“Stealth mode” and other f’ing brilliant strategies

Here’s some of my super-secret winning strategies from fifteen years of building startups.

Stay in stealth mode until the last minute.

The last thing any startup needs is people finding out about it.

You can get attention later — that’s not difficult. You don’t need the distraction of customers clamoring outside your office while you’re still refactoring your NoSQL database structures.

Especially when you consider competitors. It’s instant death if someone were to launch at the same time as you, so you’re right to keep all your ideas completely secret. Once you launch, then millions of people will know about you, including competitors, but by then you’ll be a full 4 months ahead of the rest of the world, making competition impossible, even if they are two Stanford kids with $150,000 in funding and the wind of YC at their backs.

That means you can’t talk to potential customers either, because people talk! And worse: some of those potential customers — the ones willing barely willing to part with $20/mo — would rather save that money and instead quit their day jobs and start a brand new company ripping you off. Their meager feedback isn’t worth the risk!

Oh and absolutely don’t talk to other entrepreneurs or advisors who can and surely will copy your idea. Just read the history of any startup or interviews of famous founders and you’ll find one thing in common — no one had mentors or found value vetting ideas and brainstorming with people who have trod this path before.

Get it right the first time.

With those millions of customers anxiously awaiting your launch, like the conclusion of the Harry Potter movies, you absolutely must not disappoint them with a shaky v1.0.

Look around — other software companies wait until there’s no bugs at all before they release. That’s why they have no usability problems nor lack important features. With all those fully-completed products, it’s a mystery why UserVoice even exists. I guess some people are chumps!

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That makes prevention, like, 16x more valuable than cure. So take your time before you release, even if that means years.

Don’t ask anyone if they’d pay for your product.

Of course they’ll pay; the math is simple:

By using your product they’ll save 45 minutes a day. Even if they value their time at only $20/hr, and only 20 work-days a month, that’s still a savings of $300/mo. Your tool is $20/mo, so this just mints money!

Customers literally can’t afford not to buy it. Maybe they should buy it twice.

That’s how buying decisions are made — cold, rational, and based on micro-economics 101 — so why waste your time and theirs verifying the obvious?

Write the code first.

Writing software is tricky. You’ve been doing it for 6 years, so this is the part of the business you know best — and you know the difficulties that await you!

The easy part of this startup will be getting attention and making sales. Getting people to a website is easy — it’s not like there’s 1,000,000,000 other websites clamoring for attention. Getting them to buy once they’re there is even easier — why did they come to the website if they didn’t want to buy? Getting consistent attention from the media is easy too — why wouldn’t popular bloggers want to write about you all the time? Getting reseller deals is simple — why wouldn’t they want to make more money, in the grand tradition of the win-win?

No need to work on that end of the business, because a great product sells itself. The world isn’t littered with startups having decent products and barely any customers.

Rather, you need to focus on coding — the one part of the business you understand and have the most confidence in. Double-down on what you know!

Don’t face your fears now.  If you shut your eyes and learn a few extra shortcuts in TextMate, maybe everything else will work itself out by the time you get there.

Don’t work too hard.

Building a startup is hard enough — don’t make it worse by working too hard.

All the great startup founders are known for 30-hour work-weeks. It’s one thing to be passionate — that’s great of course — but that doesn’t mean you should be waking up at 2am in a cold sweat. You need your sleep!

Steve Jobs didn’t work constantly, Bill Gates had lots of hobbies, Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t tethered to his laptop, and Tim Ferris really did become a best-seller by writing and then promoting his book only 4 hours a week.

Startups don’t require obsession — that’s an unhealthy rumor perpetrated by all 300 startup founders ever interviewed on Mixergy. They’re all lying — they actually lead healthy, balanced lives. They don’t want you to know their secret, because this keeps potential competition at bay.

Don’t fall for it. A startup is a job just like any other — you can leave work at work and make sure to take all your vacation days.

What’s your advice? Help out your fellow entrepreneurs an add more wisdom in the comments.

