Show 92 – Unicorn CEOs – Poppy Gustafsson OBE, CEO of Darktrace

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This was the first in a special series of episodes that we’re recording in partnership with the European PR agency Tyto and their own ‘Without Borders’ podcast, where we are interviewing European Unicorn CEOs, asking them ten set questions to find out about the key issues, pain points and challenges that European start-ups face and how they can address them with a strategic approach to marketing and communications.

Russell Goldsmith was joined by Tyto’s founder, Brendon Craigie, to co-host this and the other episodes that we’ll be recording in this series.

Our first guest of the series was Poppy Gustafsson OBE, CEO of Darktrace.

Interviewing Poppy Gustafsson

Recording online with (top) Poppy Gustafsson, Russell Goldsmith and (bottom) Brendon Craigie

Founded in 2013, Darktrace is recognised as the world’s leading cyber security AI company and under Poppy’s leadership, the company has reached a $1.6bn valuation in under five years.

Poppy said that six and a half years ago, she paid the £15 to incorporate the legal entity that is Darktrace Ltd and so from zero employees back them, they now have around 1200 employees today, with offices in 43 locations around the world. She added that it has been a phenomenal success and one that she’s hugely proud of, but that it speaks volumes for the power of the technology that sits at the heart of what they do. She said that in her office she has a team of incredible AI experts – around 40 PhD mathematicians and that what they have built is truly world class, and so she thinks the success of Darktrace reflects their capability.

Poppy is actually joint CEO alongside Nicole Eagan, and the two of them run the business in partnership. Nicole is based at America with Poppy in Cambridge, UK. Poppy explained that she is a mathematician and chartered accountant and so is very much a data and numerical person, whereas Nicole’s background is marketing and so she is very experienced in the market positioning and understanding the customer’s needs and how they translate that into their product roadmap. They therefore have very complementary skill sets and so Poppy said that she wouldn’t step into Nicole’s shoes and likewise Nicole couldn’t necessarily fill Poppy’s.

Poppy said that she always knew she’d be doing something that’s analytical and data led and loves the mathematical ties as that’s where her heart is set. But didn’t necessarily think it would be in cyber security

Poppy was recently announced as Businesswoman Award 2019 by Veuve Clicquot and Businesswoman of the Year from the UK Tech Awards 2019, plus, Darktrace picked up the Artificial Intelligence Award at the 2019 Lloyds Bank Business Awards.  She said that these are all huge validations for everything that they do and the power of their technology and brilliant brains that come together to build Darktrace.

  1. How has becoming a unicorn changed the perception of your company?

Poppy thinks that people from the outside often look at your business and think you have been working towards becoming a Unicorn, but that’s absolutely not the case. From the very founding days of Darktrace, they wanted to build a cyber security business that was challenging the status quo and doing something different, which is something that they have done throughout their history. Becoming a unicorn was incredible validation and it meant that they knew that they were approaching this in the right way and one that people understood and resonated with, but it wasn’t what they set out to do. They want to be deployed across the world in as many different verticals, helping as many different businesses that they possibly can, both in the public and private sector, which still remains their goal. Reaching that unicorn along the way is brilliant validation but it’s not their raison d’être.

Poppy said that being a Unicorn has opened doors though.  It demonstrates that you are a significant player and that you are able to have the global reach and influence that you want, but it is not just about marketing and positioning. You are actually going out there and delivering on your promises. So, it does give me some significant validation and access as a consequence of that.

  1. As a tech start-up whose origins are in Europe rather than Silicon Valley, what’s been your approach to raising awareness and differentiating yourself in such a noisy and crowded area?

