Founders on Fire: Gaurav Banga, Founder and CEO, Balbix

Today we catch up with Gaurav Banga, Founder and CEO of Balbix, our winner in this year’s AI Trailblazers category. Chief Trailblazer Rose Ross talks to Gaurav about how AI and retaining relevant data is vital to attain quality cybersecurity visibility and actionable solutions for risk management.

He also talks about the challenges he’s faced during his time with the three startups he’s been involved with to date. Listen to the full podcast:

You can also listen to the podcast on YouTube and Anchor FM.

Interview transcript

RR: Welcome everybody to the Founders on Fire podcast from the Tech Trailblazers. My name’s Rose Ross, and I’m the Chief Trailblazer and founder of the Tech Trailblazers, and I’m delighted to have with us today the CEO and founder of Balbix, Gaurav Banga, who were our AI Trailblazers this year. Thank you for joining us, hello!

GB: Hello, and it’s my pleasure to be here, delighted.

RR: Wonderful. Well you’re joining us from San Francisco, or from California, where are you in California?

GB: Yeah, we are in the bay of San Francisco Bay area.

RR: Wonderful, wonderful. Well, let’s sort of kick off and look a little bit, now you guys sort of are in the… although you’re on the artificial intelligence, that’s where you sort of came out with your trailblazing crown, you’re also in the cybersecurity area which obviously is a very hot space at the moment, with a lot of the increases in threats and attacks at the moment. So, could you tell us a little bit about what you actually do, and about what the company is able to help organisations with dealing with?

GB: Balbix is a startup which looks at the cybersecurity visibility and risk management space. What that means is that if you look at a typical organisation, the number of different ways in which they can get compromised is practically infinite. Now, we like to call it the enterprise attack services exploding, and what we believe is that analysing your overall cybersecurity posture, and then trying to improve it, is no longer something that can be done using traditional methods.

What Balbix does is we have technology that uses some very specialised algorithms to first enable our customers to visualise their attack service, at a level which is 100 times better than anything else, and then use this information to transform the cybersecurity posture, thereby decreasing their breach risk significantly, and improving the efficiency. It’s kind of like going from a mostly manual old-style non-data driven approach to cyber security, and then going towards an automated AI-based data-driven approach to cybersecurity.

RR: And so the AI element is around that automation of that capability?

GB: The AI element is around both the visibility piece of it, and also the automation piece. So, let me dive in just a little bit with one example.

RR: Yes, absolutely.

GB: If you look at my analogy, if you try to say, ‘Okay, what is the weather going to be tomorrow?’ So, my analogy, if you want to get an answer to that, which all of us do get an answer to it every day, from the weather service in our countries, a lot of data is collected from weather radars, satellite imagery, and thermometers, and barometers, across all the world. All that information is put into a finite analysis model of the atmosphere, and then certain algorithms are run, and then out you get that there’ll be this temperature at this location, at this time of tomorrow, and this will be the windspeed, and this is the likelihood of a tornado, or a hurricane, or whatever you have.

In the world of cyber security we need to do something very similar, what happens today is nothing even close to this. A lot of the data is not even gathered, a lot of the relevant data that could predict an impending cyber attack, or could be very indicative of vulnerability in our defences, that data is not simply gathered because there’s too much of it. And even if it is gathered it is not recorded, it’s not input into the model which might decide what needs to be done to manage risk better. So, Balbix does all of that.

So the first thing we do is we allow for the gathering of this vast amount of data, then we have algorithms that allow you to analyse this data, and then finally we have algorithms that allows you to visualise this data, and then take action based on that.

RR: So, you’re seeing some incredible increases in companies’ abilities to protect themselves then, from these types of things.

GB: Absolutely.

RR: Fantastic. Now tell me, because I looked a little bit, I had a little snoop on LinkedIn earlier, and I see that this is not the first time that you’ve had a very successful startup, is it? Because you were the CEO and founder of Bromium, which was acquired by HP a number of years ago.

