Interview with Florin Talpes, CEO at Bitdefender

Bitdefender is one of the Romanian tech startups that has built an amazing business over the years. Started in 2001, the company has continued to produce, to this day, great antivirus products and, more than that, a great role model for startups everywhere. With offices in the UK, USA, Germany, France and Spain, strategic partners in over 100 countries globally and clients such as IBM and Virgin Media , Bitdefender knows how to deal with pivoting, growth pains and challenging itself to become a better company.

That’s why we did our best to get Florin Talpes, the inspiring CEO of Bitdefender, for an interview. And we were lucky enough to gather some great business and life lessons from this amazing leader:

Bitdefender is one of the startups that has kept their HQ in Romania for most of its startup phase, and we’d like to know why you chose to do this. What do you believe are the benefits of leveraging the local context for building a startup?

When we were a startup and our HQ was in Romania, we didn’t feel like we had other options. The question whether it’s better today for a startup to keep its HQ in Romania relies on the entrepreneur’s objective. My objective is to have a company that was built by Romanians in Romania and we’ve checked this. I also want it to have a reputation recognized by hundreds of millions of people and we’re on our way to doing this. Moreover, I want this brand to have a very high valuation, in terms of hundreds of millions of dollars or Euros and we’re also on our way to achieving this. But I want it to be owned or controlled by Romanians at the time of that valuation. Still, other entrepreneurs could have different objectives.

The most important asset to achieve growth

Someone else could want to create a company that could reach a valuation of $3 millions in 3 years and that’s that. It definitely depends on the founder’s choice. If I were to choose an objective focused on growing a company, apart from my personal goals, I would focus on the human resources that could help you achieve this. If you can’t find them locally, go search for them somewhere else. If you’re tackling the global market with a purely online B2C product, it’s more than feasible to attack the market from Romania or another CEE country. There is a reasonable resource and competencies pool here that can be improved if you choose motivated and fast learning people.

If you want to sell a B2B product or create alliances with international companies, it will be difficult to do that from Romania. Romania doesn’t have a distribution channel development culture, because it’s more inclined towards direct sales. Direct sales works great online and it’s the local people that matter in this context, not those at HQ. If a channel development culture would be consolidated here, then even a B2B focused startup could do business directly from here. But if you’re looking for fast growth in 3 years’ time, then you should look for the best resources you can afford, no matter where they’re located.

A culture of improving local resources

My choice was to form these resources, because Bitdefender is like a university. I have ex-colleagues who learnt things at Bitdefender which were unique in Romania at the time and which are very useful for crossing borders. These tactics and methods are now used in other companies, which my former colleagues have founded. We want to help consolidate this ecosystem, in order to allow startups and Romanian companies to make it globally.

Which do you think was the milestone that marked an exponential growth for Bitdefender in its evolution from startup to a mature company?

I think that moment was when we started to have entire teams abroad. That was a groundbreaking moment, and what I remember the most is the culture clash. That’s when we saw the differences between practices and business habits, between competencies levels and ways of thinking of teams in other countries, from more mature markets. I think this happened in 2 steps: when we started our German team and when we created our US team. And the “nuclear explosion” happened when we decided to have a double HQ, partly in Romania and partly in the US. We learnt a lot during that stage. It hurt, but it was a very steep learning curve. We crossed over from an oral culture, meaning that we used to work together in an open space and discuss freely about any subject at any time, to a culture in which teams didn’t discuss every day, where they didn’t meet for coffee or a cigarette, a culture in which conversations had to be provoked. At that moment we crossed from a homogenous culture, to a heterogeneous culture. That’s when you have to pay very much attention.

The invaluable role of company culture

That’s why I shy away from calling Bitdefender a corporation, because a corporation has 3 characteristics, one of which is bureaucratization, which I hate. Even though we’re about 600 hundred people, we foster an entrepreneurial, open, agile culture. We support taking responsibility for ones actions and rewarding success, not pointing out and punishing mistakes.
Ours is a multi-color company, because we have a very diverse public. Even in the beginning, our clients were from other markets rather than the local one.

What would you advise startups about working with other companies, be it startups or bigger companies, in order to support and consolidate this ecosystem?

Just the other day I was talking to someone from a company which was facing a dilemma and it was clear that he had a problem which he needed help with. So I asked: “Why don’t you start a discussion group comprising of 30, 40 or even 50 companies that meets, even in smaller groups, to discuss this kind of issues?” For example: when mobile phones appeared in corporations, how could they have been monetized? These types of subjects need to be discussed. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will do that project themselves. The fear that someone might steal my idea is deeply seated in our mentality and it’s completely wrong.

Have your ideas challenged

In Silicon Valley, if someone has an idea, he/she will simply present it and have it challenged by a group of peers. Each feedback loop will bring improvements to the idea and the one who presented the idea will walk out with a better idea. I support this kind of open culture, in which you can subject your idea to examination by competent peers in the market and have it validated or invalidated. An infrastructure such as How to Web can generate these types of discussions, in a workshop form, which are beneficial for the entire startup ecosystem. The purpose is to go in with an open problem and come out with a solution for it. I watch my colleagues and see that our Bitdefender DNA works: if you can share your knowledge with someone, you do it gladly. This university-like approach pushes us to better ourselves and I learn a lot from my colleagues every day.

We’re proud to have Bitdefender as one of the main partners at How to Web this year, supporting innovation and the startup culture in the CEE!

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