21 Jul

Why I ignore great advice from my smartest friends

This spring after a conference in San Diego I was having dinner with two experienced software founders. I asked a question that I’ve been using lately to try to encourage unsolicited advice: “What are some mistakes you see us making in growing ConvertKit?”

I know ConvertKit is growing quickly—I’m proud of that—but more praise on the subject doesn’t help us meet our insanely ambitious goals. So this question is an attempt to learn about our weaknesses and strategy flaws that I don’t see. But since most people are polite, they won’t point out your flaws unless you ask. So this is my attempt at asking (you should try it too!).

Now back to the conversation. My two friends looked at each other, smiled, and then launched into the same advice: “Stop sharing your revenue numbers publicly.”

“Turn off the public Baremetrics dashboard. Remove the blog posts that share revenue along the way… Actually, you should get a job in the Google search team just so you can sneak in and get the posts delisted from Google’s cache.”

Alright, point taken. They both felt very strongly that sharing numbers publicly was foolish.

I’ve heard this from a few people before—all of whom I really respect. But during this conversation I simply smiled and said that wasn’t going to happen.

Is it a core value?

Last winter I attended a talk from Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz.com. Over the years he’s always been public and transparent with Moz’s numbers. At this particular talk he shared that Moz was just shy of $40m in revenue for 2015—which I found very useful as I’m also building a small software company.

After the talk I waited in line to ask him a question: “Do you ever regret sharing numbers publicly?”

Instead of answering the question, Rand asked why I wanted to know. I explained our situation: we were at almost $100k/month in revenue and I heard from people I respected that sharing numbers was no longer a good idea.

I also felt that telling the story may be helpful early on, but now the numbers were getting large enough that it might not be as relatable and wouldn’t be valuable to as many people. So what should we do?

Rand simply asked another question, “Is sharing your numbers part of a core value?”. Before I could answer he continued: “Because if it is, then you don’t need to be asking the question. And if it isn’t, then the question also doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want.”

So… is it a core value?

I loved Rand’s answer. Instead of making each decision on a one-off basis he had a lens of core values that he could analyze each decision through. For Moz, transparency is a key part of TAGFEE (their values). They will always share their numbers. Though interestingly they don’t share employee salaries publicly (as Buffer does) because they feel it conflicts with empathy, which is another core value.

While I’ve been working on writing out our core values, they still aren’t done yet. Mainly because I don’t want them to be trite or generic. But even without all our core values in place I do know we have one that is critical to everything we do:

Teach everything you know.

Teaching is the best way to build an audience, the shortcut to a great online business, and helps others to follow in your footsteps. For me it started when Sacha Grief and Jared Drysdale both shared their eBook sales numbers and inspired me to write my own book. From then on I was determined to pay it forward by sharing all of my own numbers.

Then in the early days of ConvertKit I shared the entire journey. We were actually one of the first companies (even before Buffer) to make our Baremetrics dashboard completely public.

Sharing numbers is about inspiring other entrepreneurs, keeping us accountable to grow, and providing public benchmarks that other founders can learn from. It also helps to get attention, which is easy to turn into customers.

Now, there are downsides to being an open book

Absolutely there are! For one, people think that sharing numbers is bragging – even though our Baremetrics dashboard was public when we were making just $3,000 per month. It’s about teaching, not bragging.

Sometimes it means other companies can learning the inner workings of your company. Besides just our top-line revenue you can deep-dive into the details of churn, customers per plan, and a lot more! We expose a lot of data that could be very useful to competitors.

We also found recently that contractors will inflate their rates to what they know you can pay. Quotes from three different contractors came back higher after we announced that we were profitable. I don’t blame them, it’s just annoying.

And there are plenty more downsides that I’m forgetting right now.

So why ignore advice from people I respect?

I ignore the advice from people who are far smarter and more successful than I am because I see ConvertKit as a bigger mission. It’s not about having a small advantage over the competition or about making sure there aren’t unintended consequences of sharing too much information.

Instead it’s about living out our core value of “teach everything you know”. If our story and numbers help even a few founders build a successful company it’s totally worth it.

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22 Responses to “Why I ignore great advice from my smartest friends”

  1. I have spent a lot of time debating open revenue. ~4 years ago I began publicly posting year end reports of my company’s revenue and expenses. In the beginning it was nothing but praise and congratulations from people that followed me and my company. Then as each year showed higher and higher numbers, a fair number of observers began questioning whether our numbers were being shared as a brag or with another ulterior motive.

    This made me debate whether I should be sharing numbers.

    Today I still stand by my original decision to be fully transparent as it is one of our core values. We aim to help educate others through our own struggles and triumphs, and part of that is helping aspiring business owners better understand revenues and expenses, big and small. It is far too easy to look at companies and just assume they’re making tens of millions because that’s how it appears from the outside, or, on the flip slide, to look at a team and assume they’re just barely scraping by when in reality they’re doing exceptionally well.

