“Don’t Get Caught Up In The Minutiae Of Running A Business” 5 Leadership Lessons With Reg Harnish, CEO Of GreyCastle Security
“As a leader of a company, you must have your eyes up and focused on the long-term. You can hire people to take care of the small stuff, like what font your website should be, because at the end of the day, the small stuff comes and goes and no one notices it or remembers any of it.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Reg Harnish, CEO of GreyCastle Security, the largest cybersecurity risk assessment, advisory and mitigation firm of its kind. Based in Albany, New York, GreyCastle has quietly become one of the most sought after cybersecurity firms in the U.S. today. Focusing on healthcare, higher education, financial services, retail, and utilities, GreyCastle recently made the prestigious INC. 5000 and Cybersecurity 500 lists. In 2017, the firm earned its third consecutive placement on the Albany Business Reviews’s “Best Places to Work,” and Reg Harnish was voted among the 350,000-member Information Security Community on LinkedIn as North America’s Cybersecurity Consultant of the Year.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I grew up in Albany, NY. I got my first computer when I was 13, thanks to my grandfather who was a huge influence in my life. He is the reason I chose the field I am in today. As a TV repair man, he worked day and night fixing things for a living and despite his long hours, he always made time for me and that stuck with me as I grew up.
After he gave me my first computer, my life changed. I became obsessed with coding and developing software. At 20 years old, I was recruited out of college to work for a major government agency but quickly left, as I realized I couldn’t deal with the bureaucracy or lack of energy.
I spent the next 10 years or so working in the technology sector for companies like SynQuest, where I spearheaded the IT department as one of the very first employees. Working at SynQuest gave me an idea of what it was like to own my own company and, at that point, I realized I wanted my own company.
Shortly after, I partnered with Kimbal Musk (Elon Musk’s brother) to create my first software company, FunkyTalk, which was a cloud-based video editing site. We ultimately sold the company, because we couldn’t get enough funding to do what we had envisioned. It was right after the dotcom crash and no one was interested investing in online companies at the time.
Instead of doubting myself, I used the experience as fuel to push even harder. After five years as CTO of AutoTask, building one of the world’s most popular cloud-based applications, I came up with the idea of GreyCastle Security at a barbecue with friends and my fellow co-founder Mike Stamas.
We knew cybersecurity was the next big thing and I could feel it in my gut that that’s what I was meant to do. I wish I could say it was happily ever after, but we went through some hard times at the beginning. Again, I didn’t doubt myself, but instead became more aggressive in my approach. My team followed suit and now here we are a multi-million firm, with clients in nearly every state. I am proud of the work we do, because we’re making a difference in the world. Most recently, we helped a major U.S. hospital recover all of the data from 6,000 infected computers, when it became victim of one of the largest ransomware attacks in U.S. history. And, the hospital didn’t pay a dime to the attackers. Getting to help so many people in such a significant way is why I love doing what I do.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We had a meeting with a potential client, which was a college in upstate New York. We had our presentation all set, we were completely prepared to blow them away. We were presenting to the school’s CIO and two directors. As we were going through slides in the dark conference room, one of the directors clearly falls asleep and then the CIO literally starts crying and has to leave the room. Our first thought was, “Huh. That wasn’t supposed to happen. We put a guy to sleep and bored a woman to tears.” We didn’t know what to do except continue our presentation. We found out later the employee who left the room was going through a difficult family situation and wasn’t, in fact, emotionally moved by our presentation. I’m not sure what the story was with the guy who fell asleep. Maybe it was a combination of the dark room and a big lunch. It’s funny looking back, but at the time it was one of the most awkward experiences I’ve had since running my own business.
Needless to say, we didn’t get the business. It goes to show that you can prepare day and night, have all your ducks in a row, and sometimes luck just isn’t on your side.
So how exactly does your company help people?
We are the largest cybersecurity risk assessment, advisory and mitigation firm of our kind. My co-founder Mike Stamas and I founded GreyCastle Security to counter the rapidly evolving cybersecurity threats that continue to plague the world. We help people and businesses manage their risks, processes and the technology they use. Our team has about 60 employees who are former CISOs, ISOs, security specialists and operators. In our short six years, we’ve expanded to serve clients in every state in the country and have made the INC. 5000 and Cybersecurity 500 lists.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It sounds cliché but integrity is so important to us. It was a founding principle from day 1 and continues to remain at the top of the list. I’ve always tried my best to do what is right.
