Lockdown Economy Nederland in an Insider Risk Consultancy with Elsine van Os

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, Julia Skupchenko from Lockdown Economy spoke with Elsine van Os, the Founder and CEO of Signpost Six, an Insider Risk training and consultancy firm in the Netherlands. She shares the journey of her business through the pandemic of 2020. After losing all the clients due to the lockdown, Elsine had to find a way for her team to work remotely. Moreover, she had to onboard new team members completely virtually. But once that was done, the team worked very well together on creating new online training for its clients, which otherwise might not have been possible because of the high workload and frequent travel.

The interview was recorded in December 2020

Let’s find out what Signpost Six is. What is your business?

Elsine: Signpost Six is a four and a half-year-old training and consultancy firm focussed on Insider Risk Management, a concept which probably nobody understands. So maybe just to clarify what it really means, Insider Risk Management can be thought of in a situation where employees and organisations commit acts beyond the norm or criminal acts like conducts of fraud or corruption. However, we are more focused on data theft specifically or sabotage or taking information that benefits other more criminal groups. So we help organisations in understanding the processes behind this, the reasons that might cause such a situation and also in finding the right types of solutions to safeguard the organisations against these incidents.

That sounds like a very important job and in the last few years, we heard about many big scandals connected to data theft. How did that affect your clients? How many clients do you normally have? Is there a good flow and is there a market for this?

Elsine: We have some clients focused on consultancy and some more focused on training. So these are the two different aspects. And on the side, we help with some case management but that’s not a commercial model for us. We help when there are issues but not commercially in that regard. If we’re talking about training, basically it’s very hard to say how many clients. We have a couple of ongoing clients more on a consultancy basis and I think that specifically the training aspects have been heavily affected by COVID-19. I can honestly say that our client base went from a hundred to zero per cent in the period around March-April. So that was really badly affected by COVID-19.

Actually, that is exactly what my next question was going to be. Beyond losing the customer base from a hundred per cent to zero, which in itself is already a huge effect, what was the effect of the lockdown? What was the overall situation in your business when the lockdown happened, then past that point when it was lifted and now when we are again in a lockdown? How was your journey?

Elsine: My journey consists of three phases. Unfortunately, we are a very young company, the subject too is very young in general. Thus we are still in the process of building which was going in the right direction. My workload was heavily over the top. So at the beginning of the year, I was recruiting to be able to meet and anticipate the growth of my client needs. We had recruited some people in February, March and April. Especially around this whole period of COVID-19 when, of course, the business suddenly collapsed, with respect to the training point of view. So really the first phase was about trying to find our feet as a team, to get to know each other under the lockdown circumstances.

We had a team member who joined on 1st of April in the middle of the lockdown and so he wasn’t able to meet the team at all. So we wondered, “How is he even going to get the materials to work with, to familiarise himself with the system?” We really needed time to re-strategise the first phase and also to get to know each other and work virtually as a team. That took us quite some time to be able to land on that. And I feel it was good and was required because very honestly I was also really distracted by the situation altogether. It was hard to keep focussing fully on your business while you are also dealing with the pandemic that you need to get your head around. I think that with everybody and also with myself, I was a little bit distracted by the situation. So that was the first phase which was about getting our head around the pandemic, finding new ways of working, getting to know the team and re-strategising.

The second phase was a fantastic phase and I’m very thankful to the pandemic. As our training programs had collapsed, we realised the need to build an online offering. It has been something that we had been wanting to do for quite a while, in order to have a global reach. Maybe also from a cost-benefit point of view, I think you can actually do things at a lower threshold, yet globally and virtually with online training. So we went for that second phase as a team, building a training program which was something that we wouldn’t have done if it weren’t for COVID. Our clients were also distracted and so we thought that we wouldn’t pull on clients who have other fish to fry at that moment in time. So we decided, “Let’s just draw ourselves inwards and build as much as we can.” It was a fantastic step as it brought about a very good team focus. The team actually got to know each other very well and we built materials that we are super proud of.

The third phase is now. We are in The Netherlands and we are in a more or less “halfway-new-intelligent” type lockdown. But we are noticing that the clients are coming back, the business is interacting again. We are set for it and the only thing that we are discovering now is the fact that we are not great at sales and marketing. And that is the new hurdle that we need to get over. However, apart from that, I think we are really well-positioned.

