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How ReliaQuest went from bootstrapped startup to unicorn status

Mark Parker

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Jen Consalvo (left), co-founder of Established, talks with Brian Murphy, founder of ReliaQuest, at the Startup of the Year Summit. Screengrab.

From nearly a decade of bootstrapping to reaching the coveted unicorn status late last year with a valuation over $1 billion, Tampa-based ReliaQuest’s CEO Brian Murphy knows what it takes to make a startup successful.

Murphy shared what he has learned since founding the cloud-based cybersecurity firm in 2007 with fellow entrepreneurs at Wednesday’s highly anticipated Startup of the Year Summit. Now in its ninth year, the event is hosted by Embarc Collective and highlights rising startups from the Tampa Bay region and throughout the country. The event is held virtually and in-person at Sparkman Wharf in Tampa.

Jen Consalvo, co-founder and co-CEO of Established, led the conversation with Murphy Wednesday morning. Established is a consulting company and organizes Startup of the Year. Murphy began their discussion by stating that ReliaQuest now boasts 800 team members and adds 70-80 people a month. The company has surpassed the $100 million recurring revenue mark and grows 70-80% annually.

As Consalvo then pointed out, that success was not always the case.

Said Murphy: “We’re a 15-year overnight success.”

Murphy explained that when he started the company in 2007, it looked much different than it does today. Back then, ReliaQuest focused on time-based, large network engineering projects. Murphy said his team of 12 did pretty well until September of 2008.

Longstanding financial institution Bear Stearns collapsed, the first domino to fall in what would become a global financial crisis.

“I think we lost $250,000 of receivables right around the 15th of September …,” said Murphy. “That was one of our kind of look-in-the-mirror moments as a business.”

The ensuing financial crisis led to Murphy cash advancing credit cards and taking out a second mortgage on his home. Undeterred, Murphy and a small team – some who are with the company to this day – found a way to stay afloat. The company secured a small information assurance gig in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan, supporting military subcontractors.

With no prior military experience, Murphy relied on Google to understand acronyms and terminology.

“We just figured it out,” he said. “And along the way, some people showed us some grace, and here we are today.”

Murphy said the transformation in scale began by repeatedly asking what problem ReliaQuest was trying to solve, and the answer was visibility. He said, “if you can’t see it, you can’t secure it,” and most enterprises only secure 30-40% of their data and information.

Murphy called that a scary problem to solve and believes in eliminating “high time and low brain” activities. ReliaQuest patented its first technology in 2012 on that belief and bootstrapped for nine years before raising outside capital in 2016.

“So, we built so much of our IP on a shoestring budget,” said Murphy. “Nights and weekends and banging on customers’ doors.”

Murphy knew that the first large customer would lead to the next, and if he listened to their problems and focused on finding novel solutions, ReliaQuest would be successful. Instead of taking the typical, mostly unsuccessful approaches, Murphy said Reliaquest’s technology turned cybersecurity “on its head.”

Murphy said his first approach to solving problems is removing emotion and stepping away. Whether that means taking a night or a couple of days off, he said the goal is getting neutral as quickly as possible.

“Don’t be negative, don’t be positive, but get somewhere right in the middle,” he added. “And go back to that question, what problem am I solving for?”

Murphy said he takes names and faces out of the equation and accepts that things will always go wrong in life. He told the crowd of entrepreneurs that his father, a retired diesel mechanic, explained to him that if something has a moving part, it will eventually break. Additionally, he said the first thing you fix is usually not the problem.

“I’ve always carried that as an operator, and just understanding that this is part of it,” said Murphy. “If you want your name on buildings, if you want to grow, if you want customers – stuff is going to go bad.”

Murphy’s last piece of advice to the room full of entrepreneurs was to share the quote that “comparison is the enemy of joy.” While the participating startups compete against each other, he said the individual focus should be on getting better. He reiterated the importance of focusing on what you can control, like expanding their network of founders, capital partners and advisors at the summit.

Murphy said raising capital is important and beneficial, but that it’s just one aspect of creating a successful company. He said business leaders should look at their companies holistically, and focus on what they can do to improve in many areas over the next two days.

“Only I know what I need; only I know what I’m avoiding; only I know what I’m delaying,” added Murphy. “And that kind of accountability is brutal, but so is being an entrepreneur.”

 

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