Finding and Holding onto Your North Star: Fireside Chat with Ben Brook

Ben Brook, cofounder of Transcend, joined us for a conversation on his experience founding the successful data privacy company.

Finding and Holding onto Your North Star: Fireside Chat with Ben Brook

Submitted by Caroline Ingeborn

Many members at SPC are in the midst of starting something new. It is a daunting and exhilarating experience. It is also a lonely experience, which is where the SPC community comes in. Last month’s fireside chat was special as our guest is not only a successful startup founder but also a SPC alum. Ben Brook is the co-founder of Transcend. Founded in 2016 Transcend helps companies give their users control over their data. Their infrastructure allows companies to automatically fulfill access and consent changes across every data system and vendor.

What followed was an intimate conversation between Ben, Ruchi and the SPC community.

Go down the rabbit hole

  • Ben and his cofounder Mike were trying to analyze their own behavioral data. But they got stuck as companies over and over told them that they could not get a copy of their own personal information. This led them to their mission of putting users in control of their own personal data.
  • What they then realized was that it wasn’t that companies were opposed to giving out this information. They just didn’t think it was possible. To delete a user’s data across an entire organization is a massive undertaking, one which, prior to Transcend meant that you would have to involve all the teams of a company. This infrastructure gap is the one that Transcend ended up tackling.

Privacy is dead, who cares?

  • When Ben and his co-founder Michael Farrell joined SPC data privacy was considered by many to be a lost cause. In fact, most companies let alone investors were thinking that the user data was out there and that this was just how the internet worked.
  • The initial idea was that Transcend was a consumer facing product enabling users to access their own data. However, the team realized that if you do not have the cooperation of the company you can only really get 1% of the user data and there was no incentives for companies to provide access.
  • Then came the first of many privacy laws, GDPR, which changed everything. Suddenly all companies they were talking to were trying to figure out how to comply with the new regulations. They all needed to solve the infrastructure gap and Transcend was ideally positioned to solve it.

You need to go out and meet people in San Francisco

  • Ben and Mike met in college and moved straight to SF to set up Transcend. During their first 2–3 months they locked themselves into a flat and built stuff. Eventually the only person they knew in the city told them to get out and meet people, which led them to SPC.
  • At SPC Ben and Mike learned how to look for product market fit and were introduced to countless engineers and PMs, which were invaluable to get Transcend off the ground. I think this is one of the highlights of SPC; that smart people will spend time, share their network and evolve your idea even though they are not interested in working on something in your space.

If there is a pain point people are going to talk about it

  • It took Mike and Ben over a year of testing, talking to people and building to understand what would be the most painful part of complying with modern privacy laws.
  • The key was listening to people, in this case engineers and product managers at tech companies who were being asked to adapt their systems with the new regulations. When all PMs and engineers in Silicon Valley, in unison were groaning about GDPR this was a very strong signal to us…

Take one step back to take two forward

  • With GDPR around the corner Transcend saw initial traction with small and medium businesses. However, the first product did not have all of the security protocols in place. When they realized that this would become a consistent blocker during the sale processes, especially to large companies, they had to chose between rebuilding the entire architecture to switch to a Zero Trust security model* or stay with the existing product in a smaller TAM. They decided to set themselves back a year and build it right.
  • A year in the life of an early stage start up is a lifetime. For most it is the difference between life and death. Rebuilding everything meant that Transcend’s direct competitors at the time would get ahead of them. However, after re-launching, Ben and Mike have been able to overtake them thanks to these investments.

*Zero Trust security model = 1. Transcend can never see the data they transfer between companies and users. 2. They do not hold any of the access keys and thus can not loose them. 3. They can not arbitrarily delete or submit a request on behalf of a user.

Hold onto a North Star

Looking at the story line above, Transcend has gone through multiple pivots since inception. The one thing that has stayed constant is their North Star of putting users in control of their own data. Having a clear North Star, not a problem that you want to solve, but a state of a world that needs to exist, helps you ask the right questions and more importantly helps you make the right, albeit difficult, decisions. By asking: How do we get to the end state of our vision? What is standing in our way?

  • It was clear that the company needed to first focus on the infrastructure gap that enterprises were facing. Moving in this direction with very little experience of actually working at enterprises themselves did not hold Ben and Mike back. With the clear North Star this is where they needed to go.
  • It was clear that to become a generational company, they needed to serve the largest companies, and to do that, they needed a zero trust model. The winning solution would be the one tackling the security issues. Although the decision of rebuilding the entire architecture can not have come lightly, it is clear that this is what they needed to do.

Or in Ben’s own words: I think all of it just came down to us being entirely mission driven and believing in it, really. And then willing to sort of let everything else fall to the wayside.

A last note: Seeing the interaction between Ruchi and Ben, I think a real North Star will attract the right kind of investors. If an investor also believes in your North Star and your perseverance to find a solution they will stand by your side on the difficult decisions, such as sometimes going slow. Put another way, a North Star, makes it easy to explain difficult things and weed out who will be there when it is time to make those decisions.

Thank you for reading! We hope to see you at our next South Park Commons event (sign up here!). If you’re interested in membership, please apply on our website and one of our members will reach out.

So what is SPC? We’re a self-organizing community of technologists, tinkerers, and domain experts based in San Francisco. We are building new (and sometimes unorthodox) ventures — ranging from enterprise startups and consumer apps, to open source ML and civic-tech projects. We come together, virtually and in the physical world, to learn from each other, challenge ourselves, and validate new ideas.

Our members also host a recurring events series. Our goal is to bring new and exciting ideas and technologies into the community as well as valuable learnings from those who have first-hand experience building their life’s work. In the past we’ve hosted Silicon Valley VCs and CEOs like Reid Hoffman and Mike Kreiger, leaders like CEO of U.S. Digital Response Raylene Yung and SF Mayor London Breed, and domain experts like Nobel laureate Dr. Saul Perlmutter, experimental physicist Dr. Rana Adhikari, and Howard Hughes Investigator Wendell Lim, amongst many others.

Our on-the-record talks are posted to the SPC Youtube channel. You can also sign up for our events mailing list or newsletter to stay in the loop.