Overcoming the pressures of cybersecurity startup leadership

In this Help Net Security interview, Kunal Agarwal, CEO at Dope Security, offers a look into the CEO’s leadership philosophy, the process of building a high-caliber team, and the unique challenges of navigating a startup in the tech industry.

Dope Security was recently featured in our 10 cybersecurity startups to watch in 2024 roundup.

cybersecurity startup leadership

What is your leadership philosophy as a CEO, and how has it evolved since you started the company?

I’m a big believer in an anti-exec mentality: individuals who are hands-on leaders rather than mid-level managers and non-technical people. If you aren’t deep into the subject matter, how will you converse or make decisions on the same wavelength?

I’ve already burned my fingers (even at Dope Security), so I am now even more particular that everyone should have the passion to know their work carries a special signature and be proud of it.

From there, we can do anything!

What was your approach in assembling your initial team, and how did you ensure they shared your vision and commitment?

The initial team was ultimately engineering. The culture fit was easier because all of them had worked with me for years, so we already had a great working style already. Most importantly, they shared my sleepless nights, interest in improving things, and attention to detail at Forcepoint and Symantec.

When Dope Security came about, each knew it was time to come together and do this big. Of course, they all had families so I took the time to speak with their families to convince them of our collective confidence. They were each born to do this and their talent shouldn’t be anywhere else!

Leading a startup is often described as a lonely journey. How do you deal with the pressure?

That’s completely true, but I’m a little lucky… the core team is really close to me, and whenever those special moments happen where you need to talk to someone, I can call any of them up. Typically, I’ll ring Amar, who leads Finance and Marketing, to help run through a problem or situation I might be going through. He and I have known each other for 20 years, so it’s easy to be open about it.

In most cases, I always try to overcome challenges and not obsess over an issue. If it’s a problem, we can solve it and move on. If people (such as investors) are overly worried, there’s only so much I can do to manage expectations. At some point, you have to say “onward”!

Aidan (Head of PM) always reminds me, “Kunal, up with the posies, down with the neggies!”

Being a leader can also be all-consuming. How do you manage work-life balance, and what advice would you give other CEOs?

Yes. I’m not married / have kids myself, so it’s a little easier for me to manage life expectations with the work requirements. I’ve been traveling for a few weeks, so it’s certainly not “easy”.

1. I avoid using my laptop on the weekend and spend time with friends and family instead.

2. The time you spend on something doesn’t always impact quality or completeness. Usually, I’ll “timebox” an item or “set and forget” with one of the leads so that it isn’t on my plate. Detail is good, but sometimes you can leave it alone!

Overall, the venture is a different complexity because there’s always that external pressure, high burn rates, and time-to-live.

How do you ensure that your company maintains a competitive edge?

We started with a “Fly Direct” secure web gateway, differentiated by no data center stopover architecture and beautiful user experience. From here, we’re expanding to CASB Neural (which uses LLMs to do data loss prevention) and private access (again, no data center stopover).

But that’s a very high-level, customer-centric view of our product trilogy. Ultimately, our competitive edge comes from our engineering and product mentality. It’s not impossible for someone to eventually say this themselves, but how we build Dope Security is just as important as what we build.

Our team builds with the mindset of reducing support tickets, reduction of manual QA or deployment work, and reduction of the MVP feature… this enables us to have the focus to evolve and be competitive constantly.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs interested in starting a cybersecurity company?

There’s no harm in learning the ropes at a big company. I always say that I went to UC Berkeley for my undergraduate studies and the University of California for my postgraduate studies. You can discover mentors, technology, customer interaction, and how to build better.

Separately, consider if you can derive the “innovation” or “ownership” excitement inside an organization – leaving and starting a company is not the only path to fulfillment!

Last, relationships are everything – from raising money, hiring your team, building the product, and selling it. If you want to start a company, the folks that believe and vouch for you will make or break it!

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