Helping problem solvers bring products to market

The cybersecurity industry shows no signs of slowing its growth in the D.C. region, and various areas in the greater Washington area are working hard to make their case for why they’re the best place for a growing cybersecurity company. Sarah Purdum, business development associate with Anne Arundel Economic Development Corporation, has managed a large number of cybersecurity incubators, and has been an active and vocal supporter for entrepreneurship in the industry across the D.C. region, ensuring they tools they have to grow and thrive.

ABERMAN: Well you’ve been involved, looking at your background, a large cross-section of cybersecurity startups here in the region. In your experience what makes an incubator or an accelerator really work well for an entrepreneur?

PURDUM: I think it’s the culture that the incubator itself surrounds itself with. I mean, you can have cheap office space. You can have conference rooms, which helps companies do their physical business, but I think it’s really the connections that are around the incubation mold. And one of the things that I’ve learned with being in an incubator is that it really helps when an incubator, or that culture, helps with connections to cash and customers.

That’s one of the things I learned working with BWTech at UMBC, the cybersecurity incubator there, great program. And then, you know, moving into my role here with Anne Arundel, we really focus to embody those same goals, those same missions, with bringing in people like Michelle Perry, who is the CMO of Sourcefire, to work with companies for free. Adam Bixler, who does product development with Arbor Networks. He’s working with some really great companies in the county and in Maryland that can compete internationally in the AI space, and the cyber space.

ABERMAN: I think what you’re getting at, and I see this as well, is that, ultimately, there is this very strong role for a local government to play, insofar as helping to support accelerators that are really customer-focused. Which really leads to the next thing, which is the customer focus. I find that the biggest challenge, particularly for cybersecurity is, you can’t be a cybersecurity entrepreneur unless you’re really technically proficient, but many proficient people are not good businesspeople. So, how hard is it for a technical person to start a business, and how do accelerators really make that difference?

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PURDUM: I think at first, it probably isn’t as hard, because if you’re working on a product, and the product is there, then you’re ready to go to market. But once you start scaling, you need to have some business savvy to grow the company, know who to hire, the right people to hire, where to look to hire. Maryland is a great feeder of talent, UMBC is the largest pipeline of students to the NSA. We have the Anne Arundel Community College, which is an academic center of excellence. So, Maryland alone is a great feeder of talent, to get those jobs, but you’re right.

At some point, you see these guys that come out of the NSA, come out of the government, they’re really technically efficient guys that can solve a problem within their government subset, and then say, you know what, I can do this in a commercial sector. I can do this outside, I can sell it to the government by myself in a faster way.

So, when they’re getting ready to scale, I think it’s better for them to align with people. Bring in a marketing person, bring in someone who knows how to market to the customers that they’re selling to. So, I think being technical gets you very far. But I think if you can’t talk to the customer and say, how is this product or service going to save me money in the long run? Then you know, like I said, that will only take you up to a certain point, and then you level off.

ABERMAN: That’s been my experience too. It’s really interesting to me in that, I find that technical founders will work a technical problem forever. I mean, months. But yet, the frustration of making a connection with a customer, even though it can be a shorter process, is just so much harder for them. You’ve seen this a lot. From your personal experience, what makes somebody temperamentally able to make that change from lab experiment, I’ll overcome any obstacle, to, damn it, I’ve got to make that customer buy my product?

PURDUM: I think it’s the drive and the grit that an entrepreneur has. Working for somebody else is, as you probably know, completely different than going off on your own and kind of jumping off that ledge, but I think getting that background in the government, whether it be NSA, or any DoD, and then switching it to selling to a commercial market, it’s a completely different sell you’re changing to.

It’s a very trusting market, a very relationship-based market, that the gov-com space is. It’s very much relationship-based. So, when you kind of go outside that box and sell to a price to a Pricewaterhouse, to a Morgan Stanley, they’re worried about the numbers. They’re worried about, you know, what level of risk is this new product or service going to bring into my system, and my people, and how much time is that going to take away from either people doing their business to learn the new kind of software, or how to fix the hardware? But I think being an entrepreneur, and going out, and selling their own kind of IP, it takes a great level of risk, and that leadership. And that’s why we find entrepreneurship so exciting.

ABERMAN: It certainly is a bit like a downhill sled running away, no doubt. Last thing before I let you go, Sarah: you and Anne Arundel, like many parts of the region, you’re all over cybersecurity. What’s the thing that you’re most excited about for the next year?

PURDUM: I think, with Anne Arundel EDC, we’re really supporting and looking at the growth of Fort Meade. Cyber Command is being set up as a fully functional entity by the end of September. Fort Meade itself is a large employer in Maryland, second largest base, the economic impact is almost 27 billion dollars. There’s about 55 thousand people that work on Fort Meade, and that is split between those in uniform and those working NSA and others. There’s just about 145,000 indirect and direct jobs that work for prime and subcontractors. So, I think working and continuing to support those missions will ultimately help the businesses in and around Anne Arundel County.

ABERMAN: As well as broadly, in the region. A big driver for economic development. Sarah, thanks a lot for coming on the show, and I definitely appreciate your insights, particularly with respect to do how those of us who want to be entrepreneurial can really use an accelerator or incubator to get out there.

PURDUM: Thanks for having me.