🎙️ Episode #16

Bootstrapping in the Spotlight: Arvid Kahl on How Software Creators Can Perfect the Art of Building in Public

Arvid Kahl co-founder FeedBack Panda

Show Notes

Arvid Kahl co-founded FeedBack Panda, which he bootstrapped and later sold for a life-changing amount to SureSwift Capital. He is also a published author and writes extensively about entrepreneurship and bootstrapping.

But he’s much more than a software creator and value-driven entrepreneur: Arvid is passionate about sharing the journey. His openness, honesty, and transparency during product development and beyond have rightfully positioned him as a passionate advocate of the ‘build in public’ movement.

In this episode of plugin.fm, Arvid shares his insights about how software product founders can tread the fine line between transparency and business strategy. More than this, we explore the profound impact that building in public can have on software product makers’ lives and careers.


Thanks to Arvid for joining us and providing such valuable advice about building successful distributed companies. Join us next week with non-technical founder Justin Ferriman as he discusses how underdog entrepreneurs can overpower bigger software companies.

plugin.fm is brought to you by Freemius, your all-in-one payments, subscriptions, and taxes platform for selling software, plugins, themes, and SaaS. If you enjoyed this episode, head over to plugin.fm to check out previous episodes.

Chapters & Episode Notes

00:00 – Intro

1:00 – Understanding Building in Public: Sharing Your Journey and Involving Others

4:28 – From Software Engineer to Author: Embracing Building in Public

10:00 – The Power of Feedback and Personal Reputation: Benefits of Building in Public

15:02 – Balancing Authenticity and Self-Promotion: The Core Challenge of Building in Public

18:21 – The Complexities of Building in Public: Is it Beneficial for All Software Products?

23:46 – Finding Your Tribe: Where Software Creators Build in Public

33:11 – Prior Art: Why Sharing Your Ideas First is Your Best Defense

36:43 – Crafting Content: Balancing Time and Quality

45:37 – The Future of Building in Public: Trends, Growth, and Connection

52:07 – Outro


Arvid: Building in public is giving people the opportunity to connect with you before you’re done doing the thing you want to do, instead of just doing your thing and then hoping that they will come and buy.

Patrick: I am thrilled to bring on the guest Arvid Kahl.

Arvid: Every other coder could probably build the same thing you’re building, maybe even better. So instead of hiding your ideas, associate them with you.

Patrick: He is a passionate believer in the power of sharing your journey.

Arvid: Makes it so much easier to build the business and the product and to feel like you’re on the right track because you’re getting meaningful feedback.

Patrick: Join us as we unpack his insights on balancing transparency with business strategy.

Arvid: I’ve seen so many people who got copycatted, and then the community just pounced on that person. Like they reported them on Twitter, they kind of got their email provider to shut down their emails. The benefit of building in public is…

Patrick: Arvid, welcome to the show. Thanks so much for having me. Let’s get transparent. That’s really nice. Oh, thanks..

Patrick: I love it. Let’s start with what is, I think there’s some people that don’t know what is building in public entails. What does that mean?

Arvid: Well, it’s really like sharing your journey. That’s like the core of it. If you don’t even want to talk about building, just building a business in public, building a product in public, building a movement in public, whatever you want to build, whatever you want to do, whatever you want to accomplish, you can either do it hidden in your basement, which you know, a lot of software engineers, that’s where I come from, that’s what we do, right? We do the thing, we build, build, build, and then eventually we go public, we market or whatever, tends to be problematic. And building in public is the opposite of that. Building in public is enrolling people in your journey, like giving people the opportunity to connect with you before you’re done doing the thing you want to do and in that help you get to where you want to go. And this is a bit of an abstract definition, I guess. If you want to talk about a software business, really it’s starting with your idea, sharing it with people, talking to them, getting information, what do you need, what do you want, like what do you already have, what do you use, what do you pay for, could I build something better and then step by step actually building it in front of them with them, sharing the ups and downs of that journey, right? Oh wow, I got 20 new users today, the good stuff and the thing was just down for five hours and I lost four paying customers, the bad stuff, right? All of these things are part of this effort to build real relationships with people, building connections with your peers, your other founders around you, other software engineers that you might want to work with, partners in the future or even your customers depending where they are hanging out, right? That’s what building in public is. It’s involving others in your journey instead of just, you know, doing your thing and then hoping that they will come and buy, right? It’s not build it and they will come. It’s kind of build it in public and they might come.

Patrick: So it’s product validation, right? Because you’re talking about new features, you’re working on, or maybe problems with new features. You’re also, it’s also a little bit marketing where you’re, you’re, you’re, you’re hopefully trying to get some, some people excited about the product before it’s even launched. So, could I build in public and basically have it be just for me? If I’m like the one reader of my own blog, is that still building in public or is it with the intention that someone else in, in my theoretical audience is going to read this?

Arvid: Yeah, well, that’s actually an interesting view on this because building in public does not necessarily mean that you get all the attention right now. It could also just be leaving traces of what you’re doing for others to later find. Like a lot of projects, even good blog posts, are discovered years after they were made, right? So, just you putting out the information that you have and just kind of showing how much you care about it, that will attract others. And if you have this trail of content of product updates, of sharing challenges, sharing customer testimonials, whatever it might be you do and we can get into the details of this later whatever it is, leaves this trace that others might find and then kind of track it back to where you are today, which is probably the place where you have something to sell or you have something to do where you need more people, right? It’s not all about money. It’s also just about involvement of taking action. You could have a political action committee, no, maybe not a PAC, but you have a group of people doing something like a grassroots movement that is built in public around the community, from within the community. Doesn’t even have to be software, right? So that’s what it is. It’s, it’s involving a community, maybe, maybe that’s the most important part here, doing it just for yourself, no, but doing it for other people now or eventually.

