strategy for strengthening commitment via community.
Published 
March 4, 2021
W

hat is Building in Public? What does it really mean? Why have I simultaneously embraced building a readership and beginning a dialogue with others and yet find myself completely resistant to the idea that anyone should read beyond the last word of this sentence?  

Steven Pressfield is out with a new book this month and is currently a featured guest on many of my favorite podcasts. His conversation with Tim Ferriss addresses the struggle:

In my book The War of Art, I talk about the concept of resistance with a capital R, which is again, that force of self-sabotage is a big theme in my life, that will try to stop you as a writer or an artist or anybody from achieving your best work, from following your calling, will try to distract you, undermine your self-confidence, make you procrastinate, make you quit, make you give into fear, or on the other hand, make you such a perfectionist that you spend all day on one paragraph and you accomplish nothing.

Rich Roll and Steven talk about it in another way:

What makes that so powerful against us is that we think it is our own thoughts. We think, “Oh, that’s me, assessing the situation objectively”—but it is not. 

Knowing that my ambivalence and misgivings about building in public might not even be my own, I set out this week to learn more. 

Maybe it doesn't need to look like this:

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Think Tank

I find that I'm not self-conscious about sharing my thoughts when they are part of being a sounding board. Last week, On Deck No Code held a brainstorming session in which four participants presented their current projects. I was there to provide feedback based on my perspective as an experienced investor. 

When looking at an early stage project, I try to find its most exciting possibilities. Of course, at that stage, these are always accompanied by some obvious sticking points. To be helpful, I can’t simply suggest that someone follows the vectors of highest potential unless I can simultaneously provide them with some precedents and examples that illustrate for them how they might address the bottlenecks. 

Expanding an idea tends to increase the surface area available for suggesting radical improvements. With this upside revealed and the impediments somewhat reconciled, the project can then be shrunk back to the dimensions it needs to operate in for the weeks and months ahead.

Shoutout.so

Sometimes the role is reversed and I’m stuck in the practical while the entrepreneur is seeing all the possibilities. That was the case when Sharath Kuruganty asked me for my thoughts about Shoutout.so, which gathers and provides social proof for people and companies. Shoutout’s origin story describes the company well:

I've got to tell readers that the idea behind Shoutout was actually born from one of KP's tweets. He gave an awesome shoutout to me and a couple of friends and like always I saved it to my bookmarks (knowing that I will never revisit). At that moment an idea popped into my head. Wouldn't it be amazingly cool to have a platform where I can save and showcase all the shoutouts I get on Twitter? In the next two days, I shipped a landing page and started working on it since then.

In a few minutes, you can create a wall of love that can be embedded on your website. Here’s what that looks like:

Sharath and I riffed for over an hour on all the possibilities and paths for his newly launched business. He helped me understand the value in having demonstrable social proof in a form that others could explore and verify by following the links and sources. 

I have already had some experience with this wall of love effect—two close friends shared earlier newsletters posts, one on LinkedIn and another on Facebook. It led to new readers and subscribers, many of whom I would never have otherwise reached. I was excited to see what my Shoutout Wall might look like. At the time, there wasn’t much to see, but it did inspire my suggestion to Sharath that he somehow add an audio effect for the awkward silence of crickets:

“No mentions found.”

When I told my wife about these results, she cracked up. She knows how hard I’ve been working and how intentional I have been in these early days about building an audience. Who knew that I was completely missing the boat in the Twitterverse? 

Clearly, I have some work to do here.

Let me be clear, this isn’t about vanity numbers and piling up followers or registering likes. Everything I’ve been doing is with the hope to create a dialogue and build a shared community. I want to get a conversation going. 

In that regard, these first weeks have been magnificent with old and new friends seeking me out via emails, texts, phone calls, and DM’s, and community channel comments. When I started out, I set the private goal that if in three years I gained three or more close friendships than might have otherwise developed, then the whole endeavor would be worthwhile. In that regard, I’m already thirty-five months ahead of schedule.

I’ve learned from other writers that it is not unusual for feedback to occur via those conventional routes. I’m also not alone in wondering how to expand the conversation. 

