What’s It Like to Join a Startup’s Executive Team?

Startups are the innovation engine of the high-tech industry. Those who've participated in them have experienced the thrill and at times the disappointment of navigating uncharted territories of new ideas. Others have benefited from the fruits of these risk-takers' labor by using the products they created.

What's it like to contribute at an early stage of a startup? Below are my reflections on the first few months I've spent at Minerva so far. I joined this young endpoint security company as VP of Products not too long ago (and I'm loving it). I've outlined some takeaways in a generalized form that might benefit others in a similar position or those that are curious about entrepreneurial environments.

Situational Awareness: Where Am I?

When you come into a company—large or small—you already have some idea regarding the type of the organization you're joining. Your understanding is incomplete at best. After all, it's is based on your perspective as an outsider, and is informed mainly by the company's official external communications (website, brochures, job posting) and the interactions you've had during the interviewing process.

Of course, you'll learn as much as you can about the firm before deciding to come on board; validate all your assumptions and fill in the gaps in your understanding after starting the job:

  • If the company is small, this quite literally means taking the time to speak with as many of your new colleagues as possible, not only to start getting to know them, but also to understand their perspective on the company's successes and challenges. Who are these individuals, what do they do, and how might you be of help?
  • Similarly, talk to the board members: What are they most excited about? What are their biggest concerns? What do they expect of you? In what ways might they be able to help you in meeting those objectives, on the basis of their expertise and connections? How involved do they want to be in the company's operations and your activities?
  • In addition, understand the mindset of the company's customers and partners. What do they appreciate the most about the firm? Where do they see opportunities for improvements? How do they collaborate with the company today? How might you assist them in the short and long term? Where might they help you?

At this initial stage on your involvement with the company, you still have the benefit of easily asking questions that later might sound silly. At the moment, it's also easier to let yourself say "I don't know, but I'll find out" when you face a question you cannot answer. You're gaining situational awareness, starting to understand your tools and priorities, getting to know the people, and adjusting the mental model you've built while you were still an outsider to the firm.

I had the benefit of participating in Minerva's Advisory Board prior to becoming an employee. This allowed me get to know some of my future colleagues and confirm that we'll get along, as well as to make sure that we're aligned on the company's direction. Still, only after spending several weeks immersed in the company's day-to-day activities did I truly begin to feel like I knew where I was and I was doing there.

Takeaways: It takes longer than you might expect to feel fully engaged and productive with the new team. Do your research beforehand, but accept that you can only see a sliver of the actual company. Interact with others as much as possible, but leave time for reflection.

Self-Discovery: Who Are We?

If you're joining a startup's executive team, there's a good chance that it's entering a new phase of its life cycle. In the case of Minerva, I came on board as the company was preparing to enter the US market. It was starting to build a sales force and formalize its go-to-market strategy. The firm has been in existence for three years by that time, which allowed it to build the underlying framework and several product components. It gained feedback from early customers, assembled the R&D team and was ready to make itself known to the world.

After establishing an executive team, the startup will likely be looking to learn from its experiences so far and determine the direction for the next stage of its development. Since you're new to the effort, you'll need to begin by learning about colleague's impressions and ideas before voicing your own. However, don't wait too long before sharing your opinions. For the next few weeks you still have the fresh perspective that allows you to empathize with outsiders—customers, analysts, partners, investors—in a way that's very difficult to do once you've formally integrated into the collective.

Lots of frameworks exist for helping you and other members of the executive team determine the business strategy. You can start with SWOT analysis, which, as Wikipedia summarizes, encourages you to understand the following aspects of your firm:

  • "Strengths: characteristics of the business ... that give it an advantage over others
  • Weaknesses: characteristics of the business that place [it] at a disadvantage relative to others
  • Opportunities: elements in the environment that the business ... could exploit to its advantage
  • Threats: elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business"

If, like me, you are focused on product management, you might benefit from my Product Management Framework for Creating Security Products, which recommends asking and answering the following questions:

It will likely take many brainstorming sessions, informal conversations, emails and adviser interactions to understand and verbalize the way in which your solution is related to other products your ecosystem. What problems are you solving and, most importantly, what are you not trying to tackle? What's your competition? Why should customers care about you? What will industry analysts think?  Once you've figured this out, know you'll need to adjust as the company and the market evolves.

As with any self-reflective experience, determining who you are and how you hope to be perceived by others is both challenging and exhilarating. Engaging in this exercise forces you to ask tough questions about yourself. You also need to tap into your inner optimist to envision a future in which you'll succeed despite, or perhaps because, of the challenging road ahead.

In the case of Minerva, the company developed a unique way of combating evasive malware. However, having a strong technological base alone is insufficient: we needed to determine how to explain not only what we do, but why customers would benefit from the solution in a way that they cannot with the existing security layers. How are we related to baseline anti-malware tools? What about the "next-gen" players? (For more on this, see my Questions for Endpoint Security Startups post.)

Takeaways: Harness the external perspective you have after just joining the firm to introduce new ideas and challenge the old ones. Recognize that marketing and management frameworks are just suggestions for how to devise a business strategy. Be realistic about market dynamics and possibilities, but remember the need to stay optimistic when embarking upon new ventures.

External Communication

Once you understand where you are and who your company is, you're ready to explain this to others. That means making your presence known in the targeted markets, as you begin to fill the sales pipeline and close deals, and as you continue to develop your product. You're not only interacting with prospective customers directly, but are also working with industry analysts and other influences, educating them about your existence and value proposition, and soliciting feedback regarding the vision for your product.

Your company probably has a budding sales force, which you need to equip with the tools they'll use when explaining the value of your solution. Depending on your specific role, you might be tasked with creating, contributing, or providing feedback on internal documentation that summarizes the results of the earlier self-discovery process to keep everyone in the company informed and marching to the same beat. Ditto for external-facing collateral, such as the company's website contents, brochures, whitepapers, etc. Much of the documents the company developed in its earlier stages might need to be revised, retired or expanded.

External communications are about persuasion: you need to convince others to pay attention to your ideas and solutions, which often entails changing their perspective and challenging their assumptions.

You're passionate about the benefits of your technology; yet, organizations are cautious of newcomers. Moreover, the market is dominated by the rhetoric of the incumbents, which requires the new entrants to clearly articulate how they fit into the existing marketplace and educate prospects about seeing through the marketing hype. To be heard, a young company must engage in persuasive communications as it builds up its core customer base and establishes a reputation. As a member of the executive team, it's up to you to make this happen.

As I write this, Minerva just announced the closing of a Series A funding round. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of early adopters and the feedback from prospects, we established a sales team, formalized product roadmap plans, and updated the company's marketing collateral. A lot of my time is spent speaking with prospects, customers, analysts, partners and, of course, colleagues, in addition to continuing to enhance the product.

Takeaways: Understanding your product's value and your company's strategy is only part of the battle. Persuading others to support you in this endeavor requires lots of external communications (see How to Be Heard in IT Security and Business). Be ready to spend lots of time writing papers, creating and editing slide decks, drafting and answering emails, speaking on the phone and meeting with people one-on-one and at industry events. And continue to deliver upon product roadmap commitments.


About the Author

I transform ideas into successful outcomes, building on my 25 years of experience in cybersecurity. As the CISO at Axonius, I lead the security program to earn customers' trust. I'm also a Faculty Fellow at SANS Institute, where I author and deliver training for incident responders. The diversity of cybersecurity roles I've held over the years and the accumulated expertise, allow me to create practical solutions that drive business growth.

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