To always be ambitious — I always want to do more, to sort of jump over my head.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sergey Voynov.
Sergey is a serial entrepreneur in the booming cybersecurity industry and the founder of several successful companies EveryTag and G-71 with annual turnover in excess of $2 million. Sergey has been working in IT since 2001. He started as a consultant and project manager, then worked as a top manager of several large and international companies, such as Robertson & Blums Corporation, Microtest and others. He then founded his own cybersecurity company EveryTag in Europe and followed by G-71 in the US. Today, more than 110,000 people use solutions developed by Sergei’s companies. Among Sergey’s clients are the world’s largest oil, energy and industrial companies, as well as medical and legal companies that work with sensitive information.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It so happened that I got into consulting being a radioelectronics engineer by training. I started off as a junior consultant working on implementation of information systems, and was gradually promoted first to senior consultant, then to project manager…
But I was always somewhat bored in my job, because routine and cyclical work is not exactly my cup of tea — and this continued until I reached a level where my position didn’t have a job description and I began to deal with management issues and solve problems for large companies related to services and IT-infrastructure. This is how I came to hold a position of chief information officer in a large telecommunications company, where I had to apply all my knowledge, erudition, and expertise in various IT products, systems, including information security, to resolve the tasks and ensure security and day-to-day operations of a large corporation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
While working for a large corporation, I encountered a problem that basically gave me an idea for G-71. It was there that I first encountered a document leak through photography. A new CEO and a new team came into the company — and as usually happens in large corporations, there were many employees who didn’t quite like the changes. They had access to confidential company information, and someone started taking pictures and leaking it. The leaks put the CEO’s reputation in question by distorting the situation through interpretation of internal documents: they were taken out of context and given a different interpretation. There was no way to cure the situation.
That was when the question first arose: how can we make sure that we can identify who leaked the compromised document? We knew that we had to find a solution that would enable definite identification of offenders, emphasizing inevitability of punishment and thereby stopping the number of offenses and crimes committed.
So, you could say that I learned my customers’ pain first-hand, and that enabled me to find a solution to their problem.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
We are working on our product LeaksID that makes it possible to keep confidential documents private. It’s a question of personal space. No one wants to live in reality where nothing is personal, intimate. Today, all of your actions are evaluated through the prism of social perception: it governs what you do and what people think of you. I would like secrets to remain secrets. I’m not talking about covert operations or villainy, but rather quite mundane, human, private things, be they commercial or personal, that should belong either to their owner or to a very small, trusted circle of people. In our customers’ experience, using our solution reduces leaks in organizations by up to 100 percent. Moreover, we had cases when a company hadn’t even signed a contract with us yet, but as soon as we negotiated it, the number of leaks decreased dramatically or completely disappeared. We even started joking that we should introduce a new product to our lineup — just placing the company’s G-71 logo on the customer’s site.
How do you think this might change the world?
At G-71, we believe that using our LeaksID technology will make the world a safer place for people, enabling them to trust each other more.
The technology has to be available — not just to the super-rich or to the market monopolies, but to everyone, to every person on the planet. This is why we wrapped this technology in a cloud service, so that our solution doesn’t require an installation, and we created a free plan so that everyone can secure their documents. We’ve made sure it’s available to anyone. Try it for yourself.
After all, if I send some document to some organization, and that document later pops up publicly somewhere, how can I tell that it was that organization that let me down? I want organizations to be responsible for the documents that are sensitive to me. Here’s an example. Imagine the following situation: you hire a messenger to deliver documents. There’s a copy of your passport and some other documents that are important for you, such as a contract to buy a house and a copy of your bank account balance statement. And then these documents turn up in some kind of fraud or are otherwise used for illegal purposes. All the while, you have no idea where these copies of your documents came from. If people everywhere start using our technology, there will be an unspoken understanding that if the documents resurface somewhere, the source of the leak can be found. We put our technology at the service of anyone who wants to keep their documents safe from leaking. Take, for example, a trivial case when a person sends their CV to a potential employer, this information gets out, and the person loses their current job. Or remember the situation when Quentin Tarantino’s script was leaked online?
