What Is a vCISO, and Does Your Small Business Need One?

July 6, 2022

The migration business has taken to the virtual world has accelerated in recent years. From the pandemic driving demand for remote solutions to the growing excitement for the metaverse, every aspect of a company's operation now has a significant online component.

While this trend has brought amazing opportunities, it has also created significant vulnerabilities. At the same time, these risks pose a special threat to small businesses. Large corporations have the resources necessary to create layers of security. Working on a more restrictive budget, your startup needs to get the most out of every dollar.

A virtual Chief Information Security Officer, or vCISO, could offer a potential solution. This option brings you some of the benefits of C-level oversight while limiting your cost. Here, we'll outline how this strategy can fit into your small business and provide a framework to decide whether adding a vCISO is the right move for you.

What is a virtual Chief Information Security Officer?

The world has always been a dangerous place. However, the type of threat has evolved over time. In the modern world, with businesses increasingly migrating towards a heavier reliance on online operations, the risks have increasingly come from the digital world.

Even as a small business, you need to prepare for the menace posed by hacking, ransomware, and other cybersecurity incursions. Large corporations support entire departments dedicated to these potential threats, often headed by a Chief Information Security Officer.

However, as a startup, you might not have the resources for a standalone cybersecurity apparatus, let alone a full-time C-Suite position dedicated to the pursuit. But you still need to apply the appropriate defense measures.

A vCISO lets you solve this quandary. Rather than hiring an in-house team, with its own department head, you engage a third-party security provider. These can take the form of a company or an individual consultant. Either way, these contractors provide the functions of a CISO but at a lower cost.

[A vCISO] can take the form of a company or an individual consultant. Either way, these contractors provide the functions of a CISO but at a lower cost.

This strategy can assist you in multiple ways, including the following use cases:

  • Assess your current security status
  • Build or strengthen a cybersecurity program
  • Train your staff on appropriate protocols
  • Create emergency procedures
  • Develop backup and contingency plans

Why should your small business consider a vCISO?

Cybersecurity threats have become even more acute in recent years. First, the pandemic pushed more companies towards an aggressive digital presence. This included both customer-facing processes (like e-commerce functions) and internal communications, used to support remote workers. Data show that two-thirds of consumers say they've changed the way they shop due to COVID-19, now preferring more online services, while 20%-30% of businesses moved completely online during the height of the pandemic restrictions.

Along with this increased digital footprint, even for the smallest businesses, heightening geopolitical tensions have led to increased fear of cyberattacks. For instance, in early 2022, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, along with the FBI, warned that US-based businesses could face an increased risk of cybersecurity attacks following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Given these factors, your small business needs to think about cybersecurity more than ever. A vCISO provides one method of addressing these vital concerns.

What are the pros and cons of hiring a vCISO?

Before you begin searching for a vCISO, it's important to understand the strategy. This form of protection comes with many benefits. However, you'll also face some drawbacks that you should become cognizant of as you consider your options.

With that in mind, here are some of the pros and cons of hiring a vCISO:


Ramp Up Quickly

Hiring a full-time CISO can take a long time. And that's only the first step of the process. From there, your new executive will need to oversee the installation of the necessary security protocols. A vCISO can streamline many of these processes, letting you get off the ground more quickly.

Lower Cost Than a Full-Time CISO

A key selling point for the vCISO option comes from the lowered cost. A CISO compensation package, along with related overhead, can run close to $300,000 on the high end. Meanwhile, turning to a vCISO often costs less than $100,000 -- although the exact amount will depend on circumstances.

Access to Broad Skills

When you pick a CISO, you need to make certain choices. No individual will have a complete understanding of the field -- any hire will involve leaning into a particular focus. But a vCISO can give you a broader set of expertise. Because this choice often comes with the backing of an entire third-party provider, you can draw on a deeper set of skills.

A vCISO can give you a broader set of expertise [than a traditional CISO]. Because this choice often comes with the backing of an entire third-party provider, you can draw on a deeper set of skills.


You Don't Get Full-Time Attention

Hiring a full-time CISO means getting someone dedicated to you and you alone. Since a company providing a vCISO service will have multiple clients, you won't have their full attention.

You might never notice the difference. But in some cases, you might end up waiting for a response. Or solutions might come more "off the rack" rather than being tailored exactly to your needs.

Lack of Personal Touch

A vCISO option represents a third-party provider. You can build a relationship with the vendor but you won't create the one-on-one ties that would come from an internal CISO. This can lead to a few drawbacks:

  • They likely won't learn your company inside and out.
  • You can't form the personal trust and rapport you would with an individual enmeshed in your team.
  • The individuals you work with through your vCISO can change over time.

How to choose a vCISO

Once you've decided to move forward with a vCISO, there are still significant decisions to be made. Here are some steps you should take as you look to select the ideal vCISO for your organization:

Assess Your Risk

Before connecting with a possible vCISO provider, conduct your own internal risk assessment. This will give you a baseline for ongoing conversations. It will also let you gauge the amount of expertise you currently have within your organization. This will help you determine how much further support you'll need.

Consider Your Options

As you approach your security plans, outline a broad plan. What will it take to limit your risk as much as possible? From there you can weigh your potential options.

This includes whether to take the vCISO route or plunge into a full-time CISO position. You can also consider other ways to handle your security issues. Once you've made these broad determinations, you can sketch out more specific protocols to discuss along the way.

Set a Budget

As you go into a security overhaul, create a realistic expectation of how much it will cost. Start with understanding the expense of a vCISO itself. Beyond that, sketch out what you think it will take to deliver the overall security apparatus you need.

Remember: you aren't just looking at a one-time cost. You'll also need to maintain the system over time. As such, consider the near-term expense of ramping up the project, as well as the ongoing budget to keep it going.

Find the Right Partner

You have a large variety of options when it comes to providers. Different vendors will have different features when it comes to their vCISO offerings. Review your potential choices and pinpoint the ideal provider for you.

Think of it like you were hiring a full-time CISO. Direct the same intensity towards choosing a vCISO. As you narrow your focus to your top selections, have an honest conversation with potential providers about your goals and your limitations. This will help you land on the ideal choice for you.

Will a vCISO help your small business stay protected in the modern digital economy?

A cyberattack can prove fatal. One study found that 60% of small businesses that encounter a cyberattack go out of business within six months. That fact underlines how critical a well-structured defense plan can be.

If you have sensitive information to protect, it may be time to consider hiring a vCISO. The exact security policy you pursue will depend on your specific circumstances. As such, use the information provided here to start the process of determining if a vCISO is right for your business.