Transparency. It’s all the rage these days. Everyone from CEOs to solo entrepreneurs are publicly sharing the highs and lows of their progress in business. And, save for Martin Shkrelli, most of them are building sizable, supportive audiences as a result.
Having shared my own entrepreneurial story online for the past six years, I can vouch for the benefits of transparent sharing. The authentic connection I enjoy with my followers has helped me to network widely, bounce back from failure, and rapidly grow two businesses.
No matter what niche you’re in, sharing your story can be great for your company and your public profile.
To help you get started, I wanted to outline the benefits I and other entrepreneurs have accessed via transparent sharing, and offer some ideas on how and what to communicate to your audience in a way that suits you.
The Benefits of Transparency
When you’re assessing what you stand to gain from broadcasting your story to the world, don’t limit your thinking to: “Will it help me make more money?”
Fact is, many of the benefits you stand to experience are non-monetary. Oftentimes they’re hard to force and challenging to measure. Still, their influence is undeniable, so I’d like to unpack those a bit.
It Influences Your Revenue
Speaking from personal experience, sharing your story can have a significant impact on your bottom line.
Last September, I was laid off unexpectedly from a full-time job. With zero warning, I found myself without regular income. Although I was offered a few jobs in the subsequent weeks, I knew I needed to listen to my internal voice and start working for myself. In the 12 months since, I’ve managed to build two six-figure businesses—a small business consulting practice, and my digital marketing marketplace GetCredo.com.
Initially I was embarrassed to tell my audience that I’d been laid off. But when I made the announcement, my followers stood by me as I built up both companies, offering moral support, advice, and even sending new business my way.
I’m convinced that, had I not spent the last six years sharing my story publicly and building a loyal following, there’s no way I would have grown the annual revenue of both businesses to six figures in such a short amount of time.
It’s Authentic Marketing
While I’d advise against having “free marketing” as your sole motivation for going public with your story, the act of sharing your story is, nonetheless, another marketing tool at your disposal.
As you consistently share updates, you’ll amass followers and fans that connect with your story and your values. Gradually, you’ll see a rise in subscribers, website visits, inbound inquiries, and even word-of-mouth recommendations.
The major difference is that, unlike other select forms of marketing (clickbait, high pressure sales funnels, relentless automated email outreach, etc.), sharing the highs and lows of your story and connecting with your fans authentically can benefit your audience as much as it benefits you.
It Educates Your Peers
One of the best outcomes of sharing detailed insights and lessons from your entrepreneurial experience is that it educates your audience.
Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, articulates the benefits of this outcome perfectly:
“Transparency and sharing are, for me, a way to offload complex feelings and tell hard stories, as well as to help others benefit from the tough and sometimes frustrating experiences I've had in my career. I hate that I can't go back in time and change things, but by sharing, I can at least hope to save others from making the same painful decisions that we've made.”
Besides the personal satisfaction you’ll get from supporting your peers, if you help others avoid making the same mistakes you did, and give them valuable information and tools they can use to grow their business, they’ll be grateful and loyal to you for a long time to come.
It Establishes You as a Go-To Authority
Have you heard of authority bias? It’s a cognitive bias that we all fall into, which makes us attribute greater accuracy to—and be influenced by—the opinion of someone we perceive to be an authority figure.
Thanks to authority bias, when you regularly share your story and build an engaged audience, you will subtly position yourself as a go-to authority in your niche.
When I started sharing my journey on my blog at the beginning of my career, I unknowingly tapped into this phenomenon. People perceived me to be an industry expert, mostly because I was a prominent online blogger. In turn, this generated a greater influx of consulting work, and inspired collaborations with other influencers in my industry. Over the years, that perception has become reality as I’ve worked hard to deserve that title.
It Builds Trust and Loyalty
Remember the Chipotle sanitary issues from earlier this year? The company—known for its commitment to fresh, antibiotic-free ingredients—had built so much trust with its audience, that die-hard followers stuck with the company during an E-Coli outbreak. Some of them even declared they were “willing to throw up a little” and keep buying food from the company, while Chipotle worked through the issue.
Albeit a radical example, I have a hard time believing that Chipotle would have fared so favorably had it not already cultivated a deep level of trust and loyalty with their audience through transparent initiatives like the Food With Integrity movement, blog posts that detail how Chipotle sources and produces food, and The Scarecrow—a short film and smartphone game that encourages others to cultivate a better world through healthier food.
A loyal audience will always choose you over your competitors. Clearly, the alliance that Chipotle has built with its supporters is strong enough to weather even the most turbulent of times.
It’s a Powerful Networking Tool
Being transparent with my story has inspired others to reach out and share their stories and struggles with me. Many of these encounters have turned into long term business connections. Some have even developed into close friendships.
These are worth more to me than money. And the best part is, these connections were an effortless benefit that arose from sharing my story.
How to Share Your Entrepreneurial Story
The good news is, the benefits I’ve outlined above are available to you, too. You just need to determine the best way to share your story, and get started.
