Poppy Gustafsson may have just helped her cybersecurity company Darktrace achieve unicorn status, but she still admits to making mistakes all the time.
“I’m trying to cut down my mistakes from every day to every week,” she told Business Insider after being named among the 100 most influential people in the UK tech industry.
On the surface at least, it looks as though Darktrace is doing very little wrong. The company raised another $50 million last week, bolstering its value to $1.65 billion, and it now employs more than 800 people across 33 offices worldwide, including in San Francisco, India, and Hong Kong.
It’s come a long way since Gustafsson spent £15 to incorporate Darktrace five years ago. Not that she is particularly bothered by achieving unicorn status. “It’s not something, if I’m honest, that we really benchmark ourselves against internally,” she said.
Darktrace, which uses artificial intelligence to fight cybercrime for its clients, traces its roots back to British tech billionaire Mike Lynch. Both Gustafsson and her co-chief executive Nicole Eagan worked at Lynch’s $11 billion software company and later his venture capital firm Invoke Capital.
Darktrace was essentially spun out of a piece of Cambridge University maths research, with& mathematicians working alongside cyber intelligence experts in the US and the UK to develop the technology. While neither Gustafsson and Eagan are listed among the original directors, they helped set the company up through Invoke.
Darktrace’s big idea was that instead of doing cybersecurity like a medieval fortress by erecting a big wall to keep people out, it’s better to do it like espionage — track people who break in to find out what they’re after, who they are, and how they got in.
Darktrace now uses the human body as a metaphor for its technology. The company calls its tech the “enterprise immune system,” taking inspiration from the way the humans fight off disease. It is officially named Antigena.
Gustafsson’s partnership with Eagan is the engine room of Darktrace’s growth. Eagan’s background is in marketing, whereas Gustafsson is an accountant by training. “We tend to say that anything with words in is Nicole, anything with numbers in is me, and it works well,” she said, adding that Eagan was instrumental in honing Antigena to make it able to respond to threats, rather than just detect them.
She’s also straightforward about Lynch’s role in the company. “Mike is a brilliant mind, he’s got incredible experience at growing organisations from nothing to something very significant,” she said.
He is embroiled in a legal wrangle after selling Autonomy to Hewlett-Packard for more than $11 billion in 2011. HP filed a lawsuit in 2015 alleging that Autonomy fraudulently inflated its earnings ahead of the sale. Lynch launched a countersuit, saying HP invented the fraud claim to hide its own incompetence.
The trial will take place in March 2019, but it does not appear to be clouding Darktrace’s horizons.
Antigena has made a name for itself by spotting strange hacks and scams. Earlier this year, Eagan told a conference in London that Darktrace found a hack which targeted a casino via the internet-connected thermometer in its aquarium.
Gustafsson, who was also named in Management Today’s list of influential business women in July, said the internet of things is increasingly being used as a point of entry for hackers.
“The internet of things is this huge maze of interconnectivity between us and our environments and the devices that occupy them. And it could be something like a fish tank, it can be your internet-connected coffee machine, but these things are here to stay,” she continued.
“As individuals, we rely on them all, and business is nothing but a collection of individuals. And so, therefore, it was inevitable that businesses were going to get swept up.”
Darktrace’s size has exploded recently — its workforce has grown by 60% in the past 12 months to just under 800 employees and it has an unusual hiring strategy for a tech company.
Firstly, it employs more salespeople than engineers. Gustafsson said this is because its development team has already built a tried-and-tested product, and so now the company needs more people in sales to meet demand.
“This next stage of growth, our focus is very much we need to be able to hit the market demand as it’s hitting us, so that tends to be sales and marketing that we’re hiring in to meet that demand,” she said.
“We are absolutely hiring in the technical skills as well, so we continue to expand our dev team, but that real acceleration of growth is going to be in the sales and marketing function.”
Darktrace also has a reputation for hiring young graduates, which according to Gustafsson is plugging a hole in the cybersecurity jobs market.
“There’s a massive skills deficit in cybersecurity. Organisations internally are really battling with the fact that they just don’t have enough threat analysts out there to keep on top of the problem,” she explained.
“It’s very important for us instead that we create those cyber specialists. So what we do is we bring in bright graduates from a range of disciplines and we train them up very quickly into the particular area that they’re interested in, whether it’s a technical pre-sales role or a sales role, or marketing. So hopefully we’re helping to contribute to some of that resource deficit as well in the long term.”
Gustafsson also said a creative approach to recruitment has been key to training up specialists. “Some of our brilliant cyber writers that we have are linguists by background,” she said.
For all of Darktrace’s growth, there are a few things Gustafsson says she would do differently if she could turn back time.
“It’s tempting to want to go and sell [your product] to the big banks and all the high-end value names,” she said. “But these big organisations, they’re a massive time-sink and you can get very easily distracted by trying to slay one of the big banks or something very early on in your lifecycle. So my advice would be: Just go out there and sell it in a way that’s repeatable and practical.”
As a female CEO in the predominantly male cybersecurity industry, Gustafsson also had a few words for women who want to get into the field. “My advice would be: Change is afoot, the future is what you make of it, just don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”
And as Gustafsson has shown, making mistakes is not necessarily a bad thing.
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