My guest for this episode is Tiffany Ricks. Tiffany has been in the tech industry for over 15 years with an expertise in software engineering and cybersecurity. Her love for cybersecurity originated when she worked at a company that built out technology for the United States Air Force and the Navy. Currently the founder and CEO of HacWare, Tiffany is passionate about protecting companies from unethical hackers.
What Got Her Interested in The World of Computer Science [01:24]
How Did She Get into Cybersecurity? [04:13]
What Sparked the Entrepreneur in Her? [06:55]
Modercade and Some of her Previous Projects [08:08]
What is HacWare? [11:01]
Who can use HacWare? [12:10]
Why She is More Passionate About HacWare as Compared to Other Projects [13:12]
How to Identify Customer’s Pain Point and Solve Them? [14:30]
What Have Been Some of Her Highs and Lows? [19:50]
How Has She Built Her Brand Over the Years? [25:06]
What Has Helped Her Have the Most Success as a Startup Founder? [27:34]
Advice for Herself as a First Time Founder, If She Could Go Back in Time? [30:05]
(Show notes from our interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.)
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Tiffany Ricks 0:01
startup life is not for the weak, you have a high or a low in the same day. I mean, from my low that I can tell you that from my previous ventures that I use as sort of like a snowball effect, like I'll use all of the lows and the failures into each venture.
Kimmiko James 0:22
It's all the low that I really remember. I had this idea in the beginning that if I just build it, people will come. Tiffany Rick's has been in the tech industry for over 15 years with an expertise in software engineering and cyber security. Her love for cyber security originated when she first worked at a tech company that built out technology for the United States Air Force and the Navy. From there, her entrepreneurial journey kicked off when she noticed that the problem she had experienced from the negative effects of unethical hacking and breaches was in fact common amongst other companies as well. Currently the founder and CEO of hack where Tiffany is passionate about protecting companies from unethical hackers, let's get into it. Hello, and welcome back to the black enterprise network, the podcast that shares the stories of black professionals and tech and entrepreneurship. In this episode, Tiffany and I talk about what excites her about cybersecurity, the founding of how it works, and she shares a ton of founder advice that you won't want to miss.
Tiffany Ricks 1:21
I love computer science, I love software engineering, I love innovation, still, after being in this industry for over 15 years. But what got me started was I love gaming, I grew up with nothing but boys in my family. And the only way that I could have someone to play with was to play what they wanted to play, and they love video games at the time. And I just remember thinking these games are like they really are realistic, they look really clear. And I was just curious at how they made them back then I had a Gameboy and so I remember trying to take apart my Gameboy to understand how did it work. And this was when I was in elementary school. So that was like my first thing that got me curious about technology. And the next thing was, in my high school, we had a typing class. So I went to school where it wasn't coding in the schools at all it was teach these kids how to type teach these kids how to see how fast they could type. And I wanted to be really good at typing fast. And the other people in my class who were good talk like me, and thought like me and thought I thought okay, this is my tribe, then talking to, to my guidance counselors at school, it was either go to school for I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I saw how much they made at the time. And then I love I played basketball. So I thought, okay, basketball could be an option, but I don't know. And then I looked at computer science. So what do they make when they get out of school and I thought, okay, they do pretty well, maybe I should go to school for this. And once I got into school for it, I went to a historically black college and university in Georgia call Clark Atlanta University. And in those classes, I really found my tribe and I really love building applications from the first course. And so that passion from when I first started is still there. Like I still want to learn new things, I still want to create an even with the team around me, I need people around me who want to learn new things in this industry. So I didn't come from a family who had a lot of money, and I had to pay my way through school. I had some small, you know, assistance from family but I really had to pay I had to work three jobs at the pay my way through school. So I knew when I get out of this school, I better start trying to have a better life for myself.
Kimmiko James 4:13
How did you get into cybersecurity, because you've had so many years of experience in it. You started a company based around it and you just seem so passionate about it. But you know, it's not something a lot of people get into.
