In the six months since Axonius won the RSAC Innovation Sandbox Contest, we’ve signed Fortune 500 customers, raised the second round of funding this year, won several other high-profile awards and doubled the size of our team. This is the story of what winning the RSAC Innovation Sandbox Contest meant to us, and why I encourage other cybersecurity startups to submit for the most prestigious cybersecurity startup competition.

The Backstory

The mere mention of the word “cybersecurity” likely conjures up thoughts of incredibly cool and sophisticated technology from AI to deception, automation to threat hunting. So, when we submitted Axonius to the Innovation Sandbox Contest, the idea that a company in the yawn-inducing category of asset management would make it as a finalist was a longshot at best.

Regarded by many in the industry as the single most prestigious award for cybersecurity startups, the RSAC Innovation Sandbox Contest has a track record that can’t be contested: Over the past five years, the contest's top 10 finalists have received over $1 billion in investments.

Preparing for Presentation Day

In late January, we received the email that changed the trajectory of the company forever: Axonius had been selected as one of the 10 finalists and would be presenting on stage in March. That meant we had a little over a month to put together the best three-minute pitch we could possibly present, prepare a clear and concise demo for judges and anticipate what questions might come from a panel of experts during Q&A.

Then, it snowed.

I was already in San Francisco to set up our booth when I got the call from our CEO and Co-Founder, Dean Sysman, who had been sitting in a plane on the runway in New York City for four hours before his flight was canceled. Dean was able to re-book for Monday morning but wasn’t going to make it to rehearsal at 9 a.m., wouldn’t be there for the judges’ demos at 11, and it would be a stretch for him to land, get his badge and make it there just in time to present without rehearsing.

“You know what? You should just do it,” he said, completely nonchalantly.

No problem.

What followed was a blur. I spent all night rehearsing, then completely bombed during rehearsal. After getting that out of the way, I did the best I could during the presentation and judges’ demos and was shocked when Axonius was selected as one of two finalists. When we were announced as the winner, you can see my knees buckle.

That Moment Things Changed

It’s strange when you can actually see the exact moment when things changed forever for Axonius. As soon as we were announced as the winner, it put us on the map. Five things happened that were a direct result of winning the Innovation Sandbox Contest, and I think most of these also apply to the other nine finalists.

One: The Innovation Sandbox Forces You to Clarify Your Message

Competing in the RSAC Innovation Sandbox Contest requires a well-planned story that can be told in less than three minutes with a maximum of 10 slides. The story has to be memorable, and it has to demonstrate why your company is the most innovative in cybersecurity.

Your startup needs this anyway.

With hundreds of vendors all competing for the same attention, time and dollars, the only way to break through the noise is by having a clear, compelling and defensible story that is memorable, credible and, above all else, different. Preparing for the Innovation Sandbox Contest forces you to distill, cut and prioritize what matters.

Two: You Will Get Customers from Competing in the RSAC Innovation Sandbox Contest

Ten minutes after leaving the stage, my phone rang: it was the Chief of Staff of a CISO at a multibillion-dollar company who wanted to meet immediately. She saw the presentation and wanted to meet to see the product and schedule a POC. This is a company that would never have taken my call 11 minutes before but was instead calling me directly.

There are several customers that came to Axonius as a direct result of winning the Innovation Sandbox Contest. The level of exposure coupled with the prestige of the competition cannot be overstated. We are still talking to prospects today that learned about us through the competition. It truly is unbelievable.

Three: Investors Take Note

Like BigID before us, Axonius had completed its first round of funding right before the RSA Conference, but partially because of our win (and the associated interest from new customers), we decided to pursue our B round in July. We hadn’t planned on raising another round so soon, but both investor and customer demand caused a change in strategy to hit the gas.

Four: Prospective Employees Want to Work for a Winner

It can be very difficult for cybersecurity startups to attract superstar employees. People who are great at what they do want some level of stability, but more importantly, they want to work for a company they can be proud of. Awards like the RSAC Most Innovative Startup go a long way in validating the market opportunity, team and upside potential of the company.

And I’ve found that awards beget awards. After winning the Innovation Sandbox Contest, Axonius was named SC Magazine’s Rookie Security Company of the Year, one of the 20 Rising Stars in the Forbes Cloud 100 List and most recently, Axonius was named to CNBC’s Upstart 100 list of the Most Promising Startups on Earth.

Five: Press Coverage Is Huge

Finally—and likely most obviously—the press attention that came from winning the RSAC Innovation Sandbox Contest was incredible. Although most of the coverage about Axonius noted that an “ ‘Unsexy’ Tool Wins RSAC Innovation Sandbox,” we’re totally fine with that.

Summary

Winning the RSAC Innovation Sandbox Contest significantly altered the growth of Axonius. It put us on the map with security professionals, directly led to new customers, was instrumental in funding and helped us build a superstar team. There is simply no downside to submitting to compete, and I look forward to seeing the new batch of finalists presenting in February. Just remember: Focus on telling the most compelling version of your startup’s story, and submissions close on December 4. Good luck!!

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