Building in Public: The Rise of The Open Company

The Rookie VC #14


Hi all! I hope you had a great month of August, most of you all being out of pocket because you know … France, I guess. 

As a foreword, I would like to apologize for missing the beat last week and on archive re-ups during vacation time. Personal hardship amongst my close ones has caused me to step down from writing for and working for a little bit. 

But good news is, the Rookie VC is back! :)


This week, I want to talk about Building in Public.

Since delving in the fabulous world of VC and founder Twitter, I have always been fascinated by cult-like companies and individuals that aggregate super-engaged followers, clients and stakeholders by openly building a business and a brand.

This overall philosophy is way out of my “thinkboi” comfort zone, and I am also trying to explore how this could be beneficial to my own learning curve in the future.

Let’s do this.


What social media likes to label as “Building In Public” is in my opinion a very multifaceted concept with variants in terms of specific content and objectives. Not every “public builder” will be motivated by the same thing, and tactics for this type of strategy differ greatly.

As a rookie, my first impression with companies and individuals “Building in Public” was always unnuanced enthusiasm. This is great, these people are so inspiring. Our world is very uncertain, most big technology companies are associated at best with envy, at worst by utter public distrust.

On the other hand, building in public leans heavily on transparency. Because the broader tech-savvy crowd tends to value curiosity, it consumes an insane amount of free and paid content and engages in eye-melting scrolls. No new ideas, no fulfillment.

In the BIP paradigm, transparency is used as a catalyst to generate curiosity and interest. From interest comes intent, from intent comes closing. Sales, top-notch candidates, investor checks, key partnerships – You name it. Building is a 2.0 modern byproduct of the “always be selling” American corporate mantra.

For your pleasure, see an excerpt from the James Foley drama starring Al Pacino that made it famous.

As a company building methodology, Building in Public takes roots further than we might imagine. In fact, it was pioneered in the early 2010s by companies like Product Hunt, Buffer, Assembly, etc. If fact, this very company was one of the first large-scale enablers for Public Builders.

Then, public building was an art reserved to individuals and organizations with a vibrant network, propelling their startup idea and earliest achievements, lauding their strategy and milestone announcements.

Now, it has become a path for many creators and young professionals eager to show skill and grit in very competitive industries, to win coveted spots or positions of their dreams. Wannabee VCs writing memos and doing fantasy portfolios, young PMs analyzing mockups and builing no-code projects, designers putting up daily design challenges on social media, data analysts doing side projects, it’s now everywhere.

The same who now utilize this as small-scale leverage may full well become successful solopreneurs surfing the wave of media atomization, starting a media company of their own, building up on the success of a newsletter, podcast, or really any content form out there.

In the American tech ecosystem, Building In Public is the resultant of a cultural continuum valuing self-promotion and openness. Hence, the comeback of Building In Public is only legitimate. But what about Europe and France, what are the cultural barriers that block us ?

  • In France, there is a recurring disdain for meritocratic up-and-comers. The forced elitism makes the masses hate failure and vilify anything other than the quiet course of conducting business as usual

  • Many other European cultures are even worse than out own. Nordic and Germanic culture have chronically undervalued self-promotion and openness in the business world

  • European startup communities are still discontinuous across the continent. The playground for Building In Public lacks scale due to atomization of said communities

Much more than the demonstration of one’s success, Building In Public can act like a revelator and a powerful constraint. The real power of building in public and running what we know call “an open startup”, is that it forces you to think about what is defensive in your business. It compels you to find your moat and urgently devise if you conclude that you simply don’t have one.

Building in Public will evidence and magnify your moats. If you don’t have such an asset, best case it will evidence the flaws in the design of your broader strategy, worst case you can be copied by an attentive competitor, with a quicker, more efficient execution than yourself.

Either way, the BIP philosophy will act as a limelight revealing your strategy and can be a significant growth avenue. It could even cause you to cut short on one project or one feature but can also be an eye-opener and unlock precious user feedbacks.

Since the trend re-surfaced in the US, I want to quickly touch on the best-in-class of BIP.

Companies

  • Fast. Fast was naturally a BIP company due to the personality of his founder Domm Holland, an expressive and well-spoken Aussie who needed to make a name for itself in the Silicon Valley. Although being a B2B product, Fast faces the need to be widely adopted for its transaction-based economics to work. From day one, Domm and the executive team focused a significant portion of their time promoting their strategy and culture on social media until they dominated their space on Twitter. More recently, they went on to hire social media guru Matthew Kobach, who previously spearheaded social media efforts for the New York Stock Exchange

  • Gumroad. As an e-commerce platform for creators, Gumroad is not a very complicated product with built-in defensibility. What Gumroad does have, though, is a community it patiently built to harness the creators it targets, whose pain point is often loneliness and the feeling that nobody feels their struggle. Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia started sharing the company’s month-to-month financials and metrics (Revenue and other P&L items, gross merchandise volume, distributions to creators, etc). What’s even more interesting is that he shares in-depth pieces like this one in which he tells us about how Gumroad did not have the trajectory to be a VC moonshot, yet raised money from an all-star investor cast and faced pivotal moments in the 2015s.

  • Roam Research. To harness the culty community that roamers have become today, the company has been implementing a number of tactics that I think are interesting. Founder Connor White-Sullivan has regularly been hosting open discussions on Twitter about his product strategy, surveyed users live on social media, did a number of important strategy announcements and debated with the community which road the company should take. On top of this, a goal of the company’s and the founder’s social media strategy has also been to actively promote “built for Roam” or “Built on Roam” projects that enhance functionality and make certain use cases possible for power users.