Poppy thinks Darktrace is still very differentiated today in that they have a fundamentally different approach. She said that cyber security has typically been all about identifying the bad guy, trying to second guess the attack of the future, and then trying to identify that within businesses that they’re projecting. At Darktrace, however, they are doing something fundamentally different. Their co-founders were responsible for protecting many of the UK’s assets, whether it’s critical national infrastructure or energy supply, for example, and were getting tired of walking up and down the country and banging on the doors of these national assets and saying, “will you please sort out your cybersecurity”.  They wanted to set up a business that started with the assumption that at some point that breach was inevitable. She added that we should all be undertaking endeavours to try and keep those bad guys off the network. But at some point, someone is going to get in and so how do you identify them as and when that occurs? That is still quite a rare position to be within the market. So, what Darktrace does is sit within an organisation and learns its unique digital thumbprint.  She added that only by knowing what makes that business unique can you then spot the behavioural changes that will emerge as a consequence of the cyber breach. That was the power of their AI and from there, when they made their very first sale in 2013, to Drax Power, the largest UK energy supplier, that was the point they decided to take that over into the US, when they hired a Head of Sales in the US and then they just grew the business thereafter.

  1. American start-ups are working in one huge monolingual market. European start-ups need to address stakeholders in different countries, each with their own language and culture. How have you approached that challenge?

Poppy thinks that’s something that UK businesses have to their advantage because they have to learn how to trade internationally right from the start, whereas businesses born in the US are used to a far more homogenous market. Having Nicole in the US, however, as an American, living in America, was fundamental to their success in the US.  Nicole’s knowledge and experience in marketing in US industries was world class and so Poppy said they wouldn’t have been able to achieve that without her.

Poppy added that they have had to learn and adapt to different cultures.  Very early on, you’re excited that you’ve made your first sale, you’re growing your team in the US and you think ‘I’m going to go out there and win the large multinational banks on day one because I’m excited and we’ve got so much momentum behind us’. However, Poppy said that they decided in those early years to actually try and stay away from those types of organisations because they become this huge, long, protracted sales cycle and a massive distraction. Instead, they decided to shift the focus towards getting their business model right – being able to prove it in as many different segments as they possibly could rather than investing all of those in one basket and that has proved to be really successful for them. It meant that after a couple of years, they could shift their focus to winning the large multinationals, which they do and now are a significant part of what they do today. But poppy thinks that was a consequence of perhaps some of the mistakes they made very, very early on, which was getting very excited about those large tech organisations when perhaps they weren’t ready.

The positive approach that the show, however, is something that she personally feels quite strongly about because she believes that people are just tired of cybersecurity being that thing that companies are being nagged with employees being told off for using their Facebook password on their corporate emails, etc.  Poppy loves all the excitement and innovation that it can bring, whether it’s moving part of your network over to the cloud or whether it’s just having an Internet connected coffee machine that you can pre-order your coffees on. She therefore wants businesses to be free to bring all of the advantages that this technology can bring into our world, but whilst knowing that, if the worst were to happen, you would still be protected. Poppy therefore sees cybersecurity is an enabler that allows us to benefit from all of the innovation that’s happening all around us.

  1. How do you build company culture in such a fast moving and high growth environment?

Poppy thinks the culture at Darktrace is very much one of optimism, ambition and the very high standards of excellence that they all hold each other to. She said that business is nothing more than the bringing together of a selection of individuals, all with a common goal. So, the culture is defined by the people that you bring in. Therefore, it’s all about that hiring – bringing on people that reflect the principles that you want to reflect to the outside world and training them and investing in employees. If you get that right, the culture will remain.

Poppy said that even as the company has grown, the culture is not prescribed and there are no set of rules, but she thinks that some of the principles that they run the business by mean it naturally occurs. For example, they consider themselves to be a meritocracy. So, for a business that’s only six years old, time served isn’t something that’s really relevant to them. Therefore, they will always make sure that they are promoting the people that are the best in the job. It’s not a ‘you have been here for x years, therefore you qualify for a promotion’. It’s, ‘you’ve really stood out at doing this thing amazingly, we think you’re the right person to be the next leader of this business’, and that really resonates. She gave an example of a young woman called Eleanor, who Poppy described as incredibly successful with the commercial team in London, but who wanted to move back to South Africa.  Eleanor had asked if she would be able to go away and set up her own part of Darktrace in South Africa? However, at that point, it wasn’t necessarily a particular target market for the company, but the opportunity was there, she wanted to do it and so she was allowed to go and set up a phenomenally successful business there, which is her own part of business that she set up and brought her own ambition and enthusiasm and energy to. Poppy added that that part of the business is a huge success, doing phenomenally well and so being able to replicate that and spot the talented individuals and pull them up and allow them to make part of the business their own, supported by the more global Darktrace infrastructure, has been really key to driving that ambition and showing that ambition, enthusiasm and energy will bring you results. So, it’s not just a consequence of time served.

