Posted by: hdemott | April 8, 2010

Stealth Mode Redux – Are You Building a Moat?

I like to view this blog as being in stealth mode – some people know I am doing it but the masses have yet to be exposed.

It could be huge someday!

Of course, this is a complete joke – blogs, by there very nature are never in stealth mode – unless you happen to like writing for yourself.

There have been a slew of recent posts on stealth mode from Niel Robertson at Trada (here) to Chris Dixon (here) and it continues a debate that has been ongoing for quite some time.

I agree with Niel – stealth mode is situational.

The real question is what your business is: is it highly interdependent on partners, is it characterized by a high level of competition in the space, does it exhibit winner take all qualities, is there some technological barrier that will be difficult to cross in order to compete with you once you come out of stealth mode? And many other questions.

Which to me all gets back to what we in the public markets (courtesy of Warren Buffet) – the moat.

The moat is your competitive advantage.

For Pandora (note of explanation – I have been involved with Pandora serving on the board as a member and observer for a number of years so anything I say about Pandora is likely to be highly biased) the moat is its music genome system (years of development and millions of $), its large installed user base with tons of feedback (probably over 1 billion pieces of used feedback) and perhaps most importantly – a music license agreement that is so onerous, only someone with Pandora’s scale can survive and thrive (Tim Westergren is on record as saying the company did $50M in revenues last year and paid out about $30M in license fees). Now who is going to fund a competitor to that? that’s a huge moat.

For Comcast the moat is in the local licensing agreements as well as the enormous CAPEX required to compete in the business of providing video voice and data to homes.

Google has its algorithm and the scale it brings.

So to get back to stealth mode – the real question to me is whether stealth mode enables you to build your moat. If you expose your product or service early and often, and iterate in public on it – making mistakes and then pivoting till you get it right (or run out of $) are you helping to protect your business or not?

If you are a new service like Foursquare and your whole business depends on consumer adoption, and there are only a few companies out there doing what you are doing – and none of them have gained a real upper hand – then why not get out in the public.

However, lets say you are taking on Google in search – and believe you have a better way to do it. That business is fiendishly competitive and peopled with some of the smarter human beings on the web. Why would you ever expose that before you absolutely had it nailed? Someone will just reverse engineer it – and if Google can’t they will simply throw more resources at it. It’s a fight you will not likely win.

Similarly, Trada seemed to have walked a fine line. Stealth to the public – but open to its constituents. Their business is competitive – but has a high degree of interdependency, so they needed to get to the partners, and not the public till it was ready.

To stealth or not to stealth is not the question.

Am I building a moat or a drawbridge? – that is the question.


Responses

  1. […] is generating debate and a great conversation about playing your own game. Harry DeMott asks Stealth Mode Redux: Are you building a moat? and Brad Feld (@bfeld) wrote New Thoughts on Stealth Mode (Foundry Group is an investor in Trada.) […]

  2. […] is generating debate and a great conversation about playing your own game. Harry DeMott asks Stealth Mode Redux: Are you building a moat? and Brad Feld (@bfeld) wrote New Thoughts on Stealth Mode (Foundry Group is an investor in Trada.) […]

  3. […] Harry DeMott asked: To stealth or not to stealth is not the question. […]


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