Building in public and private
Saxophonists create magic with improv jazz—their free-flowing harmony knowing no rules yet delighting the ear. Like any magician, jazz musicians need practice. Not on stage, on a street corner, or even before their immediate family; the best jazz artists practice in a woodshed.
Woodshedding is when an artist practices new material in private—sometimes in an actual shed—before taking their creative work to a public forum. ‘Shedding, according to the jazz crowd, lets them learn, tinker, and experiment without fear.
In 2021, I saw David Sedaris perform at the Seattle Opera House. Sedaris is a world-renowned essayist known for his live readings, yet he shared a personal insight that he once rewrote chapters of The Great Gatsby to “know what it feels like to write something beautiful.” He wasn’t the first writer to perform this literary equivalent of woodshedding. Even the best artists need private time to refine their craft.
Woodshedding is nothing new, simply an execution of the conventional wisdom “practice makes perfect.” But conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason, right? A few years ago, I felt inspired by all the novelists who had “shed” Fitzgerald that I honored the Lindy Effect and rewrote Stephen King’s “Premium Harmony” from memory.
I didn’t feel awestruck. Quite the opposite: I became uninspired. What was the point of copying someone else’s work to keep it in a dusty notebook?
Perhaps the woodshed isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe there’s a reason so many creators are opting to “build in public.”
To learn more about this trend, I asked entrepreneur Johanna Renoth of Bye, Social Media! for her advice. Johanna shares my philosophy of slowness, and her weekly articles have taught me refreshing marketing strategies that don’t rely on unsustainable growth tactics and social media.
Now, let’s hear from Johanna:
Building in Public
If you’re building any type of tech product, you’ve heard of building in public. It’s a great way to build community with other founders, generate support for your product before launch, and get on the radar of investors.
Despite all its advantages, building in public is not an automatic yes for every founder.
Be honest about whether you want to do it
Building in public sounds like a great idea. It has many benefits, and many other entrepreneurs have succeeded with it. As with all advice in entrepreneurship, just because it’s worked for other people doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for you.
To not get sucked into the hype of this or other tactics, ask yourself if you want to do it. Building in public, as with any other marketing activity, requires consistency. Is this something you can see yourself doing for months, even years?
Most importantly, do you even want to do it? There’s a huge difference between talking yourself into something and wanting to take it on. We can manage our emotions, but we can’t entirely override them.
Forcing yourself into a long-term commitment you’re not fully behind is a drain on your energy, the energy you need to build.
If you’re not sure, is there a way you can share the work of building in public with somebody else?
Get clear on your purpose for building in public
Aside from deciding whether you want to do it, get clear on your purpose for building in public. Randomly posting and sharing updates without rhyme or reason doesn’t work long-term. Worse, it’s a distraction.
Before you embark on building in public, reflect on your purpose.
Community. Building in public can help you find support and a like-minded community. Creating something can be isolating, so it’s great to be in touch with other builders and connect with them for input and advice.
Pre-Launch Support. From a marketing perspective, this is smart because you won’t start from zero on launch day. But this aspect of building in public works best when you’re clear about who your product will serve. If you play your cards right, you can acquire your first customers pre-launch.
Signal to Investors. Investors are always looking for deal flow. Building a presence around what you do and an audience or community for your product can signal to investors that there are customers for your product.
Own your platform
I help businesses and solopreneurs become independent from social media and algorithms. Given this is my work, I want to share a word of caution: I see too many entrepreneurs build their brands on algorithmically curated platforms where they don’t own their audiences. This is a huge risk because you have no control over how your audience interacts with your content and your longevity on the platform. To put yourself on firmer footing, drive your audience to a medium you own, like a newsletter.
There’s no need to overload yourself with creating content when you do that. A weekly or bi-weekly recap of what you’ve been doing or learning is a good start. The earlier you build a community around what you do on an independent platform, the better.
In and Out of the Woodshed
Joanna’s advice applies to anyone who creates—writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and jazz musicians.
Earlier this year, I attended an Amherst Style writing group, the fiction equivalent of “building in public.” Writers create something original on the spot, read it to the group, and receive only positive feedback. Although I was cynical about the excessive optimism, I left feeling more inspired than I had in a long time. And something I wrote in that workshop led to a published story later this year.
I had spent too long in the woodshed before this writing group—tinkering away on long stories that were making no progress. “Building in public” taught me a valuable lesson: Don’t let a perfectionist tendency delay sharing what we create. Woodshedding can keep us on localhost and delay getting real-world feedback.
But building in public cannot come at the cost of doing our work. While coming out of my metaphorical woodshed with writing led to a positive community and a published story, staying public for too long could degrade quality. The compulsion for consistent sharing can promote underdeveloped ideas lacking creative depth. A supportive community can become an echo chamber that protects us from the criticism needed to improve. Conversely, exposing a delicate new concept to the “wild” could lead to debilitating denunciation that destroys our motivation.
Returning to the woodshed is essential for any creator. The woodshed protects our egos and shelters fledgling ideas until they’re ready to fly. We might scribble journal entries for our minds alone, sketch horrid things for nobody to see, or type buggy code never to leave our laptops.
But, after some time, we must leave our private places and share our creations.
Perhaps the woodshed needs a revolving door.