We interviewed Alan Calder, CEO and founder of Vigilant Software, to find out what it’s like to be in charge of a growing software company and what advice he would give other aspiring CEOs out there.
Interviewer: Hello and welcome, today we are here with Alan Calder, CEO and founder of Vigilant Software.
Hi Alan, thank you for joining us, please can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Alan: Ok, so I set Vigilant Software up in about 2006/ 2007 in partnership with another organisation who had some software developers. We had a joint vision about the role of risk assessment in the world of IT governance, risk management and compliance. We stuck with the vision they went off and did somewhere else and Vigilant Software has been a key part of our business ever since.
Interviewer: Ok thank you, and what would you say has been the most enjoyable part of setting up your company?
Alan: Well, I have never met an entrepreneur yet who actually enjoys what they are doing, I think the drive for setting a company up is never enjoyment or lifestyle or anything like that, there are people for who business is a lifestyle but mostly entrepreneurs do it because you have a vision of a product that fits into a market or something that fits into a niche or something that you are driven to do, and of course having got on and doing it there is not really a lot of pleasure in discovering that nothing ever works the way you want it to or it takes longer than it should, or it isn’t done properly or the customers don’t properly understand it.
I think the truth for most entrepreneurs is that you either have to sell out or die, because the stress of trying to achieve ones vision is not conducive to nice calm, relaxed evenings and weekends.
Interviewer: Right ok, something for other people to consider. What has been your biggest success to date?
Alan: I am assuming that the question relates to Vigilant Software, rather than life generally. The same kind of answer applies mostly entrepreneurs have never been successful, they look forward and think that their greatest success is still to come and most successes they have had were just opportunities to learn new things or reach new plateaus form which you get to climb a little bit higher, so I struggle to identify in any part of my life something which I say is my greatest success to date. There have been some things that have worked kind of well, and Vigilant definitely falls into that group of things that work kind of well, but have got huge opportunities to work way, way, way better in the future.
Interviewer: Ok, thanks. What would you say you like or dislike most about your role? You can pick one or the other to go with?
Alan: Weirdly you would expect people to dislike stress, but if you really disliked the stress that much you would give it up. What is good about a business is being able to drive it in a particular direction, being able to find good, sharp intelligent people who can contribute to turning an idea into a practical working reality and helping them get on with doing that. SO the thing that I get most pleasure out of over a period of time is seeing people come into the business, get to grips with what it is, contribute to the growth of the business and make the business partly a reflection of them and their understanding of the market and the customer.
Interviewer: How would you say you differentiate from your competitors?
Alan: We don’t really think that we have many competitors in Vigilant Software. We are a software business that focuses very specifically on a range of tools, which are designed to help organisations tackle cost effectively issues around implementing governance risk management and compliance processes. Because we come at it from the perspective of trying to meet customer requirements, we quite quickly get to what I believe is called product market fit. We don’t try and sell big expensive platforms that customers don’t think that they want or don’t know whether they want. We just concentrate on giving them things that they do want, and modify and improve the product consistently so that it gets closer and closer to customer requirements. Of course customer requirements evolve because governance, risk management and compliance as a field as a discipline continues evolving so products have to go on changing and adapting to meet those shifting requirements, we think we do that better than anybody else.
Interviewer: Where do you see Vigilant Software being in three years’ time?
Alan: Well, probably not as successful as in three years’ time that I think it should be. But certainly in terms of our plans for Vigilant Software a substantial global business in risk management, compliance and software. Our plans around how we expand our core product range how we add in Compliance Database tools that enable organisations to quickly and easily identify and meet a wide range of information security, environmental, business technology compliance requirements, tools that help them map processes, integrate controls into those and all of that increasingly fitting together in an environment where compliance, managing risk proactively and cost effectively become very easy for clients to do and I see Vigilant Software in three years’ time increasingly leading a market that looks to that sort of software as being an essential part of removing stress and strain from the life of CIOs and CISOs, think of it as a stress exchange, CIOs and CISOs have less stress so that we at Vigilant can have more.
Interviewer: What do you believe is the biggest and most important element of information security today?
Alan: The biggest challenge organisations have with information security is that firstly it is better understood by technologists than business managers generally and secondly that means that business managers don’t make risk based decisions about how security should be managed. The effect of that is organisations often concentrate more on preserving confidentiality and integrity of information and information systems than they do on ensuring availability of information to people inside the organisations and that means that information security is seen fairly widely as a prohibitor or barrier to effective business, when in reality it should be a business enabler. It should be removing conflicts, it should be removing threats to the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information so that organisations can perform better and that’s the biggest challenge that anyone working in information security has is how to tie an effective assessment or a proper assessment of risks into the decisions you make about controls. Of course that is where Vigilant Software has its existence helping organisations help make those kind of decisions quickly, simply and consistently.
Interviewer: What personal attributes do you believe someone has to have to be a CEO?
Alan: Well, patience, I think, is a key virtue although not too much because, you know, otherwise people take advantage of your patience to take longer to get things right, but no one seriously needs patience. Getting products right, helping people succeed, being calm in the face of things going wrong, those are all important parts of being a CEO. There is a quality which is sometimes called stickability which probably sums it up: one has to be able to stick at the task, stick at the vision, stuff goes wrong it doesn’t work, it goes brilliantly right it gets carried away you have to be able to stick to the vision, you have to be agile you have to keep the organisation focused on what it is trying to achieve over three to five years and deal with all of the stuff that gets in the way of doing that. I think that it the key characteristics of CEOs.
Interviewer: What pieces of advice would you give those starting their own technology company?
Alan: The key advice, depends on how much of the company as an entrepreneur you want to give away. I think that there are essentially two ways of starting a tech company. One involves having a vision and getting somebody to produce very large amounts of money, which means that they get to own the company while you have the vision, and you have to turn the vision into something that attracts more and more money as quickly as you can which means that your opportunities to go bust are extensive that is one way of starting tech companies and that is the popular way as people imagine that they will be the next Facebook or Uber or whatever it is. The other way of starting a tech company is to start off with an idea, do some development and start selling it and use your own money for that. That means that you get genuine customer feedback in the form of sales and there is nothing quite like a sale to tell you that your idea if valid, you get genuine customer feedback that you can build into the next iteration of the product, start small and you improve the product expand it out and add features and keep on selling it and you get customers to buy in and you begin to develop an eco-system. If you must raise money that is probably a better point to raise money, you have got a product you know works, you can afford to raise somewhat less money that you might otherwise because your product sells, you can show potential investors that there is a genuine future it’s not all to be taken on risk, hope and prayer. So I think that is the first thing, be clear about how much of the company you want to give away before you get started. The second is be flexible enough to understand that the technology idea you start off with might turn out to be something that nobody wants, or they want something that is different, so the flexibility, agility and honesty enables you to go ‘Ok that was a bad idea let’s just change this and do that and move onto the next thing’ I think is another key part of starting up a technology company. Technology business like any business if they are to be worthwhile need to grow and thrive and that means people need to like the product, want to buy it. The best way of knowing whether the product is valid is that more and more people buy it.
Interviewer: Excellent, thank you very much for your time today Alan we appreciate the insights you have given us.
Alan: Sure thing.