Monday, October 15, 2012

Stealth Mode Entrepreneurs Only Increase the Risk

Every time I hear about a new startup that is in stealth mode, I wonder what problem they are hiding from whom. Of course they pretend that they are trying to avoid alerting competitors prior to launch, but too often it becomes an excuse to move slowly in a world that’s all about getting to market fast.

I believe stealth makes sense for large companies who can be sued for “pre-announcing” a new product to stall the market or kill a competitor. It also makes legal sense to never disclose the details of your patent application, before the product is ready to ship. But otherwise, startup companies should seek out publicity and the open sharing of information, from day one.

Openness is part of the business culture of entrepreneurs and technology centers around the world. People talk to people, and even competitors freely exchange news on trends and discoveries. Here are seven ways this can actually help your startup efforts, rather than hurt them:

  1. Initiate media interest. These days, new technologies and social trends are fanned from an ember into a flame by the media and word-of-mouth. This takes time, and is more valuable than any advertising you can buy. It’s probably here that you need the “first-mover advantage” more than in the lab.

  2. Get concept feedback early. No matter how good you are, your initial idea is likely to be at least partially wrong. The sooner you get that feedback from people who count, the better your chance of recovery, and the less money you have wasted. Don’t be so arrogant to assume you won’t need course corrections.

  3. Find your real competitors. The sooner you disavow yourself of the notion that “we have no competitors,” the more likely you are to survive. “No competitors” may mean no market (give up now), or customers are happy with alternatives (keep their car rather than ride the new fast train). Face reality early, and you can deal with it.

  4. Deliver minimum product and iterate. Stealth mode can give you a false sense of security that you can take additional time to get it right the first time. Time is your biggest enemy, and customer feedback is your biggest ally. A startup that has been incorporated for two years or more without shipping is already seen as a bad investment.

  5. Prime the investor world. Don’t talk directly to potential investors until you have the business plan and other basics complete. But start networking with advisors, industry pundits, and domain experts early. Your direction will get back to potential investors, and create a sense of heightened expectations that can help you get in the door when ready.

  6. You need time to pivot. The good news is that almost every mistake can be undone, if you have the time. Customers are more forgiving of early visible changes in direction, and the cost is much lower for you. With stealth mode, you can’t learn early enough to pivot gracefully.

  7. Tune your website. Most startups need funding before shipping, and investors expect to see your website to validate your business plan. In addition, a website needs several weeks of presence for indexing by search engines, search engine optimization, blog activity, and link building. These things can’t be done while in stealth mode.

To enforce stealthy behavior, startups often require everyone, even potential employees to sign nondisclosure agreements, and strictly control who may speak with the media. This is a turnoff to everyone, and real investors never sign nondisclosures. It’s all an expensive distraction that doesn’t work.

Overall, I recognize that there are some startups, like biotech and semiconductors, with long highly technical development cycles and huge competitors, where early stealth makes sense. With most others, like web services, incubation time must be short, and secrecy can be the kiss of death. For these startups, stealth mode can keep you under the radar, just when you wish you could be found.

Marty Zwilling


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