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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

Marina Levinson, Partner at BGV shares her perspective on selling to Enterprise IT executives. As a long-time CIO, I’ve been sold to by all kinds of Enterprise IT vendors, big and small. Now that I am a technology advisor and a Venture Capitalist, I spend a lot of time mentoring and coaching start-up executives on the best approach to selling to CIOs and their direct reports. Start-ups are notorious for focusing on selling their technology, sometimes without adequate focus on the real world business pain points their potential customer is trying to address. Outlined below are a few important “rules of the road” that I recommend to start-ups to utilize when selling to Enterprise IT Executives: Rule #1 Do your homework and learn everything you can about your target company and executives you are selling to. Lack of knowledge about a target company can backfire in a big way. When I was a senior IT executive at 3Com back in the 90s, a well-known integration vendor made a multi million proposal to my team and this proposal included buying routers from Cisco (a major 3Com competitor at the time). Let’s just say that this system integrator didn’t get the deal, primarily for lack of market awareness and competition in the networking space… Rule #2 Sell solutions to a business problem (preferably a real pain point), not a whiz bang technology. Quantify business benefits and share success stories from other customers. CIOs respect and listen to other CIOs. There is nothing better than a peer recommendation for your company and product. Also, CIOs do listen to industry analysts and it never hurts to receive accolades from respected industry analysts – eg being in the right upper corner of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant. Rule #3 Learn how IT buying decisions are made and who are the key decision makers and both the formal and informal paths that lead to a buying decision. It’s a critical success factor to understand the dynamics of how the buying process works in your target company. Is a purchasing organization in charge or an IT department?. How risk averse is the CIO? Is he/she an innovator or a follower? Will it be better to sell your solutions to a line of business instead? Answers to these questions should drive your sales strategy. Rule #4 Be prepared to discuss how other companies are solving similar business problems using your technology. Use actual examples and share best practices. Nothing works better than real-world examples of how other companies are being successful using your technology to solve their business problems. It always helps to have marquee names and logos to build credibility with prospective customers. Make sure that your marque customers are happy and willing to provide references for you. Rule #5 Put some “skin in the game” by offering to do a pilot that delivers rapid results. CIOs are skeptical by nature and usually don’t believe vendor claims backed only by powerpoint presentations. A quick pilot using prospective customer data is the best way to prove that your technology works and is not a vaporware. In conclusion, there are several key Do’s and Don’t’s for Sales executives: Do:
  • Relate product capabilities to addressing critical business needs
  • Provide value added domain knowledge on industry best practices and issues other companies are facing
  • Prepare well
  • Follow-up and deliver on commitments
  • Be willing to do a pilot or a proof of concept (“skin in the game”) for minimal investment in a short time frame
  • Waste time
  • Allow poor follow-up
  • Fail to deliver on commitments
  • Demand all the money up front
Happy selling!