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Cybersecurity Mentorship Experiences: My 4 Insights

Through the Akamai-Microsoft cybersecurity accelerator program, I had the privilege to act as a mentor to six cyber-security startups. The accelerator ran through Fall 2014, now coming to an end with the demo-day planned for January 21st, 2015.
As part of this program, Akamai provided not only mentorship, but also assisted in setting up various business and analysts connections.

The startup companies' focus was very diverse, which made it all the more interesting. We had companies focusing on fraud prevention solutions, DLP, security through Big Data, SCADA security and Runtime Application Self Protection (RASP).

Although there was minimal, if any, overlap between the solutions of the companies and the problems they were trying to solve, we identified a lot of commonality in the challenges they were trying to address. Based on this roller coaster journey that I witnessed the companies going through, I put together a few insights I'd like to share that hopefully will benefit other future entrepreneurs:

  • Insight #1: Focus
Startups have limited resources (financial and human), yet they must parallelize many items - build a product, work on a pitch, perform market analysis, find investors, run competitors' analysis, etc. We had startups from different stages participate in the accelerator - some already had financial backing and hence were focused on getting PoCs with customers, a few had no actual product (just a concept) and had to develop V0.1 of their product before they could proceed, and others decided they must focus on raising money so diverted all their attention to that.
The main lesson? Don't do too much at once. Do less - but do each thing superbly.

  • Insight #2: Technology doesn't equal Product
Several of the startups we mentored built some very interesting technology - but were looking for the right product to run on top of it. This, we learned, is not an easy quest requiring a lot of patience and even more leg work. In fact, two of the startup companies were initially focusing on a direction which together we ruled out, but after a long analysis process we came back to square one. This time, however, the entrepreneurs returned with a clear idea of what they wanted to build, clarifying who is the user of their product and the market justification for it.
The main lesson I learned from this process is that great ideas are insufficient (heck, Google just learned that with their Google Glass!) You must go through a lengthy process of market validation to land on the right product that embodies the great idea you started out with. Treating this process lightly will lead to a lot of frustration, a wrong product direction and most probably to the failure of the company.

  • Insight #3: Be humble
You have a great idea which is going to change the world. You know you are going in the right direction and those that question you just don't get it. You need to keep pushing forward based on your beliefs and intuition. You can actually do it all! Ummm... think again...
During the process we went through with the startups it was enlightening to see that most of the entrepreneurs were humble enough to know what they don't know and seek help and advice in these areas. Admittedly, we couldn't help out in all cases, but for some we were definitely there to point them to the right direction (product, market, pitch, presentations, funding, customers, etc.). We weren't always right too, but the discussion that was instigated was very fruitful.

  • Insight #4: Accelerators work!
We didn't know what to expect when we got together with Microsoft to run this cybersecurity accelerator. We heard very promising feedback from the Microsoft team about the transition that startups go through during the program. But seeing is believing.
I can say for sure that all the companies that actively wanted to use the accelerator as a platform for improvement benefitted greatly from the program. These companies are graduating from this 5-month program, more focused, more mature in terms of product and leadership, and some even with funding and initial customer PoCs and beta installations. The entrepreneurs did all the work, while we were there just to point the way and in some cases, to raise the necessary questions.

I was fortunate to participate in this program along with Noa Bar-Yosef, who provided huge amounts of feedback to the companies on marketing-related topics, and with the corporate support of Amy LaMeyer. Our own team work made this whole process very enjoyable and successful.

On a last note, as I'm re-reading what I wrote, I have to admit that actually we can all benefit from these guidelines - early stage startups as well as veteran companies like Akamai and Microsoft. Perhaps that's the main reason I enjoyed the mentor role so much? Good luck to all!