Indie Hackers: Should I build my side-project / small business in public?

Indie Hackers: Should I build my side-project / small business in public?

Peter Thaleikis

Peter Thaleikis

Engineer. Maker. Open Source Fan. Backpacker

by Peter Thaleikis

One of the most used buzzwords in the indie hacker space is “building in public“. It comes in different styles and with different methods. Of course, the success in building a side-project publicly also varies. I aim to provide a starting point in this article with a look at methods, platforms, and tools. This blog-post links into the series of introduction in the indie hacker space.

What is building a company in public?

In the absence of an official description of the term, I would describe it as "Any public work on a project aimed to improve, get feedback, build trust and/or attract potential interests". The public part can be live as it happens or later, in the form of in-depth blog posts. As with most things, there is no 'one shoe fits all' and you have got to choose what works for you and your project.

The big questions with public building at the moment are:

Why build in public?

The idea of building in public isn't entirely new. Many people opt to "build in public" and some good reasons speak for it. If done well, it can drive quite a lot of attention to your project while building up trust in your work.

  1. You naturally stay more accountable to your idea and project. Continuously dropped project ideas leave you in a bad light.

  2. Also you are building up a brand for your work and workstyle. Once people recognize your consistent high-quality work you are building up trust. Same goes the other way: if you are putting together a sloppy solution and present it as a masterpiece people will notice. You will get called out for it.

An example of great building a project in public is Ethan's work on Kanban Mail. He completely built and designed his email client in public. You can read more on his website.

Methods of building in public

The ways to build a bootstrapped business in public vary, naturally. Some are more advanced and time intense (live streaming) whereas blogging gives you an easy start and is scalable over time.

Blogging about it

The earliest versions of 'building in public' were probably the engineering blogs maintained by some bigger companies. With the Internet changing, it's hard to say who started it. Blogging is still a valuable and under-recognized tool. Content marketing, blogging, and guestposts on other blogs, are an important part in most marketing strategies. It's building not only an online reputation, but awareness of your project and backlinks. It's also driving transparency and trust. Buffer is a great example of a company maintaining an awesome public company blog and working on the previously mentioned points.

In 2019, WordPress has become quite dated when it comes to blogs. Static Site Generators make the tech-side of running your own blog very simple now. An easy starting point for a new blog is, for example, a Netlify-hosted copy of Hylia Website. If you don't have the right domain researched yet, I recommend you check your desired domain names using my little startup name check tool of course ;)

How much time do I need to run a company/startup blog?

This is naturally a tricky question to answer. The time demand to run a blog depends on your own expectations and goals. If you drive marketing for your project blog on a daily basis and publish very frequently this can quickly become time consuming.

A solid middle ground might be 1-4 posts per month and shared on social media. This ensures you get some exposure, capture some of the low-hanging SEO fruit and learn marketing basics along the way. One year of consistent blogging with this approach should put you in front of many others, who barely blog or don't use a blog at all.

If you want to push it more you can actively work for backlinks. Work towards publishing one guest post on a topic-related blog per month. This requires some time to research suitable blogs, agree on a topic with the lead writer or editor of the blog, and write & edit the article. This is generally an underestimated task but definitely worthwhile.

Sharing data and statistics

A fairly simple and good way is sharing statistics of your business with the public. Some people are keen to look behind the public facade of a company and look at the business in numbers. Warren Buffett is known to study annual reports intensively and draw conclusions from the information.

A new trend in small business is going a similar way by sharing statistics and data widely. No law or public listing requires this for small and medium companies. It's an easy way to gain trust and more chances to discuss their businesses in public.

For independent small businesses, this is often done as part of an "open page". If you're unfamiliar with the idea behind this: It's a freely accessible web-page aimed at sharing basic information about a side-project or small business. Some examples are Nomadlist's open page, Kanban Mail's open page or WIP Chat's Open page. Previously mentioned, Buffer maintains a complete blog for transparency (linked above).

Live streaming your startup build

Live streaming sessions are quite popular. These often contain a mix between coding and talking. Most people talk about their projects, development steps, and reasoning. This being said, there is no need to stream coding sessions only. You could also talk about marketing approaches, writing of emails, invite people and have chats about UX enhancements, etc. The limit is really your creativity and time.

