Shashi: Welcome to this new edition of the Dreamers & Doers podcast from Aryaka, where we invite thought leaders from all over the world for some candid conversations. For the first time in this series, I'm thrilled to welcome an entrepreneur, who's joining me from Hamburg, Germany. This is none other than Dennis Monner, CEO of Secucloud, which is an innovative security company that Aryaka just acquired.
In today's episode, we'll probe the mind of an entrepreneur, learn about how the ecosystem gets fostered in Germany for innovation, and what it really takes to build a security company from scratch. Wikommen, Dennis, and say hello to our listeners.
Dennis Monner: Welcome, Shashi. Thank you very much for your warm words. Welcome everybody, and thank you for your time.
Shashi: Dennis, it's wonderful to have this entire Secucloud team come onboard Aryaka and get actively engaged. I want to take you down a walk down the memory lane, and if you turn the clock back a little bit, what prompted you to start Secucloud? What's the journey been like so far?
Dennis Monner: Yeah. Thank you for the questions, actually. Yes, when I founded Secucloud in 2013, the idea behind it was to build a next-generation firewall with a completely based on a cloud-first architecture. If you maybe know, beforehand, I had another security company called gateProtect. In this company, we have built a traditional firewall appliances, UTM firewalls, but I thought already, I think back to 2008, that the traditional appliance-based security approach would sooner or later become obsolete. That was my idea to found Secucloud, and I sold my former company in 2012, and then I founded Secucloud with this new idea of cloud-first architecture of a next-generation firewall, and that was the starting of Secucloud in 2013.
Shashi: Clearly, it wasn't your first rodeo and you being successful with gateProtect before. There's been, I recall, strong recognition with Gartner back then and you getting good traction. Now, what is the source of ideas for all of these companies that you're founding, and why this focus on security?
Dennis Monner: Yes. First of all, thank you very much. Depending Gartner, that was a special honor that Gartner has followed our development so positively. Also, for gateProtect, but I also think from Secucloud. Maybe to describe a little bit where I'm coming from. I think it was 2001. I invested in two software companies, and these software companies also deal with firewalls. When dealing with these firewalls, I always thought that they were extremely complex and confusing to configure.
So, out of these two investments, I had the idea to build a new firewall, which also have a much more user-friendly user interface, and we have this idea to build up a next generation firewall, but with a completely new approach of the configuration of the firewall. So, we developed something we called, or later we called, our easy-to-use graphical user interface, also called the Economical Graphical User Interface, EGUI. Yes. Then, we founded this company. The first company, gateProtect, and that was 2002, I think, we founded gateProtect.
Shashi: First of all, building a next generation firewall isn't as easy as it seems. Then, if you're a young startup without a lot of muscle, it's very hard to break into the security industry, earn your trust, earn reputation to make yourselves credible against the more deep-pocketed established players. As a young startup, how do you go about doing that, Dennis?
Dennis Monner: Yeah, I fully agree in that, Shashi. That's really difficult, especially when you're dealing in security. I think the first step is to build a quite excellent product, where you fully believe that you have something that is much better than the competitors are offering today. For my first company, it was this easy use of the product, this EGUI technology. But, both of my companies, I think one of the main points that we can achieve this goals and targets we achieved was that we have a very strong sales team.
I think out of our first 20 employees, 15, 14 people was sales, and in both companies, I like to deal with young people, young sales guys. Something between 22 to 27, and I trained them by myself in doing sales. Then, I think we was quite aggressive on the market, on the sales part. Then, you started with the first customers, and then the next customers, and so on. After a while, you also get some bigger customers, and at least, we then won some bigger awards. Also, for my former company, but also for Secucloud, then the big award, or the big push came, came when Gartner was listing those companies. And, with a gateProtect, we was also in the major [inaudible 00:05:52] for the next generation firewall.
Shashi: Yeah. It looks like your formula, first of all, is to focus on simplicity because there is a lot of complexity in the security ecosystem. Then, you invested in sales early on to go against some of the bigger players and establish a market name for yourself, right?
Dennis Monner: Yeah.
Shashi: Now, if I look at how things function in the Silicon Valley, where we have a pretty well flourishing startup ecosystem, a lot of venture capital, educational institutions and talent all coming together into a nice operate. How is this in Germany? Do you find it equally easy to get access to venture capital or talent? What is the ecosystem like there when you compare it to the Silicon Valley?
Dennis Monner: That's a very good question. First of all, I think we also have very good and talented people and founders here in Germany, but one of the very, very big problems I also saw in both of my founded companies is to raise money in Germany. Especially when you're talking about deep tech or security fire walling — for me, that's also deep tech — it's extremely difficult to raise money. There are some state subsidies where you can raise money, but that is very low amounts, so it's trivial amounts. I think, when I founded gateProtect, maybe it was 400,000, 500,000 Euro. I think, today, it's something like 50,000 Euro, something like that.
