Finance & Legal

GDPR Compliance: A Beginner Guide For Startups

Written by

Lotte Geldermans

Published on

June 22, 2023
All Posts

How can you become GDPR compliant?

Compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has become a non-negotiable aspect of doing business in Europe, as well as for organizations processing data of European citizens, regardless of their geographical location. As a startup, it's essential to understand and implement these regulations, not merely to avoid hefty penalties but to also build trust with your users, customers, and stakeholders.

This comprehensive guide aims to present you with the fundamental steps your startup needs to take to achieve basic GDPR compliance. It will cover essential points of GDPR and delve into key terminologies, data processing, obtaining consent, implementing security measures, and respecting individual rights under GDPR.

It's important to remember that while this guide will provide you with an overview, the specific data protection laws may vary depending on your startup's operating region. As such, it's recommended to seek legal advice to understand the regulations applicable to your jurisdiction.

Step 1: Understand the Scope and Key Terminologies

The GDPR Landscape: Deeper Implications for Startups

Operating in the global digital arena, especially when dealing with the data of EU citizens or residents, presents both opportunities and challenges for startups. The GDPR, as a comprehensive data protection law, directly impacts the way businesses handle and process personal data. The regulation has reshaped the relationship between businesses, individuals, and data.

1. GDPR Fines and Penalties: One of the most immediate implications of GDPR non-compliance is the potential for fines and penalties. The financial consequences can be hefty—up to €20 million or 4% of the company's worldwide annual revenue from the preceding financial year, whichever is higher. For startups, especially in their vulnerable early stages, such fines could spell disaster.

2. Data Breach Notification: Another critical aspect of the GDPR is the requirement to report data breaches to the relevant supervisory authority within 72 hours of discovery. If the breach is likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of natural persons, the data subjects must also be informed. Startups need to have robust data breach response plans in place.

3. Privacy by Design and by Default: Privacy by design and by default' is a fundamental principle of GDPR. It means incorporating data protection into your systems and processes right from the start, rather than as an afterthought. It also implies that the strictest privacy settings should apply by default. As a startup, incorporating these principles into your business model from the get-go will not only help ensure compliance but also build trust with your customers and stakeholders.

4. Data Transfers Outside the EU: If your startup is based outside the EU, or if it transfers personal data outside the EU, additional considerations come into play. Transferring personal data outside the EU is only permissible under specific conditions and safeguards, such as Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) or an Adequacy Decision by the European Commission.

5. Impact on Business Strategy: Finally, GDPR has significant implications for your overall business strategy. From deciding what data to collect to considering how you store and secure it, GDPR compliance requires a comprehensive review of your operations. It might necessitate changes in your IT infrastructure, staff training, or even the design of your products or services.

Key GDPR Terminologies and Their Role in Startup's Privacy Policy

The language of GDPR, while technical, plays a pivotal role in both understanding and demonstrating compliance with the regulation. These key terminologies should not only be understood but also be clearly defined in your startup's privacy policy.

1. Personal Data: The term 'personal data' under GDPR refers to any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (known as the 'data subject'). This can include obvious identifiers like name and address, but also less direct ones such as IP addresses or cookie identifiers. Your privacy policy should specify the types of personal data your startup collects and processes.

2. Processing: 'Processing' covers virtually anything that can be done with personal data, from collection to storage, use, and deletion. Your privacy policy should explain in clear terms how you process the personal data you collect.

3. Data Controller and Data Processor: A 'data controller' determines why and how personal data is processed. A 'data processor' processes personal data on behalf of the controller. It's essential to clarify whether your startup acts as a controller or processor, as different responsibilities and obligations are associated with each role.

4. Consent: Under GDPR, 'consent' must be freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous. It requires a positive opt-in, meaning pre-ticked boxes or any form of default consent is not acceptable. In your privacy policy, outline clearly how you obtain, record, and manage consent.

5. Data Subject Rights: Data subjects have several rights under GDPR, including the right to access, rectify, erase, restrict processing of their data, and more. Your privacy policy should clearly detail these rights and how data subjects can exercise them.

6. Data Protection Officer (DPO) : If your startup processes a large volume of sensitive data or carries out large-scale monitoring, you may need to appoint a DPO. If this is the case, your privacy policy should include the DPO's contact information and explain their role.

7. Presenting GDPR Terminologies in Your Privacy Policy: Your privacy policy should not only include these key GDPR terms but present them in a way that's easily understandable for your users. Avoid complex legal jargon; instead, aim for clear, concise language that conveys the necessary information.Consider using a layered approach in your policy, presenting a brief summary of each section upfront, followed by more detailed information. This method makes your policy more accessible and navigable, helping users understand their rights and your practices more easily.

