Startup Grind DC: Fighting the Bots with Rami Essaid of Distil Networks

October 27, 2015

In the long-standing tradition of featuring local startups that have made it big, Startup Grind DC was privileged to host Rami Essaid in September 2015. A Syrian-born American entrepreneur and software engineer, Rami is the founder and CEO of Distil Networks, the leading public and private cloud security provider that blocks malicious bots, or automated computer programs, attacking your website.

The Beginning

Born in Damascus, Syria, Rami’s family immigrated to the United States when he was in the second grade. The son of an engineer, Rami studied computer engineering at North Carolina State University.

While working at a cloud security company, he was getting inquiries from customers who were looking for a way to detect web scrapers, or bots. “We came up with a completely transparent way to do it,” Rami said. “The company I worked for didn’t want to tackle it.” So he started Distil.it with a couple of lifelong friends in 2011.

After six months of work, Rami left his full-time job to devote himself to the fledgling company. At the one-year mark, they had a minimally viable product and began looking for clients.

Unlike many startups, Distil Networks is an engineer-led company. They created a working prototype and found customers with a big enough bot problem they would be willing to risk going through their beta phase. “It was a constant iteration,“ Rami said. “These guys (their clients) had such big problems with bots, they were willing to play with our software and risk downtime to their site. They were really, really patient with us.”

Going All in and Getting Funded

On the subject of going all in, Rami recalls previous ventures saying, “I had tried other startups, I had tried other ideas in the past and half-assing it doesn’t work. At some point, you really have to dive in, especially if you’re trying to raise money. Because at the end of the day, if you’re not all in, why would an investor put money behind you?”

A lot of investors rejected Rami before finally getting the first $1 million from ff Venture Capital, which Distil Networks used to grow their customer base. But what got them noticed was getting picked up by Techstars and later, by Bessemer Venture Partners.

Rami says that Distil Networks went from nothing to $1 million in revenue in one year, then to $4 million the next year, to $12 million this year. He believes the company is now on a path to an IPO within three to five years.

Culture and Scaling Up the Team

Starting the company with friends created the open, honest, and transparent culture for Distil Networks. But soon, Rami says he found himself working with two different types of personnel: ones with whom he had open and honest relationships and the ones he did not. After rectifying that problem, he says that now “everybody’s on the same page, everybody believes in what we’re doing, and trusts the decisions that I make because I’m completely transparent about them.”

On deciding to keep his Arlington, Virginia offices open, Rami said he wanted to keep a strong DC presence so he didn’t have to uproot everybody. But he also noted that even though Distil Networks doesn’t yet contract through government organizations, it may be something the company wants to explore in the future and the proximity to DC doesn’t hurt.

He also remarked on the differences in the talent market between the DC area and Silicon Valley, where Distil’s San Francisco office is based. “Talent here (DC) is cheaper and more loyal,” Rami told the audience. “We’re unique as a company here, in that you come in whenever you want, you come in in shorts and flip-flops, games all around the office, snacks, and lunches provided for you. In Silicon Valley, those things are table stakes.”

Biggest Mistake

When getting Distil Networks started, Rami says his biggest mistake was not setting clear boundaries between his day job and his startup. He pointed out how, like many others in the IT world, he didn’t take the time to read and understand the intellectual property clause of his employment agreement. In Remi’s situation, he said the contract included, “Anything that you think of, belongs to us.” He recommends including a disclosure to avoid running into the same legal headaches he encountered.

If he had it to do all over again, he would be more diligent to keep work resources separated from personal, remarking that the six months of legal wrangling almost killed Distil Networks before they got off the ground.

Also see Distil Networks Turns Five – Where Did the Time Go?

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