#Microbrave

While all of this was going on, the On Deck Global Build Weekend announced that Microbrave won the category for Best No-Code Build. I knew one of Microbrave’s team members, Glenn McWhinney, from some earlier conversations in which Glenn went out of his way to help us by freely sharing his knowledge.

I was intrigued by Microbrave’s description:

Building in public is a foolproof strategy for makers and founders to cultivate community, get user feedback regularly, and stay accountable. But it can be scary too — you don't know how to start or have anxieties about being vulnerable and facing judgement. We've been there too, and we're here to help. 

I took a closer look, glanced at the first of Microbrave’s provided templates, and shuddered. It suggested that I publish what I did that day. I immediately had my doubts. That’s just not me, I thought. I will not be one of those people who over shares in public. 

Besides, what would I even post? That I assembled a list of every application I use, hoping that I might see a way to combine these tools to enable closer collaborations? Or that I spent hours zeroing in on the data tools, comparing the most promising methods for obtaining market data via a combination of API’s, embeds, and integrations? 

What was there to share? I still needed to test out each system one-by-one because the promotional literature and support guides weren’t all that informative. 

It felt like I was fighting battles on two fronts—one that I had a clear view of but was hundreds of miles wide, while the other felt like I had been parachuted behind enemy lines and didn’t speak the language very well—and the maps they gave me were close to worthless.

How would any of that be worth sharing? 

I looked again at Microbrave’s templates: “My small win”, “Ask for help”, and share “Specific knowledge”. I realized that my research had led me to different questions than those with which I started the day. I also knew that I had hit a brick wall—I didn’t know anyone working on the problem, wasn’t a member of any group that could help, internet search results were merciless dead-ends, and I couldn’t find matching use cases to give me any perspective.

Could building-in-public be an answer for me? I always prefer to give more than I get. Perhaps by simply being willing to properly frame the questions on my mind, it might help someone else skip some steps to get to the same perspective. Also, sometimes the act of formalizing a question has led me to the answer. We’ve all done that before—asked and then subsequently answered our own question. 

I wouldn’t expect immediate results, but perhaps by plugging away at it, the answers might come in dribs and drabs. At that point, I could thank the community by assembling these insights into a thread, and pay it forward by leaving a useful map behind. 

Enter KP

I reached out to KP, the program director for On Deck No Code, and the first person I knew with such a deep focus on building in public. There was something that intrigued me about KP, beyond the fact that he was given 10 first names and so TLDRd himself to just “KP”.

KP landed his dream job by building in public and has shown how to build an audience using this approach. When I talked to him yesterday, he had just come out of a fun and vulnerable build-in-public moment in which he had to grapple with speaking Hindi in a No Code Low Code Clubhouse chat.  

I told him about my ambivalence to over sharing. KP got right to the point:

  • The essence of Build In Public (BIP) is that it is not a social media update. It needs to include at least one of four features: relevance, inspiring, insightful, or funny. 
  • BIP actually allows you to step aside from your own spotlight for a moment and think about what you did and how you might share it in ways that may help someone else.
  • You need to understand the room—and recognize that you are in a very noisy feed where you have to catch people’s admittedly brief attention span. That begins with being interested in others.
  • Ask of your posts if they would still be useful if written in the third person, such as “A person spends four hours…” and making sure it works that way before putting it back in your own voice.
  • The choice is not between being a heads down builder versus becoming a master storyteller who can’t produce. You can do both by emphasizing more on the reasons why you are building than on what you are building.

KP believes that the most under appreciated part of Twitter is that potential partners, investors, and customers are hanging around and listening. To earn their trust, you have to be likable and admirable. Learn what is top of mind for this audience. Life will come to you if you are listening with a keen heart and a servant-first mindset.

It’s Not Flexing

Sharath said much of the same thing—you are not showing off or flexing. In fact, the lows that you share in public make you stronger, and if you are in a good community, like Twitter, people will help you. People come along with you for the journey.

Hold on a second—did he say that Twitter was an example of a friendly community? 