Step 2: Assess Data Processing Activities

Identifying Personal Data

Data processing activities refer to any operation performed on personal data. You should identify the type of personal data you're handling, which could range from names and addresses to more sensitive data like racial or ethnic origin or genetic data.Keeping track of the activities in an excel sheet or any other mode will help doing a data audit much easier. Thinking of a data audit might be too early for many of you but an organized list of data processing activities would help you a lot in the long run.

Data Transfer and Retention

Assess any transfers of personal data outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and ensure appropriate safeguards are in place both in your organization and in the subprocessor who handles your data. Clearly define your data retention periods and create procedures for securely disposing of data when it’s no longer required. Implementing necessary cross country data protection agreements is crucial in situations like this.

Step 3: Obtain Consent and Maintain Transparency

Obtaining Consent

Under GDPR, you must obtain explicit, informed consent from individuals before processing their personal data. This means you must clearly explain why you're collecting their data, how you'll use it, and how long you'll keep it. Consent management could be an inbuilt action while using some CRM systems so that you can set it up from the beginning or in the middle of your operation wherever you are in your journey.

Maintaining Transparency

Your startup must provide clear and easily accessible privacy policies and notices that detail your data practices. Transparency is a core GDPR principle, and by obtaining valid consent, you build trust with your users while ensuring your startup's activities are above board.

Step 4: Implement Robust Security Measures

Security Measures

Having robust security measures in place is an indispensable component of GDPR compliance. You must implement both technical and organizational measures to protect personal data from unauthorized access, accidental loss, or destruction.

Regular Security Assessments

Encryption and anonymization techniques can significantly enhance data security. Regular security assessments, such as vulnerability scans and penetration testing, are also crucial in identifying potential vulnerabilities and addressing them proactively.

Step 5: Respect Individuals' Rights

Individuals' Rights under GDPR

The GDPR grants individuals several rights, including the right to access, rectify, erase, restrict processing, and object to data processing. It's your startup's duty to ensure these rights can be exercised easily.This should be very visible in your privacy policy and public for people to see and understand.

Data Breach Response

You should also set up procedures to respond to data subject requests promptly and within the legally defined timeframes. If a data breach occurs, GDPR requires that you inform the relevant authorities and affected individuals within 72 hours. Therefore, having a data breach response plan in place is crucial.


In a world where data has been termed 'the new oil,' protecting personal data is of paramount importance. The GDPR aims to standardize data protection laws across Europe, but its impact is global. Startups operating in Europe or dealing with European citizens' data must prioritize GDPR compliance.

Understanding the scope and terminology of the regulation, assessing your data processing activities, obtaining valid consent, implementing stringent security measures, and respecting individuals' rights are crucial steps in achieving GDPR compliance. While this guide provides a starting point, you must consult legal experts to ensure compliance with specific data protection laws in your jurisdiction.

Prioritizing data protection can do more than just help you avoid penalties—it can also be a significant trust-building factor with your users and stakeholders, contributing to your startup's success and growth. Remember, data protection is not just a legal obligation—it's a commitment to your users' privacy and rights.

How can I ensure the lawfulness and transparency of data processing in my startup?

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You can ensure lawfulness and transparency by obtaining explicit consent from individuals before processing their data. Make it clear why you're collecting their data and how you'll use it. Provide clear and easily accessible privacy policies and notices detailing your data practices.

What should be included in a GDPR-compliant data protection policy for my startup?

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A GDPR-compliant data protection policy should include the types of data you collect, why you collect it, how you use it, how long you keep it, and how you protect it. It should also detail individuals' rights regarding their data and how they can exercise those rights.

How can I conduct a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) effectively?

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A DPIA starts with an inventory of all processes related to personal data collection and processing. Then, assess the risks to the rights and freedoms of data subjects. Seek advice from a data protection officer or a legal expert during this process.

How can I guarantee the privacy rights of my customers and website users under GDPR?

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Ensure that individuals can easily exercise their rights under GDPR, including the right to access, rectify, erase, restrict processing, and object to data processing. Set up procedures to respond to data subject requests promptly and within the legally defined timeframes.

What documentation should my startup maintain to demonstrate GDPR compliance?

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Maintain documentation on how you ensure compliance and personal data security. This can be in the form of a GDPR diary mapping the flow of data in your organization. In case of a data breach, you can use your GDPR diary as a reference for improving security.

How can my startup become GDPR compliant?

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To become GDPR compliant, understand the scope and terminology of the regulation, assess your data processing activities, obtain valid consent, implement stringent security measures, and respect individuals' rights. Consult with legal experts to ensure compliance with specific data protection laws in your jurisdiction.

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