A need, an idea, a passion, maybe a patent. A business plan, a solid management team, materials sources, funding, a website, a path to market. These are some of the fundamentals of a successful startup — in security or otherwise. But even if all of these boxes are checked, a startup needs an extra fillip to succeed: fitting leadership.
A February 2022 article in Forbes presented the results of a survey of 30 chief executive officers (CEOs) who were asked their number one quality for a “hypergrowth startup.” Almost a third of those CEO respondents cited vision, 23% said patience and tenacity, 13% answered authenticity and self-awareness, and 10% favored inspiration, with other qualities receiving lesser percentages.
But what do veterans of the security startup scene say? How does leadership in a startup — particularly a security startup — differ from leadership in other environments? I asked some experts for their opinions.
Whether you are aiming to start your own security-related firm, going out on your own to build a consulting or teaching company, or building a security function from the ground up within an organization, you can learn something from others’ experiences. (Full disclosure: I have consulted for the entrepreneurs interviewed in this article.)
In a word, the key to security startup leadership is culture.
Culture starts with listening. “What I’ve learned is that you have to be flexible and listen to other people,” says Steve Layne, who recently launched Red Vector, a software tool that ingests multiple data streams and uses artificial intelligence (AI) to assess insider risk. As much as you want to be a strong leader, he cautions that acting unilaterally is “usually going to get you into more trouble than not. You have to be able to ask good questions, and you have to learn to shut up and listen.”
Those traits are crucial in startups both because the operating environment is so fluid and because you are trying to build a passionate and cohesive team that feels respected. Building such a team makes selecting, training and retaining staff so important.
Steve Reinharz, CEO of security robotics company Robotic Assistance Devices (RAD), is fastidious about team building. At RAD, instilling the right culture starts at the recruiting stage. “We don’t ask people to conform to our culture,” he says. “We look for people who exhibit elements of the culture.” The result is people “who are excited to come to work on Monday, who are invigorated by their jobs… who like their colleagues and environment, put in incredible efforts, and leave feeling energized and supported.”
And how does he weed out fakers who are just looking for a job but don’t really fit the culture? Through a rigorous prequalification, interview and onboarding process, according to Reinharz. Job candidates talk to four company leaders who embody the culture. In addition, most roles require an assignment — perhaps a report or presentation — to verify that the applicant has the necessary skills for the role.
Finally, job seekers are asked to read the company culture manifesto and discuss it with Reinharz. The process is both exhaustive and exhausting, but you can’t argue with the results: more than 90% retention and a 400% increase in revenue over the past 20 months.
Culture is also carefully cultivated at Swiftlane, a startup focused on mobile and facial recognition-based access control, particularly in the multi-family sector. “Culture is part of our core values,” says CEO Saurabh Bajaj. “We talk about examples, we celebrate wins, and we actively discuss culture as an important tenet.” That’s particularly challenging because two-thirds of Swiftlane’s workforce is virtual — “leading people that we don’t see,” as Bajaj puts it.
The lessons have been transformative. “We used to evaluate a team member based on skill set,” Bajaj says. “Over time, I’ve realized that’s not enough. The other axis is trust. Are you building a trusting team where people can lean on [each other]?”
Reinharz, Baraj and Layne ooze enthusiasm, and that’s not coincidental. “You have to be enthusiastic and exude confidence,” Layne says. “You better believe what you are selling.” After all, that’s one of the drivers of success.