I’ve worked with hundreds of startups over the years, and not one company has stayed in "stealth mode" and won. So, I'm here to say that times have changed. If you want investors, partners or customers to notice you, they have to know you exist.
Founders often think they have good reasons for staying in stealth mode. In reality, though, those reasons are worthless:
- Founders don’t want someone to steal their idea -- but ideas are a dime a dozen.
- They may have a big launch plan and don’t want to spoil the surprise -- but nobody cares.
- They may think that first-mover advantage matters -- but Uber actually wasn’t the first ride-sharing game in town.
Clearly, those notions simply don’t hold up any longer, and, meanwhile, raising money hasn’t gotten any easier. With so many startups competing for those dollars, imagine what would happen if they all stayed in stealth mode: How would they know whether an investor already had an identical company in his or her portfolio?
You just can’t plan for your trajectory if you don’t have any context. So, escape the stealth-mode context. Here are ways it can only hurt you.
Never enough feedback
The biggest problem with stealth mode is that you aren’t showing your product and getting feedback from potential customers and partners. As you build your startup, you’re full of untested assumptions about who will use your product and how.
It’s too risky to assume that you’re going to nail the product-market fit on your first release. Without early customer feedback, you can spend months or years building something no one wants.
And don’t forget about feedback from potential investors and partners. If you build a startup in the open, people who know more about your industry can be valuable assets, bringing you knowledge about technology you need, and competitors you may not have foreseen had you operated in stealth.
How to get out in the open
Here are some steps to becoming successfully visible as you build the next big thing:
1. Tell your mom (and everyone else). Just start talking. Don’t create barriers for people to find out more about your project. Talk openly and honestly with all who will listen, to get their feedback. Your mom will probably love it, but maybe an investor you speak with will hate it. Take the best of that input, and let it help you shape your idea further.
People love passion. If you’re passionate about your idea (you should be!), let it show. Without sounding New Age-y, the law of attraction is a real thing. You have to share and be passionate about your ideas to attract the people and things that will make your startup happen. You can’t build anything in a vacuum.
2. Toss the NDA. I have no interest in helping entrepreneurs who make me sign a nondisclosure agreement before talking, and neither do most investors. NDAs arguably used to be important, but these agreements are basically useless now because intellectual property is such a gray area. A “he said, she said” legal battle with competitors makes no sense for small businesses, one entrepreneur recently told the New York Times. Good luck proving damages in court -- why would you spend money on legal battles, anyway?
3. Keep a laser focus. You can’t solve every problem for every person. At Coplex, we started by telling people we did digital product development and apps for companies of all shapes and sizes. We were then promptly dropped into a bucket with all the other development shops. So, we retooled our pitch. As soon as we focused on just building startup companies, people were willing to make connections, and word spread.
Zero-in on the big problem you’re trying to address, and forget the rest. Former Infusionsoft CMO Greg Head has some solid advice on this: “Find the million dollar [problem] your product solves," he says. "Then focus only on the few potential customers who have this serious problem.” And, after that, share your vision. Stealth mode? Save it for the Lockheed Martin F-35.
Today’s business landscape is different than it used to be. So, don’t keep things quiet. You want to share your vision, your passion and your concept with the world. It’s the only way to attract the things that you need to make your business idea reality.