GB: Yes, so this is my third startup, and the fourth company that I’ve been involved in that takes it to… and I’ve also been part of a turnaround which is kind of like an ugly startup if you would, where you have all the issues of startups and then some unique issues of their own. So, yes this is not my first one.

At the same time, I’ve learned there is this problem of cybersecurity, and my last two startups have been about cybersecurity. I think the amount of innovation that is needed to get ahead of this problem is just astounding. There are so many areas where we kind of know directionally where we have to go. We know, we are very aware of the gaps between what is needed, and what is available, and it is just quite an opportunity if you will. That’s the reason why I started this last company, Balbix, that we’re talking about today.

RR: Cool. Well that kind of leads us very nicely into the question that I wanted to ask you. Obviously, this can be for where you are right now, or in a previous startup, both the beautiful and the ugly one! No, no, we won’t do the start again, but the key moments in your journey, what have you found particularly challenging as a startup, as an entrepreneur, as a CEO of a startup, as an entrepreneur?

GB: From my perspective there are really two challenges, two issues that come across. One is when you build a team and conceive the initial architecture. That is an evolutionary moment, it doesn’t happen all at once, but there are some key decisions that are made which are very, very specific to the problem on hand, that a startup is trying to solve. And if you make the decisions one way or the other, that can have a huge impact later on. So, one of the hindsights that you have from having done this a few times, is I’ve also made more than my fair share of mistakes, and from every mistake, an architectural mistake in the early days, or an architectural non-mistake as I call it, something that we got right, years down the line you can see how that impacted the future of the company.

So, that’s one area where it does’t feel like anything, because when you’re going through it, it just feels like another day when you make no decisions, but those are some of the most important decisions you will be making; people who you hire, and other architecture that you built for your product and for your company.

RR: So it’s like laying the foundations.

GB: Absolutely, and you said it in better words, so the foundation has to be strong. If the foundation is strong then you will move fast and you will go places, if the foundation is weak… So, there’s nothing exciting about it, you just have to do it the right way, you have to do it with discipline, and you have to remember that if you take shortcuts in this process, you’re going to come back and be in a world of hurt much later.

So, the second area is when you get to scalability. Initially it feels like hell, this is when you are good for supporting five customers, and suddenly you see demand from a large customer who is 20 times the size of all your customers put together, and you have to rearchitect, you have to scale your architecture, you have to solve bugs in your scalability pretty much overnight, otherwise you have a disappointed customer.

So every one of my startups, and this one in particular, has gone through this point where you’re not a startup anymore, you’re kind of like in this growth phase where you suddenly have these serious big customers that have scalability requirements, that are truly world-class, and we’ve got to execute. That can lead to long hours, sometimes going for 24-48 hours without sleeping. An entire group of 20, 25, 30 people who work for a month at it, and at the end of it you emerge with something truly beautiful, and that is you have in that sense achieved your dream.

RR: So, you say that scale up phase from startup to scale-up, where you have to step into a bigger set of shoes effectively. But that’s hard, isn’t it? Because obviously as a startup you’re already putting in longer hours traditionally, it’s not like everybody’s clocking in at one minute to nine, and clocking off at one minute past five in the afternoon. People do put an awful lot of effort in, a lot of passion, and a lot of energy, just to even get it off the ground and create those early foundations.

So, third time around for a startup, rather than a start-again, what are you particularly proud of? What key moments would you say, ‘That was a good job. I’m really proud of that’?

GB: For me, this is again, there’s lots of key moments, but for me personally, the most important moments are around when a customer comes to us at the company, and says, ‘Thank you, you did something that was truly valuable to us in this specific way’. So, I can’t give you an example by naming the customer, but I’ll try to do my best otherwise. We had a customer that came to us and said, ‘Because of that technology, because of your technology which we deployed, we were able to save $55 million by finding software that nobody was using, and we were able to not pay maintenance on that software’, obsolete software so to speak. But then $55 million is a significant amount of money for anybody, but even for them, this is one of the largest carriers in the world, even for them $55 million is a large amount of money.

