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Death to the Cult of Stealth Startups (stopmebeforeiblogagain.com)
28 points by blacktar on May 24, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 38 comments

Old Battlebots story, when my team was competing we would talk to other teams in the 'pit' area. There were a number of teams that kept everything covered up and hush hush until their first fight. Then there were teams like mine who would tell you anything you wanted to know about our bot. The stealth guys never did well in their first appearance, and if they came back the following year and stayed "stealthy" they didn't do well then either. It was the back and forth of multiple ideas and questions that helped people prepare for something which was essentially part chance, part strategy, part build quality.

Over the years Startups seem to have a similar path. I've known some which were ok but started out stealthy, but most that start stealthy seem to launch, and then pivot after getting some real world experience and feedback. The ones that are pretty open seem to come out swinging and they already have answers for most of the questions thrown at them (which gives them credibility).

Perhaps notable, perhaps not, in the 30 years I've been watching I have yet to see a single startup that was open and that resulted in someone else "scooping" them and getting the prize. But I have seen startups that execute poorly not move fast enough once their market is proven to avoid damage by a nimbler opponent.

Great insights! I guess I'm no different in that I'm probably going to be pivoting after more real market exposure and feedback. I just want to go faster forwards and believe more radical transparency will help me with that.

Good stuff. There are some ideas in that post that I want to crib / borrow from!

We are already about as far from "stealth" as you can get, in that all of our products are Open Source (Apache Licensed and on GitHub), we blog a lot, and we have a public facing website that makes it pretty clear what we're doing and aiming at.

That said, it's a sort of "static transparency". Anybody who cares to know, can come to fogbeam.com or our github site, etc., and learn a lot about us. But this post makes me think about a more "dynamic tranparency" where we push ideas / thoughts / code / whatever, out and more actively solicit feedback and interaction around that.

Of course we already solicit feedback, talk about the roadmap, etc., in private when meeting with potential customers in Customer Development interviews... but we could probably get more people involved and generate more good ideas that way.

Cool. Feel free to steal. :) I think of it as one more channel for feedback, as to not miss out on insights otherwise lost.

Why add unneccesary noise channels? Not everything is black and white. Open up when it makes sense to be open, and be stealthy when it's appropriate.

How would you define unnecessary noise? Conversely, what do you see as the necessary noise channels? How would you define and know when it is appropriate to open and close? (edit: added last question)

Example of neccesary noise would be me trying to support clients who don't have a clue what they're doing with the product (and it's their stupidity to blame).

As for unneccesary noise example, that would be feedback of people whose feedback I do not value.

And as for edited and added last question - it depends. :)

When you say"support clients", I assume people already paying for what your startup is offering? For clarity, I'm explicitly talking about sharing for pre-product-market fit, pre-validated business model startups. (edit: sloppy fingers)

Well, with your openess, you're out of the gate already, so "pre-" prefix isn't in the same sense as for stealth startup.

Dilluting my karma like I just don't care! :)

What do you mean? Could you elaborate how my startup is now in fact different than one hour ago before the post?

How do you know to objectively value feedback sources? Why and how does it depend?

I usually bundle feedback in two groups - first one is my target demographic, the second one is professional. First one is pretty straightforward to parse, the second one is a kind of a double-edged sword.

Whatever your methodology is, at some point you can't parse more feedback, and it's then noise, whatever its contribution is.

I see it this way: The higher frequency of exposure, the larger the sampling pool, the more noise AND the more opportunity to spot a recurring signal in that noise. If you keep your sampling pool low, how will you separate noise from signal?

One reason NOT to share everything with everybody:

With the new patent laws, you only have a one year window to file from the time something is first disclosed publicly.

If you're doing software in Europe like me, patent protection is not available. And that's a good thing.

Assumptions: a) You believe in the value of patents and b) you have something that can be patented.

a₂) Your investors believe in the value of patents.

I had one investor tell me, "Patents are for losers." What he meant was that if you succeed, you don't really need the patent, and your time is better spent building your business than starting patent fights. If you fail, then at least you might be able to sell or license the patent. I'm not sure I agree, but it's an interesting perspective.

That's odd. I've always thought patent applications by smaller businesses are for defensive use. For example, when RFID was in a bubble the early companies patented and then licensed in a patent pool, but also had then for defensive purposes.

That's aligned with what I've seen, too.

For example, I saw a group of seed investors try to identify potential patents in their portfolio companies as a way to increase the scrap value of the firms in the worst-case scenario. But they weren't making go/no-go decisions on the basis of the patents, it was just a slight value-add after a go.

Patents only seem to be of primary importance in a few niches.

Your investors believe in product-market fit and huge markets at that. Your patents alone are not going to solve that, though. (edit: grammar)

Remember the days when all the websites had "Patent Pending" at the bottom of the page?

Yeah. We aren't doing that these days.

At https://starhq.com we've made our roadmap public (link in footer) and let people vote on items to bump up their priority. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. However I've found it important to use the number of votes and feedback as a guide, with us making the final decision on what we roll out and in what order.

Interesting idea. I've experimented with putting non-functional buttons and widgets in the app and register how many tap on them versus how many who complain about it not working. I believe you also have to ask the data, not just the people.

We do something similar via text saying "if you want X, get in touch via the feedback form" before implementing features.

But to what end are you serving by following this propaganda? Is there irrefutable empirical evidence that shows this, rather, extreme approach to product development actually yields better results? To me it is just part and parcel of some "do everything in public all the time" meme. Ironically, the view being proffered here is much more like a cult than the view of being more, well, reasonable.

What I'd like to see from people like this is 24/7 webcams in offices programmers worker's mic'ed up, with some sort of peanut gallery available for viewers. :)

Nice move! Just about the only nitpick I have is that there's no such thing as a cult of stealth startups anymore. That was a 2005 kinda thing. I think most people got the memo by now.

Sure, if you're in the US. I'm in the EU trenches and I can tell you that there are a lot of parties like it's still 2005 over here. (edit: plural grammar error)

you'd be surprised. there are a lot of ex-Apple folks out there doing startups that think the only reason the iPhone was successful was because of secrecy.

To be fair, the iPhone did totally broadside the existing phone makers. Had there been hype years before, and prototypes floating around a year earlier, they'd have had a more time to react. (Not like they reacted very well anyways.)

There were hype in spades leading up to the iPhone launch, though. And it is not like it was revolutionary in any other way than that it changed the business model of media and mobile phones previously in favor and control of the telcos to one in favor and control of Apple.

The very reason we started http://willthisfly.net :)

Cool! Great start for such kind of website!

Oh and tl;dr I've decided to put all my bootstrapped startup's prototyping out in the public, declaring death to the cult of stealth startups. Would you do the same? Are you doing it already? (edited typo)

I agree but not all start-ups are for mass public consumption. Also what you're essentially talking about are marketing channels, this can be time consuming if not managed properly.

Wow! Kudos for that move. There should be a place for discussing and reviewing click-dummies and mockups somewhere on the web, if there isn't already such a thing.

Thanks. I guess I'll use my personal blog to share for now, keeping the startup's blog to share more about why we're doing what we're doing and topics around meeting new interesting people, shaping serendipity.

So true! Finally someone said it.

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