On Being Secret at your Startup : Stealth Space Ships and Secret Society Handshakes

If we haven't met yet, I'm Issac.

I am an engineering manager at a company in San Francisco (though they're a worldwide company) called Stripe. I am inside a group called Treasury Engineering, where I work on helping manage Stripe's liquidity and foreign exchange products and services both internally and for Stripe's customers.

This is not about Stripe but I'll say: It's really quite nice to be able to say all of that.

From April 2017 until September 2019 I worked for "Astra". They are building a small disposable orbital launch vehicle, or ideally, dozens of them. I started the test and launch software discipline and built a team there.

Ashlee Vance wrote about us here for Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-astra-rocket/ (IA Link)

Eric Berger wrote about us here for Ars Technica: https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/02/at-astra-space-failure-is-an-option/ (IA Link)

From November 2013 until October 2015 I worked for "Nonchalance". They were building something. It was a game, and a society of like-minded folks, and an art installation. It was lots of things to lots of people. I spent my time there running the "Systems" group, which was both hardware and software with a very strong bent toward experimental human computer interface design.

Lots of people wrote lots of things, but I'm going to only list my two favorites

Jessica Lachenal wrote about us here: https://medium.com/@jeslach/the-latitude-society-a-story-45915e489937 (IA Link)

Lydia Laurenson wrote about us for Vice: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xygykj/my-year-in-san-franciscos-2-million-secret-society-startup (IA Link)

In many ways I loved both of these jobs tremendously. In many ways they were both quite crummy. One thing that they both had in common until very recently was that they insisted that we don't talk about it in public.

This does a disservice to the business in at least these ways:

  • Hiring is harder. Nobody knows about you, which makes it more difficult to build a recruiting pool.
  • Customer acquisition is harder. Nobody knows about you, you're very intentionally relying on whisper networks to find new people to see your cool thing. If you only need ten customers to be successful this may be a very reasonable thing to do.

This does a disservice to the employees of your business in at least these ways:

  • This is not the last job they will have. It is rational for employees to prioritize work that they can reliably present and talk about.
  • The ways that secrecy is difficult for the business also affect employees. As a hiring manager at both of these companies, I had a huge reliance on referrals. At both places I broke policy slightly to bring in a wider pool of candidates. This served me well.

I am a huge fan of the model where you "Radiate Intent" (IA Link) and I want to work with and for folks who follow this path.

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Issac Kelly