That is an amazing journey and I have so many questions that I want to ask you. I’m going to start with the first phase when you said that you were recruiting people to start anticipating the client’s needs and then suddenly there were no more clients because of the lockdown. Was there a desire or an idea to stop the recruiting process to not get the people on board or was it already an employment contract and it was just not possible?

Elsine: That has never been a consideration as it was already in place. Plus, at the beginning, we really did not know where it was going and the people that came in was until the 1st of April. So indeed these contracts have been negotiated and I think a lot of work needed to be done anyway. So I am really happy with the way it went in that regard. I mean, of course, you prefer having a good and growing client base. But rather than the client focus, we had this internal focus and like I said we otherwise never would have had that. I am just glad that we are so well-positioned now.

It must be pretty frightening to have to onboard people and work with them in the conditions when there are suddenly no more clients and you don’t even know what’s going to happen next. One of the things that you mentioned about the second phase of your journey when the lockdown was lifted, is the fact that you worked internally with your new team to develop the new online proposition for your customers. How did you anticipate what the clients might need in the new reality in the post lockdown world? A lot of things have indeed changed and so building a new proposition might have been very challenging. So how did you go about it?

Elsine: This was something that I had already envisaged. We want to be an important training location for Insider Risk Management worldwide and so that has always been the vision. This being a relatively new topic, there isn’t much training available. So in our conversations with the clients, we often get the question, “Where can we get training, in general?”. So we wanted to build the training anyway. And I think you might require to lower the threshold for people to engage in this and to go through the training. What I also enjoy, is to be able to do things in my own time and this training is all focused on your own time, being a mixture of virtual interviews with presentations, questions, assignments. That is something I would like very much and I would be waiting to have something of the kind.

So we delivered what we thought was necessary. In our strategy meeting in April, we thought, “What is this all going to look like?” And we felt that we are going to be in this for the long run, maybe a couple of years even. So, if we want to reach people globally, travel is the last thing that’s going to return, especially for training. So we needed to prepare for this. There are lots of considerations that we took into account. To continue with what you wanted to do as your journey anyway but then in a different format which is actually quite nice and sustainable in the long term, that I think is the right way to go. The only thing now is to get the people to find the training and that’s more about Marketing and Sales. It is important for us to know that it’s out there, to know that it has the right quality to bring people further and that is the next step.

Since you have moved everything including all your training which are pretty sensitive in information, online, how do you secure that online space? I know that universities got a huge problem with Zoom hackers, situations where different types of people hacked in the meeting, said many bad words and left it while closing it for everyone. How do you ensure that cybersecurity in your activities?

Elsine: For the training platform, we need to have proper security and the engagements taking place through the platform. But generally, people don’t need to share sensitive information, especially if they don’t want to. They have to do assignments, they can base it on a virtual situation or whatever they feel comfortable with but we do get questions for more virtual masterclasses where you can have engagement. We can do it from any platform that people find more suitable for themselves. So we are thus flexible in that regard. We are in the process of setting up a GTC server through which we can have very secure communications as well. So we are indeed taking this into account because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

I think that could be useful for many companies that went online completely and they are using the free available technologies just like us. Since I know a little bit about your story, I know that you are a mother, a wife and a business leader in charge of your own company, I would like to ask you an extra question. How do you manage to fit it all? One of the things that we would like to do with the Lockdown Economy series is to inspire more females to become entrepreneurs as well. So maybe you can share some advice or some of your practices about how you make it all work.

Elsine: If you would have asked this me last year, you would have seen bits and pieces of “Elsine” floating around. I can honestly say that I was in bad shape because I wasn’t able to manage. And I even had hernia two years ago. But even after that, I didn’t care much for myself. In January this year, I got into a sport that really motivated me to get more physical balance in place and that was the aspect I was missing. That was before the lockdown and the first lockdown really helped me to further gain that balance. It made me really happy, I must say. So from that point of view, it has been great. But that too went in these three phases.

