The Charleston Digital Corridor Leadership Profile series is focused on the individuals who are driving Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
John LaCour is the founder and CEO of PhishLabs, a cybersecurity services firm with 57 employees located in downtown Charleston. Among PhishLabs' clients are banks, financial services firms, social media companies, airlines, grocery store chains and startups. LaCour founded PhishLabs in 2008 and moved to Charleston in 2009.
Where did you grow up? What was life like and what are your memories from there?
In Baton Rouge. It's actually a lot like Charleston. It's a relatively small town, but there's a lot going on. There's a big university there, there's a lot of government, a lot of services companies and then a real culture of a community. A lot of people there love the outdoors, the fishing, the hunting, all of those things. So Charleston feels a lot like where I grew up in Louisiana. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the palate of Louisianans tends to be for a little bit spicier food than down here in Charleston. But both have great food.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
Like a lot of good stories, there's a woman involved. My wife grew up in Charleston, is from here originally. We met originally in D.C., and around the time I was starting PhishLabs, my wife was looking for her next career opportunity and wanted to be closer to friends and family from Charleston, and she ended up landing a great opportunity at Blackbaud. So I moved PhishLabs down to Charleston.
In your own words, what does your company do?
PhishLabs is a leading provider of managed security services that helps companies fight back against attacks that target people. In the past, most hackers were focused on circumventing technical controls, trying to get around firewalls or exploit software bugs. All of those things still happen today, but there's been a dramatic increase in the number of attacks that really work by tricking people into doing things that they shouldn't.
You hear in the news today large retailers, government agencies, health care companies, entertainment companies being breached. And at the root of these data breaches is an employee or user clicked on something they shouldn't have, opened an email they shouldn't have. So we have a number of services that help fight back against those attacks and really help protect companies against data breach and IP theft.
What drew you to your current business, or inspired you to start it?
I spent most of my career working in IT security, and when I started PhishLabs, I saw that there was an underserved need in the market. Banks, e-commerce companies and others were under constant bombardment of attacks against their customers. There were only a handful (of companies) that even existed trying to help with those problems, and frankly the ones that existed weren't very good.
What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?
In high school I worked college football games as a peanut vendor. So I'd basically walk up and down the stairs for the duration of the football game selling peanuts. It's a cost-efficient way to build up your cardiovascular endurance, for sure.
One of the lessons is, at the end of the day, it's all about customer service and delivering value to your customers. If you're difficult to do business with, it doesn't matter that you have the best mouse trap. So you have to be easy to do business with, you have to be responsive to customers' needs, and you have to have a good product to be successful in business.
(Selling peanuts), you have people yelling at you from across the place, and you have to develop your pitch so that you can throw peanuts 12 people in and make them land in the right place. It's just a lot of different people, a lot of different personalities. Some people have probably been sipping Jack Daniels from a boot flask or something like that, so it makes for interesting times.
Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?
I've always been interested in being an entrepreneur. I was the kid that sold candy at 300-percent markup on the school bus. When I was in college, I somehow, in the early days of the Internet, managed to track down some Russian programmers, and I was trying to figure out a way to hire them to work on some software that I wanted to make. So I've had a bit of that spirit my whole life.
What's the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
That you can't have a life outside of being an entrepreneur. I think you can. Certainly, depending on the stage of your business, what that looks like will vary.
What obstacles have you faced building your business? How have you overcome them?
One of the first obstacles that I think an entrepreneur faces is getting the first customer, or first customers, on board. That can be a challenge. My first customer was a company that I had dealt with previously at a prior job. So I had an existing relationship with them, a certain level of trust. But they hadn't used a service quite like ours, so they were a bit hesitant. I was able to overcome that by offering them a free month of service, to really demonstrate the value of our service. Fortunately, they had a very positive experience and signed a contract for a year of service following that. We were able to use them as a reference going forward for additional customers, and the business took off from there.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs or new graduates?
To aspiring entrepreneurs, the key bit of advice I would give them is don't wait and don't look for the perfect timing. Don't wait till you have a perfect product. The quickest way to become successful as an entrepreneur is to learn quickly. So anything that you can do to learn quickly about what your customers want, how your product needs to work, what skills you need to have as a leader – the quicker that you can learn, the more successful you'll be. That probably means shipping a product before you know completely what customers want.
For graduates that are interested in cybersecurity or interested in working in technology – we interview a lot of people here, and a lot of them are smart, and a lot of them have work experience. The No. 1 mistake I see, or missed opportunity, perhaps, is to highlight accomplishments. I would much rather know about how someone accomplished a project that had meaningful impact for the company than to know that they understand 14 different programming languages and can write mobile apps in their sleep.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to technology and really more focused on the right tool for the job.
What is your usual Starbucks (or other restaurant/pub) order?
Turkey bacon sandwich and a skim latte.
This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Ashley Fletcher Frampton