Orchestrating the Path to Early-Stage Startup Success

What do the art of practicing Aikido and launching a startup have in common? Well, they both require a great amount of focus and determination, they’re rooted in energy and spirit, they teach you how to deal with difficult situations while quickly adapting to gain a competitive advantage, and they happen to be things I take pride in. 

Just as martial studies and philosophy is at the core of Aikido, shaping and redefining email security is at the core of my interest. This is owed to the fact that I was brought up in the Boston area–one of the largest tech ecosystems in the U.S.–in addition to having been an early member of multiple successfully exited security companies including CloudLock (Cisco), Conjur (CyberArk), and @stake (Symantec). As a member of these early-stage startups, I saw the opportunity for collaboration, as well as the opportunity for risk, and I knew the latter needed to be addressed. 

Here’s how we made it a reality, along with some key lessons I learned along the way that I believe could be applied by leaders in any industry.


Email: The Center Of Our Professional Universe

The concept behind GreatHorn started with a question contemplated by me and my co-founder, Ray: 

What if we could build a cloud native email security platform and help an entire industry evolve–one that had been historically focused on perimeter security models?  

The concept of using an application programming interface and being fully integrated had not been widely recognized at the time. 

Over the years, we continue to see this market evolve and expand. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise, as email is at the center of most people’s professional digital presence–enabling them to collaborate and communicate with colleagues, whether sending a calendar invite or sharing documents–and this of course, has been intensified by the increasing use of mobile devices. You can access your email at any time, anywhere. 

We believed that email would evolve in this way, so that became the jumping-off point for GreatHorn.


Overcoming Adversity In The Startup Sphere

It was quite early on when I realized it was going to be difficult to start a company and raise capital, so I had to ask myself: How are we going to get this thing off the ground? 

We attempted to raise an initial seed round of capital in 2015, and although we received a mixture of interest and excitement from venture capitalists, the overall response was: Come back to us when you have some more traction. That’s when Techstars New York came into the picture. Ray and I were fortunate enough to have been invited into the exclusive tech accelerator program designed to support founders with resources to help them grow and scale. We decided to embrace the accelerator route and it made all the difference. 

That was a pivotal moment for GreatHorn. Completion of the program gave us a stamp of approval in the community and led directly to the ability to raise our initial seed round. For us, Techstars gave us the opportunity to fulfill the vision we imagined and allowed us to hit the ground running. 

These days, I have the privilege to offer my expertise as a mentor for Techstars in Philadelphia, providing entrepreneurial advice and mentorship to other Techstars companies, specifically those focused on B2B sales, marketing and venture funding strategies.


Having A Diversity Of Opinions: A True Value Add

My background is not that of a typical CEO founder–I am neither deeply technical nor an MBA grad. I didn’t come from the typical economic background of a founder, either, and have a degree in philosophy and film studies–pretty rare for a founder. With this said, I was fortunate enough to have been surrounded by a group of diverse, talented thought leaders who were driving meaningful change in the security industry. 

Through my experience founding GreatHorn, I’ve come to the conclusion that the single-most important thing a CEO can do is find, hire and retain incredible people. Build not only the team you need now, but one that can accelerate and drive the company to new heights. When I’m building a team I rely on intellectual horsepower and fundamental motivation, as well as diversity of thought. 

I believe that integrating and showcasing diverse backgrounds, especially within the leadership team, can be a key to success. At GreatHorn, we value the concept of having a diverse set of opinions and exploring them. This alone is a value add and is something my formal philosophy training has influenced greatly. The diversity of thought is how a company can produce great ideas, services and products; being able to see a problem from multiple angles gives a company a step-up on the competition.  


A (Short) Guide To Navigating The Entrepreneurial Journey 

This leads me to a few pieces of advice I’d give to entrepreneurs who are navigating the always unpredictable process of founding a company, which I hope will prove helpful along the way: 

  1. Get as close to the product as possible. Learn as much as you can about the product and move as fast as you can. You’ll have late nights, long hours and be answering customer support emails–just go with it. 
  2. You can do a lot with a little. You can make great progress if you have a product or service that makes sense for people and has promise, even without a huge amount of capital. 
  3. Set goals on a weekly basis and find a way to get traction. Your cycles should be lightning-fast at the earliest stages. Look for people who will pay you for what you’re building because, in the end, it’s a business. You’ll know that you own a valuable asset when somebody is using your product or service in the real world, and you can gain insights for further improvement.
    •  Gaining traction is possible through viral adoption (more B2C than B2B), or 
    • If you’re selling DevTools, you can get a community of people to use your product for free to jumpstart the conversation. 
  4. Finally, the best piece of advice I have is to take no money. In the initial stages, run the company with just your co-founder. The less VC or institutional support you put in early, the more you can prove yourself and the better your financing will be. 

Your goal in the early stage of business is to find glimmers of repeatability. Ask yourself: Can I turn one dollar into two? This will require you to identify real problems that you can solve most effectively and, when you do, you must zero in on those markets. At times you may fail, which presents an opportunity to learn from the experience; quickly bounce back and adapt. 

Kevin O’Brien is CEO and Co-Founder of GreatHorn, a next-generation email security company that analyzes billions of messages and stops phishing attacks that target a global customer base of organizations, both public and private. Kevin brings deep industry experience, having been an early member of multiple successfully exited security companies, including CloudLock (Cisco), Conjur (CyberArk), and @stake (Symantec). Prior to founding GreatHorn, Kevin was Vice President of Marketing at Conjur, where he built the early go-to-market team responsible for initial market positioning and growth. Previously he led product marketing and sales engineering efforts at CloudLock, the leading cloud access security company that now has more than 6 million enterprise users.

  • Originally published August 19, 2020