Laurent Hausermann is the co-founder and COO of Sentryo, a software company providing cybersecurity asset management and anomaly detection solutions dedicated to industrial networks and the Internet of Things. Now four years into the journey to grow the business with expanding global horizons and having recently been awarded ‘Cool Vendor’ status by Gartner, we take time out to connect with Laurent to get his first-hand perspectives on the path to scaling an IoT company.
What prompted you to set up Sentryo?
We set up Sentryo in 2014 and at that point, I’d already been working for a leading cybersecurity provider in France and the US. I could see industrial corporations making a lot of efforts to secure their IT networks and at the same time deploying OT and IoT devices in their factories with very little or no cybersecurity strategies. Back then, this was a greenfield area…or a blue ocean…it meant there was a lot of scope and a clear opportunity to make an impact and become a leader in the space.
How did you feel about stepping out on your own?
I’d always wanted to run my own business. Back in the 90s when I was still at engineering school, I had my own business selling luxury food on the Internet. It didn’t do so well …but it did give me a taste of being my own boss. For Sentryo, I had a much firmer foundation. Having driven R&D and being a CTO in my previous company, I had the technology background and a passion for innovation. I was happy to drive product strategy and development. My co-founder – Thierry Rouquet – had already founded and managed multiple start-ups to success, so our skills and experiences complemented each other very well.
Where did you focus your attention back at the start?
Despite my tech background, we didn’t start with the tech. We looked deeply into the challenges that cybersecurity was throwing up for industrialists exploring IoT and we put together a 10-page discussion paper. Then we went out and got some feedback. We did one-hour interviews with a broad range of stakeholders – including plenty of senior people from within multi-billion dollar businesses. We got 100% engagement. The nature of the challenge meant that people were eager to share their pain points and ideas. We spent a full 6 months on this, which in turn allowed us to define our MVP (minimum viable product), with a high degree of confidence that it met the needs of potential customers.
Tell us about how the insight shaped the product.
We discovered that while organisations were keen to unlock the benefits of our solution for their organisations, technical experts in cybersecurity were in short supply. So we designed Sentryo’s CyberVision software for non-experts. We give control engineers easy access to empowering information, bundled into tools that allow them not only to see and address weaknesses and vulnerabilities in their systems, but also offer visibility and control over the activities of other vendors who were interacting with their systems. Rather than serving up complex information on system protocols (which might be ok for technical sys admins) we put the hard details into the background and used the language of Operational Technology, which is much more broadly understood. That’s part of why Gartner selected us as "cool vendor of the year". We’ve done interesting things with the technology, as we don’t deploy hardware in the factory floor but we re-use partner devices that are already in play. We work on the edge of the network, which makes deployment easy. And ultimately our solution is easy enough to use that non-security experts can take care of cybersecurity and business continuity.
Take us through the rest of the first year.
By the end of year one, we’d built the first version of the product, we were looking at our first fundraising and we were going through possibly the most important rite of passage that any start-up faces – landing our first ‘beach-head’ customer. Essentially, we’d been partnering with a sponsor, who was supporting our idea and our requirement for testing. But making the transition from pilot to paying customer is really important. It happened for us in 2015 and that’s the point that things really changed for Sentryo. The challenge from there has been to scale the business, invest in the technology and build out and develop the team.
What challenges did you face as you began to scale?
We set our sights on going global early on. We knew the innovation advantage that we had wouldn’t last forever and we wanted to build a broad geographic reach rapidly to make the most of our head start. As a new company, there’s only so much you can do solo, so our strategy was to look for partners and resellers. By year two, we were developing relationships with major European companies like Vinci Energies, Siemens, Schneider Electric and others. Our product offered a new source of revenue for them but in return, these big companies gave us the benefit of sales leverage and reach that we simply couldn’t have achieved alone. We opened a US office – knowing that all the major players are US-based. And we targeted the Middle East, as that particular market was ahead of others in recognising a lack of cybersecurity as a genuine threat to industry.
So what’s next for Sentryo?
Our ongoing challenge is to expand our reach and make sure we keep our technology right at the leading edge of what is a very fast-moving market. We have to continue to build our reputation – and as a pioneer brand we’ve found that web-based marketing has been a major contributor to our success so far, so we’ve got to keep those leads flowing with great content and thought leadership. Beyond that, it’s all about ensuring we deliver a great product, supported by great service and great salespeople. There’s a lot to do, but we can’t take our eyes off R&D either, so that we’re able to bring forward a steady stream of innovation that is relevant to the changing needs of global customers.
And finally what advice would you give other founders?
For tech entrepreneurs with original and genuinely customer-focused ideas, there’s no need to be afraid. There’s a lot of public funding and social support available to help start-ups take their first steps. We got VC funding from Breed Reply at a critical stage in our growth. It worked well. We had a lot of contacts and the team put in a lot of effort to help us on our path to growth, which I understand is not the case with all VCs. So my advice to other partners is to set your sights high. When you begin to get traction, push quickly for international expansion and embrace funding with partners that help you to achieve your goals. In simple terms – think big and go for it. Obviously, there are challenges that every early-stage company has to tackle but keep focused and lean on your thinking and the path to growth might actually be easier than you first think.