Thriving in Troubled Times
Most people would say they prefer an untroubled life. But for Florin Talpes, founder and CEO of Bitdefender, it was trouble that created great opportunities.
In fact, if it had not been for hardship in his native Romania where a 1989 revolution toppled the Ceaușescu government, disrupted his life and caused great uncertainty, then it’s very possible that Talpes would never have established his now-global cybersecurity business.
A default decision
The 1989 revolution and the uncertainties it brought prompted Talpes and his wife Mariuca, both researchers at a government research institution, to evaluate their options. The status quo was a good option. They had stable jobs that could see them through the uncertainty. Or they could take advantage of the opportunities offered by change, quit their jobs and build a company of their own.
At that time, the couple’s twin boys were just three years old. Starting a business in Bucharest “was not a difficult decision. It was one we made by default,” he says.
But they were also realistic – they gave themselves five years. “If that does not work, if we are not able to do it, then we look at other opportunities.”
Starting from a tennis ball
From the beginning, it appeared as though Softwin, the software development company they established, would take a lot of work. The technical aspect came naturally – it was what they did best. Florin had even started his doctorate in math before the revolution.
“The struggle was in executing the business,” he says.
They also had to adopt a customer-centric attitude, something unheard of in the communist bloc. Back then, the customer was not the center of the universe. “Switching mindsets was a significant step forward.”
The first connection was fortuitous. Talpes had a friend who knew somebody in France who had run into a blank wall in coding. He was designing a field tennis game – but the ball would not flow slowly and continuously. He told Talpes that if he could solve the problem in two weeks, he would get the contract.
Forty hours later, Talpes came back with a solution.
Softwin gained ground solely by word of mouth, for the quality of its work. The team was composed entirely of engineers. Soon, however, Talpes decided that referrals were not enough for their ambitions. He asked one of the engineers to develop the business. The business thrived.
Defining the problem
As a mathematician, Talpes knows that before solving any problem, it is crucial to define what the problem was. This also summed up the circumstances that led to Bitdefender.
In Softwin, Talpes and his team developed software and wrote code. They executed the delivery of these codes through diskettes. But viruses infected the diskettes, and these in turn infected the computer they were inserted in. Existing security products only caught known viruses but not new ones. At some point, Softwin’s diskettes became infected, and they unwittingly passed on the infection to their clients.
“We had to fix the problem to protect the company’s reputation. We did not want to become a transporter of viruses,” Talpes says. And how they fixed the problem, first just internally, gave rise to what is now Bitdefender.
Talpes sees twin developments we should watch out for.
First, perimeters. He likens any system to a house: a house with one door and two windows is simpler to defend than one with 10 doors and 20 windows. “The perimeter is growing a lot and diversifying a lot,” he says. “With the Internet of Things, it’s like there is an explosion in terms of perimeter diversity and surface, with new virtual doors and windows.” This is compounded by the fact that more and more of enterprises’ assets are becoming digital. All these translate to newer and newer threats.
Second, the bad guys: Cybercrime has become a real industry. Cybercriminal service is now being offered as a service. “You can purchase ransomware services per hour to attack someone,” he says.
Leader and player
Talpes has just been voted the Most Admired CEO in Romania for the second straight year. “I did not really ask the businessmen why they voted for me, but I think they are celebrating the fact that a high-tech business in Romania became a global player and it’s in innovative industries.”
He describes himself as a team player who gives a lot of authority to his peers. “I think of everyone working directly with me as an entrepreneur with his team. I support them a lot.”
And if there is one mindset that he imparts to his colleagues, it is this.
“Every time it is going very well, you have to look for the hidden signs of a bad future. Mostly when it’s going very well, we have to dig deeper and to work on those signs. Our work is to unveil as early as possible, potential significant problems.”
His advice? Challenge, challenge everything all of the time.
Mariuca is less involved in Bitdefender now as she is running her own edtech company. “She is in love with improving education.”
Talpes describes his wife as “as super-shareholder for me, as I am a super-shareholder for her. We ask unasked questions to one another.”
And what great dancers these super-shareholders are. The Talpeses are ballroom-dancing champions in Romania. In fact they won a new title in March. They also like learning traditional dances from different regions in the world and in their country.
They dance to keep themselves fit at their age. It’s better than taking medicines. Mostly, they do it to refresh the relationship. “Dance is a continuous rediscovery of the other one,” he says.