Startups in stealth mode need one piece of advice.

Just Stop.

As in stop being in stealth mode.  Stop asking for advice.  Stop doing your start-up.  You're not ready.

You're a naive-bullshiter.

I would know.  Been there...

I started my first internet company while getting my MBA.  I remember calling up my best friend to tell her I was starting a company but refused to tell her how the product would work.   I had taken classes on IP, first-mover advantage, etc.  I knew that I needed to protect my ideas from people that could steal them.  And while I knew she wouldn't steal it, I needed to be very careful.  You see Apple is very secretive and that's why they're so successful.  So I should be very secretive.  I hired a lawyer, and he gave us an NDA template and told us that anyone that had knowledge of our proprietary data had to sign it.  If we weren't careful about this, our IP claims would be worthless.

At first, I did this because the lawyer had told me to.  But what was really going on?  I was obsessed with my brilliance.  For a little self psycho-evaluation, I thought that my idea was world changing, and it helped validate how I wanted to think of myself.  It felt good to take myself so seriously.

Since I was a new entrepreneur, I knew needed a lot of advice.  As I reached out to successful investors and entrepreneurs, I made each of them signed my nifty NDA.  Some wouldn't, so I just asked them for general advice.

Oh, and what was the company?  It was yet another Web 2.0 flavor of a question-and-answer, poll-your-friends site with a distant revenue model and no user acquisition strategy.  Ran if for two years before we shut it down with almost no revenue achieved.  Shocking, I know.

I wish just one of those experienced advisors from early-on had slapped me in the face and called me on my delusions.  They were all so encouraging, so proud of my entrepreneurial drive.  What I really needed was for someone to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was acting naive.  That my foolishness would contribute to my failure, which was almost inevitable.

Funny, how we always have to learn lessons the hard way.  When I started FlightCaster, I immediately told everyone I could about the concept.  I learned an incredible amount in those early days, and it worked out pretty well in the end.

I'm now getting a lot of phone calls from friends of friends, MBA students, etc--all wanting some advice on their brilliant idea.  I love talking to all them--it's so much fun to help someone that is on mile .3 of the marathon.  I'll do just about anything for an entreprenuer that reaches out for help.  I'll help with product development ideas, offer feedback, make intros to investors (if I would myself invest...)--anything to help someone succeed.  About once a month, I get a call from someone that won't tell me the idea, but still wants advice and even introductions.  Yikes!  I just tell them to stop.  They're not ready yet.  

If you're one of those guys, this post if for you.  

Please stop.  You're wasting your time.  At least give yourself a fighting chance to succeed.  This might be a bit cruel, but so is failure, which is where you're headed. 

Let me a share a few reasons why you don't need to be in stealth mode:

1.) Execution is more important than the idea

This is the easiest lesson.  Your ability to create a product is far more important than your ability to think up a product.  This is a hard lesson if you're not the one that will do the building, because it means that your contribution is not as valuable as you thought.

2.) Someone else has the exact same idea.

The adage is that if you have a good idea, there are 5 other people already doing it.  If you have a great idea, there are 15 other people already doing it.  One of the reasons you're foolishly in stealth mode is probably because you haven't done enough market research to realize that people are already working on this.

3.) Totally unique ideas generally don't make it

If you have a 100% totally unique idea, you're either too far ahead of the market or you've picked a market so small that no one cares.  Either way, you're in for trouble.

4.) The most likely cause of failure is your incompetence, not losing to the competition

Start-ups are really hard on so many levels.  The likelihood that you execute beautifully but then lose out to someone that stole your idea is so incredibly low, you shouldn't think about it.  The likelihood that you build a product that missed the mark, is an almost certainty.  Optimize around the problems most likely to shut you down.  Paul Graham always told us to focus on the one enemy that matters: the back button.

5.) You desperately need real feedback

Perhaps the biggest reason not to be in stealth is that you're robbing yourself of great feedback.  Most companies miss the mark on the first product.  The great companies learn quickly and iterate.  Skipping the learning part by being secretive just reduces the time you'll have to iterate before running out of money.

6.) First mover advantage is just silliness

The obit has been written on first mover advantage.  It rarely helps.  Facebook wasn't the first to social networking, Google wasn't the first to search, YouTube wasn't the first to video, yada yada.  First mover advantage was a flawed theory that helped pre-product internet companies raise billions of dollars in the 90s.