  • Buffer. The social media tool was actually inspired by another pioneer in this space for its BIP tactics. While many public builders and open companies are now living in social media alone, Buffer went a notch further than sharing all company numbers. It was amongst the first companies to open a public product roadmap on which the community can cast votes for specific features to be built, sharing prototypes and letting users comment using InVision. These tactics helped the team achieve a set of specific goals, namely empowering the team to tune in with users, harnessing community, raising the bar for Buffer’s competition.

Open creators

There are a ton of top-notch open builders out there – As I described, this trend at the individual’s level is just starting to shape up but I wanted to focus on the most eloquent examples in my humble opinion ;

  • Jack Butcher

    • An experienced graphic and branding professional, Jack was running an agency business and got tired of the repetitiveness. Visualize Value started off as social media posts translating philosophy and business complex in simple visual representations. Jack was inspired by Naval Ravikant’s deep tweet storms and began to publish visual translations. As he realized that his taste and sense for minimalist designs could help individuals and businesses visually learn about value and discover their own, he productized Visualize Value and started to gather a paid community going around him. Jack also offers one-on-one consulting services to select clients on top of the content available to the community. What makes Visualize Value unique is that it found a sweet spot between written and visual first principle thinking.

    • Jack has been tirelessly sharing all sales numbers, hesitations on pricing bumps, tactics to build productized services in the open as he goes, reflecting upon his past failures and attempts, sharing the story that led him down the path to start Visualize Value, collaborating with other open creators or simply amping the voice of creators in his own community, who serves as a launch pad to many side projects.

  • Daniel Vassalo

    • Daniel’s journey is another great example of the benefit of building in public to attract a great audience of professionals interested in a specific expertise turned digital products, for free. As a former AWS employee, Daniel had gathered specific expertise on the topic, and started to turn his consulting business into a succinct ebook called “The Good Parts of AWS” giving a very opinionated overview of the best components offered by the platform to developers.

    • As he started to gain traction on Twitter and recognizing pattern for the most reaching tweets, Daniel repeated the same methodology to build a 100 minute Twitter crash course describing easy to understand tactics to grow a following to sell and turn this social media into a lead machine

I’ve mentioned the cultural barriers that hinder the generalization of Building in Public in France and in Europe, but that has not prevented some of my fellow Frenchmen to pioneer this space.

The pros

  • Gregoire Gambatto & the Germinal team.

    • Germinal is a growth hacking agency, just a little over 2 years old and founded by energy ball Grégoire Gambatto. What’s interesting about him is that he has taken over French LinkedIn in a storm, and most importantly has come to realize the virtually unlimited value of constructive controversy. Before his and his team’s foray into LinkedIn, Germinal was a classic agency handling growth for startup and corporate clients. But with the benefit of a freely acquired audience of like-minded prospects, Grégoire & team were able to pivot a large portion of the business to productized services in a matter of weeks, which I find impressive.

    • Paradoxically but interestingly, the posts that reached the furthest audiences had nothing to do with Germinal. When neobank challenger Shine sold to Société Générale for $100m in late June, he publicly voiced a controversial take that sent his post through the roof, then was able to sit down with investors and entrepreneurs in a panel to discuss and argument on this specific debate. This playbook allowed him to stay credible while further reinforcing his personal brand as well as Germinal’s. On top of this, Grégoire is also sharing monthly numbers for the agency to account for the success of the ongoing pivot.

  • Jean-Charles Samuelian & Alan.

    • Alan was one of the first breakout startups in France to promote a form of Building in Public that is centered about promoting your culture outside of the walls. The first step was to take a controversial stance against the need for meetings at all in a company and pioneering a method to eliminate them. It really has become Alan’s and Jean-Charles signature culture component.

    • What is especially interesting is how it aligns with the values of care, transparency and efficacy that many would want to attribute to mutual insurance companies in France but cannot. Alan’s and Jean Charles’ journeys are as much of a technical than a cultural disruption. Whenever discourse is at the same time scarce and controversial on a topic, establishing a monopoly is easy

    • Jean-Charles is working on furthering his though leadership on the topic of “l’entreprise apaisée”, by publishing a book out by September 15th on culture, wellness and excellence in the corporate world

The up-and-coming

  • Raph Grieco & Upcoming VC / Supervalo. With UpcomingVC,Raphael has been building in public a machine to educate founders and wannabees to the venture capital industry and is probably one of the most serendipitous people I know in the broader European ecosystem. Instead of stopping to one form of content, he has focused on building a true media mixing podcasts, live panels and now gaming with an intentionally inclusive design. All of his initiatives were almost entirely built in public and used community feedback from the investor and founder community at home in Switzerland and in Paris. “Community builder” types like Raphael are still to scarce, in an ecosystem that dreams of uniting European cities and making talent and capital spinning faster than it is today on the Old Continent

  • Yoann Lopez, the side project guy. I had also mentioned Yoann in a previous issue, but I do think he’s one of the most impressive and prolific creators out there, while upholding a job at now scale-up Comet. Just like Grégoire, his strategy revolves around creating the most reach possible on LinkedIn, but the central element is not controversy. In Yoann’s case, it’s two things (i) Giving intelligently crafted sneak peaks into his own resources he will share later and (ii) curating and promoting projects and brands that are aligned with his own value proposition (handle your personal finances, be successful and productive in your job). What’s even more interesting is that the Building in Public philosophy and the discussion around how Snowball, his investing and personal finance newsletter, should monetize prompted Yoann to rack his brains to find an innovative model to incentivize readers.


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