Patrick: Yes, got it. I love that. So, I have to ask, was there a pivotal moment where you kind of became a believer in building public? Was it a specific project, I’m guessing?

Arvid: Yeah, for me, building in public started happening when I started writing online. So I come from a software background and I built several software businesses myself and with others that went maybe a little bit somewhere, and most of them went nowhere. And I had a pretty successful one back in 2017 to 2019, Feedback Panda. Can talk about that too, we built it, we sold it, it was great. After that, I started actually writing about my experience and my journey and trying to help other founders get to a foundational baseline from where they could build their own businesses. And that’s when I really discovered building in public. So, my first business was not really built in public as such, just as a, as a clear caveat here, right? Building in public with software businesses has been something I’ve been doing ever since I sold my first one. So, when I first learned of building in public, it was through the Twitter community in which I started to be more active. Twitter used to be a place where a lot of people were really happy and software engineers. Now it’s a place where people are just software engineers and either happy or extremely mad at each other. But Twitter was the community where the indie hackers, the entrepreneurs, you know, like when it was called entrepreneurship, right? Along before it was even indie hacking and all that kind of stuff, bootstrapping was just like small business, right? Back when that was the thing, 2017, 2015 even, that’s where I found this community and I saw people do it. I saw people stand out and share more than others and I thought, hm, that’s interesting. I wonder how I could do this now that I’m a writer and I started sharing my process. I started involving people in pitching topics and having little discussions on Twitter and figuring out, oh, does resonance here? I could dive deeper into this. And then I asked somebody, well, what’s your opinion? And I pulled that in and from that opinion, I crafted an article. Like it was involving the people that were going to read it in the process of writing it. So that was always the build-in-public approach when it comes to writing that I used. And I wrote my first book mostly by myself because that’s what I knew back in the day, right? I was an engineer. I code in my basement, literally at that point. And still to this day, I’m currently in my basement as well because I will never get rid of that nerd basement thing. It is always going to be accompanying me on my journey. But back then it was like, I better just keep to myself, write and then publish and hope that people like it. And with my first book, I figured out, hm, I got so much feedback after I, I started selling it from people that were like, oh, this is great. I want to learn more about this and could you give me more on this? I didn’t really understand it. I got a lot of reader feedback, which was really nice. So when I wrote my second book, which was a kind of a zoom in on one portion of my first book, the first book was my whole journey. The second book was about how can I find my audience and find problems that they might have, how can I build a profitable business from this, that’s what the second one was. I chose to write that in public with people. So I drafted it and I wrote my blog post on the topic. So I had a list of things I wanted in the book, so I wrote a blog post every single week for a couple of months and then I pulled them all together and within a month finished the first draft of the book because the book was by far not finished. I think like probably 70, 80% of the book was changed in the next step, which was beta readers. I had 500 people beta read this book off and on through a platform that I used where people could just comment on each word and ask me questions about it. This significantly impacted what the book turned out to be and it became a best-selling success like the first one. Funny enough, the first one was just like because it was so overwhelmingly rich, it’s like 600 pages of founder stuff, which people seem to like, but the second one was much smaller but much more precise because people told me, hey, this needs to be refined, this is croft, you can get rid of that, and I did. So the people who were going to buy the book told me what they wanted to see in the book. That was the process. And ever since I released that book and became successful, I’ve been doing the same in my software efforts. I built two businesses, software businesses in the meantime. One is called Permanent Link. That’s kind of a thing that I built because I needed links that fit in my books and even if the website that they link to goes down, they link to something else. I built that in public with the people that were going to be using it. So it’s a profitable small SAS business that is used by authors and marketers all over the place because they need links that don’t break, right? In emails and books wherever you can change the link, you get pretty much a forwarding system. And I recently started a new business called Podlin FM, which helps podcasters get voice messages from their audience and then use them in the podcast themselves. So both of these are being built and have been built in public and I get so much interesting feedback from other founders about business choices that I made, pricing or those kinds of things, right? From other engineers about ways that I implement things or bugs that they found because they dug into it and they, you know, used Internet Explorer 4.0 and told me that there’s like an HTML rendering bug or whatever. And I get interesting feedback from potential and actual customers, the people who use it, who I’m also connected with because I share my journey. I talk about podcasting a lot. I talk about building businesses a lot, right? So you meet the people that were going to be your customers in the future. So I get all this feedback just from sharing things, which is spectacular. Makes it so much easier to build the thing, the business, and the product and to feel like you’re on the right track because you’re getting meaningful feedback.

Patrick: Yeah, so my next question was going to be, what are some of the benefits? But I think you just kind of articulated them, which is you’re getting a ton of feedback. Like, that is, I think, is that probably the biggest benefit, is just the sheer amount of feedback?

