StrongDM founder Schuyler Brown wants to protect your data
On Thursday, September 14th, 2017, the San Francisco chapter of the Columbia Venture Community will host CVC’s biggest West Coast event of the year: Columbia Startup Demo Night! We always look forward to this opportunity to meet, mingle and shine the spotlight on innovative startups from the Bay Area. This time, six startups, all with at least one founder who graduated from Columbia, will take the stage to demo their startup and compete for a cash prize in front of a panel of experienced judges.
As we gear up for the event, we’re speaking with all our Demo Night founding teams so that we can share their diverse, inspiring stories with the CVC community.
Last month, I spoke with Schuyler Brown, co-founder and CMO of strongDM, about what he loves about startups, data security, and his goal of helping every company protect sensitive data and monitor every database.
Schuyler holds a B.A. from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School. In his spare time, he is dedicated to helping teach and mentor others within the startup community. A regular contributor to Inc., he writes a column called “Failing Forward” in which he explores how entrepreneurs can learn from their mistakes to grow wiser. He is a former board member of Columbia Venture Community and will be presenting strongDM about the annual CVC West Demo Night on September 14.
IM: Let’s begin! Can we start with an overview of strongDM, what you do and the problems you’re solving?
SB: We set out to make compliance a convenient choice for companies. More and more often, you read about data breaches that are occurring because everyone has bought into this notion that data-driven decisions should be used to optimize every aspect of a business. As a result, you have more employees connecting to more data in more places on more devices. This increases your overall threat surface area. It is difficult to manage and secure access to your data. We set out to make it easy, to enforce fine-grained controls, and monitor exactly what your employees, consultants and vendors are doing with your data.
Who is your main customer? What are their concerns?
Our clients are any company storing sensitive data in rows and columns in a database. That cuts across several different industries, including financial services, insurance, healthcare, retail…really, any business that stores actual personal information, personal health information, email address, phone numbers, credit card information. It cuts across a wide spectrum of businesses.
Most businesses have adopted modern practices of implementing some form of single sign-on (SSO) provider, like OneLogin, and they use that to conveniently manage access to applications. But, oftentimes, their technical staff, whether that is an engineer or data scientist or even an operations employee, has direct access to a database. That access is usually not controlled by an SSO provider. We can extend the power of an SSO service to manage database permissions in addition to application permissions. We can monitor how people access that data and what they do with it.
Who is reading those logs and reports within a company?
The truth is, oftentimes the logs today are missing or incomplete. In cases like that, no one is reading them.
That seems…dangerous! Isn’t it?
It is concerning. But, we are changing that. We’re helping auditors and compliance officers and security teams to have continuous monitoring in place that is comprehensive in scope and continuous and ongoing and easily accessible.
Looking at your career, I was curious to learn more how you came to found this company. What in your path brought you to this project?
I was working with one of [my co-founders] at a prior company and we suffered a data breach. About 90,000 rows of customer data were leaked. It was a really serious problem for a global retail client. It was their customer data that was leaked, we were in breach of contract, the consequences were very, very severe.
What we eventually started to build internally as tools to help secure our own internal data and monitor how it would be access across all of our employees became the idea of what eventually would become strongDM. We built it to solve a practical problem we experienced. We knew that clients like global retailers would see value in it and likely did not have any of that functionality in place on their own.
It sounds like you had a front row seat to a huge meltdown.
It was not good! I think those are the best sorts of problems to try and solve as an entrepreneur, because I knew the pain intimately. I could empathize with our clients and the sort of companies. Now at strongDM when we go in to pitch, we have that credibility and empathy, and it makes for a more compelling story.
Were there any experiences at Columbia that particularly prepared you for starting a company, or starting this type of company?
I think I was fortunate. What I love about Columbia is that New York City is at your feet. In almost every semester of undergrad and during my MBA, I had internships. I worked all through school, and I had the opportunity to work with several startups and venture capital firms, and built a network that has been incredibly powerful as I set out to launch a business. The alumni and friends I met eventually have become clients, advisors, trusted advocates.
I also gained an incredible amount of experience on the job, at a young age when I’m not sure that I would have been able to do that otherwise.
Did you always know you wanted to start your own company?
It was a dream of mine. I’ve always worked at startups, ever since I graduated from Columbia College. I loved that experience, the excitement of the early days of trying to figure out a problem that you could build a product on top of and build a business out of. Being an early employee at prior startups, I learned a playbook from people who had done it before. When I felt like the opportunity was right, I had a credible team of co-founders, a problem-space that I knew well and a playbook to go out and raise money, I took that leap and luckily, so far it’s worked out.
If you were to give advice to a student or recent grad interested in starting a company, what would you tell them?
Take advantage of the alumni network! There have been an incredible number of alums, people who have been incredibly generous with their time and given me opportunities and taken a leap of faith on me. I recommend they reach out to other Columbia founders or folks working at other startups, and ask how they can help.
Be proactive. Just start doing work, even for free, to gain the experience. You’ll find that as you gain experience and prove your value, you’ll be given more opportunity, and pretty soon you’ll have the start of a career.
As an entrepreneur and founder, what would you say gives you the biggest sense of purpose? What makes you excited to get to work?
We have found a problem that is serious, that people are struggling with and will pay good money for. And I enjoy the challenge of trying to understand our client’s problems and build features to address them. I like the ambiguity and product development process. I enjoy storytelling, telling our story through marketing and sales, I enjoy going out there and pitching. I’m just lucky that I get paid to do things that I love on a daily basis, and it’s a pretty great feeling!
Is there anything else you’d like the CVC community to know about you or what’s next for strongDM?
I would just say that for any business that cares about its data, it can be an intimidating and difficult challenge to secure that data or even just to recruit highly technical information security engineering talent. We’ve set out to try and productize that, making it more convenient and intuitive to manage access to sensitive data and monitor exactly what your team does with that access.
Everyone can enjoy the same level of security and compliance that they need in order to prevent a data breach. If anyone in the CVC community wants to know more about protecting their data, they should take the next step.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Schuyler! We’ll see you at CVC West Demo Night on September 14.
To learn more about strongDM, visit strongDM.com.
— Irene Malatesta is a writer, marketer and CVC West board member. You can find her @irenekaoru.