How can you ensure you are really helping instead of virtue signalling?
Preamble: I run a cybersecurity startup, so the introduction focuses on the Aussie cybersecurity angle to set informed context. The rest of this article however, could be applied to any B2B startup.
CyRise Demo Day for cohort 4 delivered on its promise last week. I thought it was fantastic, and I hope the companies who are now officially fellow CyRise portfolio companies get the support they ask for. More importantly, I hope they get the support that the people they have spoken to during the program have promised them.
At the start of Demo Day festivities, CyRise, to its credit, had cybersecurity industry leaders including a former Prime Minister (Malcolm Turnbull) proclaim that they “support Australian cybersecurity startups”.
As the co-founder and CEO of an Australian Cybersecurity startup that is also a CyRise portfolio company (we were in cohort 3), I am grateful for all the support that many have shown us, and welcome even more. It’s why having cybersecurity leaders stand up and proclaim their support is so important.
I have met most of the people you see in the montage, and can vouch for the fact they genuinely mean what they say and have proven it with their actions. The most tangible example I can give you is the fact that Jamie Norton is on Avertro’s Executive Advisory Board.
In addition, it would be remiss of me to not mention the vast amount of support AustCyber has provided to Australian cybersecurity startups thus far, and the commitment they have made to us moving forward to do even more. Thank you to Michelle Price and the extended team at AustCyber for being so proactively in our corner.
There are other unsung heroes that have supported us on this journey as I’ve previously referenced, but there are also others who have made things difficult, including some who have proactively claimed that they are “here to help” but do the exact opposite.
Sometimes, it’s the fact that leaders aren’t sure how they can make the most impact to a startup. Conversely, startups are sometimes not sure how to ask for specific help, which I acknowledge is on us.
As a startup CEO, I often have to figure out if someone genuinely can help, if they are padding their CV, or if they are virtue signalling. If it’s the former, I try to be as clear as I can in articulating ways we need their help. If it’s the latter, I remain respectful, but will not engage with them any longer.
Despite the natural instinct to accept all offers of assistance, especially if they could be a customer, one of the smartest things we can do as startup leaders is decide when to respectfully say: “thanks, but no thanks.”
Support versus advice
There’s a reason why the word “support” has been used in this context. Most people equate giving off-the-cuff advice to being supportive. I can tell you as someone being on the receiving end of both advice and support as an early stage startup that they are very different.
The majority of people who want to be supportive, are really only willing to give advice. Why? Because it’s much easier to give advice than genuinely be supportive.
A good startup leadership team spends all day everyday working on improving their business and trying to come up with the best solutions for the problem areas they focus on. It is highly unlikely that you’re going to be able to give them advice that is insightful without spending time understanding the reality of things, what the team has done, and what they plan on doing.
If you’ve spent less than an hour with a startup and endeavour to give then advice, it’s unlikely to be very useful. Most important, you are not actually being supportive; you are merely making yourself feel better.
When the help is genuine, these are the ways (in order of increasing impact) I’ve found it to be most impactful.
1. Proactively introduce startups to other people who can help
There is no shortage of useful help that a startup can get, as long as it’s genuine. Even if you don’t think you can make as big of an impact to a particular startup due to your specific circumstances, you can still be helpful by introducing the startup to someone else who could either provide more targeted assistance, or even better, become a customer.
2. If a startup is tackling a problem you are trying to solve, help them get their product to a point where it literally solves your problem
There’s no substitute for real use cases that a startup can work towards to ensure the solution they are building will provide the intended value. If it’s your problem they are trying to solve, it’s a no-brainer win-win type of partnership that will emerge if you genuinely work with them to solve your problem.
The startup will be extremely appreciative. Best of all, should a commercial relationship eventuate, they will ensure the quoted price reflects the time and effort you invested as a potential customer to get them to a point where you could become an actual customer.
3. Don’t treat a startup like one of the multi-national vendors you often kick around because you can
I understand the relationship and disdain that some organisations have towards their solution providers. It’s a significant enough challenge that the word “vendor” has become somewhat of a negative term. The reasons for this could generate a whole article, so I will refrain.
Startups cannot afford to behave like “yet another multi-national vendor” nor do we want to. We only exist because we care passionately enough about the challenges we address to have started the company in the first place.
A final point to make is that a startup will work side-by-side with you on your problem to the point where the production version of the module that eventuates can feel like it was built in a bespoke manner for you.
Try getting your multi-national giant of a solution provider to do that for you. Speaking from first-hand experience having worked for many of them, it’s nearly impossible because their business models and processes are not built to do that no matter how much the people you are working with at the company in question say they want to get your requests into the product for you.
4. If you do decide to become a customer, help to expedite the procurement process
Procurement processes are painful, even when you are the one on the purchasing side. Of course, they exist for very good reasons so I’m in no way suggesting that startups should be exempt. The process is the process and should always be adhered to.
However, once you make a decision to become a startup’s customer, try to do everything you can to get it done without delay, particularly as startups generally price their solutions at a fraction of what a large solution provider will quote.
Understand that the reason your large multi-national vendor can wait around for months to get through procurement is because they have priced that delay into the process. Startups charging you a fraction of that price generally cannot afford to endure a lengthy, drawn-out process.
Be empathetic and try to help them through it faster, even if it’s only by a week. For a startup, every single week counts.
5. If you become a startup’s customer and you are happy with the value they provide, sing from the hills about how they helped you
Social proof is everything for a startup, particularly when we don’t have the strength of a large brand to stand behind. In most cases, the first anyone would have heard of a startup is the first time they interact with them.
Most organisations default to the “we have a standing policy to not be a reference customer” line. While a large solution provider probably isn’t going to care that much if you maintain that position, just having you say “yes” to being a reference customer means the world to a startup.
Even better, tell everyone about how happy you are with said startup (as long as it’s true) without being prompted. The startup in question will do everything they can to focus even more on you as one of their priority customers.
The media will have you believe that the world of startups is glamorous. At times, it’s fun. It’s certainly not glamorous for most of us. It truly is one of the most difficult things to do in the world of business.
There’s a running joke in the startup community that the most common phrase we hear others say is: “how can I help”. I can tell you from first-hand experience that this is somewhat true. Yet most people don’t really mean it. They say it because it’s become automatic. Sort of like saying “how are you” when greeting someone. It’s also become a convenient way to tell someone “no” without actually saying it.
The truth of the matter is, we genuinely do need help. And when it’s authentic and genuine, that fuels us to be better.
To move forward.
To keep going.
To keep believing.
Because someone else decided to be human, and went out of their way to do something impactful without expecting anything in return.
Ian Yip is the CEO of Avertro, a venture-backed cybersecurity software company. Avertro CyberHQ is the strategic cybersecurity headquarters that helps leaders manage the business of cyber, explain cybersecurity to executives, forecast outcomes, right-size spend, and validate strategy so leaders can optimise the use of external assistance and prove they are doing cyber right.