Wednesday, 22 September 2010

To stealth, or not to stealth

I've been working on a new startup with two other founders that I found at launch48 last year. I've already mentioned launch48 on this blog, but I haven't yet mentioned my startup... That's because we've been keeping it quiet until recently... when we had a kind of "trial launch" at the previous launch48 weekend (in June).

Now, based on my reading on the matter (see links at bottom), I don't believe that "stealth mode" is actually a good way to go about building a web business. I think the reality is that if you've got a good idea, not only will it not instantly be stolen from you, but you'll have to cram it down people's throats before they take any notice...

But you see, I have two business partners. One of which is a strong believer in protecting your IP - and the other wanted to make peace between us... so we compromised and kept a lid on our idea until the trial launch.

Now, we're fairly new to the game, and we think there's a good idea in our startup, but it's no iPhone. It's not something people are screaming for and they aren't going to start beating path to our door immediately. Because of this, I was never afraid of people "stealing our idea" - because, to be honest, it just isn't sexy enough. When I explain it to people they go "oh, ok, cool I can see that... did you think about doing Y?" I've never seen a gleam of greed in their eye, followed by hasty notes scribbled down... and I never expected that this would happen.

So in my opinion, I don't see a big reason to keep it quiet.

Instead, I think it's important to get exposure to your idea as early as possible from people Out There in the Real World... that way you immediately get to see whether people think your idea is actually worth spending eight months of your life on... or not. This is simply my own reasoning behind Seth Godin's Ship it philosophy.

Stealth mode redux has some interesting case studies on which "startups" do and don't need to stay quiet about the product they have in production.

What I see most clearly is that stealth mode is mainly useful for companies that are large and already have a big audience... or who have enough funding to keep them going while they beaver away in secret on a product until it's perfect... ie companies that aren't actually startups.

The problem is that real startups - the tiny, self-funded groups of new founders - can't afford to be in stealth mode for very long - for the very simple reason that they do not have enough capital for long periods of development.

I'm not talking about people that slowly hack away doing a few hours every week while working a day job... I mean real "cash flow positive from day one" startups, rather than ones that require such extended self-funding.

Such things need to start gaining revenue asap, and the only way to do that is to attract customers... and the only way to do that is to tell everybody about them!

In the interest of balance, of course, there's a great post pointing out that releasing early is not always Good - which covers some of the reasons why *not* to release early... and they're all very fair points. But I'd argue that all of them point to a new variant of Einstein's famous "make it as simple as possible, but not too simple" ie:

"Release as early as possible, but not too early"


After having read The small man builds cages for everyone on The art of non-conformity, I'm convinced that NDAs and other stealth-measures are a cage-building habit.


Links on stealth-mode being bad, or the philosophy of "release early, release often":
Startup lessons learned
The Cathedral and the Bazaar

More links on stealth mode:
why choosing to go into stealth mode could be the kiss of death for your startup
Does Being In Stealth Mode Damage Your Business?


Zach Inglis said...

I subscribe to the idea that ideas are a dime a dozen and it is the execution that truly makes them valuable. Chances are tens of people have already had the same idea as you.

I personally like to stealth up until about the 75% mark. That way I can start creating a little buzz and more importantly a little feedback. "Oh it'd be great if it does this" or such can help you create that unique feature that it was lacking beforehand.

Taryn East said...

Thanks Zach. I agree. We found it really useful when we did our "trial launch" - because suddenly we were getting some really helpful comments on what we could do to improve it. I think it makes all the difference!

Getting it in front of real people also helps answer the "does it solve a real problem" question too.

75% is a good metric - I'll remember that. Gives you the best of both worlds. Time to make sure you've got the execution mostly under your belt, but also time to start spreading the word and getting input.