Emotional Transparency

There’s a lot of talk out there right now about transparency. Transparency in government, transparency in business, transparency in relationships.

One type of transparency is the kind that’s forced upon the entity that’s trying to keep secrets. Whistleblowers are the most obvious example here. Most of us who can remember a time before the internet existed look favorably on these folks. Snowden’s a perfect example of this. Similarly, Wikileaks revealed some uncomfortable truths (despite whatever we might think about Assange). Alayne Fleischmann has a lot to say about our broken financial systems. These three forced the NSA, the U.S. Government, and Chase, respectively, to publicize (some of) their secrets.

Another type of transparency is the kind that’s freely shared. There’s a ton of that out there right now. It’s especially prevalent in the startup world. Companies writing about their plans for the newly raised round of capital. Companies writing about how they run their businesses. Hell, even companies running with completely open books.

A great example of this is Buffer. They’re doing a lot of really interesting work with transparency as a clear driving force behind it. They’ve shared their entire team’s salaries, they’ve shared their valuation, they’ve shared their fundraising strategies, they’ve even shared their revenue.

I’m a big fan of this. Getting a (mostly) unfettered look into how another business runs is, at the very least, useful for pattern matching against yourself. But if I’m being honest, every time I read one of their posts, I’m left feeling a bit empty.

I’ve been thinking about why that is. And, I think, it’s because it lacks a certain… humanity. This kind of freely given transparency usually has a narrative around success.

Seeing their salaries is fascinating — it also implies they’re doing pretty well as a business since they can afford to pay themselves (which is awesome!).

Seeing their company’s valuation is fascinating. They’ve done a lot of work to make investors believe they’re worth a lot of money— again, seems like they’re doing well if they can command that price on the market.

Suffice it to say, their business is clearly doing quite well, and I’m happy for their success. But I’m left wanting to know… more.

What’s missing is the human story. What was it like to work up to the decisions that have been shared? What feelings came up? What arguments? What triumphs? What were the losses like? Did any of those losses feel like wins later? And were any of those wins eventually realized as losses?

And let me be clear — I harbor no ill will towards Buffer. I’ve not met anyone from their team but everything I know says they’re good people who work hard for themselves and their customers. I think their blog strategy around transparency is a good one for them, and I certainly don’t think they should change on my account.

What’s more, we’ve done our fair share of this at Keen, so Buffer isn’t alone. Kyle wrote about how to craft a demo day pitch. Michelle wrote about how she negotiated with us before joining Keen. A bunch of us have written about what piece of Keen’s mission spoke to them and why we joined forces.

Each of these posts are fine examples of transparency. They reveal things that nobody outside of Keen knew before. Some of them are fun to share and some of them are uncomfortable, but they fit into the larger narrative of “Keen is a growing and successful startup”.

This kind of narrative is a good, important one. We wouldn’t be here without it, as content on the blog has been a huge source of traffic and signups for us.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t connect to what I want to write. I used to write more on our blog. Over the last two years I’ve felt largely uninspired (or, perhaps more accurately, scared).

In hindsight, I think the source of my disconnect is in what kind of transparency I felt I was supposed to share.

The very first post on our blog is my recounting of our first days as a company, before we got into Techstars. I really liked writing that. It was received well by the community. It felt right. The biggest reason why, I think, is that it was emotional communication. I was writing about what it felt like to go through that. It was honest. Some people connected with it, and that was even better.

And my last post I’m actually proud of is the Root Cause Analysis following an outage from almost two years ago. I’m proud of it because I was open, honest, and human in that post. We work really hard at Keen to make a product people enjoy. But we’re human and sometimes we mess up. Our promise is to be honest when we make mistakes, tell customers about them, and try our damnedest to learn from them.

As Keen has gotten more successful, it’s felt harder and harder to share humanely with the world like that. Sharing the nuts and bolts or the ins and outs of what’s going on with our business is pretty simple. It’s mostly just numbers that we copy out of a private google doc and into a public blog post. But sharing the emotions behind those figures — that’s the interesting stuff. Or, maybe I should say — that’s the stuff that turns a simple sketch into a full fledged painting. And for me, that’s way more interesting.

So there’s a third kind of transparency: /emotional/ transparency. The shortest definition I can give of emotional transparency is “something that leaves you feeling vulnerable”. It’s what I’m interested in exploring here. If it sounds interesting to you too, follow along. ☺

Discuss with me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dkador!