Tiffany Ricks 4:24
It made sense for me. I spent my career focus, I call myself a full stack engineer that leaned towards the back end because I really enjoy back end development. But if I needed to jump into the front end, I would do it. And I started many companies with building the technology for it. But one of the things I decided I wanted to do was I wanted to work for corporate america and i wanted to understand what is it like to be a part of an enterprise and the company that I chose was A company that worked with the United States Air Force in the Navy. And when you're building technology for the government, they teach you, you need to have a security mindset as a developer, because bad actors are trying to find holes in your code, which would be a national security risk. And so as an engineer for the Department of Defense, I learned how to have that security mindset. And it sparked a new curiosity of, Okay, I transition from focus solely on development to security engineering. And then from there, we had servers that hosted web applications for the Air Force and for the Navy. And so they wanted us to make sure that those servers were resilient. And so they wanted us to leave what's called a red team operations, where you're acting as if a hacker and you're trying to hack into those systems, and see how you could get in and penetrate and take data from that. And so did that for some time. And then transition to Okay, I want to get back into entrepreneurship. I had learned a lot in corporate America, I didn't have any ideas for product, but I knew, you know, that companies had, they wanted to move towards digital innovation. And then they wanted to make sure that their organization was safe from bad actors. And so I opened up a consultancy, that did just that. And I brought on my corporate company as one of our early customers and had other companies who needed us to understand what were their vulnerabilities try to hack in. And then we would still try to build some sort of software solution around trying to solve whatever problems that they had,
Kimmiko James 6:55
guess what sparked the entrepreneur in you to just do that.
Tiffany Ricks 6:57
I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. And what sparked it was watching my dad. So my dad owned a photography business, he still does To this day, watching him start something from a concept and then working hard to try to turn that thing into reality started me as a kid thinking about business ideas. And I think the key across, like, my whole life is just using my imagination. And so always thinking about what could I build and what kind of company could I create. And then once I figured out the tool, which was software development, now I have something that I could bring my ideas to life. And so that's something that's just in me and on my happiest when I am creating. So I feel like it's something that I've always done and probably will continue to do. Once people find those tools. No matter where they go, they'll always be able to create and you know, do what they're supposed to be doing.
Kimmiko James 8:02
You said you found out some things and more specifically on your LinkedIn, I saw you founded motor case, if you want to talk about that, or even some of your previous projects, you know, not every founder wants to talk about their previous projects, but open to whatever you want to talk about.
Tiffany Ricks 8:16
Yeah, I started my first company when I was a freshman in college, when I was a freshman in college, and I built a payment processing product, would that help restaurants be able to have a simple way to check out and transfer funds, so sort of think of it like before stripe was available, but it was the UI part of stripe, then the next thing that I launched was I wanted a way at the time, there wasn't a way for African Americans to find a hair stylist or barber and there wasn't a way at the time for them to be able to for this the hairstylist and the ones in the beauty industry to show off their work and show off their products. And so I created this marketplace that would allow African Americans brown people to find great beauty professionals. And we had celebrities on the platform. We had their hair stylists on the platform we had and it was through a video segment to allow these individuals to give hair tips. And it was from a celebrity or celebrity hairstylist, then motorcade came about because I wanted a simple way for individuals to get from point A to point B, if they had a similar work commute. And this came about because at the time, I was in a position where I was commuting round trip two hours and it was just a pain commuting two hours and so I wanted to create another marketplace that would allow Allow people to connect and take these shuttles to get them from point A to point B there will be sharing the cough. And then the last thing was I decided I wanted to open up a consultancy, where I didn't have any ideas for our product. But the product came is what we have with hack where so hacker came from a need that we had in our consultancy, where we needed a way to understand who were the people in the organization who didn't understand how hackers are targeting them through phishing, and a way to leverage AI to make sure that it was personalized training. At the right time. And hack wear has been launched throughout the United States. We have customers in Canada, Australia, Ireland, we've been recognized by TechCrunch Wall Street in the Dallas Morning News. It's been a huge year, and we see that things are going to continue to grow.
Kimmiko James 11:00
Could you just talk about what equity is. But I will say try to and I feel like you might be good at this just about just because of your speaking experiences. But just think of trying to explain it to a five year old. Because I feel like the the concepts of cybersecurity and fishing might be new to a lot of people. It's even new to me.
Tiffany Ricks 11:19
I think what we do is our product focuses on coaching you to understand how bad actors target you and show you how to get out of harm's way. So we're really that coach that's with you. That shows you how to avoid getting hacked.
Kimmiko James 11:36
Like a bad. Did you say bad actor is a bad actor?
Tiffany Ricks 11:39
Yeah, bad actors are called are called hackers. Oh, okay. Yeah, but But typically, there's this whole lingo in cybersecurity where we're trying to get away from using the word hacker and return actor. That's a whole thing. Because we have good hackers. And we have software engineers that are fast and efficient. And they're hackers. And so we want to make sure that the hackers is focused on it's a good term, instead of a bad thing.
