From Academic Underdog to Founding Million-Dollar Startup BreachLock

From Academic Underdog to Founding Million-Dollar Startup BreachLock

Written by S.Sehgal, founder and CEO, BreachLock

It’s been almost two years since I founded BreachLock in late 2018. From being the worst-performing student in school to fostering the persistence that would let me build my own million-dollar startup in both the USA and Europe, it’s been quite a journey. Although I am no expert at entrepreneurship, the experience I share here stems from real life events. I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time with board members of Fortune 100 corporate giants. I have seen the bright and not-so-bright side of a corporate career, and I have used that experience to build a profitable startup.

I come from a humble background, having had a happy childhood growing up in a small town in northern India away from the aspirations of metropolitan life. My parents provided me with everything that was necessary to build a great future, but I want to share my experience with other aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those who are not considered the ‘brightest’ in their academic studies as they may find some hope in my story. If it was for my academics, I would never have been hired in any job and would never have dared to build a startup. In my experience, academic results are no measure of a human being’s true potential; a score on a paper says nothing about how you will do in real life.

In this article, I will explain the phases of my journey as I experienced them, as I hope that some of you reading this are either planning to take this path, or are in the early stages of your plunge into the professional world, and will find this useful. If you know someone who is feeling pressurized just because they have bad scores, please share this story with them.

The Aspiration

As you step out of school, two words that can describe the phases of life ahead of you are “uncertainty” and “excitement”.  My aspiration to have a strong career was born out of a compulsion. After I graduated, I was presented with a simple choice: stay in the small town where I was born in and eventually take over my father’s medical supply shop, or venture out to build my own path. The first choice was so unattractive for me that I forced myself to choose the latter. I did my postgraduate studies in business school, but don’t get too impressed –  I barely made it into that business school and continued to get average scores throughout my time there.

After I graduated business school, I reflected on my strengths, but the only one I could think of was my presentation skills, so I began applying for software sales jobs. Luckily, by then, I had also developed a passion for computer hacking as a hobby. A combination of my newly-found hobby and the only strength I had landed me my first job at a Cybersecurity startup, but the startup was a disaster and closed down in six months.

Early in my career, I had learned ‘how to not run a startup’ from the first failed company I worked for. This was also the time where I started to realize that building my own business would be exciting. Extremely difficult, but just as rewarding, as well.

The important lesson here is this: analyze your natural strengths in your youth, capitalize on them, and find something that excites you while allowing you to exercise them. If you think that nothing excites you from a professional standpoint, you simply haven’t explored enough. Don’t stop, keep exploring.

The Validation

This step was the longest phase in my entrepreneurial journey, so I hope that for a lot of you this won’t take as long. No, I am not talking of validating your business idea. I am talking about validating your belief in yourself.

A sense of self-belief is a prerequisite to start your journey as an entrepreneur. The moment I started meeting successful people in the corporate world, it was clear to me that I could impress them with my spark. All the professionals who met me in hiring interviews looked at me — not my grades or academic performance. Grades were good enough to land a meeting, but beyond that it was purely my own passion and curiosity that influenced the outcome of their hiring decision.

Over the next sixteen years in this phase of my life, I worked with many large companies. With each job I realized that I was not who my academic scores had defined me to be. I was a different person, exuberating new ideas that could improve businesses, land deals, setup teams and so much more. All of a sudden, I realized the ‘backbencher’ I had been in school was now an upcoming frontrunner in a highly competitive corporate world.

Yes, it was exciting. In this process I also realized that I could build my own business. The belief that I could realize my dream grew over time. The important lesson here is this: building confidence stems from opportunities, experience and success. This takes time. Don’t rush and stay persistent in your pursuit.

Chasing Your Dreams

Once you decide to pursue the entrepreneurial dream, it’s important to start making efforts towards your goal. The easiest place to start is to meet other people who have been there and taken that same journey themselves.

As I made progress in the corporate world, I continued to explore my entrepreneurial journey. I would never pass up a chance to meet the founder of a startup. I would not ask for any favors or jobs. I asked every entrepreneur I met, “tell me about the initial struggles you had and the first steps you took to overcome them? How did it all start?”, and so on.

Their answers inspired me. Some of these exchanges directly contributed to my startup’s success.

This learning continued all through my corporate career. In one such encounter during my early days, I was invited by a CEO of a successful CyberSecurity startup to interview me for a position in his company. As I shook his hand, he asked me what job you are applying for.

“None”, I replied.

“Then why are you here?” He asked.

My reply surprises me to this day.

“I am here to see how a CyberSecurity startup CEO looks and operates, because I want to be one myself someday”. He was very impressed; we had a good chat and he taught me a few things about what it takes to build a business.

The lesson here is that the real world is very different from your school. The ‘real’ world and the people in it measure intelligence very differently compared to most academic metrics in school. If you are not the top brass in school, don’t worry — just give it the best you can to develop your natural strengths. Your future is brighter than your score sheet.

The Golden Handcuffs

I was always exploring new ideas and playing with the latest technology in my free time. For almost ten years there was not a weekend that I didn’t spend working on my ideas after office hours, let alone without my computer. I would spend my salary on experiments and learning new stuff. In this process I continued to get smarter at my craft. All this while, my corporate career was rocketing towards promotions and success.

Each year my opportunity cost to quit and start a business would go up with my paycheck. I was smart, I was treated well at work, and it showed in my salary. The opportunity cost was growing and so was the comfort of my corporate job. At least, until I realized I felt too comfortable. I had a good job. I was paid well. My colleagues respected me. Even so, I knew I deeply wanted to start my own business, but had no reason to force myself to do so.

