How to Start Marketing Your Startup While in Stealth Mode

One topic that has been debated in the startup community forever is whether or not you should keep your startup in stealth mode until it is ready for the big release.

Most people, especially the ones with experience, will tell you not to be afraid of someone stealing your idea and avoid being in stealth.

Except that there are many successful startups that told no one about their products and still kicked ass…

So what's the deal here? Are we a bunch of hypocrites, or are there some exceptions to the rule? And most importantly, how can you start marketing your company and start telling its story from day one while not revealing any of its secrets?

Let's examine!

When Going Stealth Is a Good Idea

In his great article "Tell Everyone Your Startup Idea," Joel Gascoigne of Buffer advocates that going stealth is a bad choice. His reasoning looks like this:

  1. "Ideas are cheap, and execution is all that matters."
  2. "If you keep your idea secret, you’re delaying validation."
  3. People who steal ideas lack passion which is needed to succeed.
  4. Users need to be educated about new ideas, and that takes time.

And in 99.9 percent of cases, I tell startups that they should not go stealth. Mostly because of the points that Joel makes, but also because of something else.

The truth is that often it’s not the risk of losing the idea that scares us, but the risk of getting criticized, getting rejected and getting misunderstood.

And, of course, such fear is useless. But it is hard to admit it and even harder to get over it.

Yet, there's also that other 0.1 percent of cases when going stealth is, in my opinion, reasonable. Those companies are very rare, but they do exist.

In order to qualify for being in that special category, your product needs to match the following criteria:

  1. It is innovative. It is something no one has successfully done before. And I mean actually no one.
  2. It can give you an abnormal first-mover advantage. For example, you have an opportunity to set a precedent for what you offer, establishing serious market domination because of it.
  3. It is easy to replicate. Your product (at least its first versions) is easy to reproduce which means that you may lose that first-mover advantage.

Kiip Screenshot

Here's an example. Kiip is an exciting startup that offers real rewards for achievements in mobile games.

It had been in stealth mode for a long time before its release because the idea was innovative, because there was an opportunity to establish a new market (or at least disrupt an old one, i.e. advertising), and because its first version was quite easy to replicate.

If any one of those three conditions didn't apply, there would be no need to keep secrets.

So what about your business? Think objectively: is it really innovative? does being fist really matters? and is version one really easy to copy?

How to Market a Startup in Stealth Mode

Now let's look into how you can start marketing your startup even if it is a secret. (And even if it isn't, these tips are helpful for any product that is still in development.)

Of course, some marketing tools will not be available to you: you can't throw a huge launch party; you can't make an explanatory demo video; etc.

However, the basis of startup marketing — which is content — is still at your disposal. You can still curate it or publish your own.

The content you produce can be about the industry you're about to disrupt or about the pain you're addressing. Plus, you can share some insider information and behind-the-scenes action.

But before you go crazy with publishing infographics and instagramming screenshots of your app design, you need to get your pre-launch conversion process figured out.

Here's how...

Pre-Launch Conversion Process

Since you can't really sell anything or get people to use your product, your only option is to start building a mailing list filled with people interested in what you're working on.

This is very important so let me say this again:

Start building a mailing list for your startup from day one.

Not Twitter followers. Not Facebook likes. Emails.

When people share their email with you, they give you permission to market to them. This permission, according to Jason Calacanis, is worth somewhere between $5-$25 in the long run.

That's why you must have a "coming soon" landing page that lets you collect emails. And if you have a blog, you should let people subscribe via email as well.

EpicBets on LaunchRock

By the way, if you don't want to put too much effort into your "coming soon" page, LaunchRock offers a fantastic free solution with a built-in referral system. For instance, it helped my team collect over 200 emails in just two days of Startup Weekend Vancouver.

How Secretive You Should Be

Not all stealthy startups are equally stealthy. Depending on how much information about your customers, industry, and product you're willing to give away, different approaches to content marketing will become available to you.

This is what call Degrees of Openness. The less open you are the more you have to rely on content curation. More open startups, on the other hand, have the advantage of generating their own content.

Degree Zero: Your startup is a complete secret.

You say absolutely nothing about the product, the customers, or the industry. You don't set up a "coming soon" page, nor do you tell anyone about what you're working on.

Not surprisingly, this makes it really hard to market your startup because there's no reason for your future users to be even slightly curious about your offering. Realistically though, at Degree Zero, marketing should not even be on your to-do list.

So if you decide to keep everyone completely in the dark, you better be building something impressive enough to gain momentum quickly upon release.

First Degree: Something is coming.

You are still saying nothing about what you're building but you don't mind sharing the fact that your team is hacking away and something exciting is coming soon.

At this stage, setting up a landing page is a good idea, but don't expect many people to sign up for updates. After all, you can't answer their most basic question: why should we care?

In terms of content, sharing some behind-the-scenes stories is a good strategy for attracting other founders, although they may not be in your target market.

Finally, your reputation as a successful entrepreneur can get people very excited, but… well… how do I put it… you gotta be a successful entrepreneur to use this advantage :).

Second Degree: The industry is known.

In this case, you don't mind telling people about the industry you're dealing with (e.g. "XYZ is going to change accounting forever"). Yet, people are left to wonder about the exact problem you're solving and about how you're doing it.

Under such conditions, you can start curating content that is relevant to your industry and sharing it through social media. A few market analysis posts or infographics can drive some traffic as well.

At the same time, you can now try connecting with people who may become your future customers. But rather than targeting everyone, concentrate on the most innovative segment of the market, the people who must know about every new product that's coming out.

Third Degree: The customer pain is known.

You may choose to disclose the customer pain you're addressing. For example, you can say something like "XYZ takes the headache out of collecting accounts receivable for small businesses."

This way, although you're giving away quite a bit of info, your unique, innovative solution remains unknown. Which means that you can remain stealth, while marketing almost as if you weren't.

In this case, follow Ray Kanani's advice and try manually fixing your customers' problems by generating content that helps either identify or tackle them, by meeting with them one-on-one, and so on.

Nonetheless, you shouldn't go all out on marketing and stick to reaching out to the most innovative people in the marketplace.

That's It for Today… But What About You?

I really hope that this article can help you better understand how to start marketing your company from day one. But I'm curious...

What's your take on stealth mode? Should any startups be secretive about what they're building? How did you market you company before the launch? Let me know in the comments!

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