Founder series – Q&A

Jai Aenugu, Techforce founder

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Jai Aenugu, managing director, TechForce

What does your company do?

We are on a mission to protect and empower businesses in the UK against external cyber attacks.

Since launching in January 2017, we have helped support nearly 100 businesses to protect their critical systems and data through cyber security services, including email phishing and security awareness training as well as Cyber Essentials consultancy.

What do you do there / what is your role?

My role as founding director is to grow the business, find new talent and develop new commercial opportunities – as well as solving problems for our customers.

In the beginning, I tried to do everything by myself – from carrying out the work to invoicing. As TechForce has grown, I’ve focused more on business development and finding the right partners to join us on our journey. Automating business processes has also played a significant part in freeing-up my time to concentrate on strategy.

If you started the company, what was the aha moment that led to the company founding?

I realised that many small businesses didn’t see or understand the direction that technology was heading in. When I first started TechForce, there were a lot of other businesses that needed help from their IT provider, yet many suppliers were still reliant on using traditional, outdated methods. Now, everything is in the cloud – but that wasn’t the case even just a few years ago.

Although we’ve since pivoted to focus exclusively on cyber security services, we started out as an IT support provider; aiming to deliver the best possible customer experience and focusing on cloud solutions and infrastructure as a competitive advantage.

A few years later, many of our very first customers reported having experienced no downtime whatsoever during lockdown, thanks to the work that we did right at the outset in terms of setting-up their cloud-based services.

I was also fortunate that we were early adopters of cyber security at a time when many businesses – especially SMEs – didn’t see it as a genuine threat, or something that could happen to them.

In 2019, we sold the managed IT services part of the business to a competitor and decided to focus exclusively on our niche – as cyber security was where we saw the biggest opportunity to make a positive difference to our customers.

Where did you get assistance when you started?

Early on, we received advice from Business Gateway and, more recently, organisations like Scotland IS, the Scottish Business Resilience Centre (SBRC) and the Scottish Council for Development & Industry (SCDI) have all been supportive.

I reached out to a few mentors who had experience of starting and running their own company. Judith Thorpe once said to me, “Don’t be complacent”, which always stuck with me. It helps remind me why I’m doing this and to keep on-track.

Having the right people around you makes all the difference. It’s vital to have a strong support network who you can lean on for guidance and learn from. In turn, I’ve dedicated time to support others who are looking to start their own business or develop a career in cyber security.

Give us a brief history of the growth of the company

I always dreamt of having my own business and creating an impact on the wider community. Winning an Elevator Award (Entrepreneurial Supporter of the Year, 2016) gave me the confidence boost to quit my IT job with an oil services firm and establish TechForce.

Ten days after handing in my notice, my wife told me we were expecting our first child. It took another three months for the business to win its first customer. I dipped into my savings and turned to a pizza delivery job to help pay the bills and support my family.

It was a huge risk from a personal point of view to leave a steady job and launch a new company from scratch. Ultimately, helping businesses is something that I’m truly passionate about and the longer I thought about starting my own firm it soon became a case of now or never.

I spoke to my wife and she said, “This is something you’ve always wanted to do, so leave no regrets for not trying.”

There has been growing demand for straightforward advice around cyber security following several high-profile attacks. Since an estimated 95% of all these occur due to human error, I identified a gap in the market for a dedicated cyber security specialist that would help protect businesses by training the end-users.

The business has gone from strength to strength and this differentiator has helped us win numerous project orders from large enterprise customers that would not otherwise be accessible to a small start-up.

TechForce previously secured Approved Cyber Essentials Practitioner (Advanced) status to support clients achieve Cyber Essentials Plus – the UK Government-backed and industry-supported scheme to help organisations protect themselves against common online threats.

In 2019, we were also awarded a place on the highly competitive G-Cloud 11 framework, the Government’s cloud and IT services procurement platform.

In the past few weeks, we have been formally recognised as an accredited certification body for Cyber Essentials, Cyber Essentials Plus and IASME Governance. As an independent testing organisation, we can audit the relevant security controls that businesses have in place, verify these, and then benchmark them against Cyber Essentials.

Have you taken any external funding? If so from who and when?

Everything has been boot-strapped with no external funding. I started the business with an initial £1,000 investment, using my own savings.

So, what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?

We are a four-strong team. We’ll always remain a niche company but, by the end of 2021, we are aiming to triple the size our team. Our plans for this year have been delayed slightly by Covid-19, but we are still on-track to double our turnover based on the last financial year.

What’s the difference between when you started and now in your marketplace?