  • Patrick Smacchia

    On the don’t work **too** hard I agree, but hard work is still required. Hopefully it is not really **work** in the sense that the entrepreneur put so much passion in it.

    I would rephrase : Don’t work **too** hard to avoid being burned out, the effort must be sustainable, endurance is the key.

    Avoid this kind of situation, http://ayende.com/blog/4066/so-where-was-i your health is more important then your business.

  • Artie Gold

    You seem to have left out the part about napping in the middle of the Interstate. Though that *is* more dangerous.

  • http://twitter.com/micahalcorn Micah Alcorn

    Has Andy Borowitz kidnapped Jason and hacked the blog? I had better raise a seed round to pay ransom.

    • LaQuan Jackson

      Stop the hating. This be good advice.

  • http://timothynott.com Timothy Nott

    With so many things to read in a day, I often go too fast and miss subtleties like sarcasm. After reading the first few sentences I started to hyperventilate. Each new “idea” sent my blood pressure higher. Then, a little voice noted that not only must this be a joke, but indeed it was – and I talked myself back from the flame-comment-precipice.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Haha, that’s awesome. Would have been more awesome if you went on a rant though. :-)

      • http://blog.simonsayz.ca/ Simon Therrien

        Be patient, I’m sure other people will. Just wait and see ;-) There is a lot of confusion to come.

    • http://twitter.com/acoyfellow Jordan Coeyman

      You were not alone in this Timothy. I was getting heated, now I’m just laughing at myself

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5520044 Peter Dolan

      I thought the same thing for a bit.

  • http://infochimps.org @mrflip

    Don’t spend time on frivolous things like community meetups. You need to be hacking all the time; hanging out with people smarter than you can only be a distraction.

    Concentrate on discovering something that people will say “Yeah, I guess so, um, someday” to, not on something that they’ll say “no, I’m not interested” to. A falsifiable hypothesis and the scientific method might work for scientists, but it has no applicability here.

    Don’t ever open-source your code. Top-notch programmers will, like your customers, show up based only on the rumored brilliance of what you’re coding. They’re typically motivated by wealth and an air of mystery, not by peer feedback or seeing other people use what they built. Also, build everything yourself: reading source code is hard, any idiot can keep a production system going. The reason those successful projects have cruft is because they didn’t do it correctly from the start, not because problems have edge cases and hidden complexities.

  • http://twitter.com/bdurette Brandon DuRette

    Don’t do anything until you have the perfect idea. It will come to you. Toil away restlessly at your day job. It’s too risky to just take the leap.

  • Riley Dallas

    Great suggestions…I also use my mother for market/customer/handsome validation.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      +1 on you are handsome.

  • Dale Ting

    It’s April 1st somewhere…

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.golab Steve Golab

    Is this The Onion for entrepreneurial advice? Very funny!

  • Paul Jimenez

    Don’t worry about marketing metrics – everyone knows that magazine ads, billboards, and commercial spots are the best, most effective ways to get the word out about your product. Take out loans to fund these, if necessary.

  • Daniel

    Remember, all you have to do to be successful is to get one percent of the market, which investors love to hear.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Exactly! One percent of “every living thing within 10 light years of our headquarters” is still a *lot* of sales.

      • Andy Brice

        A lot of us have fallen for the 1% fallacy. *wince*

  • Pingback: “Stealth mode” and other f’ing brilliant startup strategies | VentureBeat

  • http://www.facebook.com/tylerbyrd Tyler Byrd

    Take no advice from anyone. It’s your idea, of course you know best.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      So true. If they’re so smart, why didn’t they come up with it?

  • Pingback: “Stealth mode” and other f’ing brilliant startup strategies | jeffhammiii.com

  • http://www.pilanites.com/ Shobhit Bakliwal

    In your interview at Mixergy, you stated that you discussed your idea with people before starting working on it so that you know there is someone ready to buy the product you are going to build. Today, you are just telling me to do the opposite and never talk to anyone about it before building it. Confused!

