Meet One of the Founding Fathers of the Ethical Hacking Industry, Michiel Prins
“While I ended up on the right side of history, the path wasn’t always straight and narrow. As a hacker, there’s a rush that comes with breaking into a place you shouldn’t be. I once got into pretty big trouble hacking into my high school TV network with my fellow HackerOne cofounder, Jobert Abma. We thought it was as a harmless prank, but the school didn’t think so.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dutch native Michiel Prins. Michiel is a hacker, recently named as one of Forbes 30 under 30, and is a co-founder of HackerOne, the world’s largest platform for ethical hackers.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Learning to hack changed my life. I was 13 year old growing up in the Netherlands and I really wanted to find new ways to beat video games. To cheat the game, I quickly learned I needed to learn to venture deeper and deeper into the code. This was my first introduction to hacking. Those early days of unbounded curiosity and determination kicked off an unlikely chain of events that changed my life forever and ultimately led me to help create HackerOne — a platform for ethical hackers to make money by helping companies find how a criminal hacker could exploit their systems.
While I ended up on the right side of history, the path wasn’t always straight and narrow. As a hacker, there’s a rush that comes with breaking into a place you shouldn’t be. I once got into pretty big trouble hacking into my high school TV network with my fellow HackerOne cofounder, Jobert Abma. We thought it was as a harmless prank, but the school didn’t think so.
I of course was punished for the incident and began confronting some heavy questions about what to do with this newfound skills. It was a major turning point in my life — especially my parents reaction. They immediately recognized the value of my talent, and taught me that the rest of the computerized world was going to need help understanding where their vulnerabilities lie too. My mother, who is a librarian, became my biggest supporter. She even checked books out of the library to help me learn how to build and break code. In another year’s time, I matured into a skilled, accomplished, and (most importantly) responsible hacker.
Years later in 2012, Jobert and I embarked on a challenge we dubbed “the hack 100 list”, where we hacked 100 of the biggest, most impressive companies we could think of. That’s how we met Alex Rice, head of product security at Facebook, who along with Sheryl Sandberg decided that they needed to work with hackers like us on a regular basis. Later that year, we founded HackerOne.
HackerOne is making the internet a safer place. We have a community of ethical hackers that tell companies where they are most vulnerable. These hackers are the good guys, and we work with organizations like General Motors, Twitter, GitHub, Nintendo, Square and Starbucks — even the US Army and Department of Defense! Security teams benefit immensely by the extra help they’re getting from thousands of talented hackers, helping them avoid risks that come from common bugs in software, which can result in breaches. Many of the 900 companies on our platform are so grateful for this help, that they pay as much as $50,000 in rewards for specific bugs which are discovered and reported. These rewards known as “bug bounties” and our customers have paid hackers over $22M for reporting 55,000 security issues.
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Shortly after HackerOne moved to Silicon Valley, we entered what I like to call our “awkward phase.” By day, the business operated like your typical tech startup, with enough full time engineers and hackers to convince customers that we were a serious and could help them. By night, however, we were freelancing as pentesters, or hackers for hire, to cover overhead costs and salaries.
One time we got in a rough spot after making a bad hire. In a stroke of luck, our CEO at the time remembered that he had bought some bitcoin back when it was 10 cents a piece. By then, Bitcoin had started gaining major traction and he was able to sell it at a much higher price. The funds went straight into employee paychecks with hours to spare before payroll.
Trust and working together is the backbone of everything we do at HackerOne, and I’m proud of the way we hustled to keep it in those early hectic days of bootstrapping. Sure, the Bitcoin we sold to keep the lights on would be worth a lot more today, but it’s a blip on the radar compared to the value and goodwill we’ve created over the years with HackerOne.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Ten years ago, hackers could get arrested for reporting a vulnerability in a company’s software. Today they can get paid for it. I’ve received letters from lawyers over my work as a hacker and I know how scary that can be. Now we’ve helped normalize the way hackers work with companies, making it more common for them to thank and reward individuals who hack to make companies safer.
We see everyday how the HackerOne platform is empowering our hacker community and enabling them to change their lives. Hackers in over 100 countries have earned more than $22M in bounty awards on HackerOne for successfully hacking companies. With the bounties earned on our platform, some of our hackers have moved their families out of poverty, paid for college tuition, bought homes and cars for their parents and otherwise made positive changes in their lives. Our Twitter feed has all the feel good vibes here.
I’m also glad to have helped change the reputation of ethical hackers among my peers. When hackers and companies work together we get to be part of the solution and improve online security for everyone.
Yitzi: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Launched My Startup” and why.
“A good plan violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” That quote from George S. Patton exemplifies a lesson I learned after our first few years in business. In the very beginning, we were over-thinking our product, making it more complex than it needed to be with unnecessary features, ultimately slowing down our go-to-market. I laugh about it now, because we were treating it as if it was going to be a consumer-facing product that had to look perfect. But the truth is it was good enough at the time to get it in front of the first customers and learn from how they use it to decide what to build or improve next.
Just because something served you in the past, doesn’t mean it’s going to serve you forever. In this case, I’m referring to my career. Before starting HackerOne, my co-founder and I had a very successful security consulting company in the Netherlands. We had employees on staff and amazing clients, business was good. Everyone thought my co-founder and I were crazy for quitting our lucrative freelancing gigs as pentesters to create our own startup. They reminded us we were making good money and had an easy life, and told us how hard it was to create a successful startup. I wish that instead, they were more open minded and encouraging about switching gears and taking on new challenges.
Surround yourself with like-minded people. Shortly after we decided to strike out on our own and build a startup, one of my co-founders took me to Silicon Valley, which is when everything started to click. The culture of building things is so strong here. It was inspiring, motivating and the perfect antidote to the fear and doubt I was fighting off at home in the Netherlands. Now I can recognize and admit that Dutch people are very risk averse — it’s a culture of consultants who are trying to make a living and retire. And for many that works and they are living the good life. For us, contributing and participating in the Silicon Valley community is what we wanted and helped HackerOne come to life. When you are surrounded by people who are building things, testing the limits everyday and trying to change the world, it encourages you to work harder and smarter.
Passion dwarfs skill. Being a founder, I have to wear a lot of hats especially in the beginning, which meant I ended up with some tasks that didn’t come easy to me. I used to trip myself up thinking about all of the people who could do what I was doing, better than, and more efficiently than me. For example in the early days, here I was trying to do sales, and I’d never done sales. I know that there are people out there with 20 years of experience who could do it better, but yet here I am and my best was more than good enough. This was also true when it came to managing a team and hiring executive. What I learned the hard way was that passion is really the only prerequisite needed to get something done. It’s the best solution I can think of for fighting impostor syndrome.
Founder should work twice as hard. Being a founder is not part of my identity and it doesn’t award me any special permission at the office. Our CEO Marten Mickos said early on, the difference between founders and everyone else is that founders should work twice as hard. I take this to heart and hope my contributions can help set the pace for our fast moving company, and establish true camaraderie and teamwork.
Yitzi: I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. 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 see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
I would jump at the chance to meet Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack. He’s a tech idol of mine — I’m dying to know how he made Slack so sticky, so fast. What did he do to bring his company together during such a fast period of growth so that they could scale as they have? How did he help make the product so addictive? How did he manage culture with such heavy growth?
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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.