The fact that they can attribute it to one of the products and one of the features of our product, and then we can take it, and that becomes the reason why we exist, why startups should exist, is to solve problems for customers. And when something becomes as clear as that, those are some of the best moments, they are the moments that give me energy and I’m sure the rest of my team as well, a lot of energy to now take the company to the next level of heights.

RR: Well interesting that you should use that particular example, because one of the things that we’ve been sort of seeing is, obviously under the current crisis, that we’ve got CSOs that we work very closely with. Their absolutely overriding goal -apart from keeping the lights on obviously, because that’s what everybody’s trying to do at the moment – is going to be cost-cutting and making the most of what they’ve got. So, as a startup to approach these types of people and say, ‘Well look, we know that you’re going to find things, and ultimately this is going to save you money’. It’s not the easiest sell, but it’s very nice to be able to say you know, examples as the one you’ve just given, that $55 million is a very nice chunk of change to find back in your coffers, isn’t it?

GB: Absolutely. I think that is what I think is the most valuable part of it, which is in any situation, whether be it yesterday, today, or tomorrow, if a startup can articulate exactly how they can help the customers, and in this particular case saving money. If you can’t articulate that then you really should not be in the business. If you can articulate it, then you’re in a good place.

RR: Absolutely. So, obviously you’ve received recognition from ourselves and from our judges, around what they view you as being a Trailblazer, which is great, so congratulations on that! That firm foundation is clearly paying off. What words of encouragement would you give to a company who is deciding on whether they should go in for awards like the Tech Trailblazers?

GB: First of all, thank you for the recognition, thank you.

RR: You’re welcome.

GB: In terms of company building, one of the things that any founder, any CEO knows, or should know, is you’re also building your brand, and you’re building your brand around some notion of excellence, and it’s one thing to say that you’re excellent, it’s quite a completely different thing to say that other people say they’re excellent. So, I think my advice would be to anybody building a company, think about how you’re going to do that, and it will come down to what award do you really care about? Which ones would you associate with your brand? What would you like to? There’s no one answer that fits everybody. But for us, generally the whole idea of Tech Trailblazer. We are a tech company, we are trailblazing, and for us that’s a very, very apt award, not just how the selection process is, but what the award stands for.

If you think of yourself as a tech trailblazer then look for the kind of awards that make sense along with it, and take them seriously because your perspective customers are looking for you to have that kind of validation. So, it is key.

RR: Brilliant. For you personally, I’m sure you’ve picked up awards in other startups that you’re involved with, and I know that you’ve also achieved other accolades where you are at the moment. So, are there any tips that you’d give to others who are entering awards like ours?

GB: I think what you’ve got to do is, think of your strategy around why are you different. Your overall market strategy is based on a series of differentiations, and then the question is, how can you articulate that differentiation in a way which is relevant and meaningful to someone who may not be an expert in your area, in the fewest amount of words. Maybe an exhibit, maybe a picture, maybe an infographic, all of that stuff goes, and we have used all of those things to showcase what is it that makes us special, and that would be what my advice would be.

RR: Yeah, I did actually have a look and I liked that you have lots of e-books on the website. So I’m including something about, what was it? Gosh, it really sort of struck me, it was something like being an adult, and I think it was about the responsibility of being in cybersecurity. So, I think what you’ve done is given a lot of that in the type of assets that you make available for people, which I think is really good, and that clearly has come across to the judges as well, that ability to tell the story.

Yeah, we’re in a difficult time at the moment, nobody can deny that. Our standard question which was put together well before the current crisis was, do you have any advice in general for startup companies trying to survive in the current economic climate? Obviously I know the VC community, Sequoia put out their advice to startups in this black swan situation, but you’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time, and obviously no-one has faced anything quite like this before, but there have been challenges, and very, very big challenges. What advice would you give to people at the moment, apart from obviously staying safe?

