Growing a product is about making and marketing. You cannot spend all your time developing a product. You have to put it out there. You have to clearly communicate what it is you are doing and why. You need transparency.
Why you need to be transparent
At first, the title of this article was Accountability for Makers. After investigations, the term accountability doesn't apply to most makers. It implies a public evaluation process, and the possibility of a sanction when an objective is not respected. In governance jargon, transparency is often associated with accountability. Transparency is much more flexible, and since flexibility is a huge part of the Maker Ethos, I went with it.
Makers are leaders. It is our duty to keep our users in the loop. Transparency aligns the interests of a business and its customers. It enables trust, and thus, healthy relationships.
Transparency is characterized by honesty and openness. More generally, it is the obligation for you to inform your stakeholders of actions and decisions, and to justify them.
The trust you gain results in involvement. It makes you relatable, it creates empathy. A product needs enthusiasts actively participating in its growth.
For makers, transparency is a core value popularized by Pieter Levels. Building a startup in public is a concept that made transparency not only a nice-to-have but a mandatory element of success.
Transparency has become a new norm, a lifestyle enabling lean indie companies to compete with bigger corporations. Why is it that the demand for local food or handmade products is growing? In a world where organizations have little to no interest in getting closer to their customers, transparency has become a value that people crave for. People want to know where their money goes, and who is it that they are supporting. Makers should be more transparent to take advantage of this opportunity.
A transparent life
Transparency is not only great for your business, it is also great for your mental health. When you are building a company, the line between your personal and your professional life is blurred. Consider two sides to transparency: one for your personal life, another for your professional life.
Your friends, family or lovers might not understand what it is you are doing exactly, but you shouldn't estrange yourself from them. Tell them how you feel. What it is you want to accomplish. Why it matters. The good, the bad, the ugly. The life of an entrepreneur can get quite selfish at times. You have to prioritize your product. You have to prioritize your users. There is no survival without it. Being transparent towards your loved ones helps to ease your emotional burden and to decrease possible resentment.
Business transparency is directed towards your stakeholders: users, co-makers, potential customers etc. It is non-negotiable. It must be taken seriously right from the start.
You want to keep everyone updated on both you as a maker and your product, but you don't have to tell everything going on in your life. Being transparent doesn't mean losing your privacy.
Being transparent is not easy. It looks like extra work at first, but as I wrote before, you have to make, and you have to market. Transparency and marketing are intertwined. Newton's Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. A maker's First Law should be: for every action, there is communication.
Building in public
The first step to take in your transparency efforts is to make in public, meaning, to clearly state in the open the tasks you performed or are performing.
It is not uncommon to go to a restaurant with an open kitchen. An open kitchen is a great architectural choice. Customers don't really look at what's going on, but it unconsciously creates trust. It's not just good marketing. It's entertainment. It's sharing your skills and expertise. Everybody loves having a look at what's behind the scene. The same goes for tech products.
It doesn't take a project manager with 10+ years of experience to do that. All you need is a Kanban board - clear, well kept and easily accessible. Here is, for example, the one I'm using for 200 Words a Day: The War Plan. As engineers say: keep it simple, stupid.
It's not enough to just update your project status. You have to share what's going on proactively. You can use tools such as Makerlog or WIP to communicate about your tasks in real time and post a daily report on Twitter or in a dedicated section of your product for example.
Live streaming is the latest extension of the Made in Public movement, with platforms such as Shipstreams being the banners. In an age where people can communicate seamlessly thousands of kilometers apart, text-based communication becomes limiting. Live streaming is a huge opportunity to rehumanize business communication. A company doesn't have to be faceless anymore. I would say even more: an indie business should never be faceless. Do not hide behind your product.
The Open Startup Movement
Building in public creates operational transparency, but it doesn't tell how well a company is performing. The Open Startup Movement is an attempt at quantifying a company's health publicly by using open metrics.
An Open Startup is an organization sharing its Key Performance Indicators for everyone to witness. It is implied that financial health is the only criteria worth considering to validate the sustainability of an indie business: you can't successfully validate a product idea unless someone pays for it.
In the case of Software-as-a-Service business for example, its financial health is quantified by the difference between its Monthly-Recurring Costs (money spent per month) and its Monthly-Recurring Revenues (money earned per month). Consequently, an Open SaaS Startup would display the evolution of these two metrics over time in chart accessible to every stakeholder. If you'd like to have a look at great examples of Open Startups, you might want to check out the amazing article of Danielle Johnson (Maker Mag contributor) on the subject.
Common metrics shared by open startups include traffic stats (page views, unique visitors), number of total registered users, number of customers... or any other metric relevant to the product itself.
Some practices and metrics can appear as vain. Transparency can be perceived as a marketing trick, a way to show off how hard your hustle is. I think it's fair to say that. You can't be transparent while hiding half of the story. But being a transparent maker isn't solely about that: it's about sharing. It's about inspiring others and giving hope. To let people know that yes, it's possible to create sustainable businesses solving important issues without selling your soul.
We have a duty to strive for honesty and openness. It doesn't mean that we have to do it perfectly right from the start. Transparency is a habit that takes time. Iterate over your efforts. Sometimes it will make you feel vulnerable. Get over it. Every entrepreneur went through it at some point. You can't hide forever.
Makers, embrace transparency.