Coming out of stealth – what’s the gain and how to do it right?

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Let’s say you’re a startup founder, about to unleash your creation upon the world for the first time. You’ve been working tirelessly behind the scenes, trying to build an MVP, building your team, and keeping everything under wraps in stealth mode. But now you’ve successfully raised money (congrats!) and it’s time to step out of the shadows and make the world aware – or is it?

I recently met with a startup founder who was in this position. He wanted to come out of stealth by running a noisy launch campaign and do nothing publicly until then. He and the team were planning a massive out-of-stealth effort, but when I asked them why they want to invest in a noisy launch, why not run a few operational activities right away, and what are their goals, they were unsure what to answer. At some point I was asked: “Is there another way of coming out of stealth? Isn’t it the only way it works? All secretive, then during a one single moment- all noise at once, website up only then, PR immediately, you know the drill”

Well, no. There’s no rule or obligation…

Back to the meeting, they insisted on not running any social media work before the announcement, even just growing the company page followers, and posting about general industry stuff. They wouldn’t even agree to publish a coming soon lean landing page…
They insisted that “everything below the radar” must be the approach across the board, and they kept saying that no communication makes sense before the firing shot.

But they couldn’t explain why is it such a big no-no.

I told them that I clearly understand this strategy when Apple wants to launch a new phone… but what does it have to do with a seed stage cyber security startup that targets enterprises?

The discussion went on and we started talking about the main KPIs linked to coming out of stealth campaign, and the general business KPIs in the longer run. We discussed whether these goals will be somehow better achieved by a noisy and buzzy out-of-stealth campaign rather than a quiet one and what they think would happen if we decide what makes sense to publish when, and not follow the out-of-stealth bible…

After all, most startups’ business goals at this stage are around closing deals with the first paying customers, showing traction and engagement in key markets, and getting closer to the needed ARR. Moreover, most startups in Seed stage don’t usually have PR stories that make the media tremble. Out of 150 startups that I’ve worked with in the past 10 years, only a handful had unique stories that every media outlet was eager to publish.

Of course, In order to start working with the market you will need to set up your marketing and sales operations quickly and smartly, start generating inbound and outbound traffic, run activities to build awareness of your brand, capture demand, get signups, and leads … you get the idea (and that will require a lot of trials and errors, constantly measuring and working with analytics, experimentation, and learning and so forth)

But, what does it have to do with avoiding any marketing communication activity at all, just because? why is “getting out of stealth” perceived as a single moment in time when you are allowed to say something about the company, publish the website or update your workplace on social media?

Why not plan your activities on a timeline that makes sense, rather than coordinating everything to start at once? Why not treat it is a marketing foundation build-up campaign rather than a strict out-of-stealth one?

Back to my story, as the meeting continued, I realized that this wasn’t the first time I’d seen a startup rush headlong out of stealth without being able to provide a proper explanation for the reason behind it. In fact, it sometimes seems like the decision to come out of stealth with a lot of drama is more about ego or FOMO than anything else. So, I decided to share my 2 cents.

First thing first, what exactly is out of stealth?

I know I am probably stating the obvious, but in the startup world, “coming out of stealth” generally means publicly announcing your company’s existence and introducing the product to the world. This can be done in several ways.
Until that point, the startup was operating in “stealth mode” – keeping a low profile and avoiding major publicity while spending time developing the product, building the team, and working on establishing the DNA of the business units (sales, marketing, revenues, etc.) – this makes a lot of sense by the way.
When you come out of stealth mode, it means that you’re essentially saying “We’re here, we’re doing something cool, and we’re ready to start talking about it publicly.” This can involve a range of activities and tactics, from press releases to launch events to social media campaigns and alike.

What activities are usually involved when coming out of stealth?

Ideally, the blend should be set according to the goals, audience, and budget. Popular activities include:
– Press releases (about the round and product, partners, investors, etc.)
– presenting or speaking at an Industry event and sharing the news
– Social media communications around the news
– Influencer outreach to support the news
And there are more.