We want to give everyone an opportunity to protect their sensitive information. This, of course, requires that we make it known to everyone that this technology exists and is available.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
The trendy story today is fake news, and we have an answer to that. The marking that we make is invisible and used to identify the source of the leak. The same technology can also be used to protect documents from counterfeiting and creation of fake copies, because for now, the cheapest and the most reliable way to authenticate a document is with an electronic signature. The electronic signature enables you to validate the document’s authenticity. Just like the cash bills are protected against counterfeiting, we can protect any document. With our technology, we can mark a document with invisible anti-leaks marks and provide a tool for determining its authenticity. Even a fragment of such a protected document is enough to perform the authenticity check. We can determine the source of the leak using only fragments of the leaked document, and we can use the same technology to determine whether a document is fake or not.
This is the solution we plan to offer in order to reduce the number of manipulations through planting of fake information and spreading disinformation aimed at influencing the public and the public opinion.
There’s not a lot of money in this market yet. We have offered such a solution to our customers. But it’s more of a mindset problem. And there’s also a dilemma: who should buy this technology and put it to work, those who suffer or those who are responsible for this suffering? I believe that major organizations should take responsibility. If some important newsmaker were to automatically run all its documents through our system before publication or before signature, enriching them with anti-fake marks instead of anti-leak marks, it would make the task of manipulation harder. This is obviously not a panacea, but it’s definitely a component of this common struggle. And our technology is there to help.
I also want to note that like any other technology, the LeaksID solution has no emotional connotations, but we understand that any technology can be used for either good or selfish purposes. If you buy a firearm, you can use it to protect yourself, or you can use it to cause harm. But the firearm itself is just an object, it doesn’t have any emotions. Banning firearms will not make the world a safer place. What matters is how people use them.
Any technology can be harmful if it is perverted. If it is used with good intentions for the common good, it will be perceived positively. Which is why we have formulated the basic rules that guide us and serve as our internal ethics code.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
There were three turning points.
The first happened when we were just a startup, doing many different things at once. We played the role of a classic integrator, implanting ourselves in other systems and developing our expertise related both to our product and to major vendors. For example, we had very strong expertise when it came to IBM solutions. So, what we had was a systems integrator consulting business. But we also had our own product. But since we did not position ourselves as a vendor, there were not active sales of this product.
At a certain point we said: “That’s it, we are no longer a consulting company. We are now a vendor.” We ceased all the activities in this sphere, removed the whole consulting component from our business plan, and focused on a single technology that we developed and patented. Using this technology, we developed a product and began to position ourselves as its vendor. The sales model had changed. The company’s internal model changed as well, because we began to establish our own sales channels. We found distributors and partners who added our solutions to their portfolio. Due to the change in focus, we began to collect feedback from customers related specifically to our technology. We were focused on the product, not on the opportunities to make money. When we understood the customer pain and realized that this solution doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, we decided that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to working in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and we went to the U.S. market.
The second turning point came in 2019, when we entered the U.S. market only to realize that it was radically different from any other market by the virtue of its very philosophy of information security. On the one hand, there is an obvious understanding of the importance of information security, but at the same time the focus is completely different, the pain points are different, and approaches to work are different too. We had to change our thinking and to reformat our strategy that was quite successful in terms of selling this solution on the Eastern European and Central Asian markets for the globalized American market.
The third turning point was the Alchemist accelerator, where we got access to a network of contacts, advice on business development, and communication with international investors. The Alchemist accelerator showed us that demand for our LeaksID product is real but that we need to re-formulate it to ensure successful marketing.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
The biggest challenge for us today is to explain to people why our technology works better than other labeling systems. In fact, we have no competitors, because no other solution on the market can recognize the source of the leak from a document passage containing only five words. Moreover, LeaksID makes over 200 trillion unique copies of one page of text. Speaking of our solution’s effectiveness, our first customer hasn’t suffered from any confidential information leaks in the two years since we implemented our system. Moreover, all the employees and counterparties involved were made aware of the system’s implementation, and this had a clear preventive effect.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
When we began developing LeaksID and entering the U.S. market, we ran into the same problem time and time again. People responsible for protecting information or those who need to protect their valuable information simply don’t know that this technology exists. And when we tell them about it, they all have the same reaction: surprised, wide-eyed, “We were not even aware that such a thing was possible, because we were protecting ourselves in somewhat different ways or means.” So, one of our main tasks today is to popularize the technology itself. Simply letting potential clients know that there is a technology that enables you to protect confidential information and documents from leaks with the help of invisible markings, and in the event that a document does become accessible, to identify the source of the leak almost instantly. After all, to want something, one must first know it exists :) Today we are actively working with Influencers, we have strengthened our PR team, and are putting a lot of effort into sharing information about our technology.
We’re also working with clients on an individual basis and showing them how our technology works. I’ll share the way we do it, and you can try it for yourself.
