Stealth Mode: Necessary or Hurtful?

stealth mode too long?

Stealth Mode: Don’t Stay too Long – You Might Run Out of Gas

Should today’s technology companies go into stealth mode until their product is completely ready? There’s a great article on Inc. about it, mostly from a partnership and administrative perspective. But, what about the PR perspective? Let’s break it down…

The article mostly addresses web entrepreneurs, not so much hardware. Many hardware companies do go into stealth mode – seemingly way more than web or software. For hardware, such as semiconductors, it can take 18 months or longer for them to come out of stealth mode. I’ve seen some go for 2-3 years. Somehow they are convinced it is the only way. At the same time, I’ve seen the websites of these companies go up and never change, learning later the company never came out of it. Are these entrepreneurs putting themselves into “business comas?” Did they stay in stealth mode so long they became outdated, couldn’t adapt or plain just ran out of money?

So, even the hardware folk should be very mindful of going into stealth mode. The Inc. article pointed out four key reasons stealth mode is outdated.

Market Viability
The first was about stealth mode reducing a company’s market viability. It points out that because stealthy companies inherently cannot or will not discuss their technology, it reduces their ability to gain meaningful market feedback. From a PR perspective, analyst relations might be crucial during a period when a company is in stealth mode. Analysts provide very good market insight. Even if you don’t agree with their insight, their perceptions are heavily followed and covered by the media. If you’re not adapting your product’s upcoming story to existing perceptions, you’re going to start behind the eight ball. Many analysts today are also willing to do NDAs.

Stakeholder Relationship
The story implores that not sharing your idea will lead to failure because it will become difficult to get necessary resources, such as investors and key employees. From a PR perspective, let’s assume you’re fortunate enough to get funding or key employees. Staying in stealth mode is still difficult. Executives can approach their investors month after month with new design milestones achieved toward getting out of stealth mode but, this is really nothing to them. Viability doesn’t exist in an idea, only in execution. And, execution is external. In other words, until you start showing investors and employees that you’re getting market attention, sales, etc., morale will remain low. Also, the longer it takes the more fearful everyone becomes of your success.

Is it too Cocky?
Here’s what the story said about this – it’s very well put so, no paraphrasing required:

Stealth mode implicitly suggests a heightened level of pretension. The underlying message is, “What we are doing is so mind-blowing, so unique, so incredible, I can’t tell you about it.” Really? I doubt it.

Again, from a PR perspective, just about every startup believes they have a product that should land them on the cover of the Wall Street Journal, the home page of CNET, TechCrunch, etc. Get in line. Chances are you don’t. Does that mean you will never get there? No. But, being in stealth mode implies you feel you should be, right out of the gates. When you set the bar this high, the media expectations are often higher than you can meet. Making “coming out of stealth mode” a central message after you do launch only makes it worse.

Fooling No One
The point here is that even in stealth mode your idea is likely going to be known before you want it to, particularly if you have decent VCs backing you. For PR purposes, publicly coming out of stealth mode is typically not good – the bar gets higher. If you’re fortunate enough to come out of stealth mode, don’t mention a previous stealth mode period or downplay it.

Should You Ever Do It?
There are some periods in time where staying secretive makes sense, as the story points out. From a PR perspective, there’s almost always an opportunity to promote a company. Convincing an executive that wants to be in stealth mode that it’s a good thing is a difficult battle. As mentioned, hardware providers are seemingly the more obvious candidates for entering stealth mode. Still, even they must be quick about it. A year or more is a long time to keep investors and employees as believers, particularly without any external PR successes.