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How to take your company from startup to unicorn

Cybersecurity entrepreneur Brian Murphy built a company from nothing to a valuation of more than $1 billion. His road there had "no pause button."

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  • | 5:00 a.m. December 2, 2022
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My story is different than what you hear from most technology founders.

I didn’t graduate from (or drop out of) an Ivy League school like Harvard or Stanford. I went to Florida State University. I grew up in a small town outside Jacksonville, having no idea what entrepreneurship was except for what I saw on TV.  I didn’t relocate to Silicon Valley to start ReliaQuest.

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I started ReliaQuest in Tampa when I was 30. I boot-strapped the company with credit cards and second mortgages for nine years without outside capital. I’ve never missed a payroll, other than my own, and I’ve never not made a shareholder a return.

If I had to summarize 15 years of experience, I would center on three things that have helped me:


1. Stay focused.

Regardless of size or scale make sure you “go to the ground” frequently. Get on the front lines of the business and avoid buying in to the strategy trap. It is possible to take your business to the next level, but it will be hard. It is supposed to be hard. Talk to someone who knows what it is like to grow a team to thousands of revenue or to hundreds of millions, and they will tell you more stories of their missteps and mistakes than they will of their conquests and greatness.

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I’ve learned that if you are willing to do the things that others aren’t willing to do, you can grow a great business over time. There are no shortcuts, and, in my opinion, there are no “big ideas,” but rather an endless number of small choices and decisions that steer a company and its team through growth over time. Stay in the weeds of the business, and never let your title confuse the fact that success comes by being a hands-on operator.


2. Be decisive.

When faced with an idea, issue, or opportunity I start by asking; “What problem are we solving for?” Once we have identified the problem and have a decision to make, I apply the three-question decision making criteria I’ve used to grow ReliaQuest from start up to current day: Is this decision good for ReliaQuest (our team); is this decision good for the customer; and is this decision good for the shareholder? If we can’t answer yes to all three, we never go with that option or idea. It sounds simple, but simple things are seldom easy. Get in the habit of making quality decisions with limited information and own the results. If you’re afraid to lose, you can’t win.


3. Listen to the customer.

Don’t ask the customer what they want — instead try to understand the core problem or pain they are solving for, and build to that. I’ve learned that if we step back and really try to understand the problem enterprise security teams are solving for, we will build technology that matters to the customer. Don’t chase trends, fads or buzzwords. Be curious and listen. Over the years our customers have helped us scale and have been there through both good and bad ideas and economies.

ReliaQuest is only successful because of our teammates, our customers and our partners.  Cybersecurity, in my opinion, is the greatest technical challenge of our generation, and passing “unicorn” status was just another point in time as we continue to innovate and problem-solve for the customer. (A unicorn is Silicon Valley lingo for a startup or business with a valuation of at least $1 billion.) 

My entrepreneurial journey has been about “chasing possible,” and it’s been more painful than rewarding for most of the past 15 years. But seeing what groups of people can accomplish together is amazing and worth all the work. In my experience, there is no balance and no pause button. You must sell out to your business —burn the lifeboats and go all in — and at the end of the day, if you see an opportunity, you have to go get it. It is never as good as you think and never as bad as you think, but it is always possible. Building a company is hard on the people that love you the most, and I am fortunate that my wife of almost 18 years is stronger than I am; she makes it possible.


Brian Murphy. (Courtesy photo)

Brian Murphy is the founder and CEO of ReliaQuest. The Tampa-based firm is the force multiplier of security operations, increases visibility, reduces complexity and manages risk with its cloud native security operations platform, GreyMatter.


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