Stealth, not secrecy

The strategy for winning is simple: do good work and tell the world about it. In that order! This implies some level of stealth as you are doing the good work.

If you plan to lose weight, don’t announce it… lose the weight and then do the reveal.

Early feedback frames the problem and might derail you. You can end up feeling stuck in your path and it may increase your risk of failure.

If you want to feel free to let go of bad ideas, do not commit to them publicly.

Or you may feel like you already succeeded and take the “do good work” for granted: it is called hubris and smart people are susceptible to it.

The timing of the first reveal matters because people are lazy. If you reveal something that is flawed, it will be hard to correct this impression later. You are better off waiting a bit later and making sure you present good work. Furthermore, announcing your next product early can drain interest for your current products. Steve Jobs once said: “It’s really simple, if we tell people what our next product is, they stop buying our current products.”

But the reverse does not apply: the most secretive people are not those who have genuine good work upcoming. For every Apple, you have hundreds of companies that have nothing worth stealing. And they will make sure you never find out.1, 2, 3

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” Howard Aiken.

1. Theranos had an insane culture of secrecy. The company lasted 15 years. It was once valued at $10 billion. The company only failed after John Ioannidis famously questioned the wild claims of the company while the rest of the medical community just went along. It turns out that there was no innovation, no technology worth having. The company was soon worth $0.

2. Apple is successful and secretive. But Apple is secretive about features that their competitors already have.

3. In Surprisingly Small: The Effect of Trade Secret Breaches on Firm Performance, Searl and Vivian (2021) find that security breaches have little effect on a firm’s performance. They write:

For policy makers, the implication is the narrative of trade secret theft as a fundamental threat to a country’s economy and innovation (in our case, the US), may simply be rhetoric when contrasted to the market’s understanding of such theft. Therefore, calls for the expansion of trade secrecy protections, such as the expansion of its definition or further criminalisation of trade secret theft, may do less to protect innovation overall and instead expand negative externalities such as increased litigation and constraints on labour mobility.
For managers, the implication is that the benefits of the protection of trade secrets may be overstated. Counterintuitively, the findings suggest managers should not prioritise trade secret protections and cybersecurity if the main goal is protecting shareholders.


Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

One thought on “Stealth, not secrecy”

  1. “It’s really simple, if we tell people what our next product is, they stop buying our current products.”

    Unless the competition made the same mistake. Microsoft announcing Windows way too early killed any interest in VisiCorp’s Visi On before it was released.

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