The mistake is that people tend to see stealth mode versus out-of-stealth as two binary options, either you do nothing or you push hard in all channels. That’s because the term “out of” feels like something that happens in a single moment. In fact, I see it as a timeline of activities meant to help the company meet its early-stage goals, that are (hopefully) prioritized strategically.

I don’t like to treat out-of-stealth as a unique, single campaign that must occur at a single point in time as it usually fails to be optimized to my KPIs as a CMO (if there is a clear reason for doing it in one bang, that’s a different story).

Every startup is emerging out of stealth at some period in time. But, the bigger question is whether a loud noisy campaign is the best practice in all scenarios, or better run it step by step.

A dramatic and noisy out-of-stealth campaign is not always a necessary or effective approach for every startup. In fact, many successful startups have opted for a more low-key or gradual approach to their public launch. Google it (or ChatGPT it) and you will see.

Why so? Running a massive out-of-stealth campaign can be a major undertaking, requiring significant time, resources, preparation, and budget. And while it can generate buzz and attention, it many times doesn’t translate into any of the business KPIs needed to satisfy the investors and close the next round (though sometimes the investors are the ones voting for it as they want to show off).

Sometimes, out of stealth campaign actually creates a distraction, enforcing the team to deprioritize other tasks for quite some time. It also forces the organization to invest a significant amount of money on marketing materials and digital assets, just to look perfect (all eyes on them).

If you think about it,  at these initial stages, many of the messages are not quite there yet, as there is still a lot to experiment with around the product, target audience, and use cases.

This means everything will probably be redone or optimized in the near future, making the initial big splash a bit redundant. But if you go out noisily, you can’t afford to look like the average startup out there.

Besides, a noisy out-of-stealth done too early, when the product isn’t “cooked” yet, may put the startup in an inferior position, as it usually can’t present bug-free products, success stories, or quotes from customers. and holding all marketing horses until all these assets are gained is, simply put, not an option.

Many times, the initial round that a startup is announcing is…well.. nothing to write home about, and may even turn off potential customers that don’t want to engage with a company that may not be there for the long run. That’s also something to consider.

Sometimes a quieter and more strategic operation can allow for more targeted and personalized outreach, testing the right messages, and building a loyal user base that is more likely to stick around in the long run.

So, why be in stealth mode in the first place?

If what’s written so far is the case, then why should a startup be in stealth mode at all? Let me clarify

Founders choose to go into stealth mode for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they want to keep their idea under wraps until they have a more polished product or a better sense of their target audience, not wanting people to try, get disappointed, and never come back.

Other times, they may be competing in a crowded or highly competitive market and want to avoid tipping off potential rivals. And in some cases, they may simply want to avoid the expenses and required resource allocation for external communication and just want to focus on building their product first.

Whatever the reason, staying in stealth mode allows founders to work on their product without distraction and refine their strategy before making a big public splash.

The thing is…

On the other hand, being in stealth mode makes it harder to get feedback and validation from potential customers, potentially leading to wasted time and resources in the case that the product doesn’t resonate (which I’ve witnessed many times) with its intended audience. Plus there is always the risk that a startup will lose momentum if it stays in stealth mode for too long while competitors run marketing activities such as SEO, social, community work, PR, and more, stealing market share.

But then again, there’s an opportunity

It’s true that an early-stage startup doesn’t get too many opportunities to take the stage and capture the industry’s attention, whether it’s potential customers, employees, partners, or future investors. Coming out of stealth is likely to get some attention and interest, and help achieve a few milestones, such as :

  • Building brand awareness and generating buzz for the product 
  • Boosting SEO (mentions and backlinks from top-tier industry media outlets) 
  • Attracting potential partners, and investors, closer to the out of stealth or later on, when due diligence is done
  • Attracting potential customers in case the product is innovative, disruptive, and answers a burning pain 
  • Getting valuable feedback and validation from the market to refine the product and strategy – Out of stealth is an opportunity to proactively ask influencers and industry experts to provide feedback
  • Establishing credibility and authority in the industry – coverage in top-tier outlets creates trust and can support sales.
  • Satisfying the investors, letting them show off the news, and getting them to promote the product in their networks of potential investors and customers or partners.
  • Finally, your mama will be proud of you, though you are not a doctor.

