Should Your Startup Be in Stealth Mode? 4 Questions to Consider

“Want to know a secret?” That question whispered in someone’s ear, is one of the easiest hooks in the world. Anticipation, mystery, and curiosity are all great ways to get people to lean in, pay attention, and take notice. These qualities also play into the attraction of the “stealth mode” approach to running a startup.

Going stealth has its benefits and its drawbacks. On the one hand, you don’t have to worry about someone stealing your brilliant idea before you can get it to market. On the other, you don’t get to use your brilliant idea to build buzz and word-of-mouth marketing. Before you decide how to launch your startup and whether or not stealth mode will work for you, consider these questions about what you want and how you want to do things.

1. Have you done your homework with your customers?

One of the biggest problems for any business, large or small, is doing the kind of deep research you need to understand what your customers want and don’t want. Getting feedback should be at the core of your strategy. You don’t want to be the startup that launches what they think is a great idea after months of secrecy, only to find there’s no demand for it in the market.

As Jason Brewer, CEO and co-founder of the digital agency Brolik, writes for Fast Company, “A recent client of ours wanted to launch a tech product in the golf industry—no more specifics than that. After two months of research on a modest budget, we recommended the client avoid the industry entirely.”

Remember, though, that stealth mode makes it a lot harder to collect feedback about a product or idea. Make sure you have plans in place to get that input, one way or another. As Brewer explains, “We could have launched into stealth mode and started building something, but we did our homework and talked to potential customers instead.”

2. What is your long-term plan for your startup, and how does choosing stealth mode contribute to that?

It’s important to keep in mind your startup’s long-term strategy. That doesn’t mean you need to know everything that’s going to happen from beginning to end—nobody can predict the future. But you do need to have an idea of what you’re after and how you’re going to achieve it.

The biggest reason to go stealth mode is to prevent your competitors from knowing what you’re up to. For certain transformational ideas, this kind of secrecy can be important. But in certain markets where you face competition from huge, well-resourced companies, you shouldn’t discount the value of being acquired by someone who has the brand recognition and capability to turn your idea into something transformational. It’s hard to court those partners, or even know who they might be, if you’re keeping your ideas under wraps.

In addition, consider what it will take to get your concept to the next level. For B2B projects, it’s much easier to get by with a small number of big customers. You can pitch your project and have them sign a non-disclosure form if necessary—you only need to land a few clients to get your business off the ground.

With consumer-oriented projects, however, you need to hit a certain critical mass to know if what you’re doing has legs. It’s hard to do that if you’re spending all of your time perfecting your product, and attaching yourself to an established brand can help.

3. Do you know how much your idea is worth?

We tend to over-value our own ideas. If you haven’t gotten meaningful feedback on your product, your product may not be as groundbreaking as you think it is. This type of validation happens naturally if you adopt the “lean startup” model of iteration and feedback that many companies take, but you need to find a way to factor these considerations into anything that you do.

A great idea is only one piece of the puzzle. No matter how innovative your product may be, you still need to get the word out and convince people to give it a try. There are all sorts of factors you might not be considering when approaching the market, and the only way to identify those blind spots is to test your ideas with your target market.

4. Do you need investors?

Everyone needs investors, but what type of investors do you need? Are you bootstrapping your company with the goal of keeping it in the black as much as possible? Do you have people involved in the project who can lend it their credibility?

Funding turns your idea and into reality. If you choose not to share that idea with the public, then you’ll need another way to attract investors. You can rely on the people you have recruited or the fact that other people have decided that your startup is worthwhile.

Some companies generate revenue and excitement in their technology niche by coming out of stealth mode, like these companies in the deep learning chipsets space. Others can get funding based on what their founders have done in the past. If you can create that kind of press around your idea, then you’re in a great position to go stealth mode. If not, ask yourself some hard questions about whether or not it’s right for you.

What You Can Do Right Now

Going stealth mode is a hot trend for startups, but it can also lead to years spent perfecting a project that doesn’t have a market. Before you launch, make sure you ask the right questions about your idea and your startup to figure out if going stealth mode is right for you.

  • Have you done your homework with your customers?
  • What is your long-term plan for your startup, and how does going stealth mode contribute to that?
  • Do you know how much your idea is worth?
  • Do you need investors?
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