When I spoke with Glenn, he also emphasized community. He reminded me that in our first conversation, I pointed out that the completion rate for online courses by individuals is in the single digits, while within communities the completion rate can reach the mid-to-high eighties. When they built Microbrave, they wanted to do it in a way that tapped into this power of community. 

Glenn thought I would be a prime candidate for building in public. He pointed out that we both believe in going first and helping others reach their aims. Neither of us are in it for the vanity numbers, kudos, or to play the marketing game. We want to save people time in a world in which there is a lot of anxiety about keeping up. The question is where to start?

One approach is to think of building in public as part of your self-exploration—but not as an egotistical pursuit, but as an exploration into yourself, how the world works, how you can do things better. Taking it one step further, it is a way to let go of focusing on outcomes and instead simply embrace the path.

Building Microbrave

One of the fascinating parts of the advances we are seeing in No Code is how quickly a project can come together. Microbrave was a Build Weekend hackathon project, and the six-person team began by presenting all of their ideas, gravitating naturally to Microbrave. This is how Glenn describes their roles:

  • Mark Bowley did all the design.
  • Betty Chang served as product manager and coordinated all the content, templates, and tips research in a day for consolidation into an Airtable.
  • Cheshta positioned herself from the point-of-view of being the product’s first customer.
  • Dan Cline brought his clear thinking to the project in a way Glenn appreciated for Dan’s skill at cutting-to-the-quick without offending.
  • Arian Razaaghi was keen to explore the paid side—and contributed strongly despite being on his weekend birthday getaway.

This is what the tech stack looks like:

Glenn never turned the spotlight on his own role in the project, but I recognize his many skills in that tech stack. He launched one of the first No Code agencies in the UK, and has decades of experience as a digital strategist.

Our ODNC mastermind group members are going to use the Microbrave templates and hashtag for the next thirty days. Feel free to follow along or join the fun as a bunch of newbies get their feet wet and encourage each other to be #microbrave and #buildinpublic.

The Path from No Code to Fully Coded

Sharath’s partner in Shoutout.so is the talented programmer Curtis Cummings. Curtis has over 15 years experience as a developer, but discovered No Code a year ago and hasn’t looked back. 

Shoutout.so is fully coded, but at the beginning it was all No Code. Tracing that path is instructive. Originally, Shoutout was simply a Carrd landing page that used MailerLite for the wait list, which grew from zero to 1000 in three months. During that time, Sharath built the first version using Bubble and the Twitter API for OAuth purposes. 

He only shared this Bubble version with a few people, and at the outset, users had to drag the specific twitter URL’s they wanted to save, which would then be converted by the Twitter API to recreate the little tweets. Shoutout used Bubble’s slug feature to give users a unique domain subdirectory. The next step was giving this version to ten people and asking them to share it, which caused it to go viral and send a lot of new users to the landing page.

Meanwhile, users had requests that the workflows get simplified, and the capabilities expanded. Knowing he needed a cofounder, Sharath put it on Twitter with a thread describing the project. He received 16 DM’s, one was Curtis, and they clicked instantly. It took them four weeks to build a fully coded version 1, providing sneak peaks every week. At the beginning of December, they launched 100 users in private beta.

The purpose of private beta is to get high-quality feedback. On February 11th, they did a soft launch on Twitter, followed by Product Hunt a week later. They have had around 460 users, with many of those still in the trial period. They have been converting users at a 10% rate. 

Shoutout has earned enough feedback to have a solid understanding of their roadmap. They will be rolling out other social media proofs, with LinkedIn and Facebook next—anywhere your community might be. I’m not quite ready for TikTok, but they will be. In fact, Sharath and Curtis see the entire space of social proof as one they can move quickly to address for individuals and companies. They are working to add a lot of features, but I promised to keep the details under wraps.  

#BuildInPublic

I learned so much from my conversations with Glenn, Sharath, and KP. It was liberating to understand that building in public is not an exercise in attention seeking. The people who are doing it right are creating a lot of value for others. 

There are a lot of rooms out with people who could prove receptive to sharing your journey. Whatever you’re building, find a place to start sharing. Always Invert is going to remain my favorite platform, but I’m now ready to start rockin’ a few tweets.

Photo by Chris J. Davis on Unsplash


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