The lesson here is that if you are good at what you do, you will be rewarded. It might seem like you are stuck in your comfort zone but don’t give up. Don’t let the fire of your passion die out. Keep stacking cash for your startup and also to protect your family from the risk of your future adventure.

The Plunge

When to start your business? Questions like these took a lot of my research time. Having been in this phase for almost five years, I can tell you that there is no straight answer to this. It will happen when you find your trigger. Either you make the decision, or you get pushed into it.

For many years I would hope that a restructuring in my company would cost me my job and, in this way, I would be forced to start on my own. When you are a top performer, however, that likely won’t happen. It’s fine to wait for a trigger and you will know when it’s there. My friends, colleagues, boss or anyone else who came in contact with me already knew that I wanted to start my business. I told everyone very clearly about my aspirations. My honesty in this regard was always appreciated. This also worked for me psychologically. I took on the hardest challenges in my corporate life thinking anything I pick here is easier than starting my own business. That made me fearless and also contributed to my self-belief.

The turning point for me was my 38th birthday. Much like the starting point of my life, I was at a crossroad with two options: I could start before I turn forty, or dim my chances with the physical, mental, social pressure I would naturally gather when I turn forty. To start after forty sounded unreasonable; impossible, even. I felt that I would always be stuck in that ‘comfort zone’ indefinitely. It took me a year to overcome the fear as I made my final lap in my comfortable corporate job.

Just before I turned thirty-nine, I decided and declared I would build BreachLock. It was that simple. My own trigger was the fear of turning forty and not being able to do something I had wanted to do for decades. It almost felt like I had given away my freedom in exchange for financial security. This was no longer acceptable for me, and I made the plunge.

The lesson here is this: don’t force yourself to timing the decision on when to start. There is only one person who knows when it’s time, and only one person who will feel the maximum impact if this decision backfires. You.

Giving Birth

I once heard a female entrepreneur say, “the closest a man would come to experiencing giving birth to a child is when they start a business.” She was more correct than I knew at the time, and she herself was experienced in both disciplines. Establishing a startup is a very painful process, and one that shouldn’t be attempted if you are not fully convinced that you “want the baby”. If you do, be prepared to grow through the grind.

You give your baby – your business – the vital care and attention it needs. There are days off, no PTO or vacations. While your family and friends support you, they cannot replace you in parenting your child. There is a huge reward in raising this ‘baby’ well, but if it lands in trouble, you feel the pain before anyone else does.

Once you decide to ‘birth your baby’ (i.e., start your business), it will require basic preparation. The first one is finance. You need to ensure that you have at least six months to one-year worth of liquidity in your savings to sustain your family’s lifestyle. They should not feel that they must take a family pay cut just to sponsor your adventure. This takes the pressure off your shoulders and lets you focus on your game. Make sure everyone around you knows what you are getting into. This will help them understand your stress levels and emotions when you act ‘out of character’, even sometimes seemingly without any reason.

Time is your most precious resource in this phase. Your runway is directly proportional to the cash you have in your bank. The other aspect of financing is putting money into your business. The biggest tip I can share here is to focus on your customers and why they should pay you. You can finance your business from any source, but if you don’t make any profit, don’t call it a ‘business’.

The second aspect you need to focus on is sustainability. Make sure your decisions pass this test. While you focus on your business idea, it’s easy to overlook the nitty-gritties around your company’s structure, bookkeeping, trademarks, contracts, terms of use, legal obligations and compliance, just to name a few factors of a sustainable business model. These aspects will take a lot of your time and are best handled in the early phase of your venture. In many cases, ignoring these aspects may cost you substantial funds, immense stress, or even your entire business. They are not meant to be exciting. They are part of what comes with running a business, and you need to learn to live with them.

The third biggest tip I can share is imbibing perseverance. Your entrepreneurial journey will throw so many bricks at you that it requires near-insane amounts of perseverance to stay the course.  When you get hit by these bricks – and you will get hit – recover from the hit, get up, pick the brick and use it to build your castle. The bricks here represent unfavorable circumstances. Use them as a learning opportunity and fuel your growth by overcoming them.

The only guaranteed reward in this journey will be the satisfaction that you acted to realize your true potential. With passion and perseverance, you can reach any target you set, and you almost always have another shot until you give up. The lesson here is: get your finances in order, focus on sustainability, and nurture passion and perseverance as your biggest strengths.

I hope this article helps you in your journey. Your growth as a human being and your entrepreneurial ambition are two sides of the same coin. You will never regret the pursuit to build your own path, no matter what the outcome looks like. Fall in love with the journey.

About BreachLock

BreachLock offers a unique SaaS platform delivering on-demand, continuous and scalable security testing suitable for modern cloud and DevOps powered businesses. The BreachLock platform leverages both human-powered penetration testing and AI-powered automated scans to create a powerful and easy to use solution that delivers continuous and on-demand vulnerability management. BreachLocks’s modern SaaS-based approach redefines the old school and time-consuming pen test model into fast and comprehensive security as service. As a result, CIO’s and CISO’s get a single pane view into their application and network security posture. The BreachLock platform facilitates collaboration between your DevOps and BreachLock security researchers empowering them to fix security gaps at the speed of business.

John Norwood
John Norwood is best known as a technology journalist, currently at Ziddu where he focuses on tech startups, companies, and products.