  1. How do you navigate the need to communicate with individuals and parts of the company versus addressing the entire team?

Poppy said that this is an interesting challenge because, very early on, you literally know who everyone is by name and then very quickly, that gets away from you and so making sure that people still feel part of that common business and get the chance to hear your vision and your voice and what it is that you care about is really important. So, they have employee webinars regularly where they will have the opportunity to pull all the employees together and make sure they talk about just a reflection on the past month and what they are doing and what other employees with the organisation are up to, what their goals and objectives are and the successes that they have seen. They also have events, whether it’s Christmas parties or summer drink, which are an opportunity to bring the employees together, which she said is really important and necessary to make sure that people in the sales team are meeting people in the development team and they are having a conversation with people that they may be seeing on e-mail, but not necessarily face to face.

Poppy thinks that she has probably changed the way that she communicates as an individual. She said that in the early days, when there was a handful of people sat in a room, or even up to about 100 employees, it’s quite easy to get together and say, ‘look, I think we’re going to try and do this. I’m not quite sure how it’s going to play out. If it goes wrong, it’s going to look a little bit like this. But let’s go for it and if we start seeing the early signs that something’s not working, then we will of course correct’.  However, Poppy said that you can’t have that conversation when it’s 1200 employees. Your communication has to be far more absolute, and black & white, because by the time it’s filtered down through the business, you cannot allow any interpretation of anything that’s not quite or not well-defined enough. So, her own personal communication style has changed to be far more absolute than perhaps it wasn’t in the earlier days. She does still consult, but that tends to be in a smaller group than perhaps in the early years.

  1. How do you view your role as an external spokesperson, and representative of the business and what you have learnt along the way?

Poppy said they have always been an advocate for challenging the status quo, like approaching cybersecurity in a way that hasn’t been approached before, adding that the fact that they talk very positively about cybersecurity is a real enabler for business rather than something that’s necessarily holding it back. She said they are therefore quite used to having a slightly contrary view. She feels it is part of her role, to represent that and talk about their approach to the business.

Poppy said that one of the things that they are now celebrated for and are very good at is gender diversity.  The organisation has 40 percent women, which she said is very unheard of for the tech sector. It wasn’t something that they necessarily set out to achieve, she thinks it’s just been a consequence of their natural approach, which is always to try and just do things differently and not inherit the preconceptions of the way that things have been done in the past. So, making sure that they continue to challenge the way that things have been done before is one of her roles.

 The gender balance has also had an impact on the company culture and communications.  Poppy thinks that it is probably no coincidence that having two female CEOs makes a difference, but they never set up to achieve that and didn’t have any quotas. They just hired the best people but have naturally ended up becoming a real champion for gender diversity, which she feels quite proud of. However, all of their employees feel really, really proud of that too – both female and male and Poppy added that a lot of them are really proud to be part of an organisation that champions talent regardless of backgrounds, which has become part of the culture at Darktrace.

  1. Have you always been a natural communicator, or did you have to formulate a plan to get better at it?

Poppy said she knows she talks too fast. But there are skills to communicating externally that you get taught along the way and so she’s had to slow down, but she is aware that she still speaks very quickly. But she said what has been key is that often what they are communicating is something that’s very, very deeply technical and something they might be communicating to a non-technical audience.

Therefore, translating what they are doing in a way that can be understood and consumed has been key to clear communications and the way that they have achieved that is through using analogies. For example, they are very strong at using biological analogies in what we do – the core product is called Enterprise Immune System because it replicates the human immune system. Poppy thinks that’s been a fundamental part of the way they describe their business.   She added that when you’re immersed in something for every waking minute of the day, you start to feel that everyone knows this knowledge because it’s such part of what you do. Learning how to describe that in a better way has been something that has been a big learning experience for her.

