When I launched OtherInbox at TechCrunch50 in 2008, being “stealth” was a requirement for participation. We had to be launching something new that no one had heard about and secrecy was so important that we were told that we would be kicked out if anything leaked.
Maybe this should be reconsidered for 2010?
However, I do partly agree with the article. Some people are wayy to tight lipped about what they are working on, there's rarely a reason why someone can't speak in generalities about their project without going into exact details.
(Note: I'm not putting TC and the NYT in the same bucket, but this is a bad point to call them out on.)
And it's not just TechCrunch. Henry Blodget doesn't agree with everything Frommer writes at TBI, Dean and Matt at VentureBeat don't even write about the same stuff, and so on.
Make no mistake, even the biggest preachers of being open withheld information. I'd like to see a more nuanced discussion about what to share and what not to.
1. The idea itself in the way you'd present it to the layman
2. The engineering problems you face in implementing the idea
3. The solution to said problems
You can come off as being "open" by disclosing only the first part. If another person overhears (1) in your discussion, in order to implement the idea they first need to figure out (2) what makes it hard before even (3) devoting resources to solving the problem. And how you approach (2) and (3) in addition to just (1) is what determines success (read: execution). Note that I am making an assumption that whatever you're working on requires actual engineering.
So for the example of Google,
1) A search engine that lets you find stuff
2) Relevance is really freakin' hard
None of this of course applies to negotiations with VCs, where the rules turn on their head and you don't want to make yourselves look like you are effortlessly delivering solutions. And unless you're looking for a certain type of leverage, acknowledging the fact that negotiations exist to other people is probably a bad idea too.
1. Hey everybody, check out this new search engine with a genius algorithm called "PageRank" that returns much more relevant results!
In other words, Google is a prime example of what zaidf is saying. PageRank was a huge marketing hit. Over 10 years later, it's still the first thing anyone mentions when they talk about Google's competitive edge, yet this has been a fiction for ages and may largely have been so from the beginning. How much of a technical edge was it really, compared to the other things Google did right? That remains totally obscure (see 2 and 3 above).
Few people really know much about PageRank beyond the general idea. In Google's case, I think they talked about PageRank more because they had written a paper on it and it was already public whether they talked or not.
But if you observe, beyond the original paper, little is known about PageRank from Google. There are plenty of guesses--right and wrong--that can be pieced together to form a narrative of the changes and evolution in PageRank. But nothing official from Google. And probably for a reason.
Ask Jeeves (or maybe Yahoo) tried a big "The Algorithm" marketing campaign and that clearly got them nowhere. I think if we're talking about marketing the "I'm feeling lucky" button was more of a boon to virality than PageRank.
Choosing PageRank was probably a slight lapse in integrity in my post, but undoubtedly there's been a whole bunch of other examples in Google's history which do fit the mold (GFS, MapReduce, Pregel, etc).
(Worth the potential downvotes.)
I gauge how much to share from person to person, or even town to town. I know being in a college town, I can get away with sharing a lot more, even down to the details because it is rare I am talking to someone who has the motivation or skill to even try to execute.
The same would not be true in Frisco where I know there are serious executors and I'd be a little more wary of the depth I go into.
I have this perspective because I am someone who regularly gets great ideas from listening to other folks talk. I am surprised by the depth they go into and as a consumer, welcome it! But if I were in their shoes, I am not sure I'd share the same information.
Having said all this, very few people anywhere will say that I am a secretive guy. I just try to be deliberate about what I share. I also believe in reciprocation, especially with numbers. And I am happy to lead.
As I have stated here previously, one of my plans is to learn a programming language and write a simulation for my health site. I don't think it can be stolen because it will be rooted in the things I do for my own health -- ie it is rooted in first-hand personal life experience. Even if someone stole the general idea to create a "game" to help people with wellness, I don't think they could really steal my idea to create a game to help people with my diagnosis get healthier. I know plenty of people doing alternative stuff and seeing better than average results. I don't know anyone who has had the kind of results I and my son have had. So I don't think anyone else knows what I know, therefore any other simulation would not contain the mental models I have in my head. Thus, I don't worry about that.
