Oh the stealthiness

Ok, maybe it’s just me but the number of stealth mode startups seems to be on the rise in Colorado. Somehow this is back in fashion.

In Boulder alone, I know of about ten interesting and legitimate companies currently operating in stealth mode. I’m on technical advisory boards for two of them, personally know people involved in five more, and have talked with founders of several others in just the last few weeks. If you look carefully on the job boards, blogs, and your buddy’s new email addresses, you can see hints that they exist everywhere. But you can’t get the first clue about what they’re actually up to, by design.

I’m not putting this approach down, although I don’t personally agree with it in most cases. Release early, release often, really listen and improve constantly – that’s my thinking. Of course, there are pros and cons and certainly there are some situations where stealth mode makes good sense (for example to generate initial interest – secrets are cool and fun). Personally, I just think that once you have some kind of a product, you are better off scaling up users over time than trying to get them all in the first month after “launch.”

Sometimes I think people confuse operating in stealth mode with being under the radar. Stealthy companies seek to completely avoid providing any hints about what they’re doing until “the big launch” when suddenly everyone can see what they’re doing all at once. Transparent companies can still fly under the radar by limiting their user base. As we’ve seen, too many users too early can be quite deadly. However, fanatical and supportive early adopters can literally help make your company great.

I think the key thing here is that ideas are cheap. Just because somebody steals your idea doesn’t mean they can execute it as well as you can. So as soon as you have something that some users would see real value in, consider letting them play with it right now. Unless of course you know exactly what your customer wants and you have no need for this kind of valuable feedback. Just be sure it won’t be too late on the big “launch” day. Hint: you’re going to iterate then anyway (under lots more pressure), don’t kid yourself.

Check these links out if you’re really interested in the pros and cons of going stealth.

file under: Blog, Startups