Kimmiko James 12:10
Was it like more of a b2b kind of business? Or is it something hobbyist could use, or what is like whose hack were mainly for
Tiffany Ricks 12:18
is mainly for businesses who want to make sure that their employees avoid getting hacked, so their employees don't lose their money. And the business doesn't lose money or data because of some sort of breach. So oftentimes, like what's keeping businesses up at night is yes, they need to make sure that their company is growing. And then the other thing is, they want to make sure that their company isn't in the news because of some cyber breach. And the number one way that these breaches happen is because their employees fall for a hack. And so our product uses machine learning to identify which employees need the training, and then it will send that training to them right in their email,
Kimmiko James 13:06
you really stuck to hack where because you're very passionate about it, and you clearly love the mission behind it. So why are you most passionate about hack where compared to the other stuff you were building out?
Tiffany Ricks 13:17
I've seen firsthand how the problem has affected people. And it's a it's an effect where people have lost their jobs, companies go out of business. So I've seen the negative effects of a hat. And I've seen how when you don't take it seriously, or if you don't, there are certain small things that you could do to try to make it harder for hackers to target you. But companies get so wrapped up in, we have to go go, go, go go. But once they feel the pain of a breach, it could be detrimental. So I'm passionate about really trying to make it easy for any size business, to be able to make it hard for hackers to target their employees. Because I've seen the the worse now my other businesses they were more lifestyle brands where they were focused on beauty and focused on transportation. The pain wasn't as real as losing a job or losing money or going out of business. And so I love what we're doing at hackworth because I feel like we're solving a huge pain point.
Kimmiko James 14:30
I just want to kind of point out a very big key point that I think a lot of first time founders miss that you mentioned multiple times just the pain point of the customer, what pain is the customer feeling? And how can I best solve that? You know, I've said it multiple times for anybody listening but the startup world especially in the Bay Area, or Silicon Valley, where I'm from
Tiffany Ricks 14:51
it's very overly glamorized, you know, like everybody has a big idea that's going to break the tech industry or make a successful exit for $50 million but Despite your cool idea, is that idea actually solving anybody's serious pain points? Which is why, again, your answer was so great because you're motivated to solve that customer's pain. But, you know, a lot of early startup founders, they don't, they don't really consider that. So for people that aren't really familiar with what I'm talking about, how can you truly identify customers pain point, we interviewed 60 companies, and that was really to try to understand who the buyer is. But we started with the consultancy. So we saw the pain point where, you know, companies for us hacking into an organization targeting their people. That was the easiest way in until the pain point for us was how do we automate? Now that we know that the people are the easiest target? How do we automate this for us because I'm thinking about, you know, labor and resources. And as a consultancy your people in how you keep your margins down is sort of how you grow. So the more people you have, you are able to take on more work more projects. But you also want to try to keep your costs down to be able to get a return. And so what I was trying to do for us is I was trying to figure out a way how can we build a product in house for us that is going to educate these people find the people who need the training the most, and just continuously learn from the data and keep personalizing. So we don't have to do this, we can focus on other things. And it worked well for us, where I was thinking, Okay, I got a product. Now, let me go to others who are in the consultancy space, who have the same problem where they need to educate their business customers about all of the different threats that are targeting their employees, they need to keep their costs low as well. So let's provide this product to them. Hey, guys,
Kimmiko James 17:05
Pardon the Interruption, but I just wanted to take a minute to talk about the new black enterprise networks podcast website. If you've ever been curious about what a guest looks like, or what their social media links are, then we have detailed guest profiles per each episode. And there's also detailed show notes with time markers in case you wanted to find a specific point or piece of advice without listening to the entire episode. There's also readable episode transcriptions. And also the website allows you to easily send questions and feedback if you want to get in contact with just know that the website will be updated on a weekly basis. So if you don't see something done already, then it will be done to check it out at Black enterprise network.fm.
Tiffany Ricks 17:46
We had the pain and the problem ourselves, our customers had a problem as well, there was a disconnect as far as Costco on how we're going to do this at scale. And I wanted to build a product that can do that. And then I knew everyone and everyone else in the industry had the same issue. And so that was sort of how we pivoted from consultancy to this product driven company was I went to them first. Then after that I that's where we did the 60 interviews it was, who do we need to talk to who is the decision maker, and who is the one who is going to be able to make this deal move forward, or who's going to be the one who's going to sabotage the deal. So different companies have different ways about going about trying to identify the problem and build a product. And for us, we had solved a problem for ourselves.
Kimmiko James 18:43
And that's actually a common one that I hear and is often advice that's also given of like when it comes to solving a problem. Think about what problems you have yourself that other people might be going through. Basically, you're not just solving it for yourself, and then you just build the company around that. But it has to be like a really serious pain point that probably 1000s and millions of other people are going through.
