Serial entrepreneur Alon Cohen co-founded and grew one of the world’s first cyber security startups, CyberArk, which eventually became a ‘unicorn’. Now, he serves as co-founder and chairman of the board of Intezer—and his perspective on leadership hasn’t changed.
“There’s no doubt that my long and exciting journey of 15 years building CyberArk with my high school friend and partner Udi Mokady taught me a lot about the main challenges in building a global company and where you should put your priorities. In general, though, I believe that my main principles have stayed the same.”
With his notable experience, Cohen has plenty of valuable advice for entrepreneurs.
“Your top priorities as a founder & CEO is to pick the right people, build the team spirit, set the vision and set the pace. Trying to grow too fast is the biggest mistake people are doing. You need to grow your company with your market; otherwise, you’ll burn all your resources while the market is not mature enough. Your job as the leader is to set the pace and set the right expectations both internally and at the Board level.”
As an entrepreneur, his focus has been on building successful teams, on developing innovative products, and on anticipating market needs.
“All these elements are crucial for success. I tried to stay close to all of them—especially at an early stage. As mentioned, however, I believe that building the team and its spirit is the main success factor, so I tried to put a lot of my focus there. Personally, technology is my passion, and I tend to stay pretty close to the product and the technology side even as the company grows. But eventually you find that you have no choice but to let it go. At some point, you need to set the vision and the high-level product strategy and let your people take it from there.”
He first met Intezer’s founders, Itai and Roy, through a mutual contact from the military.
“A longtime friend and former soldier of mine became the head of the IDF Computer Academy, where both Itai and Roy served for a couple of years; she thought that I had to meet these guys and arranged that introduction.”
The company’s approach to cyber security strongly resonated with Cohen.
“Intezer was some kind of a miracle. For many years, I felt that the industry must go in that direction—that we have no choice but to replicate the concepts of the biological immune system and implement them for the cyber security world. This is the only adaptive and flexible paradigm that can deal with the level of sophistication of modern threats that are advanced, persistent and originating from government or well organized crime groups.”
It was a serendipitous first meeting–and it marked the beginning of a new startup journey.
“When Itai and Roy came to my office and showed me their technology, it was like a ‘boom,’—I felt, wow, this is exactly what I was looking for! We sat together over a couple of months working on the details, and came up with precisely what I was dreaming of: an Enterprise Immune System that can take cyber security a huge step forward.”
If cyber security is a digital war of ‘good versus evil’, will the good guys ultimately prevail? (Cohen’s cautious response should give us all pause.)
“Unfortunately, I’m not truly optimistic on this front. Cyber security is an enormously difficult challenge. An enterprise environment is extremely dynamic and complex, making the life of the attacker much easier than the life of the defender. I believe that this is going to be a never-ending battle, in which your goal as an enterprise is to always be ahead of your enemy. But this isn’t easy when your enemy is, in many cases, a foreign government or an organized well-funded crime group that has decided to specifically focus on you. I guess we will always see enterprises that couldn’t meet the challenge and got hit.”
There’s much at stake in this industry. It’s no wonder there are more than a few things that keep Cohen up at night.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to deal with so many challenges in parallel that it’s really hard to sleep. You need to find the right people and manage to retain them; you need to find money; you need to beat your competitors; you need to please your customers; and the toughest part, you need to keep your investors happy and supportive. Sleeping well is somehow a luxury.”
Yet he believes the future of cyber security is exciting for a number of reasons.
“The challenge is big, the budgets are growing (and always will), and the subject matter is extremely interesting. You work with the brightest people, you fight against the brightest people, and you use the smartest technology and techniques. In other words, in cyber you have no choice but to always use all your brainpower, and for me that is exciting.”
A multidisciplinary entrepreneur, Cohen also has founded data storage and media companies, and is the author of a historical suspense novel. He shared what it’s like to lead and create across so many domains.
“I do find myself juggling between multiple areas and sectors, but this is what I like in what I’m doing: I like the diversity and the variety of challenges. While these areas of my expertise may sound far from one another, as a technology entrepreneur, there is a huge similarity in what you have to do regardless of the specific domain. You need to identify a real problem, you need to find the right technology to solve it, you need to build the team to accomplish it. First and foremost, however, you need to sell: to potential investors, employees and customers. Whether this is a data storage company or a cyber security company, the basic elements are very much the same.”