There are two reasons to launch your startup or business in stealth mode. You either must, or you can. (Why and how of stealth mode) Protecting sensitive IP, if it is easy to reproduce and truly new, and protecting your product’s reputation while educating skeptics when it is truly disruptive are examples of “must.” If you are a successful serial entrepreneur with money and connections, you can, and it allows you to focus time and energy on fundraising and product development. QuantaLife didn’t have the luxury of stealth mode, but when their founders successfully exited and started 10XGenomics, stealth was their friend.
However, stealthy doesn’t have to mean silent. If you are pre-funding but have seed money, you are undoubtedly recruiting employees. If your product is as amazing as you think it is, it is probably solving a well-recognized problem that you can talk about. Both recruiting and problem priming allow you to talk about your company without shouting from the rooftops.
Some industries seem to favor stealth mode more than others. Certainly biotech, healthcare, software, internet, and mobile industries seem to favor stealth mode. In these industries, what drives companies to operate in stealth mode is an opportunity space that can be obvious, narrow, or populated, a relatively long product lead time, high technical complexity, and despite the technical difficulty, there can be a number of potentially successful approaches and innovators all working in the same problem/solution space.
The dark, unproductive motivator of stealth mode can be a reluctance to have founders’ assumptions challenged, hypotheses tested, and to receive market feedback. In summary, stealth mode can be necessary, it can be excusable, or it can be a cop-out.
Whether you are in stealth mode for all the right reasons or all the wrong ones, you don’t have to miss out on the benefits of sunshine because you chose secrecy. You still need to build customer awareness, customer relationships, customer feedback, recruit employees, and create a voice that can lead and persuade your market before your product and company sees the light of day. What is the stealthy not silent sleight of hand? Speak to your customers, your investors, and your talent pool via the problem instead of your product. To do this, you can rely on your personal network and still use digital marketing tools that allow you to collect data, create mailing lists, and build relationships. A reliance on problem-focused inbound marketing is the key.
Building Relationships, Credibility, and Brand
Leadership is the first play. Create a landing page for the problem space. Blog about the intricacies of the problem. Establish a voice that is authentic, informative, and provocative. There is no need to advertise your company. Though by no means a stealth mode company, Sandstone Diagnostics effectively built a reputation pre-funding and pre-product by focusing on men’s reproductive health at the website www.dontcookyourballs.com. Their product? A men’s fertility test.
An informational site can provide information about the problem, it’s importance, and potential solutions. Balanced descriptions of current solutions build trust and authenticity. If your product really has a problem to solve, there will be no need to exaggerate the failings with competing methods.
Assuming you are actively maintaining a site like this with current information, opinion pieces, and other forms of outreach, you can build a community. Invite site visitors to receive a newsletter, RSS Feed, and join a mailing list that will provide them with the information they want. You can keep providing general information until you decide to reveal your company’s information. Once you are out of stealth mode, it is also a great way to announce beta versions and get input from the market via polls, contests, and other outreach programs. Using this inbound content marketing strategy you will get mailing lists populated, an interactive community that can eventually create product buzz, a cadre of beta testers, and allies from customers and potential partners such as other bloggers, journalists, and companies with complementary products.
Leave product specs out of this site. Point to your product (once out of stealth mode) and other complementary products that are available via a solutions or products tab.
Speak Up Softly
Even in a market with stiff competition, it’s unlikely you need to keep your company in a cone of silence. Using classic inbound marketing tools focusing on your problem space combined with a little creativity, you can build your customer base pre-product and even pre-company.