Arvid: Yeah, it’s the feedback cycles. They’re incredibly tight, right? Like you put something out, you get comments immediately because people spend way too much time on social media. So you can work that into your next iteration, and that tends to be this kind of self-enriching loop, right? You do something, people say something, you react to it, that encourages them to invest even more time into the next reply. It’s a kind of hook that just keeps going, right? The cycle that just keeps rolling. It’s incredibly useful. And of course, there are risks that you’re in an echo chamber or that you only get like people’s, you know, the mom test, a book by Rob Fitzpatrick. Like, don’t ask your mom if your idea is good because your mom is always going to say great, right? So you shouldn’t ask the people who really like you about if you should do a thing or not. But if you build it in public, you don’t try to push it on them, right? You just build it. If there is demand, then it will show, and it will show in the comments and the feedback that you get as well. So yes, feedback is a massive one, one of the biggest, maybe the biggest, but I think there is, there is a bigger one, and that may be one that is not completely obvious, but particularly for people who are introverts, who don’t want to show up in public, right? Who don’t want to be on social media, who don’t want to post, who don’t want to go viral or whatever. The benefit of building in public, and this is something that extroverts and introverts can easily do, it just depends on how you do it, we can get to that, is that over time, no matter how successful the thing that you’re building actually is, it might be a business that explodes and becomes super viral and it becomes hyper profitable or whatever, that could happen, that would be great, but it’s quite likely that it’s growing slowly or not growing at all. No matter what happens to the business, your personal reputation as a reliable, authentic, honest person, sharing an interesting and motivating story with others, that just keeps growing. Like, it transcends the success of your business. If it fails, now you have an interesting story to tell people to teach them what you learned from failing, right? You become somebody who can help them avoid the mistakes that they might make. If it’s a good story, well, you know, survivorship bias and all that aside, you have a, you can tell them a way of how you approached it that they might be able to replicate. So this is extremely helpful because it transcends the individual project you might be building. If you look at founders like Peter Levels, Levels.io on Twitter, he’s been building what now, 70 different businesses, 60 of which failed horribly. He has this wonderful list, I think is pinned, is his pinned tweet on Twitter. It’s like, here are all the things that I did, and it’s like 74 or so items, and four of them are profitable, and the rest of them are just gone. But every single one has created a bit more reputation for him and a bit more encouragement in his group, group of friends and peers, to maybe help him get the next one up and running, and maybe make that a success because if people see Peter Levels is launching a new business, they’re going to open that page, they’re going to look at it because they know what he builds is interesting and maybe this is going to be the next one, right? There’s an anticipation, there’s an investment, an emotional investment and often enough a monetary investment coming from keeping people interested and keeping people kind of in the state of anticipation of what’s going to be next. So that over time throughout projects, massive value, like I said, I’ve written two books, I’ve released a course, I’ve done two businesses. I know that the next thing I’m going to do is going to have hundreds of thousands of people look at it the first day because people are interested in what I’m building. So it’s a cumulative effect.

Patrick: I love that. Yeah, it’s like compounding, and it’s absolutely, I didn’t think that by you sharing your journey, so this normally on like your personal blog, so if you’re sharing your journey on your personal blog, even if the business fails, number one you’re like, I share a lot of coding stuff, I still Google stuff all the time and find one of my blog posts from eight years ago. So there’s that, like you might solve your own coding problems in the future but also all these business decisions and people and both your yourself, but other people will trust you a lot more seeing your thought process and what went wrong and the assumptions you made and all that stuff.

Arvid: Yeah, precisely. It’s like journaling. You journal, think externalized journaling. Most journaling is really for yourself to reflect and to get the things out of your mind that bother you. But in putting them out there, you’re creating history books for your own life, which is really cool, right? You have this paper trail that is extremely valuable, and it’s something that other people can also see your journey through, right? They can look at the old stuff, the new stuff, and say, “Huh, that’s how far they’ve come.”

Patrick: For engineers, self-promotion can feel like dirty work. But Arvid brought up a good point that if you build a tool for a specific type of person, it doesn’t feel bad to promote that tool. You’re helping them. He breaks self-promotion down into two different types: the selfish promotion and the customer-centric promotion. You’ll want to listen to it. Stay tuned.

So part of the goal with building in public is promotion. So how do you balance authenticity with self-promotion in these?

Arvid:I think that’s the core question of building in public. Like beyond like how can I stay consistent and how can I find interesting things to share, that’s kind of the functional approach. This is more the metaphysical approach, right? Like how can I stay myself in front of others, right? Because in a way, all interactions on social media and even this conversation is partially performative, right? We as people who try to help other people do things as teachers, we always have a little bit of performance in there to make it interesting, to make it exciting, to make it approachable, and to allow some people to select in and other people to select out, right? That’s kind of why we perform a certain way. So any building a public effort is, by its own nature, a social media act, also performative. And authenticity and performance are very hard to combine, right? It’s hard to say, “This is just me,” and then act more like yourself. Like it’s just really, really tough to get that right. The only thing that I have found is just be honest with people, like do not make things up. And then you can promise things, you can share your dreams, and you can be as performative as you want in that regard, right? You can say, “Hey, I really want to get this done by next year, so I’m setting this challenge. Like every month, I’m going to grow this business by like 10%.” There’s nothing performative about dreaming big and trying to make it happen. But you also have to share, “Hey, this month I grew by like minus 2%. I guess I have a problem that needs to come as well,” right? Honesty is the core motivation of building in public. And if you honestly, doesn’t mean saying everything you think, it’s just when you choose to say it, you have to actually mean it. Like you can’t say the company that I work for has a perfect product that has zero bugs and is the cheapest one that could ever be made, right? That’s a flat out lie, it’s unrealistic, and it doesn’t really build any meaningful connection between you and the people who follow you. But when you say, “I used to work for this company,” I probably wouldn’t have said anything about it back then. But now it’s like, “Hey, we really didn’t make smart choices here. We could have done this or we thought about that and I thought we could do this but I didn’t speak up,” like anything that allows people to relate to you because they also work in businesses where this happens is an effort of building your personal brand, let’s just call it that or platform. I think it’s a better phrase, your personal presence as an expert, a trustworthy expert in the space. So keep it honest, censor yourself as much as you need to because we all are bound to agreements, right? If you were to ask me how much I sold my business for in 2019, I could tell you a life-changing amount of money because that’s legally what I’m allowed to say about it. You don’t have to share more than you would like to share and you obviously be careful not to overshare in the sense of they give people too much. If you do screenshots of your product, you might not want to share which email you log in with and you might not want to share what the name of your database is or where your database is located, right? These little things are dangerous to your business because the people who know how to do very negative things to your business, they will figure this out too and some people just have too much time on their hands generally just honestly sharing what you have to say, what you feel, what you think can build relationships and connection with people that’s the way you do it.