So the first phase from a balanced point of view was fantastic. Besides, it was easier to say “no” to things, which in turn cleared my agenda, which was fantastic as well from a personal point of view. Now, I think we are more used to the virtual environment and I see myself hopping from meeting to meeting with not even a minute in between. Even though my balance is really integrated in my way of life now — sports, family, work and friends (less so) which is something in a way helpful in maintaining that balance — I think it remains a daily challenge. And now the daily challenge is to be able to breathe between meetings. But it remains much more balanced and I feel much healthier. Knowing that you are working virtually and you are working very hard virtually, you need to have these moments. You don’t have to push it on yourself but you need it and you do it. So for me, that has really changed, my life actually has changed and that has been very positive as well.

It seems as if the lockdown has had a positive effect in letting you reshuffle, take a deep breath and look at things from a new point of view and probably your children also got to see a lot more of you.

Elsine: Yes, because of no travel — travel is never really healthy on the body — so I think that has also been really good. I think there were a couple of positive things that were there before the lockdown started. We were just actually growing during the lockdown because there are definitely a lot of challenges within the lockdown. Losing potential clients is one of them as well but it has also provided us with new opportunities. I do hope that we can be more external, more client-facing again and I really hope that would attract more interaction on a good scalable manner and so on.

Just to finish off, because you already started my following question about what your outlook is for the next few months. Now that we are at the end of the year, you already mentioned Sales & Marketing, reaching clients but is there anything else that you want to add to that outlook for the next two-three months?

Elsine: I think the outlook that I’m hoping for the next months is that within organisations they regain their attention to the subject, which is actually more important now than ever before. To keep an eye on your employees while they are working from home, to understand their stressors and frustrations is really key in our business and as recent research suggests. So that’s absolutely major and I hope that they are actually getting that focus. And when they do we are there. I also hope that these processes to embark on projects with companies will become less lengthy because it’s a very lengthy process at the moment. I hope that the air clears a little bit and the organisations get more room for manoeuvre to actually do things on the subject that we are focussing on as well.

Let’s hope so. To your point about the stressors on the employees, I watched your Masterclass a while ago, where you said that the stressors are the first pushing element for employees to behave unethically towards their company. Am I translating it right?

Elsine: People who have committed an insider act like data theft, sabotage etc., point to the stressor as being the trigger for them to indeed go down the critical pathway to insider research and be real from an organisation. So that’s right.

So just to close, maybe you would like to share a few things you need help with, maybe somebody out there will hear it and reach out.

Elsine: That has been a red thread through my discussion with you. If there are people reading this, I can do with some help in the marketing zone like digital marketing, social media marketing etc. and I think that would be of real help to us.

Is there anything you would like to share with the people?

Elsine: Take care of yourself. It’s a stressful period and this is a major topic for us, so make sure your employer is fully aware of how you feel, what stressors you are experiencing so that you can get the right help if need be.

About the Guest

Elsine van Os, Founder and CEO of Signpost Six, is a Clinical Psychologist and Intelligence and Security Expert. Elsine has worked on high profile assignments for the Dutch Ministry of Defense and Shell International, where she held global responsibility for security threat assessments and management on country, asset and individual levels. Elsine has worked in various capacities in over 50 countries (often high-risk regions such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Colombia). In her work, she has designed, developed and executed methodologies to develop management team members’ and employees’ security consciousness and risk assessment skills. Working for years in the Oil and Gas sector, a high-risk environment for all forms of (cyber) security threats, Elsine and the industry simultaneously grew up with growing threats in the cyber domain. She observed, however, the heavy reliance on technological solutions at the expense of the human factor. This led to Elsine focusing on behavioural science and risk assessment as an integral part of Signpost Six’s Insider Risk programme. She is also the owner of Signpost Film Productions and released a documentary about Edward Snowden in 2018. Signpost Six, Insider Risk training and consultancy firm, helps organizations retain the value of their critical people, assets and especially intellectual property by offering a holistic approach to mitigating insider risks from nation-state espionage and organized crime. Its people-focused solutions are focused on early detection and prevention and are based on research-backed findings. Composed of a team of experienced consultants with deep expertise in psychology, intelligence, insider risk and business, Signpost Six supports clients in implementing appropriate countermeasures through our specialized offerings and/or partnerships. For more information, visit

www.signpostsix.com

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.