We talked to Michael Argast of Kobalt a cyber security monitoring-as-a-service company, providing continuous monitoring of your cloud, SaaS and corporate environments to ensure security and compliance and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Michael Argast: Like many, it’s been challenging, but I feel fortunate that we haven’t lost anyone and that my wife and I are able to work remotely and safely. It’s a challenge with three kids in and out of school, and I desperately miss being able to visit my parents and family. I’m looking forward to the end of the pandemic and recognize how fortunate we are given the circumstances.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Kobalt.
Michael Argast: I started my career in technical roles – support, system administration, network operations/engineer, and then pivoted into sales engineering and sales leadership roles. The last 20 years of my career have been focused on building and leading distributed teams with a focus on cybersecurity, which has been a wonderful industry to work in.
I had actually semi-retired a number of years ago, running a small consultancy/lifestyle business when I was introduced to my two investors and co-founders at Kobalt. The opportunity to work with them was too great to miss, and I’ve always felt that small and mid-sized firms are painfully underserved in the cybersecurity market. We started the company 2 1/2 years ago and since then have grown the team to 20 staff globally with over 100 clients served in North America. We’re just getting started, but it’s exciting to see something go from an idea to reality.
How does Kobalt innovate?
Michael Argast: Tricky question. I consider innovation across a variety of vectors – pure, technology innovation (we’ve developed software tools that enable us to solve certain aspects of security at scale), service design (pricing and designing services with SMB specifically in mind), sales process (making service acquisition frictionless), go-to-market (how we reach prospects and clients), operations (service excellence at scale). There are a lot of unsolved problems in cybersecurity at the small and mid-sized end of the market, which is why it has been such a traditionally underserved market.
How is more interesting. The key for me has always been to seek feedback from customers and the market and find good ideas from a variety of sources – team members, clients, mentors, reading, and research. Put these ideas through a lens of customer service and value, find the most interesting/exciting ideas, conduct rapid experiments and tight “OODA” loops, and iterate rapidly.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Michael Argast: Surprisingly well, actually. We lost some customers early on whose business was really heavily hit by COVID, but we’d generally focused on small and mid-sized tech firms that have thrived in the rapid acceleration of digital transformation. We were a team of 5 at the start of the pandemic and over 20 today, which means almost our entire team has joined a fully distributed, remote work environment. It’s required investments in culture, tools, community, and it’s not perfect, but I’m always amazed at how the team performs despite the challenges of working in the middle of a pandemic.
We’ve also been blessed to work with a large number of health tech firms who are directly fighting the pandemic – whether that is developing vaccines, supporting front-line health care workers, allowing the adoption of telemedicine. Even non-health tech companies that support everyone else with getting purchases home or let remote teams collaborate more effectively.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Michael Argast: I’d be surprised if there’s an entrepreneur out there who doesn’t have to make difficult choices all the time. Probably the biggest lesson is to make the hard choices early, aggressively support your team as they deal and struggle with change, and be as open and transparent in your communication as possible. I’m fortunate to have a team that really works hard to support our clients and me, and when I ask them, they consistently step up. So being courageous about choices and asking for their support is critical.
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Michael Argast: We’d already had a remote-enabled tech stack – so tools like Slack, Zoom were part of our arsenal from day one. One app we’ve added recently is Mural which solves the “how do we collaborate in front of a white board if we can’t do it in person.” In many ways, Mural is even better for that, offering simultaneous editing, persistence, sharing, templates, etc.
From a management skills perspective, adhering to the principles of Daniel Pink’s Drive – mastery, autonomy, purpose – holds well in a distributed environment. You literally can’t micromanage, so you need to set agreed performance metrics, a shared vision of how to get there, support your team and give them the autonomy to succeed or fail. I’ve personally been managing globally distributed teams for over 15 years, so this has been more natural for me, but it can be harder on the team member themselves who may not have that experience.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Michael Argast: Too many competitors to count. Few address the problem from the perspective and approach we do – being distinct in our client focus, value proposition, service design will carry us a long way. Ultimately, client service and our values will allow us to build a culture that supports our growth ambitions while remaining distinct from our competition. In security for small and mid-sized businesses, however, as such an underserved market, our primary strategy in the short term is ‘grow the market’ by delivering solutions that truly meet their needs.
Your final thoughts?
Michael Argast: Remaining true to our clients, agile in decision making, adaptable in our business operations and process have allowed us to thrive during COVID. We’re fortunate in the sector we play in and the clientele we serve, and I expect that we will come through the pandemic with tremendous strength and momentum. Only by helping our clients do the same will we truly succeed in our mission.
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