When we first started in early 2017, there weren’t many companies offering cyber security services. Now, it’s a saturated marketplace – with some consolidation taking place at the top end of the market. We are competing with companies from the Central Belt and across the whole of the UK.

We were an early adopter of cyber security, which has helped build credibility. Looking back on some of our successes, there are more small boutique firms now following in our footsteps.

What is your target market – Who is buying your product / service?

We go through a lot of competitive tenders, particularly following our G-Cloud listing, with a good success rate. While we work with SMEs around Cyber Essentials, we are mainly targeting medium-sized companies that have between 100 and 2,000 employees.

Our customer base is very diverse, from across the UK, including sectors such as energy, retail, food & drink, finance, and government.

This year has allowed me to spend a bit more time on SEO and improving the website. As a result, we are receiving more enquiries from across the country, including from London, for Cyber Essentials and security awareness training.

What is your background?

I moved from Hyderabad, India to study a master’s degree in Advanced Networking at Edinburgh Napier University, before relocating to Aberdeen to work in oil & gas. It was tough moving to a new country, with only limited English and thousands of miles away from family.

What are your goals for your business?

The main goal has always been the same: to protect other businesses, create jobs, generate revenue, and give something back through helping people looking to enter the cyber security industry.

We’re just getting started and I feel we have only begun to scratch the surface!

What are your biggest current challenges?

Finding the right talent; experienced people with passion for what they do. There is obviously a lot of uncertainty around the business community but, for us, cyber security is something that businesses need to take seriously now and in future.

Since the pandemic, we have seen a significant rise in attempted cyber attacks, so businesses can’t afford to let their guard down. With people working from home and using personal devices to access business systems, there is a risk that companies will be more susceptible to being attacked.

The impact of cyber attacks has resulted in many businesses either closing temporarily or suffering significant revenue losses. When it comes to protecting our clients, we need to be successful every single time; however, these bad actors only need to be successful once.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

The biggest challenge has been doubting myself. A lot of entrepreneurs and business owners suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’, where there is something holding you back from achieving your full potential.

At least in the first year, I was thinking like a small business. I think we can all be guilty, at times, of limiting our options; for example, only selling your product/service to customers locally or only targeting smaller businesses as clients. In theory, TechForce can work with any UK-based company, which creates significant growth opportunities for us.

What do you do outside work?

I’m a keen runner and have raised money for several north-east charities – including Charlie House, CLAN, and the Gathimba Edwards Foundation – by taking part in various long-distance races. I find it’s a useful stress-reliever and helps focus my mind on the business, as well as keeping fit.

I enjoy listening to audiobooks, especially while running or driving to visit clients, as well as playing badminton or cricket, and spending time with my family.

What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?

It’s often said that there is no right time to start a business. Like any new company, we have had to move quickly to capitalise on new opportunities and learn from our mistakes.

In the beginning, the priority was business survival and generating customers and revenue, whereas now we can take a longer-term approach. I’ve learned to focus on just a few things at a time, rather than trying to do everything by myself.

What is the secret to good leadership?

It’s the ability to articulate a vision and then execute that. Steve Jobs is someone I looked up to when starting my own business. I read his biography and was amazed by his passion, obsession, and vision. As Steve said himself: “… the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do” – and he did it.

I think what all great leaders have in common is their willingness to give back, be generous with their time and support other people coming up.

Education is something I’m extremely passionate about, so I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ by giving back to schools, colleges and universities throughout the north-east.

Where do you see the company in five years?

We want to become one of the go-to providers of cyber security services in the UK. As well as helping to create jobs in the local economy, I want to show that you can build a – potentially – global business from here in Aberdeen that proves the city isn’t just about oil and gas.

I would like the company to have multiple offices in the UK (we already have virtual offices in Edinburgh and London) as well as opening an office where I grew up in India, to create jobs there and give something back.

How can the Scottish start-up/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

We need to make our country more attractive to the best and brightest talent from around the world. The current VISA and immigration rules are very harsh and act as a deterrent to people looking to start a life and career in this country, especially innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs.

After graduating from Napier, I secured a work visa and, later, citizenship but there were plenty of hoops to jump through first. I believe the whole country would benefit from a change to the immigration system, where we can open doors to talent from around the world and help fill skills gaps where they exist.

We also need to send a message to our young people that it’s ok to fail. There are plenty of examples of young people with brilliant ideas – but who have a bit of fear that stops them from taking that vital next step. We need to encourage these people more and create a more joined-up approach to help bring their ideas come to life.

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