But, the conditions are also very bad. You have to give a high part of your shares if you do so. So, in both companies, we also decided to do it without this state subsidies. When you are an entrepreneur, and if you want to raise money, you are spreading out your network and starting to talking to investors, and a lot of talk. In both companies, I think 40% of my time, on average, was to raise money and make our investors happy. But, it's still difficult to raise money in Germany for deep tech, so I really hope that there will be more bold German VCs willing to invest in German startups.
Shashi: Do you see that changing?
Dennis Monner: Very slowly. I think the push is coming more from companies out of Germany. I received some more investments from VCs from Europe, which I'm a little bit more open-minded. Maybe I can see it on this way. Then, we also see some movement from U.S. to the German market, but still, from the German perspective... The German VCs, they want to see very serious business and don't grow too strong, and always have a very strong look on the expenses. I see a little bit better move, but I think there's a lot of space to make it better.
Shashi: Yeah. Once we start seeing the venture capitalists have a better risk appetite, I think it encourages startups to be more bolder with their ideas and execution, and that comes about with time. Despite all of this, the deep tech, as you called it, that you have developed is truly world-class. That is one of the reasons we approached you.
Despite all of the startup issues that you talked about, you actually managed to recruit some really good talent. Many of them have actually stayed with you over the years, and there's a strong sense of loyalty and teamwork. What's been your formula to, first of all, recruit talent, retain them and foster this loyalty?
Dennis Monner: I think, first of all, it's very important to show employees a vision and to get them excited about it, and then also to keep them engaged in this vision. Then also, furthermore, always try or make sure that your employees get tasks that inspire them as much as possible. For sure, not every day you can get an exciting job, but I would say 80% essentially in the year. It's my target that the people who are helping me or in my team, I will try to give them a job or exercise that they love to do. I think that is one point.
Then, another point is, what I learned, especially in the last eight, 10 years is I think that nearly all people have some kind of strong talents. I'm looking very integral on every team member and try to find out where is he good. Then, also, to give him this job and to push him more where he is good and give him less jobs where I think he is not good. Two, because that also fits to what the people want to do. Another thing is, if you have a company — also, if it's a startup — there are a lot of times where business is difficult, that's up and down.
When it's down, I talk very openly and honestly with the people, and told them the situation and what's going on. Try to be maximum transparent. I think that also leads to a strong relationship of trust, and that's especially also why I think a lot of people are working in both companies. Some of the people I'm working together with... One is 18 years, the other one is 20 years. I know them really long, and I think they know that I'm trustful. They also talk about problems, not about only the good things. We are try to focusing on the good things, but sometimes, there's also things that are not good, and then we have to talk about it.
Shashi: I think, as you establish a security company focusing on trust, the leadership principles that you just talked about are equally important. I gathered two things from what you said. One is, really play people to their strengths. I think the hard job there is to find out what somebody's passion or strength is and allow them to play along those lines. Secondly, you talked about this honest, candid communication and instilling a sense of purpose or mission, which goes beyond maybe a paycheck, and that leads people to follow you down a certain pathway, or decades here in your case.
At the same time, you also talked about it being a journey with ups and downs, a roller coaster, and the buck always stops with you as the CEO. I would imagine things become quite stressful for you. Potentially, your family. How do you unwind? How do you deal with the stress? You need to keep calm as the captain of the ship.
Dennis Monner: I think, first of all, I like my job. Also, if there is the bad times, I like this risk. But, for sure, there also have been a lot of days and weeks, and also months, where I didn't sleep well or sleep very bad and so on. But maybe, today, I'm a little bit older. Fortunately, today, I have learned ways to deal with it. There are some more of, what can I say? Smaller things, which works out very good for me.
That is, I try to take small times out. I try to, where it's possible, make a daily power nap. That's very, very powerful for me, to make a nap that's 25, 30 minutes, maybe. Sometimes, 30 minutes. That's giving me a lot of power for the whole day. But, on the other hand, I like to go to the nature, and I try to meditate once or two times today, so in the morning and the evening. I also try to make sport four or five times a week, and drinking a lot of water and not too much coffee. Then, I get a good balance for me.
Shashi: You're exactly the opposite of a startup founder here in the Silicon Valley, who thrives on coffee.
Dennis Monner: Okay.
Shashi: I was just kidding. So this is actually a very well balanced routine, Dennis. Sometimes, I think people might envy you for what you just talked about, but it really is a well-rounded routine. Where do you draw your inspiration from, whether it be for ideas or your personal wellbeing? Who are the mentors that you look up to, or leaders that you're inspired by?
Dennis Monner: I think I have a strength that I can see problems when they came up, and I have a feeling or a good view of how I can solve them better than they have solved beforehand. I also have a strong need to solve them better. That's something I like. I can't describe it better. It's actually an internal energy, that says, "You have to do it better now." But, when we are talking about good ideas, they typically come up when I'm more in some peace or quietness, when I'm in the nature or something.
