Operating Under the Radar

Internet start-ups have some business practices not typically found in the analog business world – like the concept of “stealth mode.” For those unfamiliar with this concept, this is the act of complete concealment of your business concept until a time that’s deemed appropriate.

The rationale is that the idea is so new, so unique, so big, that knowledge of it in the outside world would generate an onslaught of competitive offerings before your company has the chance to generate enough market share and traction to be christened the category leader.

Stealth has its place in the development phase of a company. There is a lot to be said for the idea that keeping concepts under wraps until they are ready to go to market provides a distinct competitive advantage. That said, stealth also presents many disadvantages to a nascent organization that can inhibit, even derail, growth.

So what does this have to do with marketing? Simply put, when you “launch” your company by announcing your intentions to the outside world, it is a galvanizing marketing event that transforms a start-up from a mere concept and idea to a living, breathing entity to be dealt with by potential customers, competitors, partners, and the community at large.

The benefits of “being out there” for all to see are so numerous in so many tangible and intangible ways that making the decision to be stealth or not will be one of the single most important early marketing decisions a company can make. Here are some things to consider when making this vital decision:

What’s your real competitive advantage for being “under the radar”? The first question you have to ask is, “Why keep a low profile?” There may be many good reasons for doing so. For example, you may need six to nine months to build an actual product that works. Or you may not yet have the capability to handle sales or service inquiries. Having time to lock up key partners works, too, although some are reluctant to ally themselves with undercover companies.

Other reasons are not so good. A common one is simply, “Why bother?” (It’s a drain of time and resources.) Ease of entry for potential competitors is another (believe it or not). If the barrier to entry is so low, then stealth is a temporary crutch that will provide little support when the onslaught of copycats arrives. Keeping it secret may be perceived as a lack of confidence regarding the concept.

Increase your credibility. One big advantage of announcing that “you are” is that it makes you “real” in the eyes of the outside world. As previously mentioned, customers, partners – even potential employees – may be reticent to work with a company that has yet to state its intentions to the public at large. There’s something about a press release and industry-analyst support that says “you exist.” It also gives you the opportunity to aggressively “suck up the oxygen” of potential new entrants and own the leadership position in the category. As someone once said to me, “Act large and in charge.”

Focus your message and your business. Nothing focuses your message and business model like talking about yourself to a jaded audience such as journalists and analysts and last time I checked, focus was a good thing. You’d be surprised at how dramatically the ability of company executives to sell their cause improves between pre- and postlaunch activities, regardless of the number of times the pitch has been given. That’s because you get real-time feedback from the people who are trained to pick apart your story and find the holes. It doesn’t take a genius to see what resonates with your key audiences and what gets dismissed liked yesterday’s news.

Energize the team. A most interesting turn is that no matter how motivated and excited your team may be about your business, a good launch can send enthusiasm into the stratosphere. The interest from customers, news media, and the industry community at large creates an invisible energy field that seems to penetrate the organization to create a new sense of urgency, moving the company forward faster. It’s one of those intangibles that is sometimes not understood until it’s felt. Yet it exists, nonetheless, and is a wonderful byproduct of “the launch.”

The virtues of a company launch are numerous, as well as the advantages of “stealth mode.” Balancing the two and timing them appropriately is a difficult act but, if handled well, can reap huge rewards.

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