Patrick: I love it. Okay, so, I have a different type of question here: How true is this statement, building in public is beneficial for all software products?

Arvid: Okay, let me answer with “all generalizations are wrong.” Okay, there’s a lot of nuance here, right? Building in public is something that is particularly useful in the beginning, the beginning of a product’s journey or the beginning of your own founder or developer journey. That is, I guess, the main time-based thing. Like, the bigger the business gets, building in public kind of has diminishing returns. There are stories out there by companies like transistor FM, that’s where I host my podcast, it’s built by a couple indie hackers, Justin Jackson, John Buddha, pretty big people in the community. And they were, at some point, extremely open. They had an open startup page, they had their, what was that, their whole metrics, their payment metrics, their Stripe metrics linked openly available through Baremetrics at that point. So you could dive into the exact payments, that anonymized but still, you know, people did, and how much the categories of how old those people were or how long they were with the business. You could dive into the data. And in the beginning, that was interesting because it created buzz, it created interest in people. Over time, it became a potential drawback because people could dive into your data better than you could dive into your data. And if it’s payment information and people see, “Huh, most of these customers, like 95%, stick around for exactly eight months and then they quit,” now we could build something that, you know, monetizes for the same exact amount for half a year and we could make more money and have a feature parody or whatever. People pull out information from these things that you might not want them to pull out because it’s like a business secret, really. So there are risks, obviously, to sharing over time. But until you get there, it’s a wonderful method. It’s kind of on the surface, it’s a marketing effort, right?

Marketing for your product, your business, and for yourself on all three layers, it becomes less effective or it shifts its nature. Some founders of larger businesses, they build in public more on an abstract level. They talk about how they are approaching their business. They don’t share the specific numbers. They say, “I’m somewhere between 50 and 70k MRR or whatever, but here is how I approach building business partnerships. Here is how I approach scaling, like with a big partner or doing this.” The people at Fathom Analytics do it so well. Jack Ellis and yeah, Paul Jarvis, they share information about how they approach their scalable architecture stuff, right? There’s nothing about exactly how much money they make, but you can literally see the code that runs the business, at least parts of it, which is really cool, right? You can use it in different ways over time. So that’s the one axis. The other axis is the kind of business you’re building. Like, obviously there are software projects out there that are kind of built on secretive technology, right? On patents, on things that you don’t want anybody even to know about. There’s a post out there about, I think, referral systems. I forgot who posted it. I might give you the link so you can put it in the show notes. Oh, Ryan Kulp. Don’t put it in the show notes. Here it is. Ryan Kulp wrote a post about referral systems, and he said it really depends on the kind of, do you have an edge? Does having access to your service, your software as a service business, give the person that is using it an edge over other people in their field? If that’s the case, think of financial trading, right? They use your software and it’s like 10 milliseconds faster than the other tool. They’re never going to tell anybody about your tool because if they were, then their profits would go down. Their edge is secrecy. But that means that your efforts at building in public might not work because people are not going to talk about your stuff. They’re not even going to tell others that they use it. They’re not going to like the page because then somebody else might see them like the page and find the product. So there’s a lot of psychology behind this. The other side of the spectrum is extreme shareability. Feedback Panda, the business that I built with my partner Danielle, we built this for online English teachers, which she was at the time. So I kind of built the product for her, and then we started selling it to other people. And teachers, online teachers needing to do feedback, doesn’t really matter the specifics. It was a feedback tool for online English teachers. Teachers love teaching. They love teaching teachers. Teachers love sharing. So the first teacher who found our tool and started using it was like, “Oh my God, I need to tell everybody I know about this tool because I just saved two hours a day.” It was a very positive, very helpful community. If you build tools in such a community, and that’s where I’m at too with writers and with podcasters, it’s pretty much a big family of people who kind of want to see each other succeed because we might compete in sales and stuff, but it’s kind of a very friendly competition, right? I mention your book, you mention my book, we both sell a book. Or you listen to my show, I listen to yours, that kind of stuff. In these communities, building in public is highly, highly useful because everybody will try to amplify something that benefits everybody in the field. So it depends not on the tool, not on the technicality of the tool, but more on the secrecy or openness of the market for which you create this tool.

Patrick: Perfect! So you just transitioned to my next question. Are there places where people can find inspiration and maybe like communities or sub-communities? ‘Cause it’s definitely, I agree with you on authors, I agree with you on and my spouse is in like theater, so in like theater circles, they do a lot of cross-promoting and just sharing everyone’s work. What are the hubs for software creators to build in public?