When I try to de-stress, then this idea is popping up. When there are some new ideas, then I very strong like to talk with my nearest team members, or closer team members, in an early stage about them. Out of that, then too, I feel, there come more ideas. Some ideas are good, some ideas are bad. Yeah. I hope I could answer your question a little bit with this.
Shashi: Yeah. It seems to me that a lot of the ideas come from within, and then you use other members of the team as a sounding board to refine them, right?
Dennis Monner: Yeah.
Shashi: We talked about mentors a bit. If there were a new startup founder that wanted to go down and follow the path you created and start a successful company in Germany, what advice would you give that person? What would be the do's and don'ts there?
Dennis Monner: I think the most important, and what I see is, is to start and do it. Don't talk too much. Don't discuss too much. Make any big statistics and so on. If you are a small or young company, start and do it. Out of my view, it's better trying out things than discuss them back and forth for a long time. Yeah. Be prepared, also, to take risks. If you're making a startup, there's a lot of risks.
I know a lot of years where I was afraid if I get my salary next month and so on, but that's the risk you have to take to do a startup. Yeah. Then, it's very, very important to take care of raising capital, and also, enough capital, and that's an ongoing process. That's extremely important, out of my view, to be successful. Also, to raise enough money.
Shashi: And getting the right team to work with you?
Dennis Monner: Exactly. That's also a must have. You need the right team. That's also a must have.
Shashi: Now that you're part of the Aryaka fold, what are some of the priorities that you're focused on in this post-acquisition phase of life?
Dennis Monner: First of all, I have noticed that Aryaka makes a great effort to integrate our teams as quickly as possible, and that I find is really cool. For sure, also, to be taken over by a Silicon Valley tech company like you, there was also some people who was afraid in the beginning, but we get a very firm feeling how you interact with all our people here. But also, our team was especially impressed how mindful you take the needs of all employees here. It feels, for me and the team, that you mean it very serious, so all these things we have been afraid of, maybe, there was nothing in. Yeah. We are still happy here how things are going on.
My main priority will be to bring, fast as possible, the Aryaka SD-WAN solution together with our secure cloud access solution, and then bring a great product to the market. I think this combination of your very strong SD-WAN and our very strong firewall as a service and secure web gateway solution, when we combine them on the right way, that must be a really, really strong product. I would go forward to push here as much as possible, and also, as fast as possible.
Shashi: Yeah, that looks very exciting. I think there's a lot of positive energy on this side of the ocean as well, and so I think your team equally deserves those accolades in the way that they have been responsive, in the way that they have come on board the mothership. I think it's one team, one goal, and it should be one product that will delight customers.
I want to maybe go back to entrepreneurship in a way. Usually, you being a serial entrepreneur, they say that if a startup bug bites, it's hard to be unbitten, and if you're an entrepreneur once, you end up being always an entrepreneur. With that in mind, do you ever see yourself becoming a regular corporate guy working for a big company and letting go of the entrepreneurship charter that you have taken on yourself the last few decades?
Dennis Monner: Yeah. That's a very good question. Now, I'm also a little bit older here, so I think to work in a big company is also something, which could work very well out. What I also see in some bigger companies in the past, maybe in the last five years, is that to use this power of an entrepreneur on the right way could also give a lot of possible impact also for big companies.
What I saw is that a lot of bigger companies try to push this entrepreneurship. Especially, now with Aryaka, I'm working very near with the co-founder of Aryaka and CTO, Ashwath. In a lot of things, I have the feeling that we are evaluating things similarly, and also, think similarly. And, as I'm not reporting primarily to him, I have a very warm and good feeling that we will find a good way here.
Shashi: I took you down the walk, down the memory lane. If I were to take you forward maybe a couple of decades out into the future, what do you think your ideal retirement scenario is going to be?
Dennis Monner: I love to move things, that is also one of my drivers, and I love really making a move with people who also wants to make a difference and succeeding together in doing so. As long I can do that and have success together with a great team, that's give me a very, very good feeling. That's make me happy. That's actually how I can say it. I have a little bit, my feeling, that I also move things around to a very old age. I like to work. I like to be an entrepreneur. I hope that I still have 20, 25 years to work. What I will do after these years? I don't know. We will see.
Shashi: Yeah. My take is you're not going to get retired anytime soon, Dennis. It's been wonderful catching up with you and having this conversation,
Dennis. Thank you so much for your time. What are you going to go do next? Is it another meeting, or meditation, or a power nap?
Dennis Monner: I think it's another meeting, at this time.
Shashi: Okay, okay. I wish you a good day. Thanks again for coming on board this podcast. Auf wiedersehen, Dennis.
Dennis Monner: Thank you very much, Shashi.
Note: The transcripts of the podcasts may not be fully accurate. Please excuse any grammar and spelling issues.