During my years as a full-time journo, I crossed paths with many a startup technology venture that claimed to be operating in so-called stealth mode. It was the early 2000s, before the process of getting technology to market was as socially enabled as it is now, and startup CEOs seemed to consider it hip and trendy to apply the S word to their businesses.
Where, I wonder, are many of those startups now?
We wrote many moons ago about the inherent foolishness of trying to build a business by somehow staying under the radar. You can’t define a market need, develop a product to meet that need, secure the funding necessary for operations or build the team that can pull it all off without telling the world who you are and what you are trying to do.
Stealth mode would appear to be a concept as lost to history as nine-figure VC deals for photonics startups. But the term popped up again a few weeks ago when I sat down with an Ottawa CEO. She used the term to describe the operational philosophy of her business, despite the fact that her business, in the space of five years, has grown into a global competitor that is doubling and tripling its revenue each year and taking market share from incumbent rivals.
It’s a family-run business with a secret sauce that is disrupting the status quo of its industry, with its reasons for wanting to keep its cards close to its chest. The other shareholders, the CEO told me, are quite reluctant to engage in any overt marketing or media relations activity that would put the company, or its proprietary technology, in the spotlight. Instead, the company prefers to build its business by attending industry events and letting the quality of its offering speak for itself through customer referrals and word of mouth.
“But,” I said. “How can you be in stealth mode if you are attending conferences, walking tradeshow floors, talking to prospective customers and snooping out your competition with a name tag around your neck?”
I said to her, politely, of course, that she was in anything but stealth mode. If her concern was in competitors finding out too much about her company’s proprietary technology (which at this point isn’t patented, but only a trade secret), she sure as heck would not be walking around a tradeshow floor talking to people about it when there’s no telling who might be lurking around within earshot.
It’s a paranoia that seems all too common – keeping business development and marketing efforts within the envelope of closed industry events is perceived as less threatening than having exposure in well-read media outlets. Which is utterly counterintuitive – the media outlet is likely to have a much more diluted audience, even if it is a larger one, whereas the industry event is likely to have a higher concentration of the people you want to meet as well as the very people you don’t want looking under your skirts.
And in the context of that industry event, it is much easier for a member of your team to have a slip of the tongue. But if you are advertising in a media outlet, you have full control over the message and the information that is disclosed. Even if it is an editorial opportunity, you can prepare in advance to ensure you don’t disclose anything during an interview that you don’t want to see in print.
It’s my biased opinion that raising your profile through earned media coverage, advertising or some combination thereof is not only crucial to raising your company’s profile and driving your business development activities, it is often a safer way to do so without losing control of your message. I am not suggesting that the conference or trade show circuit be avoided – it’s a crucial element of an effective marketing strategy in most industries. But if you are already engaging with your marketplace through that channel, then you should have nothing to fear with pursuing other activities such as advertising buys, public relations and social media engagement.
In fact, the sooner you do pick up these other tools in the marketing tool box and put them to work, the sooner you will develop clear policies and communications strategies for your team that will mitigate the risk of the wrong information being slipped to the wrong pair of ears. If you want to build a business, you can’t avoid exposure, but you can manage that exposure wisely and, ultimately, to the benefit of your bottom line, which is the whole point.
Image: Game Informer