Arvid: Definitely Twitter is a big community for this. Like they’ve been around. People who build in public have been on Twitter since 2006 or 2007 when it came up in the first years of its life. People used it as a kind of a journal, right? That’s what Twitter was in the beginning. When Twitter was out, it was 140 characters and people were just posting about whatever they did. Well, if you’re a software entrepreneur back in the day, I think they called themselves Micro ISV, like independent software vendors. If you look, Micro ISV, if you look that up on Google, you find blog posts from that time, 2006, ’07, whatever. That’s the old name for micro SaaS. Before SaaS became a thing, before people called it software as a service, it was Micro ISV. And that community existed on Reddit. There is a very old subreddit called Entrepreneur. Right along, I think, and it transitioned onto Twitter, and people just started sharing little things because they knew the people who follow me, they will get it because Twitter was still very small. I would still suggest it to this day. One of the benefits of Twitter, and I’m kind of quoting from my own Twitter course here, not going to plug it, but it’s one of the things that I found extremely useful in building my own audience on Twitter was leveraging lists, Twitter lists. Because imagine you find somebody who does it really well, and Peter Levels is that example, @levelsio on Twitter. Just go there, follow that guy, and figure out who follows him, who does similar things as he does, and who is on lists that Peter is also on. That’s a trick, right? If you’re on Twitter, I’m going to do this really fast, and you go to anybody’s profile, you go to the three dots, you go to lists, and then you go to the three dots in the top corner again, and you click on lists there. On and all of a sudden you get a list of lists. Each of which contains this particular person. And if you want to find more people like that person that do similar things in the same kind of context that they’re doing, you just scroll through the list and you follow all the other lists that are on there. It’s extremely powerful. All of this invites a massive influx of people who do similar things into your Twitter activity feed, and from there you can start following them individually, you can interact with them, which is the most important part, and you can ask them questions, you can see their things, you can take note, you can bookmark the post that you also want to do something like, right? The kind of examples, kind of a scratch file or whatever. You can do all of that just from Twitter lists. Peter himself has a Twitter list that he curates that contains people who build in public and are active and don’t market like crazy, like he has a curated Twitter list of people who are not selfish but still building public. It’s really cool. So you find those gems in the community, you just have to hang out with the right people and do this little recursion where you go to their list, follow other people, go to their lists and follow other people. That’s how it goes.

Patrick: Fantastic! I haven’t really leveraged Twitter lists in years, so it’s exciting to know that obviously there’s still a lot of value in just finding tribes of people. Let me take a quick detour into when you’re posting your stuff there, are you marketing, you know, are you following best practices about how to write an engaging first tweet? Like, does this involve some, I don’t want to say literacy, but some marketing savvy when you are also posting on Twitter and chatting on Twitter and the right way to get people to interact with you on Twitter?

Arvid: That is one of the hardest things about running a business in the first place: to hit the message right, reach the right people in the right location with the right message, and not make it too salesy. I think, I don’t know about you, but like my background in engineering has taught me that all sales are bad, just want to, you know, generalize this a little here, and I had to work on myself for a long time to allow myself to market my products in front of the people who I think need them. It’s a question of reframing what it is, and I get to the actual pragmatic answer. I’m just going to explain why you need to reframe it first. You talked about self-promotion just now. I believe that there are two kinds of self-promotion. There is a selfish kind of self-promotion where it’s all about “hey, look at me, I made this,” and then there is a selfless self-promotion that is kind of “hey, I made this for you,” and this reframing of this is a thing that I created because I saw you need it, and the message that you can channel through this framing is massively different from “hey, buy this.” It’s the whole point of building in public is to build enough of a connection so that people are interested in what you have to offer without you pushing it to them. It’s kind of demand-based, pull-based marketing if you think about it like this, which is why I employed the idea of the breadcrumb earlier, right? The idea of you put your content out there, the messages, the challenges that you face, the ups, the downs, so that people can be interested in the thing you do and who does it, which is you, and then find their way to where you are right now, so they can interact with you, purchase from you, partner with you, help you amplify what you have to offer, all that kind of stuff, right? You leave that out there for them to kind of claw their little way to you, and there is an offer always somewhere. You should have an offer. Maybe that’s a big important part. Do not expect that people will dig for the offer; they will dig for connection, so you have to provide the offer. It’s like when people go to your Twitter profile and they consider if they should follow you or not. They’re not going to go and sign up for your newsletter; they’re not going to buy you a subscription to your SAS. They’re going to look at the content you provide, they’re going to look at, “Is this an interesting person to follow?” And then they follow you, and then they see you tweet 15, 20, 30 times, and then they think, “That product is probably nice because I like the person, I like what they offer, I like the way they interact with others because they see that too,” and then they check out the product, and they’re like, “Okay, this is cool, maybe I’m going to use it, like in a couple months. Don’t have the budget for it right now,” or whatever, right? And then you keep posting and you keep interacting, and two months later they’re like, “Yeah, I guess it’s time,” and then they subscribe. So marketing here is a massively long-term play. The whole building in public approach is a, I call this eventual reciprocity, the idea that you put out so much stuff that eventually people feel like they want to and need to reciprocate with you. So that’s the marketing here, it’s just being there, being present, being constantly there, being consistently good and helpful, and just allowing for people to want to compensate in the end.

Patrick: I love that, and I especially love speaking of it. It’s a reframe of “I built this for you,” thinking about the customer. I was just thinking, if you’re just starting out, I think it forces you if you force yourself to think about the customer early on and consistently. Maybe in month one, you think the customer is this person, and then in month two, you realize, “Oh, actually, that’s not the person who needs this, it’s this person instead.” So, it kind of, if you reframe your promotion of just “here’s what I’m working on and here’s why I’m working on it” to “here’s the type of customer I have in mind,” you will iterate on your customer, on your target persona, so much more than most software devs ever do.

