Surgical Strikes and the Startup Founder

Vani Kola Surgical Strikes

The recent surgical strikes carried out by the Indian Army dominates current conversation. Taking a hard stance against terrorism, the Army carefully and tactfully launched focussed attacks upon terror centres in Pakistan, sending an unmistakeable message to Pakistan and the world — that India would no longer stand by silently while terror was nurtured by their neighbours.

This activity got me thinking — what a difference it made, to do this quietly. There was no talk about it prior to the event, no media leaks, no PR… nothing. Not even the regiments that were posted at the locations where these strikes were carried out, knew that it had been planned! The Army maintained the highest levels of secrecy and discretion, to ensure that there was no compromise to the mission.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned there for startups. Almost everyday, we read speculative news about one startup or another. Long articles and what not, where grand plans are quoted, and the bags of cash that might get imminently handed to them. Almost just as frequently, we hear of startups shutting shop, founders hiding away in corners as the very journalists who heralded them as the ‘Next Big Thing’, now prod them to know what went wrong.

Are we giving too much away too soon, I mean this obsession about Break news of startups? Are we so caught up in the excitement of it all, eager to have the media and a billion households know our names, that we lose sight of the endgame, lasting long enough and creating sustainable impact?

The shared obsession between the media and startups is, in my opinion, unhealthy. While PR is definitely important, and it is in the interest of the company to talk about their achievements, far too many instances of rumours and speculative news abound. Take for instance, the Snapdeal-Alibaba “breaking news”, carried by Trak, ET, and several others.

These are one of many examples of such speculative news, and then forgotten with no reflection on why we gravitate to these rumours.

We also see reports and talk of imminent fundraising, long before conversations are anywhere near closure, or even began. New developments are conveniently “leaked” to the media prior to official announcements. If true success is what you seek (don’t we all!), I think this isn’t the right approach.

The best brands manage news and PR carefully, and play their cards close to their chests. Their strategy is for their knowledge alone, until the absolute right moment to strike. This allows them to create maximum impact.

Stealth as a Strategy
There are several opinions on this. There are some who do not believe in, or see the value in, stealth. And to be frank, there is no right or wrong answer to this. Different strategies work for different people, as is true of all matters. That said, I do think certain guidelines are important. By ‘stealth’, I do not mean to suggest that founders remain painfully tightlipped or paranoid.

The way I see it, stealth has two major benefits (perhaps more, feel free to let me know). Firstly, you’re protecting your ideas — ‘Loose lips sink ships’, as the adage goes. Casual, unguarded chatter about your amazing progress could quickly result in you being faced with 3 competitors who have replicated, and perhaps even improved upon, your idea. Don’t actually jinx yourself, on the off chance that things don’t pan out the way you had foreseen, at the very least you do not lose credibility.

There’s also the risk of not living up to the hype you have created. I have heard several entrepreneurs talk about how their ideas are “groundbreaking” or ‘the first in the space’. While these are certainly pleasant terms to hear, it is far more important to actually achieve them. Busy generating hype, one possibly ends up having to deal with a promise that simply did not live up to expectations.

However, stealth also requires judgment. For instance, a founder attending a high-profile networking event should not cite ‘stealth’ as a reason to not talk about his business. It’s important to recognise opportunities, and importantly, to be careful about over-marketing.

It is also far too easy to get caught up in the hype that your competitors are creating, and scramble to appear as exciting. Remember, if there’s a lot of marketing noise, take a step back and view it with a pinch of salt. Inside the bubble, it’s hard to feel the ground.

And stealth needn’t be restricted to the early stages of your business. Take the examples of Rolls Royce, Zara, or GoPro. None of these brands do much paid advertising, but that doesn’t mean they are not very valuable brands. Quite the contrary, in fact. Rolls Royce is undeniably one of the most aspirational car brands in the world. GoPro is a massively popular option for the adventure-seeker, and the brand’s users are their ambassadors, doing their advertising for them. Zara is not only a globally popular apparel brand, its founder Amancio Ortega (I bet most haven’t heard of him) is currently the richest man in the world, having recently overtaken Bill Gates. He is reported to be worth over $70B, and has only granted interviews to three journalists in his lifetime! That is, perhaps, one of the most powerful arguments in favour of a quieter approach to marketing.

Even in the entertainment world, there are several who shy away from being too public about their lives. Stars like Julia Roberts do not use social media at all, citing a desire to keep their private lives out of the public eye. The singer Sia hid her face behind an oversized wig during her appearances, in order to be less recognizable. While the origin of her signature practice lay in shyness, it also proved to be quite the marketing move in itself. A sense of mystery can be a powerful thing.

While stealth may not always be the right way — every brand and business needs to be deeply thoughtful in every public statement and appearance to preserve their core — certainly oversharing about plans that haven’t even materialised yet, can have adverse effects on your brand. Founders are likely to encounter several who do not believe in stealth, and may even advise against it. While there is no universal answer, I belong to the camp of being circumspect, and not share information that is not certain.

I have immense respect for the Indian Armed Forces, and feel that there are leadership lessons that one can learn from them everyday, stealth being one of them.

About the AuthorVani Kola@VaniK
Vani Kola is the Managing Director at Kalaari Capital. Having been a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, Vani now works with first-time entrepreneurs to build strong global companies.

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