Building in Public: What it’s (actually) like building a product

A 6-part series covering the good, bad, and ugly behind designing products at Crew and Unsplash

The path to a good product is never pretty.

No amount of planning will ever prepare you for the inevitable potholes waiting around each corner as you set out, pedal to the floor, trying to make an idea into something real.

Oftentimes, all we have is a list of problems and a few half-baked ideas for how to solve them. No real map. Just intuition, clear skies, and, if you’re lucky, a talented co-pilot (or two) to help you make the tough decisions.

Just over a year ago, our company Crew decided to hit the road again and completely redesign our core product from the ground up.

And because of the gravity of the situation at the time, we decided to document the whole thing in a Kerouac-ian stream of consciousness narrative about the emotional and logical struggles that happen when building a venture-backed product.

The trade-offs. The conflicting perspectives. The wrong turns. All the gory details were captured here and put out there for everyone and anyone to see.

But why?

From the beginning, we’ve been inspired by the transparency of other businesses but we learned quickly that transparency isn’t always easy.

Showing your flaws is scary. It’s easier to showcase the good times and keep failures to yourself — to sweep them under the rug, rather than put them on the coffee table for anyone to see. Showing your flaws makes you look weak to customers, investors, partners. Everyone. And in our hyper-competitive world, we’re taught to always look strong. Even when we’re submerged in fear.

But there’s many reasons why we think it’s worth it to share anyway.

One. Sharing creates a form of positive social currency. People don’t connect well with products. People connect well with you.

By involving people in your process, you become more approachable. You give people an opportunity to see what you made while you’re making it, creating a sense of, “we’re in this together”.

It’s this sense that turns a visitor into a subscriber into a fan.

But this is not the only reason we share our work with others. We know there’s lots of stuff we’re going to have to do that we have no idea how to do. But we’re going to have to figure it out.

We’re going to be inspired by things. We’re going to run into problems. We’re not going to know exactly what we’re doing most of the time. But if we make the time to document what we’re going through and share it, maybe it will be helpful.

Maybe there’s some mistake we made that you’ll learn from. Or something we did that inspires you so you can apply it to something you’re working on.

Sharing the bad along with the good makes you relatable. Life is rarely ever a green pasture. And we all face our own struggles at some point.

Seeing the flaws in others gives us the confidence to face our own problems knowing that the people on the other side — the ones we look up to and value — sat in this exact position not that long ago.

To quote Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s view on the importance of sharing your work:

“Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces…It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them.
If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done.”

This is why we publish all of our investor updates, blog metrics, and product design thinking even when things aren’t going great.

We’re strong believers that if you put something that’s helpful out into the world — something even better will happen at some point. You might get a new customer, a new friend, or partner. But even bigger than that, you might inspire someone to make an even bigger positive impact in the world.

Now, on the cusp of releasing yet another massive update to our product, I’m realizing these lessons from a year ago aren’t just release notes. They’re a near-timeless look at what goes on behind the scenes building a product. The good and the bad. Which is why we want you to have them.

More than just a snapshot of the struggles of a group of first-time founders, re-reading these posts I realized the efforts I was going through were philosophical ones — where designing the product was as much about what we thought would be successful, as what we thought would have real value.

And to understand real value, you have to understand yourself.

Building Crew in Public

Privacy be damned. Building Crew in Public is a series of 6 short essays on product design philosophy and the struggles we faced designing our own product. You can read the original, On The Road-inspired version on the Crew Backstage blog.

1. We’re all selling experiences

2. Start with problems. Not solutions.

3. Constraints, not barriers

4. Ask lots of questions

5. Anatomy of a homepage

6. The journey is more important than the destination: Designing the optimal onboarding flow

P.S. The new Crew

We recently went through this process again for a brand new version of our product at Crew. You can read all about it here.