Arvid: That’s right, that’s the biggest problem in my own experience as an engineer trying to build businesses. I kind of skipped these massively important stages of figuring out who I want to help, figuring out the problems that they actually have, what priority they are in, and for which they actually have a budget. All of this was kind of, “Ah, there’ll be somebody buying this, right? Like I’m going to build it, it’s going to have all these features.” And I catch myself still to this day. Earlier today before this call, I was working on Podline and I was like, “I’m building this themeable system where people can, you know, have the colors of their podcast in there.” And it’s an important MVP thing for this particular product. But I was like, “Oh yeah, and then I can add like this little transparency layer in there.” And it was like an hour later I was like, “What am I doing? Like this has no meaning to the initial success of the business if there’s a little transparency here or not.” I think if you start with the whole journey, your whole business journey, with “Who do I want to help?” Make a list and then figure out which of these people you actually want to help. Just spending an hour on this process that cuts short like days of development time of a tool that nobody needs or that you don’t even want to keep building because a couple weeks, couple months into the process you figure out, “I kind of hate these people, I don’t want to do anything for them.” So this whole process, which is the main concept in my second book that I wrote because people ask me, “How can I figure out who’s right?” This whole process is so important. Building in public makes it much easier because you build something for somebody else and then you figure out, “Hmm, those people don’t need it. I should build something else for them.” Or, “Those people need this but I went about it the wrong way, I need to build it differently.” This is a massive benefit of doing it in front of them instead of hiding away in your little den.

Patrick: Makers often worry about sharing business ideas online, and that’s because we worry a competitor might steal the idea and put us out of business. I asked Arvid about this fear, and he pointed out a benefit that I had never really considered before, and it actually inoculates your company from competitors stealing your ideas, so you want to stick around.

How do you not give your competitors ideas? Maybe there is a viable alternative: only talking about things once they’re done? Or is that just defeat the whole purpose of working/building public?

Arvid: That’s exactly what it is. That is going back to the basement to code your thing in silence, right? Yes, and you’re absolutely right that this is probably the number one fear that people have who might think about, “Maybe I should build in public,” and then they think about this, and they’re like, “Nah, I’m not going to give other people the advantage here.” But you also have to think about the fact that in the software world, copying features and copying ideas is incredibly simple. I think “don’t give people ideas” is a historical thing for when you had a factory, and you had a guy with a gun at the door, right? You had a guy blocking like there was a little house, and a guy sat in it, and if you didn’t have an ID, you didn’t get in. Like that’s the kind of secrecy that used to be in businesses. Code bases are different. Like if you build a software product, like half of your code, the front-end side, and your API calls and whatever, they’re pretty much public, right? You have no means to protect this. I remember all the JavaScript scrambling that was going on and the minification and all, trying to get people to not see what your code does, which is completely the reverse, and it doesn’t help you, it just makes everything harder in the development process, right? In the deployment chain, in debugging, and all that, it just makes error tracking, for that matter, you know, you have to have source maps and whatnot. It’s complicated to make things secret. Instead, your connection to your customers, these feedback loops that we talked about that are incredibly tight, they’re the valuable part. It is more valuable to share your idea with the people it’s for and get to see them, “Oh yeah, I would pay more for this,” in that moment, and then you start building the minute after, than fearing that some dude from some business somewhere might see it and think, “Hey, I got to drive him out of business.” The reality of software engineering as a means to build a business is every other coder, particularly now with the help of GitHub copilot and all these things, they could probably build the same thing you’re building, maybe even better. So instead of hiding your ideas, associate them with your own brand, like own the idea and the connection between the idea and your brand, because the people who like you, who follow you on your journey, they will defend your idea for you. Yes, in the face of others. I’ve seen so many people who got copycatted where somebody just cloned their whole thing, and then the community just pounced on that person, like they reported them on Twitter, they kind of got their email provider to shut down their emails and whatnot, like the community will defend you if you are a person that they want to defend. So that’s what I would say, just forget it’s like what is it, execution matters, ideas matter not at all, amplify that even more. Like other people will execute the same stuff, you’re going to be faster, you’re going to be better connected, that’s going to be it.

Patrick: I was going to say execution is what matters and most competitors—80% of them—will take them at least a year to get that out, and you will just rapidly outpace them. I didn’t think about your community defending you, that is absolutely correct, and I’ve seen that happen; people in the comments on the Facebook ads or on the Twitter or wherever will defend you, which is a great reason to publish your idea first. There’s some huge benefit I didn’t think of, so I love that.

Arvid: That’s prior art, right? That’s really what it is, the prior art concept in the community. It’s great.

Patrick: Love it. So, but let me talk about, I’m curious on—I think for me, maybe a big drawback is how much time do you put into this? If you’ve never written a blog post before, I feel like the first one I wrote, let’s say, took me two days, and it wasn’t even that long. And until you get into a good cadence, creating content takes a while. So, how do you balance the, I think, just the time requirements of making content?

Arvid: Yeah, like expectations are rough because we, again speaking for myself, I’m kind of a perfectionist in that or used to be a perfectionist in that regard because you know engineering is a very Boolean thing like you have a true and a false and that’s it, there’s nothing fuzzy about it, right? So either it’s great or it sucks, that’s kind of the perspective that I always had in content, which obviously is not true, right? You can write a masterpiece of an article and some people won’t like it because they just don’t like the words you picked or they don’t speak your language or whatever it is, right? There are good enough reasons that it’s not for everyone.

So it starts with figuring out who I am going to do this for and what is the minimum threshold of what they actually need. That’s interesting that you mention the length of a blog post because most people don’t need a blog post, they could use a Twitter thread or they could use a four-paragraph blog post that just has a thought. Seth Godin is the best example. Seth Godin’s blog is literally just him thinking one thought then putting it into a shape that is interesting, and that’s his post for the day. He doesn’t write 2,000 words, he writes 250, and they pack a punch, right? And that’s hard, like writing short content is harder than writing long form, obviously because you could just talk about whatever you want.

But your expectation shouldn’t be, “I’m going to write a 2,000-word blog post every week,” it should just be, “I want to write anything that slightly even resembles a blog post every week.” Because the benefit in the beginning when you start is nobody’s watching, like nobody’s going to see your mistakes anyway if you start, like not too many people are going to be annoyed by that little mistake that you make. That problem comes a couple years in when you have thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers, like I have on Twitter right now.