What is the best way to show how our technology LeaksID works?
It’s hard to tell with words how invisible markings work, isn’t it?:) We have special copies with identical text on them: one is transparent, the other one is just A4, a piece of white paper. And when they overlap, you can see the displacement of this text.
When we demonstrate how this technology works to our customers, we create three labeled copies of some document in our LeaksID system. We send them the copies with the following words: “Here are three identical documents, you can’t see any difference in them. Take a screenshot of any part of any copy and send it to us, and we guarantee that we’ll tell you which of the versions you sent us. It’s unmistakable.”
There are a total of three small documents, named A, B, C. The customer takes a photo of any part of document A, B, or C. When we come back after the examination and tell them which of the copies they sent us, the reaction is always: “Oh, cool, it works!” There’s nothing else to explain. You can also try it here, it’s free of charge. We even wrote such a letter to Elon Musk, but he hasn’t responded. I guess he hasn’t read it yet.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I get really frustrated when I don’t know something… Like it was with a sailboat. I would say, “What’s that sticking out to the side?” And this thing is called a kraspic. And I got so frustrated not knowing what it’s called, what it does and why it’s necessary, that two days later I was already enrolled in a yacht club, taking theory lessons, and then going to practice. I got my yacht license, and now I know what it is, and I can sail a yacht.
And that’s how it is with me in everything. There is a well-known saying: “Whatever man has done, man may do.” I believe that any technology, any task, any industry is within anyone’s reach, even if it’s outside your professional expertise. If you get very enthusiastic about something and want to master it, you’ll have enough of this desire to learn, and to be diligent to get you through the study process. If the desire isn’t there, the skill won’t come easily. But when the desire arises, it is a motivation in itself.
This also applies to new business. No one can give you a universal recipe for success. No one can tell you how to achieve it. Everyone has their own way. In whose tracks must you travel in order to achieve the same thing? You can’t live someone else’s life, so live your own, make your own mistakes.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
To always be ambitious — I always want to do more, to sort of jump over my head.
To keep a curious mind — I am always on the lookout for new information and knowledge.
To develop exploratory thinking, as it enables me to choose this or that way, makes me move.
If I lose interest in something, I look for new hypotheses and move on, studying a new subject or finding original tasks for myself. In business, everything is arranged in such a way that when you become the head of the company, you have neither a recipe for success, nor the scripts for achieving it. There is always some kind of hypothesis. Not even an intuition, but a conviction, a desire to change something, to search, to analyze, and to remain unsatisfied with the current result, when you are trying to find something, to do something. In the name of what? Everyone chooses their own motivation. Some do it for money, some for interest, some for success. Me? I do it because I don’t know any other way, I constantly need to create something new.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Let me talk about cybersecurity: In our industry today, there are many different niche products that solve a certain problem. If customers need to protect themselves from viruses, they buy an anti-virus; they might need a firewall for some other purpose; and for data exchange they use some other IT solution. All of these solutions cover different tasks and are extremely difficult to administer. Corporations are already overwhelmed with these solutions, there are too many of them. That’s why it’s convenient to outsource IT services to the provider you trust.
In addition, there is an acute shortage of specialists in the market who can not only develop this solution, but also to install, maintain and use it. Enterprises would find it profitable to outsource the solution to a service that does not require implementation and maintenance in terms of engineering. Of course, such a service would have to meet requirements of the regulator and at all times comply with corporate policy.
Nevertheless, I believe that the future lies with such comprehensive all-in-one cybersecurity solutions that can be purchased by an enterprise and actually enable it to fully resolve the cybersecurity issue.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If you don’t know how to want something hard enough to achieve it, then don’t even start doing it. There is a certain order of priority hidden in that phrase. First, you want something really badly, and then you can achieve it. If you don’t want it, you may not have the strength, the empathy, the zeal. The second meaning of this phrase is that any failure means that your original desire was weak. You failed not because you didn’t succeed. You failed because you didn’t want it hard enough.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Did you know that three-quarters of all data leaks are inside jobs?
In almost half the cases, employees take photos of screens or make hard copies because they are confident no one can trace them.
Leaks stop when you can find the leaker without fail.
We add invisible marks on all documents, every time someone interacts with them. Damaging or distorting photos or printouts cannot hide our marks.
Stopping the leaks helps companies eliminate reputational risks and financial losses.
We can radically reduce annual losses from data breaches, which currently amount to $2 billion per year.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.