I could go on, but this is a fool's errand.  If you're reading this and don't agree, you're probably just not ready to do a startup and all the rationalizing in the world won't help.  Of course, it's incredibly pompous of me to make that judgement, and I do hope you prove me wrong.  I understand that you have your reasons and that there are certainly valid exceptions that my rash over-generalizations are not capturing.  

But you approached me for advice.  Please stop.

Find discussion of this post on Hacker News

 

******************
I'm Jason Freedman.  I co-founded FlightCaster.  
You should follow me on Twitter: @JasonFreedman.
You can send me a Linkedin request or become my bff on Facebook
Thank you Appsumo!

-
72 responses
R.I.P: Kiha
I remember appreciating your candidness - nobody else gives the same type of advice as you do!
I can't tell you how congruent this is with my own findings. I have a start-up that I'm working on called Whimventory and I found that after watching "The Social Network" I became paranoid about telling anyone, even close friends, about the next market we were going to try to enter or the next major feature we were going to incorporate. Thank you for reinforcing this idea for me, it makes me more confident moving forward.
So true in many ways. I hate the shroud of secrecy companies drape around their daily business, not just startups. There is one cave-at however in telling everyone everything at all possible times (I know, I'm a blabbermouth of particular proportions). If you tell someone about your goals while they're not yet finished, you have the risk of awarding your brain with pre-emptive praise "Oh that's such an awesome idea, you're awesome, see ya".

That's a dangerous thing, because it will actually trigger the same endorphins in your brain that achieving the goal would, so you're less inclined to actually work on it. A small change in the way you tell people about your ideas can fix it though "kick me if I don't finish this in three weeks".

I did not come up with this wisdom: http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself.html

Damn I love this type of straight talk, thanks for the advice and wisdom. Refreshing to hear someone talk real and cut the bullshit. Good article!
s/candidness/candor/
"As in stop being in stealth mode. Stop asking for advice. Stop doing your start-up. You're not ready.

You're a naive-bullshiter."

Ok, you had a bad start-up experience. It's often interesting and informative to read about other peoples' bad experiences. However, please ditch the relentlessly negative and sensationalist rhetoric. It's unnecessary and subverts from what you're trying to convey.

It is indeed pompous of you to assert that anyone in disagreement isn't ready to start a business by themselves.

You're rejecting a whole category of wisdom (evidently) because it didn't work for you. It would help your case if you yourself could rationalise more than a third of your examples.

I ordinarily wouldn't comment at all, but you should know that you are patronising the community which you submitted this to.

Great reasoning on why you should share your ideas. Early feedback is such a valuable tool to help shape your idea when it is cheapest to do so. I frankly hope more people commit to doing so, the benefits far outweigh the cons. In fact, I'm about to launch the beta of a community site, http://www.sparkmuse.com, focused on letting entrepreneurs share their ideas and feedback with one another. I think getting all of it in one place creates an environment of creativity and inspiration that helps all of us succeed.
Telling them to stop is pretty negative advice. Floundering at something you're bad at is arguably the best way to learn it.

You could consider instead some advice that will ring in their ears on the day they realize they've been floundering for some time. Perhaps something that would be encouraging through that lull.

>> One of the reasons you're foolishly in stealth mode is probably because you haven't done enough market research to realize that people are already working on this. <<

Based on my personal experiences involving several of my original ideas over the last decade or so, I totally agree with the above statement, except for the use of the word 'foolishly' though ;-)

Let me cite one example here:

Back in year 2002 or thereabouts, I came up with this (brilliant) set of ideas which could potentially eliminate at least 70% of the e-mail spam. I did a lot of paper-work (and some coding) to evolve this further. Next, I filed a provisional patent application for this.

Some days later, while digging through the USPTO site, I came across an already granted patent that was almost 80% similar to what I had cooked up.

Further research revealed that the patent holder company was not only in the market already, but it had also progressed to a series B funding round (from top tier VCs). It was called BrightMail. The reason I had not heard of them before was that they were targeting only ISPs as customers and as such, were maintaining / had acquired very low public visibility.

[As an aside, I also found out that they were not fully deploying the method they had patented!! Also, to the best of my knowledge, some of my ideas that are not covered by their patent remain unimplemented even today.]

Over the years since then, I have gone through similar experiences on several occasions and today, I'm a firm believer of what the OP has stated:

>> One of the reasons you're foolishly in stealth mode is probably because you haven't done enough market research to realize that people are already working on this. <<

I very much agree to The adage " if you have a good idea, there are 5 other people already doing it. If you have a great idea, there are 15 other people already doing it."
I experienced it multiple times. Great post and very good advice.
Another piece of advice: skip the MBA.
Awesome. People, listen to Jason!!! ...or maybe not, lest we turn all those talkers into do-ers and make it harder for ourselves ;-)

Seriously, I've been telling people the same thing for years. Forget people stealing your idea, it's the least of your worries. "Just do it!"