But in the beginning, you can experiment, you can write a short thing, you can write effectively a tweet as a blog post. I’ve seen this too, and the more brevity you have in this, the more people are willing to come back because they don’t have to invest a lot of time. You can start small, the important part is that you have consistency, right? You have to start small but regular because there’s something to the human psyche that equates seriousness with consistency, like if you put something out every week, in a couple of months people are going to see this, they’re going to see the just the weekly post, post, post, post, post on your blog, and they’re going to say, “This guy’s serious about the thing that they’re doing,” right? This person has the willpower to keep doing this even though they probably have other things to do as well.

And it can be just one thing a week, it doesn’t have to be much, you can write for 30 minutes, just a thought that you had during the week. Generally, I expect for myself that I have my thoughts at random points in time, so I have a list of topics that I just add new topics to whenever I feel like it or I dictate something into my phone and I just take it out later and turn it into a blog post, whatever it is. I don’t necessarily have sit-down time to come up with ideas. Ideas come up throughout the week. I have set-down time for actually turning them into a post, that’s how that happens.

So I give myself flexibility in the creative world and then I just edit it down to something that I can post, right? That’s the point. So allow yourself to find these things, to mark them down, to note them down, and then just take 30 minutes, an hour a week, and just turn it into anything that is good enough as a post, put it out there, over time you get into a habit and you figure it out.

Patrick: Can I interrupt? So an hour a week is, I guess, to me, a half hour hour does not seem like enough for this. Does it scale up later or am I a slow creator?

Arvid: Well, I guess an hour in 2022 is not an hour in 2024. Like I’m referencing ChatGPT and other tools like this, right? Like I’m using for my own podcast and my blog, I’m using a tool called, I think, Podium. Page, which takes in an audio file and just summarizes it, gives you a good title for it, gives you the kind of the break points between the topics and the little summaries per chapter, and has tags and all that, all automated. It’s like 95% done at that point, right? So if you’ve written something, there are obviously tools out there or you could just really go to ChatGPT, post your full article, tell it, “Give me five good titles,” and then create a stock image or whatever for the thing, right? Create a header image for that file and ChatGPT will do this. I would highly recommend using ChatGPT for editing, like clear this up, make this more understandable. I would not recommend it for actually being like writing. Don’t tell it to write an article about XYZ. That is lazy and people will hate it because, yeah, you know with GPTs and all these other LLMs, they have styles that you can figure out are artificial. But for the creative process in front of it, and that’s where I use it too, I often go to ChatGPT and say, “Hey, I recently thought about this topic,” and then I just write a little bit about what I thought about and, “Give me 10 ideas for an article around this issue.” So I’ve written for like two minutes, I just brain dumped whatever I had into ChatGPT and that little line at the end creates an incredibly interesting list of, let’s just say, seven really crappy things that I could write about and three rather good ones. And I take those three, I modify them, put them on my list of things that I always wanted to talk about and whenever I need something to write about, pull them in and actually brainstorm the article. So it’s a great, great pre-re and post-creative process. You still need to write but anything in front and behind this process can be helped with these tools and is very simple to use. So I, that saves you a lot of time. I can now dictate the article almost completely done into my phone like that. That’s it’s just as a writer you get to a point where you can write through your speech maybe not right now as I’m trying to explain it because it’s the first time I think about it but if I have a topic that I’ve really thought about I could just dictate it flat out couple edits takes me half an hour to get the same so it’s it definitely scales over time because you just get better at it.

Patrick: Do you use your analytics to help you know what is most important? Like if you know one blog post gets 10 times the traffic of all the rest, do you use this also, or analytics on your process?

Arvid: From the start, like not even just on the blog, I use what is called, Black Magic, which is a tool that was acquired by Hypefury. Very interesting in the hacker, which is a Twitter Analytics tool that lives inside of Twitter, and you can see which of your posts perform really well. Like you can not just see how many likes they got and all that, but it actually is like a historical graph where you can see how much engagement happened over time and how intense the engagement is if the engagement comes from your followers or from outside of your follower base, all of that. There’s a lot of data there. I use this to source really resonant ideas. Like if there’s something happening on Twitter that I was part of because I posted about it and I get a lot of massive engagement and it doesn’t stop for a couple of days, then I know that this thing is really worth writing about, maybe inviting a person onto the podcast to talk to about to keep that engagement going, and then I write about it. I put it on the blog, and I still look at those numbers too. Sometimes topics from a couple of years ago come back because there’s a conversation happening around them, so I try to backtrack where the actual link came from and join the conversation there to surface new ideas to then turn into new posts. So, it’s a very, it’s not metric-driven, but it is a connection like a digital connection-driven approach. Like where does this go? Where are the people that talk about this, and how can I interact with them to bring them closer to my domain? And maybe another thing here is that I tend to start all my articles as a tweet. I have a thought, like the core of the article, I throw it out as a tweet. If I see people really engaging with that tweet, it turns into an article almost immediately because I know this resonates. If it doesn’t, it goes back on the list, maybe some other day. So, it’s kind of a tweet, maybe Twitter thread, article, podcast episode, and then the things that really work well there is an, at least for me, an interest to take them even further and maybe turn them into a guide, a compendium, or a book, right? Some things that resonate super well can be taken even further from the blog and be turned into an info product that creates mostly passive income. Anything where there is like a light of attention shining on it, I try to dig my claw in for the time being that the light is shining on.

Patrick: We talk a lot about Twitter in this episode, but near the end, Arvin and I discuss all sorts of online communities where you might find inspiration. You’ll want to take some notes.

