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Startups in stealth mode need one piece of advice

Just Stop.

by Jason Freedman from humbledMBA blog on Feb. 15, 2011

As in stop being in stealth mode. Stop asking for advice. Stop doing your start-up. You're not ready.

You're a naive-bullshiter.

I would know. Been there...

I started my first internet company while getting my MBA. I remember calling up my best friend to tell her I was starting a company but refused to tell her how the product would work. I had taken classes on IP, first-mover advantage, etc. I knew that I needed to protect my ideas from people that could steal them. And while I knew she wouldn't steal it, I needed to be very careful. You see Apple is very secretive and that's why they're so successful. So I should be very secretive. I hired a lawyer, and he gave us an NDA template and told us that anyone that had knowledge of our proprietary data had to sign it. If we weren't careful about this, our IP claims would be worthless. At first, I did this because the lawyer had told me to. But what was really going on? I was obsessed with my brilliance. For a little self psycho-evaluation, I thought that my idea was world changing, and it helped validate how I wanted to think of myself. It felt good to take myself so seriously.

Since I was a new entrepreneur, I knew needed a lot of advice. As I reached out to successful investors and entrepreneurs, I made each of them signed my nifty NDA. Some wouldn't, so I just asked them for general advice. Oh, and what was the company? It was yet another Web 2.0 flavor of a question-and-answer, poll-your-friends site with a distant revenue model and no user acquisition strategy. Ran if for two years before we shut it down with almost no revenue achieved. Shocking, I know.

I wish just one of those experienced advisors from early-on had slapped me in the face and called me on my delusions. They were all so encouraging, so proud of my entrepreneurial drive. What I really needed was for someone to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was acting naive. That my foolishness would contribute to my failure, which was almost inevitable.

Funny, how we always have to learn lessons the hard way. When I started FlightCaster, I immediately told everyone I could about the concept. I learned an incredible amount in those early days, and it worked out pretty well in the end.

I'm now getting a lot of phone calls from friends of friends, MBA students, etc--all wanting some advice on their brilliant idea. I love talking to all them--it's so much fun to help someone that is on mile .3 of the marathon. I'll do just about anything for an entreprenuer that reaches out for help. I'll help with product development ideas, offer feedback, make intros to investors (if I would myself invest...)--anything to help someone succeed. About once a month, I get a call from someone that won't tell me the idea, but still wants advice and even introductions. Yikes! I just tell them to stop. They're not ready yet.

If you're one of those guys, this post if for you.

Please stop. You're wasting your time. At least give yourself a fighting chance to succeed. This might be a bit cruel, but so is failure, which is where you're headed.

Let me a share a few reasons why you don't need to be in stealth mode:

1.) Execution is more important than the idea

This is the easiest lesson. Your ability to create a product is far more important than your ability to think up a product. This is a hard lesson if you're not the one that will do the building, because it means that your contribution is not as valuable as you thought.

2.) Someone else has the exact same idea.

The adage is that if you have a good idea, there are 5 other people already doing it. If you have a great idea, there are 15 other people already doing it. One of the reasons you're foolishly in stealth mode is probably because you haven't done enough market research to realize that people are already working on this.

3.) Totally unique ideas generally don't make it

If you have a 100% totally unique idea, you're either too far ahead of the market or you've picked a market so small that no one cares. Either way, you're in for trouble.

4.) The most likely cause of failure is your incompetence, not losing to the competition

Start-ups are really hard on so many levels. The likelihood that you execute beautifully but then lose out to someone that stole your idea is so incredibly low, you shouldn't think about it. The likelihood that you build a product that missed the mark, is an almost certainty. Optimize around the problems most likely to shut you down. Paul Graham always told us to focus on the one enemy that matters: the back button.

5.) You desperately need real feedback

Perhaps the biggest reason not to be in stealth is that you're robbing yourself of great feedback. Most companies miss the mark on the first product. The great companies learn quickly and iterate. Skipping the learning part by being secretive just reduces the time you'll have to iterate before running out of money.

6.) First mover advantage is just silliness

The obit has been written on first mover advantage. It rarely helps. Facebook wasn't the first to social networking, Google wasn't the first to search, YouTube wasn't the first to video, yada yada. First mover advantage was a flawed theory that helped pre-product internet companies raise billions of dollars in the 90s.

I could go on, but this is a fool's errand. If you're reading this and don't agree, you're probably just not ready to do a startup and all the rationalizing in the world won't help. Of course, it's incredibly pompous of me to make that judgement, and I do hope you prove me wrong. I understand that you have your reasons and that there are certainly valid exceptions that my rash over-generalizations are not capturing.

But you approached me for advice. Please stop.

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I'm Jason Freedman. I co-founded FlightCaster.
You should follow me on Twitter: @JasonFreedman.
You can send me a Linkedin request or become my bff on Facebook

This article originally appeared at: 1,116 words.

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