Startups are chaotic as they grow. In the midst of that chaos it's easy to sow the seeds of a company culture that will haunt founders (if the company survives). A culture of internal secrecy is one such seed.
Some brilliant companies employ secrecy. It can be an effective tool to insulate a company from the expectations of the market, and competition e.g. Apple. It can be used as a PR stunt e.g. Coca-Cola and their "secret formula". But, large organisation tactics are usually different to those of a startup.
(of a person or an organization) inclined to conceal feelings and intentions or not to disclose information.
"she was very secretive about her past"
Source: Oxford Languages (via Google)
In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel describes how secrets can galvanise a startup team: "every great business is built upon a secret that's hidden from the outside world. When you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator." The key then is to share the secrets you discover with your team.
Startups must have their secrets. The team are fellow conspirators. However, when startups use secrecy to inject artificial silos between teams or team members it breeds paranoia, and hampers progress and innovation. Here are examples of how destructive secrecy might manifest in your startup:
You ask people to keep secrets from their colleagues. The secret would affect the work of those colleagues. The secret has no expiry date.
Exit interviews have words to the effect of "I wish I was told..."
"Retrospective" meetings reveal duplicated effort.
I've written a few drafts of this blog post. Initially I deconstructed the culture of some failed startups. I used interviews, glassdoor reviews, and internet searches to see if and how a secretive atmosphere contributed to their demise. That kind of deconstruction is valuable, but not quite in keeping with the tone of this blog. So I removed it.
Secrecy is a tool, but like any tool it should be used with moderation. It is not the solution to all problems, but if used carelessly it can be the start of many. If, and when, you use secrecy as a tactic, bear the following in mind.
If you want to see what this looks like listen to Stewart Butterfield talk about a pivot from building a games platform, to building Slack. If you hire well, your team will run through walls with you to build something amazing.
Overall, this is a mindset shift rather than an exhaustive set of tactics. For some, this mindset comes naturally. It does not for me, and might not for you.