SpaceX and PayPal IT veteran Branden Spikes thought that when it came to founding his own technology firm in March 2012, developing and mastering the security technology itself would be the biggest challenge. But the CEO and CTO of Spikes Security, which now sells a browser isolation product designed to protect PCs from malware and Internet-borne attacks, was proven wrong. The biggest challenge was securing funding from the venture-capital community.
“Initially, I thought building the product was going to be the big challenge I’d face, but it turned out to be fundraising,” he says. “It’s a ‘forcing function’ for building a really excellent, mature business,” he adds, referring to a task that forces you to take action to deliver the required result.
Since his Silicon Valley startup obtained its required funding, however, Spikes says he’s been able to resume focusing more closely on the company, including guiding its growth. “I felt so great when we finally closed the fundraising, that I threw an incredible party and really breathed a sigh of relief, because not only did we achieve something nearly impossible – it seemed – but now I’m able to focus on the business and back on the product again, and that continues to be really exciting and a really fun day job.”
Behind the Scenes
That day job now involves developing security software called “AirGap.” Here’s how it works: Instead of users running a browser on their client, they run the lightweight AirGap client viewer.
Behind the scenes, an AirGap Linux appliance – running either as a Spikes Security cloud service, or else as an on-premises rollout inside the enterprise – creates an isolated, virtual machine, with requisite operating system hardening, firewall and so on for each browser session. AirGap then relays any audio, video, text or graphics that are displayed in the browser – via “a much more benign format” than HTTP, Spikes says – to an AirGap client that runs on a user’s PC. That network and hardware isolation approach to running browsers is designed to block drive-by attacks and keep malware off people’s systems.
Strategy: Grow, But Not Too Fast
The AirGap software was released in beta last year, and this year the company has gone into full production. But Spikes says he’s cautious about his business growing too big, too fast. “We’re controlling the flow, if you will, to allow the company to grow at the proper pace,” he says.
Recruitment is one rationale. Another is because “initially the cost of a customer is quite high, and so you really want to make sure that you’re getting the value out of that,” Spikes says, referring to required marketing investments, publishing related case studies, channeling lessons learned to the engineering team, and providing high levels of customer service to an expanding number of users. “Customer support is no easy task,” he says. “Our culture here is to provide a white-glove level of support for all customers, and to make that scale is also kind of a challenge.”
In this exclusive Executive Session interview, Spikes discusses:
The biggest challenges associated with founding and leading a security software startup;
Strategies for making Spikes Security grow at the right pace, and his underlying thinking;
Future plans to “hyperscale” the Spikes technology and sell not just to enterprises, but also the consumer world.
Prior to founding and serving as CEO and CTO of Spikes Security, Spikes was the fourth employee to be hired at Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, which is attempting to revolutionize space travel. Before that, Spikes was one of the first employees at PayPal, where he served as the director of IT, and he also worked at such firms as digital content studio Everdream and Web software company Zip2