“You have to leave a little of the Swede behind you” — Castle’s Johan Brissmyr talks moving his company to Silicon Valley
When I ask Johan Brissmyr what he does at Castle, the cybersecurity company he co-founded with Sebastian Wallin, he pauses a moment before answering: “Well, I guess you could say I’m CEO.” It’s a modest, Swedish response.
Since being founded in Malmö in 2015 Castle has attracted over two million dollars in investment, and graduated from the prestigious Y Combinator incubator program in Silicon Valley.
But it was a long journey to this point. Johan’s first company, which he founded with 4 other co-founders, disintegrated after 18 months.
“We were five co-founders, and it was hard to agree on a direction… we had a few good ideas, but we all had different visions. We should have talked these things through before starting a company.”
Johan says he realized it wasn’t working when they were in the midst of trying to raise a round of funding:
“Ten million dollars wouldn’t have helped us. It’s not about the money, it’s about willing yourself to persevere.”
But, Johan concedes, he doesn’t think he would have been able to grow Castle to where it is today if he hadn’t made those mistakes at his first startup.
“When people want to start a company I always recommend them to first spend a year or so working at a startup, so they can learn what it’s like without all the responsibility.”
Johan and Sebastian founded Castle almost by accident: they were in the process of developing a company which stored passwords and security info. They started implementing alerts for suspicious behaviour, which would eventually become the main feature of Castle.
“We had a moment where we said: ‘OK, this is way cooler than what we were originally looking for.’ ”
Soon after this breakthrough, Johan and Sebastian went to pitch in California, where they spent six weeks living out of a basement in San Mateo. They applied to Y Combinator, but were unsuccessful.
They returned to Sweden to continue developing their product. After raising $300 000 and refining their product they began to travel back and forth between San Francisco and Malmö, spending 4 to 5 weeks in SF each visit. They applied to Y Combinator again — and, again, they were turned down. Finally, on their third application, they were accepted.
Johan says the benefits of being at Y Combinator included the mentorship of experienced and successful founders, and the validation of his business idea. But the new environment took some getting used to, as well:
“You come to San Francisco and you say, ‘Wow, everything is ten times as intense and fast as I’m used to.’ ”’
Johan says one adjustment he had to make in particular was to move past the traditional Swedish modesty, when talking about his company.
“You have to leave a little of the Swede behind when you’re pitching… people can find you too laid back. I think at first some people didn’t take us seriously when we entered the pitching environment.”
Johan says he does feel that he now has both a Swedish personality and an American one, and he’s learning to cherry-pick the most useful parts of each. He says that living in Silicon Valley has made him more confident in asserting how he wants his company to run, instead of focusing on what everyone else wants for it.
“Yes, there are people with more experience than me — but not at running Castle. No one has more experience running your company than you do.”
After graduating YC, Castle received $2 million in funding from 20 parties. Johan says Castle is now “in a hyper-growth phase” and is working on hiring the right people.
Register for Startup Live! on 30 May in Malmö to see Johan participate in a debate with Vedra H. Tabor about whether a startup needs to move to Silicon Valley to be successful.