When Brant and I founded Bazaarvoice, we decided to be in "stealth mode" for the first eight months. This was because of the incredible response we were getting from our initial conversations with prospective retail clients as well as several other factors:
Our initial solution had been built by Josh Baer's team and it wasn't very hard to replicate at the beginning. We needed time to grow the solution into something that would be harder for competitive entrants to easily duplicate.
Everyone in the eCommerce industry, including the Shop.org community, was wondering what company I would found next. They expected it to be good based on the success that Coremetrics had enjoyed. At that time, clients loved Coremetrics. You can see the press release that Coremetrics put out when I left. This put the spotlight on me. I could waste no time.
- One of the most fierce, new competitors we had at Coremetrics had been Visual Sciences. They stayed in stealth for 18 months while we, Omniture, WebSideStory, and WebTrends tried to get any information we could on how to compete with them. Alas, we could not, and they did a pretty good job of disrupting all of us. They went on to build a pretty large business and then merged with WebSideStory and later Omniture bought WebSideStory, which had changed it's name to Visual Sciences because WebSideStory was never a very good name (see my post "What's in a name?", or frankly a good reputation in the industry by that time. In any case, Brant and I learned from Visual Sciences that stealth mode could be a good thing in the right situation. I think Visual Sciences stayed in stealth too long, though - and that is why they never led the industry like us or Omniture. At some point, you need to aggressively come out of stealth mode and market and sell like crazy to win. Their CEO was ultimately too protective and too conservative. But I'll grant that he taught us a lot and had crazy-good engineers.
So, by being in stealth at Bazaarvoice, we got a head start in the nascent industry but we knew we had to run quickly to lead it. PowerReviews was founded just a few months after Bazaarvoice - and funny enough, they were initially in stealth too with their first company name being Pufferfish. We came out of stealth mode roaring, though, and Sam Decker, our founding CMO, did a great job blogging on the launchand my long-time friend, Emily Brady at Brady PR, did a great job garnering the media attention that we had been waiting until the right time for - when we had strength. We had the referenceable client base and the funding from Austin Ventures, First Round Capital, Ralph Mack and Julie Constantin (both of whom had backed me at the beginning of Coremetrics), Eric Simone, and Jamie Crouthamel (the founder of Performics) to run fast. We knew we had to quickly branch out and build more solutions than customer ratings and reviews to have a real platform - and today Bazaarvoice has a broad Conversations platform, network solutions (like Bazaarvoice Connections), analytics (Bazaarvoice Intelligence), and now advertising for the network with the acquisition of Longboard Media.
When I meet entrepreneurs that won't share their business idea, I'm very skeptical on them as entrepreneurs. This doesn't mean that I don't believe in being in stealth mode - of course I do. But you should share your business idea with the "right" audience, especially those that can really mentor you or that you can sell your solution to. I've actually never seen an overly protective entrepreneur build a very large company. For the eight months we were in stealth at Bazaarvoice, we showed potential clients everything - how our solution worked, how our services worked, and what our product roadmap was - because, after all, they were betting on a very small company with few resources at the time. And we signed and launched clients like CompUSA, Golfsmith, and PETCO, and we ran like hell to lead the industry. Clients will give you all the credibility you need, even when in stealth, as long as they will serve as a reference because you've done a really great job for them.
Below is only thing you would have seen when you visited the Bazaarvoice website during our first eight months in business. People thought, "what a bizarre company", and some probably thought, "has Brett lost his mind?". Oh yeah, and the image below when we were in stealth mode didn't include any of that text - just the image and our first logo. I didn't want to give away too much to just any viewer. At tradeshows like Shop.org and eTail, clients would ask, "does it mean speak no evil?". Yeah, I guess you could say that. You are going to need to embrace the negative voice of your customers, and quick. They are talking to each other anyway. But remember that this was 7.5 years ago - and Facebook was closed to the public, Twitter didn't even exist, there was certainly no Pinterest, and there were no iPhones or Android phones at that time (where so many social interactions occur today). So, I guess it did look a little bizarre after all… but it worked.
BTW, all credit goes to the genius Jacob Salamon for creating this image - and the text, which hasn't been seen outside of Bazaarvoice until now. He was our first intern, and credit goes to my good friend Gary Hoover, the founder of Hoovers (now owned by D&B), for introducing us (Gary's blog is really good, BTW). We paid Jacob in stock only. But I told him that stock would lead to one of the highest paid internships in Austin history. And we laugh now about how I was right. Earlier this year, he left Bazaarvoice after spending a year as our head of marketing in Europe and around six years with us overall. He lives in Los Angeles now and is pursuing his dream of being a producer. You can see his first viral video series below (it is called Bubala Please and already has 600,000+ views in a few weeks - but don't watch this with your kids!). I'm very happy for him - he is a real Renaissance man and someone that I am proud to call a good friend.