Good company: How to run the world's largest database of dark net content
OWL Cybersecurity CEO, Mark Turnage goes after the digital bad guys
Attorney-turned-entrepreneur Mark Turnage was born overseas to missionary parents. After serving as CEO and vice chairman of OpSec Security Group, a global provider of anti-counterfeiting technologies and online brand protection, Turnage, 56, moved into the sizzling cybersecurity industry at Denver’s OWL Cybersecurity, touted as the world’s largest commercially available database of dark net content.
CB: You had quite a global upbringing.
MT: I grew up in South America and Iran. My father was a missionary. He actually grew up here in Denver. I grew up in Colombia until I was 11, and then the drug wars heated up, so we moved to Tehran. I left Tehran right before the revolution.
It gave me a very international perspective. Clearly, I grew up speaking different languages. It gave me good insight into how people think about the United States.
Where did you go next?
I came back to Boulder. I’m a Buff. [The family] ended up in Europe after the revolution and I did my undergraduate (at CU). I studied international relations and Arabic, so I ended up back in the Middle East for my junior year abroad.
I ended up staying in the Middle East and working for the State Department and an oil company. And then I got a scholarship to go to Oxford to study economics and politics. And then I went to Yale Law School.
Was the plan all along to be a lawyer?
What was Denver like at that time?
Denver was great from a lifestyle perspective and it was much of what I wanted. But it was not the entrepreneurial hub that it has become.
I wanted to come back to Denver because I had just gotten married and I wanted a nice place to raise a family. But I decided I wanted to become an entrepreneur. So I helped with a startup called OpSec – Optical Security Group.
Former Gov. Dick Lamm introduced me to an entrepreneur named Richard Bard, who, back in the ‘90s, was probably one of the most prominent people in Denver. He was just starting up this company and I joined him. I think I was employee No. 3 and I came in to help with sales and business development and ended up becoming president and then CEO.
And you’ve stayed in security, of some kind, ever since.
I’m in security because the first startup I joined was in security and then I acquired a certain amount of expertise over the years. I’m sure my international outlook and the languages I speak contributed to an understanding of that. It turns out we live in a pretty global world, particularly in cybersecurity.
In that first dive into entrepreneurship, what were some experiences that surprised you or taught you something new?
One thing that surprised me was how much I enjoyed technology.
We started with zero revenues. The company’s first sale was international and our first acquisition was outside the U.S., so we were global from the get-go. This was the mid-‘90s, and we ended up with operations in eight countries, traded on the London Stock Exchange, with me commuting all over the world from Denver. And then we finally sold that company.
The lesson in there was, it’s a very interconnected world.
What was the turnaround time before you joined OWL?
I joined OWL in January 2015 and left OpSec in August 2014. I came in as the CEO. The company was at a turning point. It was about to launch this dark net monitoring platform; this database that we have was growing very quickly. We needed to raise some more money, hire more employees and launch this product.
What intrigued you about this business? Did you see a problem to be fixed?
I was intrigued by cybersecurity as a field, broadly speaking. I was intrigued by the people, who were really, really smart. I like the small company environment more than large organizations. I had taken a company from startup to about $120 million in revenues and this was an opportunity to go right back to startup land.
How has the market changed since you got to OWL?
The word on the street was that every two years, the [industry] recreated itself, and the threats evolved and the technologies to address those threats evolved. The other irony about the cybersecurity industry, true then and true now, is that it’s extremely fragmented. There are not a lot of large behemoths in the cybersecurity space, and that’s a reflection of the fact that the technology changes so rapidly.
From a one-foot level with us, what has happened is the dark net was kind of coming into the public’s eye at that time, but it has really exploded. With the recent allegations of Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton emails, hacking is in the news.
We work with businesses and recently have had a lot of inquiries from governments. Originally companies would ask One World Labs to assess their security and assess the perimeter and a staff would break into their networks and show them where their vulnerabilities were and help them think about their architecture for securing the environment. They would go in and see what kind of data was for sale and it would help them understand how leaky they were. So it was a new thing where hacked and lost and stolen data was bought and sold. From those beginnings came the idea to build an automated crawler that would go into the dark net and continually extract data that could then independently be searched by companies looking for their lost or stolen data.
What does that look like?
The theft of proprietary information, whether it’s emails or data or anything else, is exactly where we are as a company, and that’s been on the front page of newspapers every day for the last year.
Speaking of front-page news, can you explain what happened to the founder of One World Labs, Chris Roberts?
About three months after I joined, the founder of the company was pulled off an airplane and was investigated for hacking into the seat-back entertainment system and getting into the cockpit while the plane was in flight.
What was left of the company after the incident?
Chris was pulled off the airplane in late March, early April, I think that’s the timeframe, and we ended up buying the assets out of bankruptcy in February (2016) and then sort of starting the operations of the company back up in May. It was a very quick series of events.
It stopped the momentum of the business because a lot of clients didn’t understand what was happening. It was an unanticipated rollercoaster ride three months after I joined the business.
Was it challenging to lose the founder?
He was a very gifted technologist. I will give him that. It was challenging – both from a cultural perspective and from a center of gravity perspective. It was compounded by the fact that it wasn’t clear at all at the time that I was buying the business.
A startup that came with a lot of baggage?
What opportunities have been presented to OWL since?
It doesn’t hurt at all that there’s a lot of front-page news about hacking, leaked and stolen documents. The one market we had not anticipated as a potential market for our product was law enforcement and government. We’re [also] getting quite a bit of traction in Europe that we didn’t anticipate.
What advice do you give when you’re talking to an audience of businesspeople?
I give the same talk – it’s likely that your information will at some point be hacked or compromised. The best thing you can do to try to keep that from happening is use complex passwords. Don’t reuse those same passwords on multiple accounts; keep a record of all your information so if you are compromised you know how to change things and get back to them; be careful about using public WiFi, because that’s one of the easiest ways to compromise somebody.
Nobody is too small or insignificant to have their information abused.