“US Navy Sea Shadow stealth craft” by US Navy employee – http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/factfile/ships/ship-sea.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
I’ve tweeted this before…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Stealth is overrated. Startups should use every opportunity to get their name out.
— Manu Kumar (@ManuKumar) May 29, 2010
…and I’ve said it to founders on more occasions than I can count: For startups stealth is overrated.
When I was saying it in 2010, it was still a theory or a gut feel. Today, I have seen it enough times from companies in my portfolio and others that are not in my portfolio that have utilized the “We’re in stealth mode” line. In almost all cases, any company that tried to be “stealthy” ended up missing the mark on their first product. Yes, they built something. Yes, what they built was cool. But, they almost always missed something important, which ultimately let to the failure of the product, or worse yet, to the demise of the company.
And I see it happening again, and again, and again. Founders who tend to err on the side of secrecy or caution tend to have a major blindspot about their product and market because they haven’t gotten enough feedback on what they’re doing. They also don’t do a great job at pitching their idea when it comes time to actually pitch because they simply haven’t practiced pitching it enough. By talking about your idea in social and casual conversations, you hear almost all the simple and logical objections that a person can have about your product.
Sometimes it’s often a simple remark that is passed in jest. But like comedians like to say, it’s only funny because it’s true. The same thing applies to product. If someone tried to say something funny, yet negative, about your product/concept, it is probably because it is true. And having to defend your idea or your product in these casual conversations is when you have the opportunity to try different pitches and see what works best.
To be clear, I’m not proposing that a company should be setting up a web page and showing products that don’t exist, or doing press announcements with vaporware (I have strong views on crowdfunding and pre-orders, but those I will cover in a different post in the future). That would be completely ridiculous. You shouldn’t be in “broadcast-mode” where you’re blasting things out to press, and the audience at large.
However, I am proposing talking to people about what you are doing in a one on one setting. If you meet someone at an event or a party, tell them what you’re doing. You never know if they know something you don’t or if they can offer up a connection that ends up being hugely valuable. This is especially true of talking to potential customers, employees, and investors. If you don’t tell people what you’re doing, they can’t help you.
That last part is one of the key reasons why Silicon Valley is what it is. The network is amazingly fluid, and if people know what you are doing, they will almost immediately start offering up helpful ideas or connections.
Founders tend to be most worried about competition and press. On the competition side they don’t want the competition to know what they are working on. To me that is a sign that you don’t have enough confidence in your idea or in your ability to execute. Otherwise you wouldn’t care about the competition, you’d be out there working your ass off to build what you want to build as fast as possible.
For press, remember that people of the press are human too. And most of them (there may be a few exceptions) are not out there to screw over some fledgling startup for a story. If you’re actually talking to someone face to face, you can look them in the eye and determine whether you trust the person or not. If you don’t trust someone, you don’t need to share with them. But you can’t not trust everyone!
Too many founders feel that their idea is way too special. Unlike most people in the valley, I don’t believe that ideas are worth nothing and execution is everything. But even when ideas do matter, you still have to tell people about the idea in order to be able to find co-founders, employees, investors and more.
Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door
…but only if you tell them about it!
So founders, do yourself a favor and get off your high horse, and start talking to people. And more importantly, start listening to what they say when you do.