I consult to ever more stealth-mode companies, so perhaps it’s time to pull together some common themes in my advice to them. Here by “stealth mode” I mean the period when new companies — rightly or wrongly — are unwilling to disclose any technological specifics, for fear that their ideas will be preempted by rival vendors’ engineering teams (unlikely) or just by their marketing departments (a more realistic concern).
To some extent, “stealth-mode marketing” is an oxymoron.* Still, there are two genuine stealth-mode marketing tasks:
- Recruit employees.
- Prime the pump for post-stealth marketing.
Further, I’d divide the second task into two parts — messaging and outreach. Let’s talk a bit about both.
*I am reminded of my late friend Richard “Rick” Neustadt, Jr., whose dream job — notwithstanding his father’s famous book on presidential power — was to be a US Senator. So he needed to punch his military duty ticket, and got a billet doing PR for the Coast Guard. (One of his training classmates was Dan Quayle.) His posting was to a classified base, and so his PR duties consisted essentially of media-mention prevention. But I digress …
As I wrote in a collection of marcom tips, the pitch style
“We’re an awesomely well-suited company to do X.”
- In stealth mode, when you don’t have anything else to say …
- … but not at first product launch, when you finally do.
For small start-up companies, this message is most easily communicated through highlights of the founders’ awesome resumes, for example:
Our CTO personally stuffed and dyed the yellow elephant for which the Hadoop project is named.
But that still begs a central question – how do you describe what your stealth-mode company is planning to do? I.e. — in the quote above, what is the “X”?
Checking my recent post about product and category naming, we find three precepts that are particularly relevant to stealth mode:
- Don’t convey a clearly wrong impression.
- Too vague is safer than too precise.
- Above all, do no harm.
Beyond that, I’d say:
- Place yourself into the right category.
- At least hint about what you think will make you unique.
And that’s about as far as I can go without delving into the particulars of a specific case.
Stealth-mode marketing outreach
Messaging aside, my observations about stealth-mode marketing communications start:
- You don’t have much to say. So there’s no excuse for screwing up when saying it.
- In most cases, the only differentiation you are willing to be clear about is your founders. So if there’s some opportunity to be clever about marketing them, this is the time.
- Some publications love to write about company-formation or -funding news (e.g. GigaOm). Others hate it (e.g. mine). It’s pretty easy to figure out who’s in which group, just by looking at their previous work.
Beyond that, stealth-mode outreach is mainly about one-on-one communication with:
- Folks who will write about your company-formation and/or -funding news. This is much like any other press interviews.
- Prospects who might become your early “lighthouse” customers. This is where you draw on your collection of good relationships, or work hard to develop new ones.
- Influencers who will not be writing about you until later. Ditto, except that you have the option of letting it go until there’s more to talk about later.
So should you even bother talking with influencers while you’re in stealth mode? Offhand, I can think of three good reasons:
- Message/strategy testing. That’s obvious, although some people — like me! — prefer to get paid for it.
- Introductions to great prospects. Influencers who serve user organizations might wish to introduce exciting new vendors to them.
- Relationship maintenance. If you’re close enough to certain folks, don’t shut them out just because of your current company/job situation.
On the other hand, general “pump priming” is probably a bad reason — you don’t get many bites at the attention apple, so you’d best postpone generic conversations until you have something compelling you’re willing to say.