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Interview: Tony Pepper & Neil Larkins

Tony Pepper and Neil Larkins are the co-founders of British data security company, Egress. Together, they’ve built the company from scratch to a business that turned over £10m in 2017. They are passionate about their business, they are committed to its mission, but most of all, they are very best friends working together to make their dream come true.

I first met Tony in Boston in 2016, and then again in London in 2017. He’s charismatic, he’s funny and he inarguably has the gift of the gab, no doubt helped by his Scouse accent. It was the way he talked about his co-founder, Neil, however, that gave me the idea to conduct the first ever ‘duo’ profile interview for Infosecurity. “If you’re the Ant and Dec of information security, then it’s about time we get you in the mag,” I said. Laughing, Tony said they’d be honored.

Fast forward to January 2018. I meet Tony and Neil at Artesian in the Langham and I walk into hysteria in the otherwise tranquil and opulent atmosphere of the hotel. “Neil is about to become uncle to twins and is waiting on that call, and I’ve lost my iPhone,” Tony blurts out. “Obviously, the iPhone is the bigger deal,” he says.

Sitting between Tony and Neil, it’s impossible not to pick up on their chemistry. They finish each other’s sentences, they laugh at each other’s jokes and there is an ease in their interaction that only best friends can have. They complement each other perfectly, with Neil taking the role of the pragmatic, cautious, analytical thinker, and Tony taking the role of the ambitious, risk-taking, enterprising doer.

I’m the one who says ‘let’s conquer the earth’ and Neil is the one who says ‘one step at a time.’Tony Pepper

You’d be a fool to think that Neil isn’t equally ambitious though. He is, but in a quieter, more considered way. As Tony puts it, “I’m the one who says ‘let’s conquer the earth’ and Neil is the one who says ‘one step at a time.’”

The Elite. The Best of the Best. We'll Make You Better

There was a time before infosec’s answer to Ant & Dec though, and I wanted to learn each of their individual stories.

Neil went to “the real Manchester University,” although, he counters, “I only got in through clearing.” He studied Engineering because “it was the only course that would take me and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do.

“I loved the life, though absolutely despised the course, but it was probably a good grounding. It was 80% math, I learned to wire a plug and can cope with a few other things,” he laughs. “When you mess up quite spectacularly in life, it can make you quite determined to resurrect that failure, and drive you to be who you want and do what you want. My A-levels, and scraping into an awful course at Manchester, was one of those things for me.”

Neil is modest, almost to a fault, and you’d be forgiven for thinking him an under-achiever if you listened to his recollection of his university days. You’d be wrong though. Tony is the first to confirm my theory: “Neil would be the first to say, ‘I’m probably not very good at this’ when he’s actually the best. He is the first to criticize himself, but he’s always the best, always the most capable.”

Neil was always interested in technology and gadgets and considers himself “typically IT…except I don’t like Star Wars or Star Trek, or anything like that!”

Eighty miles south east, Tony was studying politics at Nottingham Trent, or in his words, “the fake Nottingham.” Originally signed up to study history, he was “asked to leave” as a result of poor attendance. “I just hadn’t rocked up to class because I was having far too much fun,” he admits.

Tony recalls finding the idea of leaving university forever “truly horrifying,” especially after securing his house share, so he re-applied to join the politics course because “anyone can get a job in politics right?” Interestingly, Tony considers that his job today is all about politics. “I’ve come full circle because all I do all day every day is related to my former degree,” he considers.

Left: Tony Pepper, Right: Neil Larkin
Left: Tony Pepper, Right: Neil Larkin

Securing a “solid 2:2” and leaving with the realization that “history was not for me,” Tony took inspiration from his brother who had just completed a Master’s in software engineering and, with no interest in the subject whatsoever, signed up to study it as a Master’s at Liverpool University.

“I’d been to visit my brother at the IBM building and it totally inspired me; loads of young people, working in a really awesome environment. It was then that I thought, ‘this is the kind of tech industry I want to go into.’”

His student experience second time around was somewhat different as a mature student, and Tony recalls that this time he had “his head down” as he “had to get it right.” Though he didn’t know it at the time, that chance visit to IBM set Tony on a path to getting the job of his dreams.

This is the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

Neil and Tony met when Neil interviewed – and consequently hired – Tony for a job at Reflex Magnetics, a software company where he was working.

“I joined as a support guy, basically the helpdesk,” recalls Neil. “I became a sales guy, did various roles in the business, but I lost faith in the company and the product.” When he resigned, the founders convinced him to stay by making him a director and giving him a share of the company. “Suddenly I became the boss of everything!

“I knew we needed to reinvent the product and we needed more salespeople, and so that’s when I hired Tony. It was probably still one of my favorite times ever, because the chips were really down.”

