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Think Big. Move Fast.

I recently heard about a company that has been in “Stealth mode” for four years. That is certainly on the extreme range, but I’ve noticed an increasing number of companies in stealth mode, as can be seen by seaching on Craig’s list job ads. Indeed, one of my portfolio companies, Tippit, is in (partial) stealth.

This got me to thinking about the pros and cons of stealth mode. Typically, companies want to be in stealth so that they can emerge “fully formed” into a new category with a big enough head start over potential competitors that they can’t be easily caught.

However, there are a lot of drawbacks to being in stealth mode as well.

    Hiring can be very difficult. This can be mitigated if the founding team can hire enough people that they know directly to fully staff out the initial organization. Otherwise, without the personal trust in an existing founder/employee/investor, it can be hard to pique the interest of a highly qualified candidate with many other easily understood options. Getting them to sign an NDA before you tell them what the company does is hard given the plethora of options that good people have right now.

    Business development can be difficult.
    As I’ve posted about in the past, in the early stages of a new consumer technology category, distribution is critical to success. Getting these distribution deals lined up can be difficult while in stealth mode. Again, this can be mitigated if the founding team already has existing relationships into potential distribution partners. Personal trust can overcome uncertainty about the benefits of a deal, at least enough to take an initial meeting.

    Less serendipity. It’s been said that it is better to be lucky than smart. Startups often benefit from serendipity; when people who know the company introduce them to potential employees, partners, customers, or tip them off on competitive threats, opportunities or new markets. The less people who know the company, the less opportunity there is for serendipity.

Given these drawbacks, when does it makes sense to be in stealth? I think some of the following criteria need to be met for the tradeoffs to be worthwhile:

    The idea is truly novel. If the idea is an extension of existing platforms, you’re likely to see a lot of competitors regardless of what you do. “High concept” movies are movies that can be summarized in one sentence, often referencing another well known movie or book e.g. “Superfriends in 19th Century London“, “Schindler’s list in Rwanda“, “Jaws in space“, or “Heart of Darkness during the Vietnam War“. If you have a “High Concept” startup (e.g. “Facebook for China“, “Digg for Games“, “Flickr for Video” or “Myspace for Baby Boomers“) then you’ll likely have a lot of other people trying to do the same thing, and being in stealth mode doesn’t help you much. (NB none of these companies are in stealth mode.)

    Technology development is lengthy but not difficult. If the technology problems are difficult, then that alone should be enough to be a barrier to entry. Execution is always a lot harder than just ‘having a great idea’. If the technology development isn’t lengthy, then being in stealth mode won’t give you much of an advantage once the product gets launched anyway. Hillcrest Labs took this approach while developing their next generation of TV remote controls.

    Sources of proprietary advantage are undervalued. Some companies depend on taking information that is publically available but hard to get and making it searchable and available online. Others might be buying undervalued assets and monetizing them better. In both cases there is real advantage to keeping your strategy secret until you have locked in your advantages and to keep other potential bidders for the asset in the dark.

    Your entry into this space will cause people to follow you by virtue of who you are.
    Apple certainly felt this way about their iPhone. Some Venture Capital firms also prefer to keep their investments in stealth because they feel that their investment in an industry is enough to cause a flood of competitors to enter that industry. Sometimes this is true, sometimes the time is right for an idea to happen. Entrepreneurs will need to decide if their Venture Firm’s relationships will be sufficient to counter the increased difficulty in increased hiring and business development.

    I’d love to see comments from readers who are or have been in Stealth