Midwestern Values Meet Entrepreneurship: 4 Startup Lessons from Fuse50 Cincinnati
I used to design fighter jets. Ok, ok – so I was one of hundreds of engineers working on one specific subsystem of a fighter jet, but whatever. Anyway, this jet can take off and land vertically like a helicopter (totally badass!) and penetrate hostile airspace without being spotted by radar (stealth). For an advanced fighter jet, stealth is mission critical. If it pops up on enemy radar, it risks being shot down by surface-to-air missiles.
I often hear entrepreneurs say they are in “Stealth Mode” – not yet ready to tell the world what they are working on, much like the stealth fighter that doesn’t want to be seen.
The desired perception is that their startup is so advanced, so awesome, or so forward-thinking that if they publicized it every competitor would immediately drop everything and copy their idea. To these entrepreneurs, the words “Stealth Mode” are proudly spoken with a devious grin and worn like a badge of honor.
It’s not a badge of honor. Stealth Mode is for fighter jets, not startups.
I understand the allure of Stealth Mode. If you don’t tell anyone about the product you are building, then no one can copy it, your intellectual property can’t be circumvented, and the big players won’t have time to react before you launch. In general, nothing bad can happen.
That may be true, but nothing good can happen either — and the only thing worse than something bad happening is that no good things happen. Bad things and good things happen to every startup. The ratio of good things to bad things is what distinguishes the successful startups from the unsuccessful. Your job as an entrepreneur is not to prevent all bad things; rather, your job is to do everything possible to ensure that the good outweighs the bad.
Competition comes in many flavors. Some of your competitors might be large players with lots of market share, while others might be startups in a coworking space across the country. Some might have the same business model as you, while others might be taking a different approach.
What they all have in common, though, is that when you are very early stage, they don’t care about you. To the big companies, you aren’t even a blip on their radar screen. You aren’t worth the effort to turn on their surface-to-air missiles, let alone point them at you. You may warrant some attention from the other startups in the airspace, but they are just as busy as you are, heads-down, hacking their way to the market. They don’t have the time or money to track your every move.
Don’t let the fear of being copied prevent you from talking about your company. Don’t give away your secret sauce, just share enough information to get people excited. At some point, pieces of your idea or business model will get copied, and that’s ok. Protect your position with continuous innovation, strong customer relationships, and flexibility. Like a fighter jet, outmaneuver the competition.
The biggest detriment of Stealth Mode is that every day you stay there is another day that potential customers aren’t hearing about you. Building market awareness and a customer base is very hard, so start now. Emerging from Stealth Mode also allows you to seek customer feedback while in the development process, which is mission critical for startups.
There are no surface-to-air missiles pointed at you. It is unlikely you are going to be shot down at this stage. The risk of something bad happening because a competitor learned about you is minuscule compared to the possible good things that can happen if you put yourself out there.
As much as I dislike Stealth Mode, I must admit there are some very rare cases where it is an appropriate strategy, though I’ve never personally seen one (pun intended). If you think this applies to you, there is a 99.9% probability you are wrong. Go talk to someone about your company. If you don’t know where to start, send me a note. I’ll be happy to listen.