“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.

65 responses to ““Stealth mode” and other f’ing brilliant strategies”

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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!

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

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

  15. 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?

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

  17. 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.

  18. 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’

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

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

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

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

  26. 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. :-)

  27. 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? ; )

  28. Stealth mode works! I’m working on my 4th startup with 2 very successful exits (let’s not go to the other exit). The CEO has to concern himself with more than code. People do talk and want to want their friends to think “how connected” they are with “players”. In my experience it’s not the person you talked to but someone else in the chain. Coding is not my thing, and if you mostly want to run a great company coding can’t be your only attribute. Think in terms of markets, billing, customer engagement, runway, finding the great people who’ll work for free.
    You need it all or – have ready access to talent. Hey get it close the first time, when you have your first interaction with a customer your focus must become external. Get a good product then focus on the customer. Don’t ask if they’ll pay is the GREATEST statements I’ve seen in years, that is right on and should be read several times. I’m not very bright so in my case 60 to 70 hours a week are normal and is enjoyable for me. As an aside do a few things well and forget the others. List what’s really good (with
    customer feedback) and throw the rest out.

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