At first, Tony reported in to Neil, but with the founders removed from the everyday running of the business, the relationship quickly evolved into a partnership. “For the first year, Neil was definitely my boss, but after that he allowed me to feel more like an equal, so I treated him like an equal,” remembers Tony. After a while, Tony and Neil were “running and growing the business while the owners were sat on a beach in Kenya!”

Far from feeling exploited, the pair saw running the business as a“massive opportunity.”

Show Me the Money

Reflex Magnetics was sold to Pointsec Mobile Technologies in October 2006 for $28m, with both Tony and Neil profiting from the sale. This appears a handsome sum until you learn that just three months later, the combined Pointsec and Reflex Magnetics offering was sold to CheckPoint for $600m.

We didn’t have pots and pots of cash to invest, but what we did have was timeTony Pepper

At the point of the original sale, Neil and Tony had not been aware of the intention to sell to CheckPoint at a shockingly inflamed price.

Despite the obvious jaw-dropping financial implications of this story, Tony tells it with such good humor that it’s hard not to laugh along. I’ve heard the story twice now, and both times have felt my heart drop as I’ve considered the ‘here’s what you could of won’ undertone that is impossible to ignore.

As part of the sale, both Tony and Neil were contracted to work for CheckPoint for one year. “CheckPoint is a staggeringly good business, but I didn’t want the big corporate mentality and it didn’t fit with what I wanted from life. I couldn’t make a difference in a business that big,” reflects Neil.

When Tony proposed that it was time to start something new, the pair “hatched some ideas” in 2006, and in October 2007, Egress was born. It wouldn’t be until three years later that they actually took the product to market. 

True to their characters, it was Tony who was ready to jump head first into launching the business and it was Neil who needed persuading. 

Tony tells me that there is no way on earth that he would ever have launched a business without Neil, so he waited patiently for him to land on the same page. “I said ‘we’ve got to set this up now’ but Neil wasn’t quite ready to listen to that. I knew it was just a matter of time, and I knew I’d never do it without him.”

Tony and Neil are proud of their route to market. Unlike the more trodden path “where people set up a business, immediately get a ton of investment and funding from the get-go to rush to market,” they chose to self-fund.

“We built the products, we self-funded the growth of those products, we tested it with – and then took it to – the market under our own steam,” explains Tony. “It’s much harder to do, but we only knew how to grow a business in that way.”

They’re proud of taking the less trodden (harder) route, and so they should be. The numbers don’t lie. Egress has just tipped £10m in annual recurring revenue (ARR). Tony explains that in order to get to that point, the average level of funding is usually £20m in investment. “At the time we tipped £10m ARR, we’d only taken £2.2m, so we’re effectively 10-times more efficient than many of today’s businesses.” Egress has since taken a further £3m of investment.

Neil and Tony attribute this financial success to being shrewd in growing the business. They’ve recently moved to an office in the tech center of London’s Old Street, but this costly move was not one they took lightly – especially Neil, who needed to analyze a lot of data in order to approve the move.

It took a decade to get there and they still recall their first ‘office’. “We say office, but it was actually a flat. It was a server/bedroom and everything was super cheap,” recalls Neil. “Our salaries were rock bottom, which meant people were joining for the passion of wanting to make a difference. We didn’t pay ourselves for two years.”

“We didn’t have pots and pots of cash to invest, but what we did have was time,” adds Tony, sounding incredibly nostalgic about their early days. “We invested in hiring people that wanted to be part of something special and all those that joined in those early days became shareholders.” It’s testament to Egress as a company, but more to Tony and Neil, that every single one of those early shareholders are still at Egress today.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Asked what they are most proud of about their company, Neil answers “the people we’ve been able to attract,” and Tony agrees, but adds: “also, our company culture.”

So what’s it like working at Egress? “We’re incredibly open-minded and very aware that people need to feel empowered and to feel like they can make a difference,” replies Tony. They unquestionably put their people at the heart of everything they do.

“It’s what gets me up in the morning, to be perfectly honest,” says Neil. “When you find that young guy or girl who has just got that ‘something’, and you put them on the fast track to success, it’s really special. We’ve got so many of those in our business, they’re almost telling me what to do now!” That leaves Neil with more time to “build desks and unblock toilets,” jobs that he jokes are his.

When you find that young guy or girl who has just got that ‘something’, and you put them on the fast track to success, it’s really specialNeil Larkins

“Five years ago, I was just proud that we could grow our business and make it a success,” reflects Tony. “What I’m most proud of now is knowing what Egress could be - the fact that we’ve managed to put ourselves in a position to perhaps execute one of the real big British success stories.”

Always Two There Are - A Master and an Apprentice

“There is absolutely no way that this business would be where it is if I hadn’t had Neil working with me. I’m the luckiest guy in the world right?” says Tony.

The guys are unashamedly gushing about each other, and we pause several times throughout the interview to laugh about how it is starting to sound like I’m conducting an engagement interview rather than a business profile.