How to set up my computer for live stream?

Tech is getting easier than it was. There are still a few steps included in getting ready. When the 24hours challenge ran, Pat, Arbin, and Melanie prepared a handy setup guide for Twitch as it's a little more effort getting everything started.

Where to live stream?

More and more platforms allow live streaming, including Twitter and Facebook. But live streams for IndieHackers don't seem to stick there. Post-production is often done by uploading the stream on YouTube and adding more meta information around the video. People searching on YouTube won't find you only by the words spoken in the videos. The description is your place to make sure you are found. So don't forget to include a decent description with links to your personal blog and side-project.

Don't expect hundreds to follow your live stream from the very beginning. But some people might jump in and see what you are up to. Shipstreams helps to draw some attention to your stream.

Maker communities

Building in public and maker communities go hand in hand. They're your public forum and support group. Have you got a question? Put it in the chat or post a question on the board. Want to get some feedback? Post it. With every post and question, you are becoming more a member of these communities. The community will support you when you launch your project.

As with any community, just coming around to share your links won't get you much love. You should spend some time with other members: talk, discuss issues, and work together on your individual projects. Start with reading, commenting, then ask for feedback and last but not least, present your project. A good general guideline can be found in my intro article for IndieHackers.

The most popular communities are Makerlog and WIP.chat in 2019. Pick one to your liking and go with it.

Future of building in public

Building in public is here to stay. The methods, tools, and platforms will probably change in the coming years, but the concept will remain. Simply because it's building on what is scarce: authenticity and transparency.

Building a startup "one tool at the time"

A new approach partially related to building in public is the "one tool at the time" idea. I've started doing more little tools and projects. Each of them is solving an independent small problem and gets launched as a separate project under a separate name. First I've noticed this with Shopify's business name generator. It's a tool in itself not part of Shopify's product directly, but it's supporting. And as part of this, it gained a number of backlinks and users being exposed to the Shopify idea and brand. If you are a software engineer yourself spinning up little tools should come easy and relieving from the "one big project". If you are planning to outsource your development you should plan ahead and use the partial projects as milestones.

One tool at a time is a neat approach for people bootstrapping small businesses, as it splits the risks and work-load naturally into smaller chunks. I see this becoming part of the process for suitable projects in the future.

More virtual assistants to facilitate

Everyone's time is limited to 24 hours a day. Most people like to sleep, eat and have some time for themselves. This reduces the available work hours. If you are working 9-5 it's even worse. To achieve more, you can either work smarter or hire someone to work with you.

For a fair price, you get another 10-40 hours of work and the results from this work. These additional hours are of great use to process videos, proof-read texts, write descriptions, etc. Every step of your work you hand over to someone reliable helps your public building as it frees you to focus on growing your project.

You can find good people in the Philippines working from $3/hour upwards. That's only around 500 USD per month for a full-time assistant. Of course, this won't work if you are doing an (almost) zero-budget project. Either way, I see hiring Virtual Assistants (VAs) becoming more and more a thing. It switches you from working in your business to working on your business.

Smarter leveraging of your resources

We all have resources at our disposal. Working smarter means knowing how to use one sort of resource (time, money, education, knowledge, network) to obtain more of another resource. Using a VA is one way to turn money into time but there are others too.

If you've got time on your hands it's a good idea to learn to code, asking great questions, write content, design or spend time thinking.

If you've got money, you should do the opposite. Buy the things that either efficiently save you time or allow you to progress faster. That could be a tool or hiring someone to do build, design or write something for you.

If you've got a great network make use of it. Connect people to gain money or favors and build your business from there.

Even challenges and problems are a type of resource. Nothing helps with personal growth and coming up with new ideas as do your personal challenges. Make sure you spend the time validating these ideas before jumping into action.

This might sound logical, but is not one of the things many people actually live by. For public building this is an important aspect. It shows your followers that you think problems through and find solutions outside of the box. This will make the difference between hundreds of other makers who just document their hard work.

Got more ideas where the journey is going? What are your ways of building in public?

I'm keen to hear what your thoughts on the future of building in public are. What are we going to do differently in the future? Where is building companies in public going? Please reach out via the information on the contact page.

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