Security Reviews for Startups: How to navigate questionnaires & third party audits
About this guide
Founders and Sales leaders are all too familiar with the dreaded security review that is a part of closing any B2B deal. At best, these are short 30-minute conversations, and at worst, they take weeks of filling out vendor questionnaires and present the threat of potentially losing a hard-earned deal.
At Vanta we work hard to create tools for companies to improve their own security and showcase their trustworthiness to prospects. This guide has been crafted to demystify security reviews, help readers improve security at B2B companies, and give you direction on how to create trust in the process.
What is a security review?
Security reviews are about trust.
As more and more companies entrust their data and tools with outside vendors, it is increasingly important to prove the security of those vendors.
Companies are trying not only to verify the specific security measures your company is taking, but to see if they can trust that you will take care of their data.
Ultimately, if a breach of data ever occurs, companies also want to be able to say that they did their best to vet the security of their vendor prior to that occurrence.
How do you create trust?
There are many ways to build trust with your prospect’s security team.
Some examples include:
- Spending time on the phone explaining all the security measures your company takes
- Sending policy documents, e.g. your Asset Management Policy
- Presenting an external audit against a common audit framework, such as SOC 2 or ISO 27001, that showcases all the security controls you have in place
- Answering a vendor questionnaire presented by the company
The ultimate goal is to prove that you’ve thought about security; the quicker you can present these types of documents, the better chance you have of moving through this stage.
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Ways companies check your security
There are generally two paths a business will take to seek proof of a vendor’s security.
Path 1: Security Questionnaires
A vendor questionnaire is, in essence, a spreadsheet of 30-300 yes/no questions related to all the security measures you’re taking.
Vendor questionnaires can be quite difficult and time-consuming, largely because there’s no standard format.
The most common categories of questions are:
- How does your company store and process data?
- System Access — aka how do employees access customer data?
- What policies do you have in place to ensure security?
- What encryption measures are you taking?
- What compliance checks have you done?
At most startups, the task of answering these questions usually falls to the CTO. As the company grows, they may develop a /security page on their website to address their most commonly asked questions.
- The key to getting through a vendor questionnaire is to work with your lead at the company to determine which questions are most important to them. No company will ever be able to say “yes” to all 300 questions, and you shouldn’t assume that this is what your prospect is seeking.
- Instead, if you figure out which questions are most important to the company, you can work with your team to ensure that those security measures are being addressed.
- We’re sure you wouldn’t have gone there — but know that dishonesty on a vendor questionnaire is a sure-fire way to fail the security review. Your goal is to build a transparent and trust-based relationship with prospects and customers around how your company ensures data security.
Path 2: Get an external audit.
Audits involve a trusted third party, typically a Certified Public Accountant, who creates a comprehensive report that lists all the things your company is doing to keep data secure. Some common examples of practices an auditor will evaluate include having two-factor authentication on google accounts or making sure that laptops’ hard drives are encrypted.
The audit process can take anywhere from a month to a year depending on the size of your company, the current security measures you have in place, and the firm and vendors you choose to work with. As you start selling to larger companies, you’ll find that an audit is required just to begin a sales conversation.
There are many different audit and compliance frameworks, but the most common are SOC 2 and ISO. At a high level, they answer similar questions; ISO is more commonly used and accepted among companies based in Europe, and SOC 2 is more commonly used among American companies. Other industry-specific audit and regulatory frameworks include HIPAA and FedRamp.
The major benefit of completing an audit is that your audit results will be accepted by most companies as proof of security. Rather than filling out a customized questionnaire for each company, you can send your SOC 2 or other audit report to every prospect. Going through an audit can help your company get ahead of security conversations more generally; the effort of getting audited demonstrates that you are serious about keeping user data secure.
The audit process can be broken up into stages: becoming audit ready, and the audit itself.
Becoming audit ready
Audit preparation involves developing a list of 70-100 rules (also known as controls) that your company follows. While this process varies from company to company and there isn’t a standard set of rules or controls that all company types must abide by, there are a number of likely controls your company will want to implement to prepare for an audit. These may include implementing single sign-on and two-factor authentication; implementing a centralized logging system; ensuring disk encryption and timely patches; conducting vendor risk assessments; performing employee background checks; creating a vulnerability management policy, and more. The complexity of detailing the rules your company follows (and will follow) often leads companies to seek outside help to become audit ready.
After creating a list of rules for your company, you’ll create a Gap Assessment that flags all the rules that you aren’t currently following.
Once your company has developed its Gap Assessment, you will enter the Remediation stage, where you begin to fix the items on the list that aren’t yet implemented at your company.
Remediation is the longest and hardest part of the audit process. Once you’ve completed Remediation, you are ready for the audit itself.
Now that your company has completed its list of rules (aka controls), you must find an auditor to attest to the fact that you are doing all the things you said you were.
Depending on the tech-savviness of the audit firm, the audit process can range from four to 40 hours and is typically done in person. The process of auditing your company’s practices against your stated controls involves gathering detailed evidence. Most audit firms gather evidence by taking screenshots that demonstrate how you follow each of these rules.
After the in-person visit, the firm will then prepare a comprehensive report — imagine a ~60 page PDF — that lists these rules and attests to the fact that you follow them.
How do most startups tackle security reviews?
We have seen a lot of companies go through this process, and can share some general data and observations on how most companies tend to handle their security reviews. Of course, every company is different.
Most companies tend to start thinking about security the first time a prospect sends them a vendor questionnaire. They then scramble to answer all of the questions one by one, looping in technical members of the team and trying to complete the detailed questionnaire as quickly as possible.
Startups either choose the “whack-a-mole” approach of answering each questionnaire as it comes up, or they try to create a list of security measures that they send to all companies.
In this approach, startups may also put together one-off security measures to send to prospects, including:
- Penetration tests (aka Pen Tests)
- Copy+Pasted Policies (not the best idea)
- Documents prepared by the CTO answering these questions
While this approach will work for some small and midsize businesses, it will rarely satisfy the needs of larger companies.
As your company aims to secure the business of larger enterprise clients, you’ll notice an increased demand among prospects for an audit and a standardized report of its results. Here at Vanta, we recommend getting a SOC 2 audit as early as possible because it will push your startup to think critically about security practices at an early stage and it will result in more closed deals and shortened sales cycles.
Vanta is “security in a box” for companies of all shapes and sizes, trusted by hundreds for their SOC 2 preparation and more. Vanta provides a suite of automated security and compliance tools that scan, verify, and secure a company’s IT systems and processes. Vanta’s cloud-based technology identifies security flaws and privacy gaps in a company’s security posture, providing a comprehensive view across cloud infrastructure, endpoints, corporate procedures, enterprise risk, and employee accounts. Vanta also offers a set of tools to streamline the non-technical components of security tracking and audit preparation, so gathering and consolidating audit evidence is easier for both your company and your auditor. Ready to get started?