In Chapter 15 of 17 in his 2011 Capture Your Flag interview, Internet entrepreneur and SimpleGeo CTO Joe Stump gives his opinion on stealth mode product strategy. He compares and contrasts it to going private beta and also to releasing a minimum viable product (MVP) and improving via iteration. Stump notes why short development cycle products such as Instagram needed to be kept quiet before release. He also shares how some companies, for example Paypal, might pull a product back into private beta or stealth if a major pivot was in order. Stump is the co-founder and CTO at SimpleGeo (www.simplegeo.com), a San Francisco-based mobile location infrastructure services company. Previously Stump was Lead Architect at Digg. He programs in PHP, Python, Django and enjoys scaling websites. He earned a BBA in Computer Information Systems from Eastern Michigan University.
Erik Michielsen: What are the pros and cons of going stealth mode verses releasing a product and iterating?
Joe Stump: I hate stealth mode. Um, I hate stealth mode for a number of reasons. There are two fundamental reasons why people go into stealth mode. One is because they have an idea that they feel is easily replicable, so they need to build a product and then launch it. Two, they’re idiots. I don’t really understand why. It’s kind of douchey. It’s kind of like, “I have this awesome new thing that I’m working on and I have a bunch of VC money, but I can’t tell ya.” It’s like the ultimate hipster cock-block move, right?
Not only would you, “You know it’s this awesome band that you’ve never heard of, I’m not going to let you hear of them?” It’s like, “Come on…” I think the biggest con with the stealth mode is similar to developing a fully baked product is that if you’re not getting feedback, even from people that don’t sign NDAs that are friends and colleagues and stuff, you’re going to launch a product that could potentially fail on day one, where you miss out on the fail early and fail often.
So, I don’t see a whole lot a pros to it unless you have an idea – like Instagram, I wouldn’t have told anybody that that was the idea that I was working on because the initial version of Instagram, those guys probably banged that out in a month. So, if you’re talking about it and someone is only like a week behind because they’re like, “Yeah, that is a good idea. I’m going to start programming on it.” That would probably be the only pro that I could think of, but there is no reason in my opinion to be in stealth mode for like six or eight months. Stealth mode till you have your NVP I could understand, otherwise you need to be out in the open I think.
Erik Michielsen: What about companies that leave stealth mode, go do a public release and they bring it back into stealth mode?
Joe Stump: I guess the only time that I’ve seen that it would make sense is you go back into stealth mode when you’re scraping the product and pivoting. I could see that. I’ve never seen it, but I could see why someone would do that. So, if you’re launching something and you’re like, “Ehhhhh this isn’t going to work.” Like PayPal. They were originally were payments on hand held devices. The ended up pivoting into send money through email. But I could see how that would be, “Okay, well this isn’t going to work. We’re going to pivot into this other thing. So, we’re going to go back into stealth mode and work on this other thing”. That’s really the only time I think it would make sense.
What I have seen is I have seen people – in fact we did this a SimpleGeo where we launched a product and they pulled it back into private beta because it wasn’t ready. So, our storage product, we launched, we had a ton of problems with it and what we did was we made the decision – we were already in the process of completely rebuilding it, but it was a massive undertaking. We had probably eight months of R&D into our new storage technology that we had recently launched back into private beta.
So, we actually made the decision of like, “You know what guys? We don’t new users assuming that they can use this because it wasn’t that good.” And so we pulled it back into private beta, we had probably four or five hundred active people using it and that allowed us – that alleviated a lot of pressure on us out in the market to basically re-approach the product and redevelop it and we’re going to be launching that back publicly in probably a couple of weeks. So, that will be probably four months that we’ve had it back in private beta.