“Neil and I could make any business work, quite frankly. We’ve both got very different skills that we’re applying in the tech industry, but we’re both really passionate, the way we approach building something is the same, we both knuckle down and we both work all night long when we need to.”

You’d be mistaken to assume they never argue though; they both admit to disagreeing frequently and arguing often, in a style that Neil describes as “married couple type bickering. We never fail to come to a suitable agreement, though,” he says, concluding that they each walk away victorious 50% of the time.

“We come at things from totally different angles; Neil the electrical engineer, versus me the politician,” explains Tony. “We’ll debate who it’s most important to, knowing that someone will have to win and someone will have to lose. If you try and bully Neil, it will come back to bite you in the arse because he’s normally right.”

Most of those scenarios result in “an option C, a hybrid solution,” says Neil, ever the pragmatic fixer.

I ask them about the biggest argument they’ve ever had. It was regarding whether or not to take on a very, very large contract that would take their business to the next level. By this point in the article, it’ll be unsurprising when I explain that Tony, of course, wanted to take on the contract all guns blazing. It’ll be equally unsurprising when I say that Neil had concerns and doubts. “There were question marks around whether we had the right infrastructure, whether we had the people in place for training, and if we could handle such a key contract.”

They took the contract, but after some changes were made under Neil’s conditions, and both partners agree that “it was the best thing that has ever happened to us, leading on to more success and equally strategic contracts.” A perfect example of that hybrid option C that Neil mentioned.

Only a True Friend Would Be That Truly Honest

Rather than quizzing them on their own personality types, although spending a few hours with them makes the enquiry somewhat redundant anyway, I ask them to describe each other.

“Neil is the first to spot an answer to the most complicated problem. If you’ve got a challenge, you want Neil on your side, because he’ll know what to do and how to fix it. He’s a fixer, a finisher, he has a logical mind-set.”

Tony is talking about Neil like he is his specialist subject on Mastermind and its incredibly endearing. He is so animated and it’s obvious that he truly means every word about his “best buddy. Neil will give you five reasons why something won’t work, but he’s not negative. He’s proactive, he disagrees, he fights, but once you convince him to buy into something, he’s 100% behind it.”

We’re constantly testing each other. We’re from the same mold, but we’re two different halves. Deep down, we both work as hard and we’re both as ambitiousTony pepper

Neil is less elaborative with his description of Tony, but equally as sincere: “Tony is absolutely the person that pushes this business forward. When we set up the business, he obviously wanted to be the CEO, and I didn’t want to be.” That settled that then.

“Tony’s an amazing figurehead for the business, and does all the things that I can’t do. We are very, very different. That’s why we work so well together, because if I was running the business, everything would be super-cautious. You always need that yin and yang.”

“I drag us forward, but I rely on Neil to sustain our growth to keep us afloat,” adds Tony. “I’m very good at getting people to buy into our dream. Unquestionably I push the boundaries, but I always have to have Neil on board. We’re constantly testing each other. We’re from the same mold, but we’re two different halves. Deep down, we both work as hard and we’re both as ambitious.”

This perfect balance is perhaps why they look at me like I’m insane when I ask whether, in the future, they’d ever consider going their separate ways and starting out on their own. “Absolutely not!” they say. That clears that up then.

Their friendship transcends the Egress office. In true Ant and Dec style, they live in the same town in Hertfordshire, about a mile and a half apart. Their wives are best friends, which means they share a friendship circle and they’ve been known to take ski trips together as a result.

They both have two young children, they both play golf (Neil claims he is better at the moment) and they both confess that they live and breathe the business.

Play it Again, Sam

One thing that both Tony and Neil are equally cautious about is celebrating success. In fact, they admit to having never gone out to celebrate a particular milestone together. “Instead, we look at it as the year that could have been, the year we could have done better,” explains Tony.

I ask them about an exit plan and am told that they had two or three significant approaches to sell over the last few years that weren’t taken further. “We’re always open to, and looking at, what strategic partnerships are available, but we haven’t got a target, we haven’t got a date set and we haven’t got a year. There’s a lot more we want to do first,” explains Tony.

They have made a commitment to grow Egress very rapidly over the next five years, putting lots of people on the ground in the United States to really break into the market.

Neil dreams of running his own restaurant one day, to indulge his love of cooking Far Eastern cuisine. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is where the pair may go their separate ways though, as Neil already has Tony pegged for a role as ‘front of house’ or barman.

I think it’s fair to say that whatever the future holds for these two, they’ll be doing it side by side. Tony will be setting the world alight and Neil will be stabilizing the blaze and ensuring there is no collateral damage from said flames. It’s a tried and tested partnership, and the enormous success of Egress proves it’s exceptionally effective.

So here’s to British start-ups, here’s to valuing your people, and here’s to friendship. Tony and Neil, you’ve done each other proud. Now, for crying out loud, go celebrate!

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