Tiffany Ricks 19:04
So in order for me to make that transition of moving toward our service, part of our company was lucrative. So to stop the service part and focus on the product side. I did do some market research. So I looked in I saw, okay, how many companies in the United States? What's the market size? How many companies are already in this industry who are focused on security awareness? And then I looked at, okay, based on breaches that have happened, how many have actually been focused on due to people falling for breaches, because I knew that that was an issue, but I wanted to see is this something that is across the board and so based on that research, then I decided okay, now let's go to market.
Kimmiko James 19:50
What have been some of your highs and your lows? Because again, as I've described, we probably both agree startup life is not perfect. I mean, Hack where it's probably going really amazing now, but I guess with your previous experiences, and in the beginning, I'm sure it was rough as well,
Tiffany Ricks 20:07
a startup life is not for the weak, you have a high or a low in the same day. I mean, from my low that I can tell you that from my previous ventures that I use is sort of like a snowball effect. Like I'll use all of the lows and the failures into each venture and saw the low that I really remember, I had this idea in the beginning that if I just build it, people will come if I just built this product, and you know, the work is going to speak for itself. I think that does not work. And even when you think about personal development, as an engineer, or whatever you're trying to do in your career, do not rest on my work is going to speak for itself. Because a lot of times it won't, you have to build your brand, you have to tell people what you're doing, you have to communicate in a way that it resonates with them, the storytelling the user cases. And so that is something that I didn't know at the beginning, I just thought if I put it out there, and I would watch the traffic and hope that it would blow up but it wouldn't. And so people have to be their own cheerleader, and they have to brag about what they're doing. And pretty soon people are going to get excited and interested. And then you have to move on with the sales process. And then the other thing that I learned is this idea of you just have to get started and you're gonna hear so many noes. And what I've seen from the people who are successful in entrepreneurship, or just in general, you don't let the first couple of noes stop you, you have to keep going. You have to figure out okay, if I'm getting so many noes in this area, what do I need to do? Do I need to take a step back Do I need to pivot and the no start feeling they start stinging less, I used to hate hearing nose I used to get so bent out of shape when things didn't go as I needed them to go. And so now they staying a little less. And sometimes things they used to affect me years ago doesn't even bother me anymore. So that's the I think the lows learning from those nose and lows that has helped me to be a better business owner. And then the highs are they're great. There's so many like validation points that you get, and you learn from them. But I try not to stay too long. I mean, I try to celebrate those highs. But I'm always trying to learn and not get too comfortable in those highs and just trying to push and go to the next thing. And I think that's probably something I need to work on. I need to work on those. Because I'm always like, okay, yeah, this is great. Okay, wasn't it?
Kimmiko James 23:09
Oh, yeah. Well, touching upon the lows. I agree 100%. with you. It's a mindset I used to have in a mindset, a lot of people my age still kind of have like, when you want to start a company, you just want to keep it a secret, keep it to yourself. And that's not it's not a good mindset to have in the beginning. because like you said, number one, you can't just spend a year or two on something and put it out there expect it to blow. And second of all, I will say just getting feedback is so valuable, getting feedback, talking to people sharing the thing is so valuable. Because again, as I touched upon, your thing probably exists and probably 10 to 50 to 100 different formats. It's how you make your thing different that matters. And yeah, like, like I was saying, when you keep things a secret, it just, it does not help you whatsoever.
Tiffany Ricks 23:56
I've meant to quite a few entrepreneurs, and I don't think that serves you well. I'm trying to keep it a secret. What I tell people is the earlier you talk about it in the earlier you have some some notes or something about it from an IP standpoint, you're able to prove that you were maybe the first one to do this. And I know and I love what you said about no one is really the first and that is often true. But I think it doesn't serve you well. When you wait all this time and it's hidden, and you come out a year later. It's too late, then like you're too late at that point. I prefer getting that information out early. But yeah, protect your IP but you need to have some record you need to have some record at some point that you have this thing and that you were working on it at some point. So I I think you know, from that standpoint, it's important just to have, start talking about it as soon as you can,
Kimmiko James 25:06
what are some ways that you've built your brand over the years?
