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Building a Pre-IPO Company Over 10 Years: Centrify CEO Tom Kemp (Part 1)

Posted on Monday, Apr 7th 2014

Tom Kemp founded Centrify in 2004 with a PowerPoint financing of $7 million. The company managed to survive the terrible recession of the late 2000 decade and is on its way to an IPO. Here, Tom discusses the highlights of his journey.

Sramana: Tom, to begin, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What is the genesis of your entrepreneurial journey?

Tom Kemp: I was born in Chicago. I grew up in Michigan and I went to the University of Michigan. Right after college, I decided to head to Silicon Valley. I started my career at Oracle and from there, it has been a series of startups. My first startup went okay and I learned a lot. After that, I did another startup called NetIQ, which went great and we went public. I was with that company for eight years and we got to $250 million in sales with a billion dollar market cap.

After that, I joined Mayfield, which is a venture fund as an entrepreneur in residence. I really felt that within the security market, the identity space would be a very important market. The world from an IT perspective gets more and more heterogeneous, which introduces complexities. Users get more and more passwords which we can all relate with as consumers. That same problem is encountered inside of companies, enterprises, and government agencies. I felt that end users and IT would have problems with security compliance requirements.

Sramana: Let’s drill down on some of your early work before we delve into Centrify. You mentioned that your first startup went okay. What was that company?

Tom Kemp: Just a few years into my career at Oracle, I got a call from a recruiter. There was a 15-person company that had been started and they were looking for their first field engineer to go out and work with customers. I went in there – it was a small organization and I liked the people. That company was called Ecosystems Software. That gave me my first taste for a startup and it did not go perfectly.

We had the right idea, but we implemented the technology poorly for what the market needed. We had to rebuild the technology two years later. We learned a good lesson in terms of figuring out early what the real need is. If you mess up the technology the first time, it makes it much more difficult. We finally got to the point where we were getting some initial customers when another company approached us and expressed a desire to purchase us. The management team felt that their offer was the best course for the company. The company was bootstrapped, which put a lot of pressure on the founders.

After a few years after the acquisition, myself and some other people left the acquired company to start NetIQ. I was the marketing guy on that founding team. The key thing is that we learned a lot from our failure at Ecosystems. We learned what not to do and that was important. We were able to build the product the right way.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Building a Pre-IPO Company Over 10 Years: Centrify CEO Tom Kemp
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