GB: That’s a great question. I think the next generation of leaders, both organisations as well as companies, are going to emerge from this crisis. So, even though today the crisis looks like gloom and doom, it is very important that you don’t forget that. The next generation of leaders leading companies are going to get stronger, they’re already taking steps to get stronger that maybe you can mimic to.

So, what’s going to happen? This crisis will go for x-amount of days, months, years. Probably looks like at least a few more months right now, 12 to 18 months. At the end of it, certain companies will cease to exist, and certain companies will come out with a fantastic trajectory, they will be stronger. So, why would companies cease to exist? Because they make a series of decisions right now, and in the world of startups it’s oftentimes about running out of cash, it’s oftentimes becoming irrelevant because the world changes.

Then if you look at the flip-side of the other side, the world in which we emerge from is going to be different, and many business models will be upset. Perhaps your startup is in a business model which will be disrupted, or even completely upset. So, what my advice would be, and I’m a student of this, by no means do I know all the answers, I kind of wake up every day and say, ‘What can I learn from other people who have gone through these successfully before? And yes, I have had my fair share of successes too – but.’ So, my advice would be to think about the world that we will emerge into, think about what that world would look like, think about what role your company you’ll ideally want to be playing in that world, and then work backwards from that, and make sure of two things:-

  1. You are making the right investments to transform your company, or to incrementally change your company wherever it might be necessary, so that you can arrive in that imagined world that you were thinking about.
  1. Make sure you have enough cash for that. It’s possible to do the same thing with fewer people, if that’s the only way out, and if you have the luxury of a lot of cash, even then make sure that you’re going to make the right investments.

So that is my advice.

In this process there are going to be lots of decisions to be made, lots of challenges to be overcome that are very specific to an organisation, but if you have an idea of what’s at the end, or what you would like to be at the end, that can be a very good guiding path.

RR: That’s some very sage-like advice there I think. Is there anything else that you’d like to share? This is an opportunity to talk about what you’ve been doing, and what you’ve discovered along the way. Is there anything else that you’d like to share around that?

GB: Yeah, one of the things we did not talk about is AI, I mean that’s the category that we are in, that we are spending a lot of time in. The one thing I would say about AI is, if you imagine the world post this COVID-19 crisis, this is the way we imagine it, and this transformation has been happening slowly, organisations have been thinking about AI and automation, and how AI and automation can solve certain problems, and make some efficiencies happen continuously over the last five years. But I think at the end of this post-COVID-19 crisis, what will happen, what is extremely likely to happen, is that a lot of these transitions that people have been doing very, very slowly will be forced upon them.

We are now dealing with a workforce which is very, very much more mobile than ever before. Everybody is distributed, working from home. What that also means is that a lot of the companies that could not believe and could not think that they could work efficiently from home, are now going to be pleasantly surprised and say, ‘Oh now everyone can work from home! I can hire more distributed people, workforces. I can get a lot of things accomplished that I didn’t believe it could before’. So, the problem of cybersecurity in general is actually going to get much worse, because now you can’t even go behind your traditional things any more, much less than you could, and that’s where the power of AI will start kicking in; how do you see basic elements of your cybersecurity when your workforce is that distributed?

Then in this AI business, we are at the very early days of truly exploring how human knowledge can be replicated in machines, and then scaled up for our better good. So, AI is the ultimate tool, and so what comes in as work advances can be built over the next few weeks and months, or months in AI, and how can that hub deliver this work post-COVID-19 world, better than it would otherwise be.

RR: That sounds like that’s going to be very, very timely to be talking about that as well, that’s a good thing to add into the mix. Well, I think we’ve just about come to the end of this Founders on Fire podcast. I’d very much like to thank you Gaurav for joining us for this, and wish you and the team at Balbix continued success in the face of a lot of challenges that we’re all facing at the moment. So, thank you very much for your time.

GB: And thank you Rose; it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

RR: Likewise, and do keep us posted. So, thank you everybody, that was the Founders on Fire podcast, with Gaurav Banga from Balbix, our AI Trailblazers. Thank you.