Another thing is that we, as a company, are not afraid to challenge the established norms. When I read an industry article or a headline stating the way something is or isn’t, I immediately dissect it and look for other possible realities or solutions. I think that way of thinking has rubbed off on my team and we tackle everything with that mindset — just because there already seems to be an obvious answer, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better one.
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?
So many incredible people have helped me along the way that it’s difficult to mention just one. Two really stand out to me. First, Richard Frederick, who is the co-founder and former COO of Autotask, was a great mentor and coach. He always said, “Success is all about luck, but the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
Also, my friend and well-known businessman Wally Altes was always a great inspiration to me. A piece of advice he gave me that still sticks in my mind today goes, “You can grow more corn in a crooked row.” Basically, the best success doesn’t come in a straight line. When you experience diversions, embrace them because your growth will be much greater and you’ll get more out of the journey.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of the pillars of GreyCastle Security is to give back to the community where our team members work and live. The success of GreyCastle has allowed us to do just that. Based on the premise that charity starts at home, we continue to support organizations in the Capital Region that benefit the lives of children, women and the disadvantaged. Just this year, our employees taught and mentored children ages 8–12 for a week of summer camp. We support the local YWCA and have donated to local Little League and the Albany Chapter of Red Cross. We’ve helped support the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless through our sponsorship of The Taste of Albany, one of the leading charitable events in the Capital Region.
We are also big supporters of helping women in business succeed through our sponsorship of the Wonder Women Mentoring Breakfast, a local evet that helps women grow professionally. We make it a point to encourage women to enter the cybersecurity field and support them when they do. Women only account for 11 percent of the cybersecurity workforce and that needs to change, not only because of what they bring to the table but because diversity among workforces has proven to advance industries and spur positive change.
As someone who has benefited from mentorship myself, I’ve begun to return that favor through my role as a fellow with the National Cybersecurity Institute, where I’ve provided my knowledge and expertise to the young students and professionals who will make up our next generation of cybersecurity workforce.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I wish someone had told me that my idea of success would change. Six years ago, before I started GreyCastle, my idea of success was topline sales. Now, my idea of success is having the opportunity to employ and work with people I love to work with. I am grateful to have smart, motivated people to collaborate with every single day. That is success to me.
- People can be your biggest advantage but equally your biggest headache, from your employees and investors to customers and prospects. Having the ability to deal with the social aspect of business is key to success.
- No matter what industry you’re in, you have be a good storyteller. You must be able to explain your company’s mission and services in an attractive, compelling and almost intoxicating way. Otherwise, your potential customers will lose interest and move on. One of my strengths is that I can take big, complex ideas and translate them easily for any audience without all the jargon and technical speak.
- Don’t get caught up in the minutiae of running a business. As a leader of a company, you must have your eyes up and focused on the long-term. You can hire people to take care of the small stuff, like what font your website should be, because at the end of the day, the small stuff comes and goes and no one notices it or remembers any of it.
- Take time to celebrate success. I was never really good at taking my foot off the gas and taking the time to look up and appreciate how far I’ve gotten.
- You need to be ok with throwing up blood. There was a time during a past startup when I realized I might not be able to make payroll. I was so stressed out from the constant stress that I went home and literally threw up blood. What I learned is that you must be resilient and be willing to take on the worst possible scenarios. Imagine all of the disastrous possibilities and objectively answer whether you are willing to face them and keep going. That’s when you know you are ready to fight for success.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Recently, I got the chance to share the stage with my idol Bruce Schneier at GreyCastle’s 5th annual Cybersecurity Symposium. As someone who has dedicated my professional life to information security, I’ve always looked up to Bruce, who is one of the top security technologists in the world today.
But, if I could have lunch with one person outside of the professional sphere, it would be Angus Young, the founder of AC/DC. Coming from a musical family, music has always been a big part of my life. I (used to) play the drums and have been in countless bands. I’ve always looked to AC/DC for inspiration.