I have a startup I want to talk to you about...please email me...I don't want these other commentators to see my idea. Trust me, it is very unique. This market has never been targeted before.

No, I'm just being facetious. I agree with you to a degree. There should be some amount of precaution when approaching an idea that you believe is original. Keeping your secret from investors that haven't signed an NDA is already foolish, because they stake their reputation on the matter. If you have documented well your ideas, then you have the counter ability to de-ligitimize that investor. Not telling your family is foolish; sure they will brag, but it becomes common knowledge that you created a great idea. You can stake your life on product or reputation.

Added some of your quotes to my startup quotes website. Thanks for the great article!
Inspired by this post, I wrote a blog post about stereotypic founder personalities. Another one about your reasons to forget about "stealth mode" will follow. (the blog is in german)
Thank you very much!
Jason,

Thank you very much for your candid post. More than anything it is key to take feedback early in the shaping and forming and while I wasn't certain, I'm now positive that the more talking-shaping, questioning-forming I do, the less likely we'll miss our mark.

Yours,

Erik

Great post! I think most people think that their idea is so cutting-edge that no one else has ever thought of something so brilliant. When, in reality, there are probably 100 other people out there working on the exact same thing. Good lesson!

David Martin

Love the advice when I first started as an inventor I had a couple experiances with people charging money to help me be in stealth mode lol now working on my third fun idea that is working great contact me any time need you to do a beta test no nda needed call me lol
Great post, just sent LinkedIn invite.
Great post, so true. Thanks for sharing.
hey retards, stops reading blog comments and start your startup already!
I am undecided about the stealth part. I am not sure it is relevant to sucess or failure but what is EXCELLENT are the 6 "takeaways" which apply to ALL businesses, new or old, startups or on-going.

I especially like 1.) Execution is more important than the idea.

I am sending a link to my son in college, who is pondering a start-up of his own.

Thanks!

Very true

The original guys that proved "first mover advantage" actually done research on their own theory and disproved it

Excellent advice! It's so easy to focus on protecting an idea more than implementing it. I'm going to pass this post along to a few friends and associates who need to focus more on being successful than being stealth.
This is very good advice, because one gets a lot of priceless feedback from friends and family, but a caution: because they like you, they may be biased. Better yet is to do some market research on your idea...we have a course (A02) that shows you how, in the Internet age, to do reasonably solid market research for next to nothing, as well as what your next step should be, e.g. do I have enough money, or can I find enough money, to make this happen? Check out the website, www.theasoe.com.
Vital truisms in the post, but I agree with the reply that it's arrogant to think that one's own experience is universal and anyone who disagrees isn't ready for prime time.

Two economists are walking down the sidewalk, and one says, "Look, there's a $100 bill." The second replies, "Impossible. If there was a $100 bill on the sidewalk, someone would have already picked it up."

I thought up a great idea 20 years ago, but there was no technology to make it work. I turned it into a real service a year ago. There are 10+ vendors selling what we need, and not one has ever heard of anyone using the technology the way we do. I cold call VPs of multi-billion dollar firms and they talk for 30 minutes about something they've never heard of either. A year later, we're still alone.

We shared the idea on a need-to-know basis AFTER we were set-up to deliver to clients who wanted to buy immediately. Potential clients do provide valuable feedback for product development, but having worked in the field for years, we didn't need much feedback to start.

Execution is indeed much more important than the idea, but that's the problem. This is a valuable service for major clients, the barriers to entry are rather low, and firms with pockets 100 times deeper than ours would quickly execute it better than we can. It is critical that we get a head start up the learning curve and gain credibility and clients before anyone big decides they want to do this too.

Sharing your idea is about pros and cons, risks and rewards.

