In startup land, you hear a lot about new companies operating in "stealth mode." The term implies that there's some transcendent technology in the works, and carries the expectation that the company will soon emerge in a triumphant hullabaloo. Until that time, all we can do is wait to see what magic it's brewing up.
But in practice, once those stealthy companies launch, they often enter a related but much less glorified stage. Call it silent mode, a period after the initial launch and fanfare during which it's not clear what, exactly, they're doing day to day. Why don't their products ever change? What are all those people working on? That's silent mode, and I've seen too many companies enter it, never to return. It's something we're trying to avoid at my startup, Iodine.
Usually there are reasonable explanations for a company's going into silent mode. Most likely, a team is trying to repair the glitchy product they released prematurely, or fixing that one drop-down menu that crashes the site at random intervals. Or they're out there trying to sell the thing, finding customers or partnerships. Surely, they're doing something. (It's worth noting that silent mode doesn't afflict just startups. Google reportedly has 3,000 people working on Google+, though it's unclear what they're doing.)
The problem is that silent mode creates plenty of mystery but, unlike stealth mode, no anticipation. When your business looks like nobody's home, well, that's not good for business.
At Iodine, we've decided to avoid going silent at all costs. We're making what we're doing visible in what we call an open experiment. There's no template for what Iodine is trying to create--a new consumer resource for data-driven health information--so we want to make our efforts transparent enough to eliminate any doubt that we're trying hard. Even though we're still figuring out which direction we're headed, it seems more prudent to stay on the radar (even if it means letting people see us drift a bit) than to have our signal fade away.
Part of this is just pragmatic. Try to gloss over your problems and people tend to call you out on them. But we've found that when we talk frankly about our challenges, people want to help.
We've seen this, for instance, in our beta testing effort we call Iodine Labs. We've recruited a group of about 400 so-called trusted testers who've offered to try out prototypes of new features and products that we're bashing together. Over a three-month period, we submitted a half-dozen prototypes to this group, a fairly public demonstration that Iodine is still a work in progress. Though at first this was mostly about not going silent, we've found the testers--even those who might be considered competitors--to be surprisingly generous with their time and counsel. And if some of our ideas don't seem fully baked, we think there's nothing wrong with people knowing we have outsize ambitions and are trying to get something to stick.
Admittedly, avoiding silent mode could be considered mere marketing, little more than hand waving about how hard Iodine is working. There's no question that PR is part of the brew here. But we've found real value in keeping our efforts in view. We've gotten better at prototyping, we've built up a legion of users, and it's kept up our internal metabolism, as well.
Of course, just like those companies that have gone silent, we have to keep the lights on, too, and we're busy doing invisible support and maintenance for what we've already put out. But we're OK if our open experiment dilutes some of the mystery about what's going on at Iodine. Want to know what we're doing? Take a look.