Why ‘building in public’ is a feminist act

Sharing the warts-and-all reality of creating a business is a form of resistance, argues our columnist, subverting normative, patriarchal startup culture in favour of something more honest – and more valuable.

The strategy of ‘building in public’ is not new in the startup world. US tech companies have been employing this approach for years. But over the summer I noticed the concept was having a renaissance, particularly among founders who identify as women. Exploring what the principles of building in public look like for social impact and community businesses I found a growing movement of entrepreneurs. Through their stories I discovered that the decision to build in public is resistance – it subverts normative patriarchal startup culture in favour of something more honest.


What is building in public?

According to the website of the same name, to build in public means “sharing stories (wins/lessons); being authentic and vulnerable; rallying a community around your cause.” In an age of 24/7 social media broadcasting, building in public could be seen as performative – another marketing ploy and trite nod to co-creation. Certainly, much of the startup press suggests it is a deliberate strategy to build audience numbers and test product-market fit more quickly, which “helps a business look more authentic and less self-interested.” This sounds like optics – to ‘look’ more authentic, rather than to build with authenticity and transparency in mind.

“As great as the startup community is, there’s one thing it’s overflowing with that only hurts entrepreneurs: hype,” writes Josh Hayman, from social analytics platform Buffer, a business that “defaults to transparency.” So perhaps it’s easier to define building in public by what it is not? Rather than creating buzz with audacious claims and big reveals, there’s a focus on openness and quiet honour. For the founders I spoke to, this focus on transparency is key.


Not lean startup

Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup has become a bible for entrepreneurs globally. While the lessons on learning and user-centricity are valid, this, and many guides like it, describe a ‘methodology’ for venture building. Suggesting that entrepreneurship is a management style with a set of processes and practices is limiting. The very idea that we can ‘manage’ innovation and the necessary uncertainty that goes with it, speaks to a lack of creative appreciation for the way many everyday entrepreneurs approach the problems they want to solve.

Does this checklist approach to innovation encourage behaviour that focuses more on completing artefacts – Business Model Canvas, user stories, pitch documents – than doing the gritty work itself? And when insights and learnings are gathered, they sit in spreadsheets and documents on founders’ hard drives, with only the curated versions shared with the world. Janine Sickmeyer, American legal tech entrepreneur, claims, “the opposite of building in public is stealth, which means keeping the nitty-gritty details of your startup a secret.”

The funding and VC system focuses on and in many cases perpetuates unrealistic founder myths

The funding and VC system has encouraged this – focusing on and in many cases perpetuating, unrealistic founder myths. Ries’s book proclaims: “When blame inevitably arises, the most senior people in the room should repeat this mantra: if a mistake happens, shame on us for making it so easy to make that mistake.” A culture of shaming mistakes creates leaders and entrepreneurs who bury the failures – unavoidable in a startup journey – rather than share and discuss them openly with stakeholders, users and partners.

Imagine if startup value was defined and measured by how much you collaborate and connect with other organisations in your sector, rather than keeping everything under wraps? What if admitting and talking about failure along the way didn’t hinder your chances of securing funding, but actually improved them? Could imperfection be hailed as the reality it is, rather than shielded and hidden as a dark secret?

Lolita Taub, co-founder of The Community Fund, which invests in early-stage community-driven companies, writes and blogs regularly about the process of starting an alternative investment fund. In particular, she challenges the opaque VC industry by disclosing her fund’s approach to sourcing, selecting and supporting startups. She tells me that for her, building in public “involves sharing processes, numbers, and the journey itself (roadblocks included). I love that it keeps companies accountable, real, and enables community.” 


There is no power in gatekeeping

Chayn is a global volunteer network addressing gender-based violence by creating intersectional survivor-led resources online. As well as being transparent, for founder Hera Hussain, building in public means being participatory and embracing “a process of creation that is imperfect and continuously evolving.” It is deeper than openness for the purpose of learning, although that’s important, it’s an active and intentional strategy of “embedding the values of transparency and accountability into your product,” as opposed to the hoarding, gate-keeping mentality of competition-oriented startup culture.

Not only has Hera’s public approach helped Chayn reach over 300,000 people worldwide, it has recently been vital to the design and impact of new service, YSM, a webapp providing support and resources for survivors of sexual assault. Although 70% of Chayn volunteers are survivors of abuse, Hera also looked outside this network to test the assumption that survivors would find information on how to report abuse empowering. She found that, even with practical information, a small minority actually report, but what is really empowering for survivors is to be able to talk to family or their partner about the experience, without being defined by their trauma. With this renewed definition of justice – framed by lived experience – Hera changed how YSM engaged with survivors to provide these tools.


Subverting the startup infrastructure

Hera began her career in the open data space. Collaboration and transparency are built into her professional DNA, so when she started Chayn those values were inherent from the start. Building in public never felt like a tension, but she has seen that openness and collaboration are “frowned upon” in professionalised public services and corporate institutions, because they “don’t want to lose face, or their ‘edge’”.

Openness and collaboration are frowned upon in professionalised public services and corporate institutions, because they don’t want to lose their ‘edge’

Similarly, Lolita of The Community Fund reflects that building in public can empower founders by increasing trust and buy-in. “When you build in public and share your challenges, oftentimes others volunteer ideas or resources that can help solve them,” she says. By being humble about failures, mistakes and learnings – through blogs, on Twitter – these founders have experienced that the startup ecosystem responds to this vulnerability with ideas, introductions, advice, even funding. Instead of the ‘ta da’ moment when the mythologised tech bro emerges from his basement with the next unicorn, telling a founder story that conveniently omits the years of uncertainty, plethora of mistakes and in-kind support needed to get there, building in public undermines this narrative: hustle, hoarding, heroism and individual control are replaced with candour, humility and sharing for community power.


Reclaiming the entrepreneur philosophy

Building in public is a pioneering approach to developing products and services that challenges the established startup infrastructure, ‘programmatisation’ of venturing and the pattern recognition mindset that marginalises women and underrepresented identities. Blogging on social media, using collaboration software platforms and embracing the no-code movement, founders of open startups are declarative and unapologetically experimental.

“We need radical transparency about what it means to be an entrepreneur,” says Hera. She believes that building in public represents a specific opportunity for female founders to own their stories, rather than fulfil a misplaced persona imposed on them. Referencing the ‘girl boss’ culture, which artificially raises women up but in reality denies them agency and glosses over institutional misogyny and sexism, she reflects that “we had a whole class of entrepreneurs - women who failed in public and who we loved tearing down,” because they had to embody fearless ‘empowered’ leadership.

Building in public represents a specific opportunity for female founders to own their stories, rather than fulfil a misplaced persona imposed on them

Whereas Hera, through her regular Weeknotes, shares everything from how she’s feeling to what’s happening in her personal life: “I laugh at myself – to demystify the cult of entrepreneurship.” She embraces the opportunity to publicly normalise the balance she has as a founder: “People can assume that if you’re a woman of colour you’re always struggling… that I must have imposter syndrome because I’m brown, but I actually don’t. I have a good work life balance. I’m not always struggling and I’m not always winning. It's a mix.”

Building in public is a feminist act – by rejecting the protectionism and ‘warm intros’ of the lionised startup scene these builders are creating a platform that enables a new entrepreneurial philosophy: one that draws value from intersectional approaches; fosters community through respect and accessibility; tackles social injustice through frank sensitivity rather than a veneer of stoicism. Adopted by pioneering social founders – and not just those who identify as women – building in public can create an alternative startup where openness is power.

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