Poppy also encourages feedback and other people’s opinions.  She said that feedback comes from a lot of places and that she continues to get reflections on her communication, whether it’s when she is speaking at conferences or to investors, who she said are not backwards in coming forward about reflections on that. She said it should absolutely be listened to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always right.  For example, she said that when she gets feedback from the external world, it might be ‘that’s not the way it’s been done before. You should be doing it like this’. She therefore, will always listen to that, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right and when you’re walking a path that hasn’t been done before, by definition, you are doing something new and so it is about understanding how other businesses have achieved that is really important as a benchmark and as a guideline. But you’ve also got to be aware that it’s not necessarily the right answer.

When it comes to feedback internally from employees, Poppy said that Darktrace doesn’t have a formal structure in place, no upward feedback. However, she said that she is surrounded by people that she has worked with for six and a half years and they have been in the trenches of the business in the early days, people that she knows and trusts and so having the trust that they will feedback to her and be honest is really important.

  1. What’s been the biggest communications challenge you’ve faced along the way?

Poppy said that training has been a challenge – how do they bring in all of the people that they need to and teach them the talents to communicate what it is that they do and how get them to articulate the problems that they are solving? She added that cyber security is something that there is a huge skills deficit in and that the speed of which our technology landscape is changing is far faster than the number of human beings that are coming into the industry. So, there is just not enough people to keep up. Therefore, they have had to grow those skills in-house. They have to spot those people and bring them in and teach them the skills that they need to be able to do their job.

As well as the help that humanising their story brings and making it exciting and inspiring, Poppy feels that there is a humility in the approach as well.  She said that the people that they are talking to tends to be Chief Information Security Officers, who are tired of having people come to them and tell them how important cyber security is. They know how important cyber security is! It’s their bread and butter – what they do day in and day out. Therefore, Darktrace try not to do that. They do want to be the people that are wagging the finger at them. Instead, they come in and say, ‘You know your business, you know your challenges, but we know our products and let us show it to you. And then let’s think about the ways in which it can help you on your journey’. They are therefore moving away from slightly tedious lecturing to just showing the thing that she is so passionate about and Poppy said that that is the thing that they have been part of in creating, that’s been really important to change in the rhetoric in some of those conversations.

  1. What’s been the best piece of advice you’ve ever got on communications?

Poppy said that it’s been about having really good strong analogies that convey what it is that you do and what it is that you’re passionate about to articulate their story and vision.

  1. If you were to go back in time and speak to your old self, what guidance would you give yourself about communications and what steps would you encourage yourself to take in order for you and your business to excel in communications?

Poppy said that she is bringing a lot of young and ambitious people on board today and for some of them, they will be going out and doing their first foray into public speaking. She would therefore say to them that there are many people that are very, very talented natural communicators, but public speaking is also something that you can learn just through experience and enjoying the engagement with the audience. It is a talent that can be learned over time. When it comes to more broader communications, she thinks that honesty is always the best policy. Never try to bluff or bravado, but just speak from the heart saying what you know. That means that you will build up a really credible and honest relationship with your audience, whether it’s employees or external.


After our chat with Poppy, Brendon added that he felt you get a sense of her enthusiasm and energy and he can just only imagine that that’s very infectious for anyone who comes into contact with the company and with her.  The other thing that he was struck by was the real focus on trying to humanise their message, using lots of analogies and metaphors in order to take their story to a wider audience and not get too bogged down in the technology, which is something that he thinks unfortunately a lot of technology companies struggle with.

At the end of the podcast, we also spoke to Brendon about their PR Without Borders model.  He said that Tyto in the business of helping companies to solve business challenges through the power of communications and in terms of addressing that, one of the things that they identified when they were setting up the company was that they really wanted to have a diversity of perspective involved in their business and involved in the advice they are providing to clients. So, they established the agency around an interesting and innovative model whereby they have a team of people that work together across multiple European countries in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, working in their own little silos but all working together as one team. He added that the second thing is that the lines between PR and marketing have really blurred and so when they talk about PR Without Borders, it’s both a geographic sense of working across borders, but also about working across different communications disciplines and ultimately what they mean is they bring a diversity of perspective and a diversity of approaches to every problem that they encounter.

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