On the other hand, I mostly talk about that plan here and have also mentioned it in passing on a health list for a different type of medical condition. I don't think I have mentioned it on any of the CF lists I belong to. I think it would get point-and-laugh type reactions: "Yeah, sure, you are going to cure my deadly medical condition by having me play a video game. Har-dee-har-har." I also have no idea how long it will take me to implement. I have yet to even learn any code. So that is another reason I am keeping that plan to myself in the communities where a few people might be interested in it. I don't want people to be tired of hearing "empty promises" by the time I actually implement it.
If you launch fast, as you should, the question of how secretive to be before launching shrinks in importance.
Our advice is generally: you can tell people about some of your plans, and others you should keep secret, but above all, transform them into actions as soon as possible.
I have one. We launched Twttr in a stealth private beta for at least a few months. I think the period coincided with the period it took to get an official SMS short code. During the stealth period we were serving SMS traffic out of an SMS modem attached to an office laptop. We got the normal benefit of polishing the product that you'd get from a private beta. Plus we got to develop the product without any public scrutiny. But we were very conservative about who we let know about the project, basically close friends and family who didn't work for a major internet company.
I think the hardest part about changing your product strategy is going back on your promises (in our case we'd promised customers, investors, and employees that we were going to build a world-changing podcast product). I don't know if it would have been fatal, but it definitely would have been uncomfortable to be accused of abandoning our initial product before knowing we had a success (and contrary to some statements, there were a big chunk of internal users who knew we had something important from the first day we used it).
As another commenter pointed out, it's a lot more nuanced than writers want to let on. Writing is about drama and hyperbole. Real life is about finding balance.
Hopefully you have some other competitive advantages besides just having a good idea. It's those things combined with great execution and some luck that will make you succeed. If its that easy to rip off your idea and do it then being first isn't going to that much of a difference compared to execution and some kind of marketing advantage.
What's more interesting to me as an angel investor than the idea is what problem you are trying to solve. Your first idea of the perfect answer is probably wrong, but if you're trying to solve a valuable problem, you're smart, and you have some other competitive advantage then I might be willing to bet that you'll find the right answer.
With OtherInbox we were in 'stealth mode' for 9 months. We had about 200 alpha testers during that time, but our learning accelerated much faster after going public. In hindsight, I think we would have been better off being more open about it right from the beginning.
Note: Just because you're not in stealth mode doesn't mean you have to drop your pants and tell everything. Every company has confidential information and trade secrets.
I agree about re-creating the site. But not about re-creating the company. You say yourself:
> We had about 200 alpha testers during that time, but our learning accelerated much faster after going public.
You have to re-create this learning experience, too. Otherwise you may be cloning accidental complexity, but miss the spirit.
I really don't worry that someone will steal my idea(s). I don't think it is stealable. But even if I did, I wouldn't worry that a big company would steal it. As I understand it, Bill Gates got rich doing something IBM basically gave away to him.
The only worry I have about big companies is a paranoid fear that stuff I do on the web might some day get me fired from my current job before I am ready to support myself via my off-hours activities. So I try to not do any of the things that have gotten other people fired from big companies over online activities (like talk trash about the company I work for).
I think this exception can be generalized to pure technology development, even without the patent legal requirement of non-disclosure. It applies if you are developing a new technology that already has a known market; or an entirely new technology (in which case you are more an inventor or scientist than an entrepreneur). So, Edison got his light-bulb working well enough; Birdseye discovered the freezing rate for fish that worked well enough.
Of course, most internet startups are not pure technology. They're mostly about market development, and at best, applying technology to that new market.
A final factor is that, even for pure technology, it helps if you can discuss it with someone. So it's good to have a team. This is one benefit of working in a big corp lab.
@GeorgeReese: The real reason that stealth mode is daft is that there's no such thing as a unique idea.
@GeorgeReese: If your idea is unique, it's very probably a stupid idea.