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Read the rest of the comments, and the scales will fall from your eyes.

      • http://www.pilanites.com/ Shobhit Bakliwal

        Oops. Sorry. Feeling dumb now.. :D

  • Guest

    In your interview at mixergy, you said you discussed idea with everyone to find if people are interested before starting to work on your product. Now you’re saying never tell it to anyone. Whatsup?

    • http://profiles.google.com/dennisgorelik Dennis Gorelik

      He learned something new.

  • http://profiles.google.com/esparza.dan Dan Esparza

    I’m pretty sure this whole article was written by Gob Bluth…

  • http://www.facebook.com/MichaelJosephHayes Michael Hayes

    And make sure to refer to anyone you hire as a “resource.” To their face, and in front of other people. People are like desks or computers or a myriad of other things you’ll use to become successful.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Dammit, I refer to everyone as Valued Associates, as in, “This robot has replaced four Valued Associates.”

  • Pingback: ‘Stealth mode’ and other f’ing brilliant startup strategies | Simply Boundless Entertainment

  • Randolf Kitophinsonston

    actually I hear Steve Jobs did have a ‘workaholic’ type of disposition

  • http://www.hullfinancialplanning.com/ Jason Hull

    Don’t worry about getting customers. Take a cash advance from every credit card you can get your hands on. Buy Aeron chairs. Gotta roll in comfort!

  • http://twitter.com/3DSNYC 3 Day Startup NYC

    UserVoice… more like LoserVoice, am i right?

  • http://twitter.com/blog364 Diego Schmunis

    OMG! This is AWESOME advice! Been LOLing for the last 1/2 hrs!!!

  • Emil Stolarsky

    At first didn’t understand the joke and thought you were serious, but once I got it, had a great laugh. It sometimes takes saying the opposite to really see how absurd all these ideas sound.

  • kevincimring

    Ignore analytics… go with your best guess which is usually more insightful and accurate if made after a series of power naps at red traffic lights to and from your local Peets.

  • http://trialfacts.com Nick Karrasch

    You can never spend too much time on your pitch! The key to success is having the perfect 2 minute, 5 minute and 10 minute pitch nailed down. You need to spent time practicing your pitch every single week. You do not have time to talk to customers if you don’t have the world’s best pitch.

  • Blake Nielsen

    Great article! You forgot to mention that everyone who doesn’t sign an NDA is going to steal your idea!!

  • http://www.mehulkar.com mehulkar

    Very nice.

  • http://twitter.com/taxibeat_no Taxibeat Norge

    Dont work hard … work smart and press the right buttons ;)

  • Victor

    Jason I’ve been able to honestly say that my startup has ticked every one of the boxes here but we’re still not having any success! Have you got any tips?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Try doing exactly the opposite of everything you’re doing.

  • http://twitter.com/AustinBlues Jeffrey Taylor

    My calendar must be broke. It doesn’t say April 1.

  • http://twitter.com/tueksta Andreas Beer

    is it opposite day already?

  • http://www.leanlearnin.com/ Brent Weber

    If only you had covered this at Lean Startup Machine. Hell we could have just all gone home instead of teaching customer development. :D

  • http://www.vistage.com/ Jon Tucker

    And don’t forget, social media can make any startup a success!

  • http://twitter.com/ArjunDArora Arjun Dev Arora

    Awesome post! I LOLed hard. :) #TheTruth

  • http://twitter.com/liubinskas Mick Liubinskas

    Crazy good. I love it.

    The fear of idea stealing customers is hilarious. The scary thing is how many people ask me about that.

    I added some more no fail startup tips here. http://pollenizer.com/everyone-is-your-customer

  • http://twitter.com/reportify Julian Corlet

    Thanks Jason, I had a great chuckle.

  • Pingback: ‘Stealth mode’ and other f’ing brilliant startup strategies | HenQ Venture

  • @griffinthomson

    Lost it at Tim Ferris’ 40 hour work week.