Tiffany Ricks 25:09
I think it started from just assessing, why didn't this company take off? Or why did this launch not go so well. And it was because I didn't talk about it. And I think I told myself, Well, this next time, if I know I'm going to release something, I'm going to try and see if I can put it out there, write a press release, I don't know at that time you ever write a press release, you try to send it to some sort of news source to get them to write about it. And at that time, they would say, Well, what you're thinking about putting out isn't newsworthy enough. And so I thought, Well, I'm not gonna wait on them. Let me just write a blog, let me write my own and publish my own content. And, um, and then I think the other thing that kind of got me started was also in corporate America, I realize when I was an engineer, and I would be working on my projects, and I will be thinking, Okay, I'm going, you know, we're gonna build this amazing product, it is when we send it to testing, it is not going to have you know, as many bugs coming back, I'm always going to have this reputation that whatever Tiffany puts out, it is going to be top notch. And yes, that was great on the small initial team that I was on, but I realized no one else in the company knew who I was and knew what I was doing. And I just started like, on the elevator, you know, when people would ask, how am I'm doing, I would say, I'm, I'm doing well, and I'm excited about this, that we're building or we launched this, and it was ahead of schedule. So. And then I started realizing that I started getting invited into bigger rooms and bigger conversations, because now people know what Tiffany and her team is doing. So I just think it just started from realizing that what I put out, or what I was doing wasn't making the impact that I want it to do. And so I was like, let me try something else where I talk about it or where i, where i make it public, of what we're doing and see how that works. And that worked better than keeping it to myself and hoping that they would recognize, what do you think has helped you have the most success with being a startup
Kimmiko James 27:37
founder? Like, do you think it was just the mix of experiences from failures? Was it mentorship? Or was it something else?
Tiffany Ricks 27:45
I think what's helped me, it's just the internal drive of not wanting to quit, it's just, it's just the internal drive to keep going. And even when the days you have those low days, I give myself a day to be down. But then the next day, I'm thinking, Okay, what can we do next? What's the next thing we can do to move this thing forward? And I think it's more of I have a vision of where i, where i want things to go, I have a vision of where I want to end, you know, in the book, The Alchemist, he started, I don't know if you've seen that book, but the main character has a vision of the end journey of where they he wants to get, and he's just going through this life, there's so many challenges if he loses his money, and people rob him, and there's so many bad things that happen. And but his vision keeps him going. And I think it's the same with me, you get kicked in a good, you know, you hear knows, but I have this vision of where I'm going and I won't stop until I feel like I'm I'm there. And I know that based on reading certain books is really the journey. And when you get to that end, it's probably not going to be as sweet as you thought it was going to be. But that is what keeps me going is I know where I want to go. And I'm not gonna let anybody stop me until I feel like I'm done. I get passionate about like, right now, you saw our product launch. I'm passionate about getting headwears into developer hands and building with our API. And with that passion, you start researching and learning new technologies. And if you didn't have the passion, it wouldn't take you on this journey to want to learn new things. And so I think, like, passion is that tool or that thing that really keeps people learning new things. and wanting to go places they thought they would never want to go or never would do. If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself as a first time founder,
Kimmiko James 30:08
what would you tell yourself?
Tiffany Ricks 30:11
If I could go back? And I probably need to take this advice. Now. I would say, it's gonna be okay, the fear that you may have in just starting. So the fear that you may have in just starting something is going to be okay, the fear that you may have in when you get that first customer using your platform, and you're wondering, what are they going to say, is going to be okay? The fear when you get that first customer that is mad, and they're not happy with something and they leave, everything is not going to be all over? It's going to be okay. And so every step in the journey, that fear is there, but it's going to be okay. So that's what I would tell
Kimmiko James 31:00
giving yourself the room to make those mistakes and, and grow and learn from those mistakes, and just knowing it's gonna be okay. Just continue doing what you love and care about. The results will come soon. Just it'll be okay. I like that. But yeah, that's it. But yeah, this was great. Tiffany, I just wanted to know, you know, where can people find you? Or where can they check out hack where and yeah, just try out the product.
Tiffany Ricks 31:26
You can find more about hack where at hack where h AC w ar e COMM And you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. So Tiffany Rick's on LinkedIn, Tiffany Rick's on Twitter, and I'll be happy to provide any advice that you need or just any support.
Kimmiko James 31:45
Yeah, thanks for coming on. Tiffany. Thank you for having me. I had a good time. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Black enterprise network podcast. I would love to have more people join our recently launched Facebook group that I created for the podcast. This is essentially another black tech community for us to just network, get advice from each other in terms of career business, anything? I'm happy to answer any questions as well. I'd love to have you in there. So the link will be in the episode show notes. And the next episode, I'll be having a conversation with Nick Caldwell, Vice President of Engineering at twitter. We talk about how he got into tech why he spent 13 years at Microsoft, why there aren't as many black executives in tech and we get into the just happy to be here mentality. I'll see you there.