Why Stealth Mode Will Kill Your Startup

Just last week I was on a call with a potential investor when he mentioned a colleague whose startup was in “stealth mode.”

Which instantly reminded me of one of my favourite quotes. It came from Howard Aiken, an early pioneer of computing.

“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea.

If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

In today’s entrepreneurial climate, ideas are nothing without traction. And traction doesn’t come by accident. Traction is the sweated-over result of a well-honed pitch, a bootstrapped minimum viable product and often a proven product-market fit as well.

When a CEO keeps his startup in stealth mode, he’s decided paranoia over theft of his grand idea outweighs the risk of wasting time and money on a poorly thought out startup. The reality is, stealth mode hurts you and your company far more than it helps you. Here’s why.

1. Nobody wants to steal your idea.

There’s nothing more hilarious to me than when a startup CEO asks me to sign an NDA before they reveal their grand idea. In reality, the most powerful force keeping me from stealing your idea is not an NDA, but my belief that my idea is better than your own.

Most people are violently assured they have the right ideas. In fact, this reality distortion field is common among CEOs. So stop believing someone will drop everything to rip off your idea—they’re probably only thinking “I hope she’s not doing my idea!”

2. Most people will never even hear of your startup.

Starting tomorrow, “unstealth” your startup and start spamming your social networks with App Store and landing page links as much as humanly possible. The fact is most of your intended audience (investors, customers, etc.) will still never be even faintly aware of your existence.

We’re all simply too self-absorbed or well-insulated to receive everything you’re broadcasting. To this day I still get Facebook friends surprised to learn I’ve moved to another country—over two years ago.

3. You leave stones unturned.

Mention your idea to someone even in passing, at the end of an email, on chat—anywhere. Don’t pass up the chance. You never know what they know or who they know or what you’ll learn as a result.

Every day I am shocked at how effective this is: new leads are surfaced, competitors I didn’t know about are mentioned, or someone expresses a whole new way to view our product that hadn’t even occurred to me yet. If I had kept my mouth shut about our startup, I’d truly be “eating my own dog food.” In the same way one drinks the Kool-Aid.

4. Opportunity often takes a long time to knock.

When you put off spreading the word about your startup, you also put off initiating the gestation period for opportunity. Practically speaking, VC investment alone can take six to nine months to find and close, but if you wait until you need it, those nine months will seem like forever.

But other types of opportunity take time to materialize too. One day your friend’s mind wanders and he comes up with the perfect person for you to talk to at ESPN. Or a former co-worker could have put you into their Q3 roadmap if he had known in Q1. Start seeding opportunity too late and you’ll run out of time before its first flowers bloom.

5. Get honest feedback when you can use it.

By telling your friends and colleagues what you’re up to, you get to hear some (very) honest feedback when you need it most: in the early stages, when course-correction costs you much less. Your friends will be candid, which helps you refine your pitch or product offering so it makes sense. And your colleagues, often strongly motivated to find the “gotchas” in your idea, will give you a good sense of the obstacles you might face getting investor or customer buy-in.

Now there are likely some people you don’t want to tell pre-launch. If someone is strongly in the “potential competitor” category, the risk of telling them may be greater than the benefit. But be wary of censoring yourself in any other way. As I said, some of the most serendipitous connections or ideas have come from conversations that I thought would never lead to anything, startup-wise.

Be willing to have those conversations, to listen fully and to disclose as much (or a bit more) as you feel comfortable. Being unguarded about your concerns and the potential potholes in your business model is an effective way to invite your conversation partner to offer their solutions to your problem. Resist the urge to appear like you’ve already got everything buttoned down, as you leave little room for contribution and seem adversarial rather than collaborative.

Mike Tyson offered the best startup advice ever: “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”

So talk up your startup to anyone who will listen. Absorb lots of punches early on, so by the time you reach your big fight you won’t be knocked out so easily.

And now back to working on PlayRank, our second screen sports app that launches this January. Have I told you about that yet…?