  • http://twitter.com/mmintspaces mintspaces

    It took “potential customers quitting their job” to finally realize the golden advice in this article. Love the sarcasm! Gotta think in reverse now.

  • http://twitter.com/ToddWyder Todd Wyder

    Its very important to have a large free private beta. You need to build every feature the non-paying user requests, so you nail it. Every entrepreneur will tell you they wished they wouldn’t have launched so soon, because the day they launched they went viral and couldn’t handle the load. Look at Google products, they were in beta for a long time. Also, beta is an R&D expense, which looks better on your balance sheet when you do your mezzanine financing.

  • Sam Broc

    Great advise – one additional advice to add is ‘Create a team that absolutely marches behind your idea – that means, hire only people who will say Yes to each of your ideas. You can’t afford to have disagreement in the team, if you think Cobol in the Cloud is the newest enterprise craze, you want all your team members fully supporting it – arguments and disagreements waste valuable time of a startup’

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Love it; now I wish I thought of it. (For real!)

  • http://twitter.com/_ndrw Andrew Chen

    I thought you would put a note at the bottom, lest any first-timers *actually* want to follow this advice. I guess it’s good you started with the Stealth Mode advice. That should be a giver for anyone who’s ever heard anything about startups.

  • Meto

    Great insights but i think getting ur product right the first time isn’t that good because u should do kinda of lean it,testing ur assumptions and getting the the right feedback for direction validation.What a waste of time to take care of all the specs then know that customers don’t really care about ‘em.

  • Mark C. Allman

    Would love to see Steve Blank’s face when he got to “That means you can’t talk to potential customers either …”

  • Pingback: Rounded Corners 353 — Security questions | Labnotes

  • Jürgen

    Doh, didn’t you let stroll your fantasy with the Steve Jobs thing? I mean, you know, he doesn’t really exist. He’s the lead character in Walter Isaacson’s novel “Steve Jobs”. As a thorough writer you should have pointed that out.

  • http://twitter.com/BryantJaquez Bryant Jaquez

    Hmm.. I’m not sure I want to open this can of worms, but what the heck. I disagree with part of your article. I don’t think it’s a good idea to venture into a new business without advice, mentorship and brutally honest feed-back. I’m all about keeping things on the DL until you are ready to launch, but people need some advice before they invest all their time and money into a new project.

    I’ve heard a lot of business ideas that were terrible. The sad part is, most of the people who had those terrible ideas never heard honest feed-back about them. No one told them that if they spend 20,000 on a “inspirational quotes” frisbee business, they were probably going to loose money.

    We all need help, and I think it’s pretty risky to build an entire business plan without any insight from someone smarter than yourself.

  • Pingback: #23: Chrome 22 drops font-smoothing, you're young so what, 'Stealth mode' and Day One - The Industry

  • Developer Dude

    Okay, yeah, I was about to flame too – especially the assertion about people using cold hard rational logic when making purchasing decisions. Hah!

    But then I read the rest of the rant and some of the comments.

  • Pingback: test | Smart Software Marketing

  • wfjackson3

    Jason, I see that you were really upset that we stopped working on MockCrunch. Nice satire.

  • Marco Demaio

    I understood it was a joke only after “Get it right the first time.”. My engineering background is still string inside of me, it let me think you were seriuos on the entire 1st paragraph. :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/peter.kadas Péter Kádas

    Awesome style, high quality irony. I wanna be part of this, so here’s one more: Don’t go from one investor to another. Why would you waste your time on pitching strangers when you have a large loving family and those good old friends to invest a couple of bucks in your startup? ; )

  • Pingback: Software Marketing Tweetables 1 October 2012 | Smart Software Marketing

  • Pingback: #23: Chrome 22 drops font-smoothing, you're young so what, 'Stealth mode' and Day One | The Industry

  • Pingback: ‘Stealth mode’ and other f’ing brilliant startup strategies | BaciNews

  • Pingback: Venture Capital 101 [I'm a VC - Who Are You?] | Paula Marttila