Arvid: Yeah, Twitter is like one of so many places where people interact. I think YouTube is the much more interesting example here. I think with, you know, the Mr. Beastify, that’s a whole topic we could talk about for hours here, but it shows us that people want a person, they want to connect not to a brand, they want to connect to, yeah, to the guy, right? They want to connect to the person behind the brand. And this is true for entrepreneurship as well. If you’re building a business, people don’t really care necessarily about the business as a brand, they want to be connected to the founder, they want to be connected to the person who’s building this stuff for them, right? It’s like when you have an artisan shoemaker in your town, the shoes are great obviously, but having a relationship with that guy so you can always go there or girl and get your shoe repaired whenever you need to or get a new, the new leather when it’s in, right? Like that relationship with the professional is so much more valuable than the actual product in the end. And this trend where the faceless corporation becomes a menace, it’s not just somebody who gives us like, you know, Coca-Cola or cable, like, I don’t know, AT&T or whatever. Like if you ever interact with customer support for such a business, you don’t feel like you’re a partner in the relationship at all, you’re just yet another number they don’t care, right? I was on the phone with my bank yesterday, which is also one of these kind of institutions that there was some charge, I tried to buy something, the bank decided to block it, and I tried to unblock my card only to get a pre-recorded announcement that they’re not working on January 1st, so, you know, call us tomorrow. And he was like, dudes, like, this is a business relationship, I run a business, you run a business, you should have somebody taking this call and helping me maybe able to make purchases, but they don’t care, their system is so big that my problem, you know, this, like, it doesn’t matter, it’s a, it’s a tiny fragment of the issues that they have. And these kind of businesses, they’re losing respect with people all over the world, whereas founderly or creatorly or merchantly businesses, they are growing in reputation like personal brands. Mr. Beast, the biggest example that we have in our space, like that is a, a one-in-a-story obviously, it’s not, there’s a massive team behind them at this point, but he came out of building a brand around himself and all the little things he did along the way, right? The snacks and, you know, the items, the merch, the burgers or whatever it is, they are little stories along the way, but Mr. Beast is the main story, and that conceptually is also building in public, maybe he’s a great example for this. He’s been building his personal brand and the things that he’s doing in public from the start, right? So if this is any indication, and if you ask any child at this point who Mr. Beast is, you get an answer, then this should also be an indication for the development of the industries and the fields in which the people who already know Mr. Beast and all these other great YouTube personalities will eventually enter the workforce or already in there. So I see this as a trend that keeps moving that keeps expanding even into other fields. Twitter, sure, Facebook, that’s where it’s happening too. Reddit has always been the place where it’s happening. YouTube is where people are doing more behind-the-scenes content and commentary and all that, right? You see that as an evolution as well. I don’t see this dying down, I see it changing because it becomes more commodified, it becomes more a thing that everybody does. So to be kind of standing out you have to do more, you know, more different things, and you have to figure out what that exact means for your particular audience, for your particular field, and the thing that you want to be the brand that you want to create. But I think just being honest and sharing your journey with people is always going to be a way to build connections, and it’s going to be more and more expected from people.

Patrick: I love that, and I think the key word there is connection. And no, I don’t know a single large, massively large company that is good at connection like every human. So I was at a business thing this past year, and everyone was talking about how they like having a human on the other end of the line, and then these are business owners like, “Oh, but I’m not going to do that for my business, it’s too expensive.” And it’s such a weird thing to hear humans say. It’s like they value connection themselves; every human values connection. So if you can, when you’re small at least, have a connection with people, take feedback seriously, update your blog posts, update your tweets, you’re providing something that’s unique that large companies can’t compete with you.

Arvid: That’s exactly right, and it’s hard to scale, let’s be honest. It’s hard to scale connections. But you can build a business that, at least in the stage where building in public is effective, where you’re getting going, where you’re building this foundational presence in the field, at least there you can be present, and at least there you can make it about relationships. You can spend that extra minute on a customer service conversation, like in your Intercom chat system or whatever you might have, and give that person the feeling that you, yeah, you’re actually talking to the founder of the business. I’m trying to take this time to make this happen for you. What can I build for you next? Like, what do you need? What other tools do you have that suck? What can we help there with? All these little questions that no normal customer service agent would ever ask. The moment you ask them, like, in people’s heads, something switches. Suddenly, they feel valued. Like, we witnessed this with Feedback Panda. When we would tell them, “Hey, we are the people behind the product. It’s just two of us. We’re building this for other teachers like us,” flipped a switch. People became friendly. People shared their stories all of a sudden because, for the first time ever on a customer service widget, they were treated like people. And if you can give that, if you can give that moment of connection, of just humanity to that person, you can count on them yelling it at their peers from the rooftops about it. They would. This company actually treated me like a human being. You should all check it out. Here’s the link. Like, how often we saw that with Feedback Panda is crazy. But that is how it happened, and that is how it happens all over the world with people who actually care.

Patrick: Arvid, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you for your enthusiasm. Thank you for coming on the show. 

Arvid: Oh, absolute pleasure. Thanks for letting me share the building public evangelism. I think more people should do it, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to maybe convince a couple.

Patrick: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. If you enjoyed Arvid’s episode, please hit like and subscribe so that we can continue to bring you insights, knowledge, and experiences from the leading entrepreneurial voices in the software product-making world. If you’re on the plugin.fm website, hit subscribe for early access to our future content, or just share the episode on your social media accounts so that we can get the word out and help fellow entrepreneurs on their journeys too. If you’re struggling to grow your software revenue, send a note to [email protected] to get free advice from Freemius’s monetization experts. My name is Patrick Rauland, and thanks for listening to plugin.fm.

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