Crushing Force as a Change Agent
The Bullshit Luxury of 10,000 Failed Attempts
"I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work." (Thomas Edison)
I’m the founder of a failed cybersecurity startup. Or, to use Edison’s perspective, I’ve successfully found multiple ways for my startup not to make a profit. But Edison’s positive spin on failure is bullshit. Only a scientist or an tenured academic on a salary has the luxury of failing so many times. When you’re an entrepreneur over 50, like I am, the stakes are much higher. When you have others depending on you, the pressure doubles with every failed attempt to turn things around. Energy is sapped. Resources, already limited, are further drained. Pretty soon, exhausted, you may find yourself contemplating options that you can’t put words to.
I decided, instead, to put words to my experience of crushing force as a change agent in the hope that I can find a solution for myself, my company, and help others who may be in similar circumstances. In other words, I’d love to hear from you if anything in this article resonates.
Unicorns and Rainbows
With all the talk of billion-dollar “unicorns” and cybersecurity in the news every day, you may think that the startup failure rate is low but it’s actually very high (some estimate 90%). You don’t hear about it because no one wants to talk about their failures, just like no one likes to admit when they’re wrong. That’s a huge mistake in my opinion. The people that I admire the most are the ones that overcame adversity. The greater the adversity, the more I admire them.
I haven’t given up on this product because I know from my consulting days that companies cannot identify their own crown jewels, and that the only objective perspective to help them do that is to know what an adversary finds valuable. That’s common sense, verifiable evidence that any board or C-level executive can understand. To this day, our Redact™ search engine and OverWatch™ Maltego transform remain the only ways to identify foreign State interest in high value intellectual property and match it to a target company’s product line or R&D.
So if the problem is real, and the solution is real, why didn’t we succeed? Here are a few reasons that I kept hearing:
- It required an analyst’s time to use our tool. Most companies’ cybersecurity teams were under-staffed and over-worked.
- It required that the customer make room in their budget for a new product that they didn’t even know existed, for a problem that they may or may not have recognized. Many of the cybersecurity team managers that I spoke with were being asked to do more with less money, and counterintelligence wasn’t nearly as sexy as incident response.
- It required money to educate customers and sustain our operations through the customer acquisition cycle; money that we didn’t have.
- It required that the company have in place an “Assumption of Breach” framework, which would put identification of high value assets or crown jewels as the next step. Many companies still believed in a perimeter defense or defense-in-depth, and cybersecurity vendors with deep pockets supported that illusion.
We quickly burned through our small amount of angel money (about $300k) in product development and payroll and staked our future as a startup on customer sales, which didn’t happen fast enough.
You’re Sinking. Now What?
I eventually decided that it would make more sense to join forces with a larger company where we could add value, however I couldn’t find anyone who was interested, or if they were interested, they couldn’t figure out a way to integrate our product with their own. Frankly, I was surprised that Cyber Threat Intelligence companies weren’t interested in data that would reveal what the Russian and Chinese governments were spending money on, but I didn’t, and still don’t, have the luxury to dwell on that question.
I could no longer borrow money from banks or credit cards because I had no way to pay it back. I had already borrowed as much as I could from friends. Everything suffered, including my marriage, and the pressure became absolutely horrendous.
Change or Die
“The Right Mind is the mind that does not remain in one place. It is the mind that stretches throughout the entire body and self, like water. The Confused Mind is the mind that, thinking something over, congeals in one place, like ice.” (The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Soto)
The Unfettered Mind is a short book of three essays written by a Zen Buddhist monk Takuan Soho to Yagyu Munenori, a samurai and head of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship in 17th century Japan. In fact, one of the essays “The Annals of the Sword Taia” is where the name of my startup came from. This book helped change my thinking; something that my friends in the Naval Special Warfare community have underscored for me time and again.
I couldn’t raise more money, I couldn’t find a company that would license or acquire our product, so I decided to give it away. I made the announcement last Friday with the kind assistance of the CISO at the University of Washington, Kirk Bailey, who was one of the earliest advocates of the Assumption of Breach network defense model. Since my talk at the Agora, I’ve signed up eight new users including two universities, two defense contractors, and a U.S. Attorney.
The freemium model only assesses a fee for research requests or certain levels of support. Otherwise, access is free and unrestricted. This hasn’t relieved the financial pressure yet but at least it is bringing users onboard.
I’ve also started consulting for companies who are looking for a way to navigate through the hype of cybersecurity vendors and determine what they actually need to spend to keep their assets safe. Contact me if you’d like more information.
Most importantly, I’ve recast Suits and Spooks to give maximum support to other cybersecurity startups like Taia Global that are struggling to get exposure at mega-events like RSA and Blackhat. We currently have eight sponsors, and I have room for four more. You have my word that I’ll do everything humanly possible to help you walk away with new customers because I know first-hand what the alternative means.
I’ve come to realize that my perception of the challenges that I was facing (and still face) as a startup founder and entrepreneur was fixed, like ice, and a crushing force was the only way to break that ice up, make my thinking more fluid, which invites change. Hopefully the sharing of my experience will help at least one other founder avoid the nightmarish dilemma that I found myself in for over a year.