Thank you for the candid advise. I have got to start somewhere

We agree that execution is important (we even have a course on it), but it all starts with the idea and validating it, or generating a new one. <o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

This is all so true - sometimes I just want to shake people to wake them up. If you can't tell people your idea because you think it would be that easy to copy, someone's probably already done it. You're wasting a huge opportunity by not asking people for advice.
Jason,

By coincidence today I posted a page on my blog to give away a DIY modification. It seems very freeing to just give this away while I pursue investor channels for a bicycle handlebar awaiting patent. The first advice I got when I came up with the design was apply for a patent. It's taken about six months to ditch the stealth mode. Thanks for inspiration

This is good advice; you have to figure out who you can trust not to steal the idea, and also who’ll give you an honest opinion. We do have a course in validating (A02) which allows you to remain in stealth mode, unless you do focus groups and if you use them, you can request a non-disclosure.<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

It’s fairly easy to remain in stealth mode while doing market research, but once you go for a patent, that’s the beginning of letting the outside world know you’re out there. And if you go up on the web, someone WILL find you. We had a Malaysian school steal one of our trademarks about six months after launching the school.<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

100% agree ... getting out of stealth mode into the real business is the real test of one's execution of a good/brilliant idea.

That’s why we have the implementation course; we’ve seen a lot of good ideas go down the drain because of poor execution.<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

Great post - I remember doing the same thing when I was just starting.

I think the whole NDA thing is common among new entrepreneurs because they just don't understand that that 1 idea is not going to likely be your big success.

Sure people might copy you if you tell everyone and don't require an NDA - but if you are fast enough it won't matter.

Good points. We agree.<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

As a member of a team that can execute and has several released titles, I love hearing about what other people are working on. We steal ideas all the time!

This is an interesting subject, one we just commented on in our International Business course, because the Chinese and Indians are past masters of the craft. We also have ‘extralegal’ strategies for dealing with those that go over the line on patent infringement. No, they don’t involve people in dark suits with weapons. And they do work. <o:p></o:p>

Other companies spend a lot of money and time trying, and often succeeding, in engineering around patents. In fact, I just read an article about a tire compound that isn’t patented because the producers don’t want to disclose what’s in it.<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

I needed this, I definitely am ready to come out of the shell and was waiting for a sign, well I would definitely call this a sign! : )

Yes, just do it, as the Nike ad goes. Do the market research, cash flow it, and see if it appears that a real business is at hand. Even if it isn’t, the business might make a nice hobby.<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

Sorry Jason, but only a reductionist MBA would present stealth mode as a binary ON/OFF switch: in practice, entrepreneurs need to develop multiple scripts for talking about their company, saying different things at different times for different reasons.

I completely agree that saying nothing to anybody about anything is foolish, but surely saying everything to everybody about everything is just as foolish? Communication is a nuanced business, so don't oversimply it to polar extremes just to make a point - being very open about some things but stealthy about others is common sense.

But yes, if you can't even _begin_ to describe what you're doing without giving the whole game, your startup using GPS collars to help dogs remember where they buried their bones probably is valueless slideware at best. ;-)

Finally, it's so easy to knock patents too, but sometimes (particularly outside the rarified air of spurious software / mobile / Internet patents) you really do need them to get seats at the top table. Not every patent is trolled, and many big industries do get built on top of a single decent foundational patent.

A reductionist MBA? Woooo. Good comments otherwise.<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

This is amazing advice. Too often we refuse to build connections or get help or put the odds in our favor.
www.jasonbaudendistel.com
Great advice. Many people often think that the people they tell will instantly go on and start a company, but the reality is that very few people want to or even have that drive to do anything.
Like Ramit says, this is pretty much bullshit, I agree , big BS, keeping super secret your company as if you were creating the next nuclear bomb, is only stupid. Want to make an awesome company? Get your ass to work nonstop and comment and ask for advice and get real feedback.
I'm sure Groupon told tons of people what they were doing before they launched. I mean, its not like anyone would ever copy that business model right?
You asked for a slap in the face, so here it is. The one thing you did right was being in stealth mode. Your buddies should have slapped you for not having a user acquisition model, not for protecting your idea. Even mammoth Apple keeps its new products under wraps until its big debut. The world is full of copy cats with the same skills as yours. Maybe someONE else thought of you idea too - but why give the idea to a million more? The sad thing is that you learned the wrong thing from your failure.

Can we post this on our blog? (www.theasoe.com/blog). Good slap in face; some of these people just need something like this.<o:p></o:p>

From: Posterous [mailto:

This article misses out on some key things like the chance your idea will be stolen. I took my brilliant, mega-money making ideas to a small industry protagonist (ambitious and innovative) which instead of going forward with a partnership, stole my idea and made it on their own. I offered no NDA so as not to be weak. A big mistake. Now I have entered the market and am going to crush them, but it could have all worked out so well had they not been total assholes. Four years of my life and total poverty to bring the products to market. Be very careful when telling people not to protect their ideas, bad stuff can result.
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From: Posterous [mailto:

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From: Posterous [mailto:

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