Although I’m going to walk you through some ideas on how to go about it, ultimately what you share and how you share it will be shaped by your personality, your natural communication style, and the nature of your business.
The Sooner You Share, the Better
I began sharing my story on JohnFDoherty.com way back when I started my digital marketing career in 2011. By the time I launched Credo and my consulting business five years later, I’d had five years to establish a supportive audience.
If I hadn’t started sharing my story early—while I was still learning the lessons that are helping me grow my business today—there’s no way I would have been able to grow the annual revenues of two new businesses to over six figures in 12 months.
Trust me when I say: it’s going to take time to build your audience. Time, trial, and error are going to help you learn how to communicate with your audience, what to share, and where to share it. The sooner you start, the better.
Share Your Failures as Much as Your Triumphs
The internet is quick to point out frauds. If you say that you embody transparency as an entrepreneur, or as a business, you must make it core value and share openly even when things aren’t going well.
As I have moved jobs and locations (Philadelphia -> Brooklyn -> San Francisco), I’ve blogged about what I’m learning, shared my biggest professional mistakes, and talked about what I learned from getting laid off.
Because the media is obsessed with promoting success stories, confessing your failures can be nerve wracking. But, each time I’ve owned up to my audience, I’ve been genuinely surprised by the outpouring of support and encouragement I’ve received from my followers. It’s helped to keep me going during several low points.
Share Your Monthly Revenue
Many large businesses, especially those who are publicly traded, are required to make their finances public at least once a quarter in order to make sure their shareholders know what’s happening with the business.
Historically, small businesses were different. Entrepreneurs would hold revenue numbers close to the chest, for fear of being a braggart. Times have changed, though. It’s increasingly common to see businesses share monthly income reports with their audience.
Buffer takes it further, sharing their monthly revenue reports as well as employee salaries. They're open about the fact that their founder, Joel, makes $175,000 per year, and that Joel and co-founder Leo together took $2M off the table in a funding round.
Share Progress Updates
I don’t yet go as far as Pat Flynn and share monthly income reports, and very few do. However, I do send a monthly update to my readers, which includes growth updates on traffic, users, and conversion rates:
Don’t Limit Yourself to a Blog
If the thought of writing long, detailed blog posts doesn’t do it for you, find a way of communicating with your audience that works for you.
Seth Godin uses Typepad to connect with his audience every single day. Sometimes his email is nothing more than a couple of paragraphs long. Gary Vaynerchuk uses Snapchat Stories to grow his customer base. And, in addition to producing blog posts and podcasts, software entrepreneur Patrick McKenzie has built up engaged followings on Twitter and Hacker News.
In between blog posts, I like to share my story real-time on social media. I will often share screenshots on Twitter or Facebook of new Credo features under development, and I’ll even ask for help on PHP or CSS issues that I’m struggling to solve. This builds community and helps people get to know about and feel invested in the Credo brand.
Pick a combination of platforms that works best for your communication style and the time you have on hand.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
If you have an internalized fear of transparency, you may find that your mind will do anything it can to avoid sharing your story publicly.
I guarantee the way you start sharing your story today will evolve and change over time as you get more comfortable with the process and see how others respond to your story.
To overcome this fear, the best advice I can give you is to start now and tweak your approach on the go. Otherwise, you might never start.
Oversharing: Where Do You Draw the Line?
Some of the downsides of being transparent with your audience include increased scrutiny over how you run your business, and an increased fear of failure (because you’ll be afraid of disappointing the followers who are rooting for you). You could even risk inviting new competitors into your niche, because others will see that your business is lucrative.
To help decide exactly what I share with my audience, I ask myself the following set of questions:
- Is what I’m sharing going to have an effect on other people? If so, should I get permission from them before sharing?
- What is my motivation for sharing this information? To brag, or to be genuinely open and helpful to others?
- Could sharing this information create any negative outcomes for myself or my business?
I find that answering these questions before I go public with my story helps me share from an authentic place, ensure that I won’t harm personal or professional relationships, and avoid sharing blindly without thinking through any of the potential ramifications.
Let’s face it: the internet is a noisy place. There are countless entrepreneurs and businesses who are sharing their story online. You can’t expect to start sharing your personal story and have it materially affect your business overnight.
It will take time and consistency before you’re able to rise above the din, connect with others, and build an audience that’s willing to support your entrepreneurial journey.
Keep at it. And in times of doubt, when you think you’re speaking into a void, remember the saying: “Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.”
At the very least, by embracing transparency and sharing your entrepreneurial story with the world, you’ll track your journey online and get comfortable talking about the low points of your experience as much as you talk about the highs.
But, at best—and this is what I suspect will happen to everyone who’s brave enough to share their story authentically and transparently with the world—you’ll connect with a devoted audience of peers who are willing to support you, cheer for you, and in some cases mentor you as you carve your own path in business. What could be better than that?