    Transparency removes assumptions and allows all of us focus on realities.

    I for one applaud you for your continual commitment to transparency. Your journey with ConvertKit is an inspiration to me.

  2. And this, right here, is one of the reasons I like you Nathan, as well as your company. Continue to teach, I like to learn!

  3. Great article. Living one’s values is utterly key to moving into a sustainable future.

  4. Nathan, love what you do and how you do it. Don’t change a thing.

  5. I love your approach Nathan. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’m a big fan of having a code for your company- a bit like the Jedi code – that gives you a framework for making all your moment to moment decisions.

  6. Anyone who thinks it’s bragging was never the target audience for sharing. Those who are appreciate what you do!

  7. I’ve been s customer for a while and did not know you share your revenue numbers, which is great! But for me I’m a customer because you do “teach everything you know” and I’m trying to be a great student. Keep up the lessons.

    Thank you

  8. Here is another thought on this. Since ConvertKit is a toolkit for converting visitors into sales it makes sense to share your numbers. Your numbers are evidence that the product works. As an analogy this would be like you sharing your CSS designs if you were selling an ebook on design.

  9. I think there is too much social tension when it comes to talking about revenues, salaries and so on and so forth. I started reading your blog because I read the article about the “revitalisation” of ConvertKit when it was at its nadir. But, on the hand, it’s good to have it in check at all times and resist sharing numbers just for the sake of it. For the current vision you have, I am totally for transparency. Keep on smashing, Nathan and ConvertKit team!

  10. Because of someone mentioning one can see your numbers I found you! Till now, I like very much what I experience through using ConvertKit, the blog posts, the videos… Just go on this great way! (Sorry for my English, I am not a native speaker).

  11. Enjoyed this one, Nathan! I think one key is to communicate everything in a way that shows people this is about a journey. Isolated income reports with little to no context can be misinterpreted. But transparency within the context of a narrative can be inspiring. I enjoy them when they are done this way, and when they examine successes *and* failures along the way. Nathan does this well, as do people like Pat Flynn.

  12. Love it! In the spirit of teaching let me share the easiest fastest and simplest way I have figured out how to articulate your core business values.
    Write down the top three things you cannot stand in business. Example – I can’t stand information hoarding . Then flip them. The reverse statements are your values. Example – Teach what you know.
    Don’t be tempted to find more than three. Nobody will remember the extras so they won’t change behaviour which is the only reason to have business values in the first place.

    Mine are simplify, listen, persist.

  13. Yes, I echo that — your transparency and philosophy of “teach everything you know” are reasons I like you and why I’m glad to be your customer. You also provide me with a great example of being “outrageously generous and relentlessly helpful” in the words of Tim Grahl and Jeff Goins as I get my own small business off the ground.

  14. I’m not sure our business is brave enough…or perhaps we haven’t quite sorted out our core values yet. But when I read the words “Teach everything you know”, it lights a fire in my soul instantly. I feel I want to rush out, get on the rooftops and share all that I have learned. I have found that I need to keep finding my way back to my passion, in spite of all the distractions and lures that lead you away. Thanks for being an inspiration for me.

  15. Being open and transparent means people can see your success, but also your failure. I don’t see that as a brag.
    p.s. thank you for your posts. It’s always a pleasure to read them

  16. When talking about numbers and transparency becomes so inspiring that you almost cry. Just happened to me. Thanks for writing this post. It’s also valuable for me, because when my friends give me advice (even without me asking :P), I don’t take it if it’s not in tune with my core values. But of course I still think about advice from almost every point of view.

  17. Ty says:

    Reading your posts, particularly about how you’ve grown consistently has been inspiring and educative. It has been really helpful for me as an aspiring SaaS company founder looking to understand how to build and grow a SaaS business. Keep up the good work Nathan.

  18. I agree with Sean. I appreciate what you do. I recommend ConvertKit to everyone who will listen.

  19. Transparency equals trust. If you’re transparent about arguably the most sacred part of your business, revenue, then it doesn’t get much more transparent and trustworthy than that.

  20. Nathan – thanks so much for the post and for the kind nod. I hope I wasn’t too harsh in our conversation. Obviously, I’m passionate about transparency for its own sake, but I also love the ripple effects it has – to let others share in your journey, to inspire like-minded people to join the entrepreneurial world, to hold yourself to account via publicized data, and to create a resounding, honest environment for your customers, your employees, the press, and yes, even your competition.

    I wish you and ConvertKit all the best!

  21. Are the best responses questions? Interesting that Fishkin didn’t *tell* you the answer. Like the best teachers, he simply asked you a thought-provoking question.

  22. I believe in that approach. I’m not sure how it feels on your perspective but I do believe in transparency from the viewpoint of an audience. Being transparent with critical data and insights built trust. Before I start blogging, I actually look around the web to see some solid examples to set my expectation and influencers who show their numbers do help me a lot along the journey. Thanks for making “teaching everything you know” as a part of ConvertKit core values!

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