Security for startups: why early-stage businesses can’t neglect this risk

In the early days of a startup, it’s easy to get caught up in the buzz of building a new business. Keeping so many plates spinning – from fundraising and hiring to shipping product – can mean security sometimes falls off the priority list. But in the face of ever-rising volumes of data breaches and security incidents, it’s a subject that early-stage companies can’t afford to ignore.

That was one of the key themes from a wide-ranging discussion at Dogpatch Labs, the tech incubator in Dublin’s docklands. The speaker was Todd Fitzgerald, an information security expert and Dogpatch member. His ‘fireside chat’, as the event organisers dubbed it, looked at why no company is too small to develop a cybersecurity strategy.

Pragmatic approach

Todd shared insights into a pragmatic approach to cybersecurity strategy and the implications of recent security and privacy breaches. “Any company that doesn’t have cybersecurity as one of their top five risks is really not addressing cybersecurity,” he said.

Recent ransomware outbreaks have shown cybercrime’s huge impact, no matter the size of the victim. FedEx and Maersk each suffered $300 million in damages from the NotPetya ransomware. Data breaches are a growing risk. In 2005, there were an estimated 55 million reported breaches in the US. Now, that figure is somewhere close to 1.4 billion. As Todd pointed out, those are only the ones we know about because victims have reported them.

Startups, in tech especially, often rely heavily on data but that brings added responsibility. “If you don’t know where your data is and you don’t know the privacy laws around it, how can you give any kind of assurance [to customers] that you’re protecting that?” asked Todd.

Strategy vs execution

The moderator asked the obvious question: why should startups care about cybersecurity when they’re concerned about getting product out the door? Financial loss due to ransomware is one reason, and there are many other common security issues a startup needs to think about. Protecting valuable intellectual property is critical. If a startup’s bright idea falls into the wrong hands, a competitor could reverse engineer the code and bring out a copycat product in another market. “It’s the same issues, just the scale is different,” Todd said.

Startup teams can change quickly while the business is still evolving, so another risk to watch is staff turnover. Without proper authentication, ex-employees could still have access to confidential files after they leave the company. Simple carelessness is another potential threat: someone might accidentally delete important code from a server. Startups need to put incident response processes in place in case the worst happens. “There is business benefit to having good security,” Todd said.

For founders with no infosecurity experience, Todd also offered advice on protecting an early-stage company on a shoestring budget. He recommended speaking to an independent consultant who can advise on a cybersecurity strategic plan that reflects the business priorities.

Starting on security

Startup founders can start to familiarise themselves with the subject by reading cybersecurity frameworks like ISO 27001. The information security standard costs around €150 to buy, is easy to read and is suitable for companies of any size. “Walk through it and ask yourself: ‘would I be protected against these cybersecurity threats?’ That will probably prompt you to do a vulnerability assessment against your environment,” he said.

Todd Fitzgerald has more than 20 years’ experience in building, leading and advising information security programmes for several Fortune 500 companies. He has contributed to security standards and regularly presents at major industry conferences. A published author, he wrote parts of his fourth and most recent book, CISO COMPASS: Navigating Cybersecurity Leadership Challenges with Insights from Pioneers, in Dublin.

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