So what’s the verdict?

(Bringing my 2 cents)

  1. Consider the context and ecosystem before making a decision – how innovative and unique the product is, how big and well-funded the competitors are – make a decision based on the cards that you hold. If you hold interesting cards such as influential investors, unique technology, a product that (really) disrupts the market, an impressive enough round, a mix of news that you can share (product + round + interesting engagement with a leading enterprise, etc.) or alike – these factors should contribute to a decision towards running a noisy out-of-stealth campaign.
  2. Set up your expectations correctly – Your out-of-stealth will most probably not rock the world. In most cases, it will be nice, you may gain a spike in traffic, and you will enjoy some calls and meetings, but that’s about it, it will not have a long-lasting impact on your KPIs.
  3. Consider the effort needed to make this happen and don’t go bananas over looking your best. If it makes sense to come out of stealth, and you can do it without getting into a tremble, and it doesn’t delay you from running important marketing activities ASAP, then why not?
  4. Create a timeline and be able to justify every step in it as well as the timing (Guantt style). For instance, I tend to take care of the social channels ahead of the PR, so they will not look empty and with almost no followers when the announcement is out. I am good with having just a minisite and not a full website when I start running inbound marketing (my decision may be different when it’s a self-serve SaaS tool, or PLG like they like calling it today), but nonetheless, the branding must look professional enough, and minimal (very high quality) content should be included. I don’t automatically disagree to publish the website ahead of the PR. It’s not that the entire world will see it and it will spoil your noisy launch cuz news will leak 🙂
  5. As long as you do run a launch PR, plan ahead the steps to leverage the announcement, otherwise, it will all go to waste. Don’t just create a post, but also work with the team to amplify the communication and buzz, work on 1-on-1 LinkedIn messages and emails to relevant stakeholders, sharing the news with them. Consider promoting the news with ads and so forth. It may delay the PR just a bit but will ensure the effect is maximized against real business KPIs.

Like I said, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If your website landing page is live before the out-of-stealth launch, it doesn’t mean that you are brutally violating the law. If you run social media posting before the PR announcement (and you share specific content that doesn’t cannibalize the future launch) what’s the risk? The same goes for connecting and mingling with relevant people in the industry or exposing your startup brand.

And most importantly, don’t treat the out-of-stealth campaign as a single massive effort and that’s it. It should really be the starting point for the marketing activities that must grow from this point on, on an ongoing basis, increasing the push, following a well-planned strategy (that should include content creation, promotion, communities, conferences, sponsorships, SEO, Paid media and more (not everything right from the start but the goal is to evolve to multi-area operation as a mean to compete in the industry – it has been proven for a long time now that multi-channel multi-touch marketing strategy is what it takes to succeed)

Conclusion:

Most early-stage startups grow and continue raising money based on reaching KPIs, not based on buzz. They need to work on awareness and traction, and secure initial agreements with paying customers early on. Startups that show good engagement, reach a certain ARR, make it in specific geos, and alike are the ones that progress to closing the next rounds.

Every marketing strategy should be aimed at achieving these KPIs, and activities shouldn’t stand on their own, but justified in their contribution towards achieving our KPIs.

Out of stealth can take part or not, but that should not be taken for granted and should be decided by looking at the big contextual picture and understanding the pros, cons, and achievements that are expected to be gained.

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About me: I’ve been working in the tech and startup marketing scene for approximately 20 years. In the past 10 years, I am a co-founder at G2Mteam, a marketing powerhouse that is tailored to startups in their early stage (usually seed or round A) when there’s no internal marketing team (or a small one)

 

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Einav Laviv is a tech and startup marketing exec. with 20 years of experience, and a Co-Founder at G2Mteam, which supports Israeli startups with full-stack global marketing services since 2014. She lives, breathes, and loves deep tech & data driven marketing