It's hack day at Duo Security
, which calls for equal parts creativity and chaos on a cold Friday in February. The online security startup's growing staff of mostly young techies have emptied pizza boxes, discarded red Solo cups, and partially drained a kegerator of craft beer. They crowd into the company's biggest open room, presenting ideas their groups have created that may, or may not, improve the work day.
One of the groups screw tables together to create a standing working station. Another tells of its misadventure assembling the kegerator. A third creates a video display of old movie clips that appears on the company's logo pasted to a wall. A remote employee Skypes in to show how he used the startup's two-step verification system to turn on a light in his house, an exercise that turned something as simple as flipping a switch into a multi-step process from his smart phone. The only rules are to create something, and have fun.
The couple dozen employees in attendance hoot, howl and applaud for each presentation. They're almost all 20-somethings or not far from it. It's a scene that is as much a college house party as it is a team-building exercise in the new economy. And it's just what Duo Security's CEO Dug Song wants.
"We are trying very hard to build a gravity well of creativity, fun and the sort of playful cleverness here that attracts people to us," Song says. "That's the type of culture we're trying to build."
Startup Full Speed Ahead
I first met Song in the late summer of 2010 when he and co-founder Jon Oberheide were building Duo Security (then Scio Security) from the ground up at the Tech Brewery on Ann Arbor's north side.
The University of Michigan computer science grads aspired to build the next big thing in online security, and they had just landed $1 million in venture capital to make it happen. At the time Song spoke about never wanting to wear a suit and his passion for starting things, such as building out the entrepreneurial community at Tech Brewery
and growing the attendance at A2 New Tech Meetup
. Building Duo Security was the day-job version of Song's ambitions.
Today it's evident that Song and Oberheide have been busy since then. The startup outgrew its small space in the Tech Brewery, which is built to house individual entrepreneurs and startups with teams consisting of a handful of people. That led to Duo Security taking over the old Bay Design building on the northern edge of Kerrytown
. It now shares the building overlooking the Broadway Bridge with Resonant Ventures
(an early investor in Duo Security), Saagara
(an online meditation platform) and Protean Payment
(a startup developing a skeleton key for the wallet).
Duo Security's space is the largest, and filling fast. Song says he doesn't know exactly how many people work at the company, just that it's more than 50 and less than 100. The company grew its revenue by 326 percent and doubled its staff over the last year. Song expects his startup will work more aggressively to find a bigger home in downtown Ann Arbor the closer it gets to 100 employees.
"By the end of the year we will be about that," Song says. "We're hiring a person a week. It's kind of crazy right now."
Which makes company culture and exercises like hack days all the more important to Duo Security. It's growing so fast Song is counting on company culture to help the startup stay sensible, coherent and producing envelope-pushing security technology. In many ways that company culture reflects Song's personality.
Song easily walks the fine line between serious work ethic and keeping a good sense of humor. He is, in his words, "uncouth" enough to thrive in 21st Century startup culture that prizes creativity and non-conformist aesthetics, while maintaining the discipline to produce cutting-edge software and attract millions of dollars in seed capital from the likes of Google.
Duo Security's office screams that sort of tech startup idea with equal amounts of computer hardware on desks as eclectic art tapped on the walls. There is even a rack for skateboards near the front door, partly because Song (an avid skater and supporter of Ann Arbor's skatepark) wants his employees to be able to roll into work. He planted Duo Security's flag in downtown Ann Arbor because it offers the ability to walk, bike and/or roll for work. He wants to be in Ann Arbor because its still weird enough to be interesting and friendly enough for young families like his own.
The family-friendly focus is another part of Song's personality that seeps into Duo Security's culture, such as the company's rules on when it's not OK to interrupt someone and how everyone is expected to play well with everyone else.
"We're sort of a family culture," Song says. "We help each other. We're supportive. We want each other to succeed. Not all company cultures are like that. We're trying to build and invest in a team."
Shield and Cross Keys
Duo Security's is the type of startup that has its own coat of arms. There are two major parts of the emblem that look like a skull and crossbones have been switched out with a shield and two keys, which symbolize the firm's two-step verification security system.
Two-step verification is process utilizing two steps to identify and confirm the right person is accessing protected information online. Duo Security's two-step verification (Duo Push
) seamlessly integrates with the user's online password system. When the user logs in to their account on the computer, Duo Push sends a push alert to that user's smartphone asking whether to approve or deny the login request. The user hits the approve button and is granted access to their account. (Check out a short video of it here
More elaborate verification systems are available through Duo Push that can utilize phone calls or text messages. The push alert option is the simplest version of the security platform, and serves as an effective deterrent to the growing threat of hackers creating online security breaches. With the advent of mobile computing thanks to smart phones, tablets and ubiquitous wifi, hackers looking to attack online security platforms have no shortage of opportunities. That means online security is going from necessity to absolute necessity.
"Today security is everybody's problem," Song says. "These days everybody is suffering some sort of breach of security."
For a long time, two-step verification solutions were only available to big companies with deep pockets. Song and Oberheide set out to make that solution available to the masses with Duo Security. They have enjoyed some impressive successes over the last year. Its two-factor solutions were utilized by 10,000 Facebook users last year. Duo Security now offers its two-factor solutions to small and medium-sized businesses for $1 per user per month. Its personal edition is free for up to 10 users for life.
"We started the company with a pretty ambitious goal, solving the biggest problems with computer security for the broadest market possible," Song says. "We are democratizing these kinds of solutions."
Again, this is where Song's personality bleeds into Duo Security's company culture. Song, a punk rock fan, has a soft spot for the underdog. In cyber security that is often the masses of people without millions of dollars to guard against hackers.
Bringing these solutions to the mainstream comes at a price. As the company gets bigger it gets away from the carefree roots that originally attracted Song and Oberheide to startups. When asked at what point does the company become too big for Song's liking, he didn't have a specific answer. But he knows how long he is going to keep building Duo Security.
"As long as we're having fun," Song says. "Small things grow."
Jon Zemke is Concentrate's Innovation & Job News Editor and the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com. He also is envious of the workplace environment Song and Oberheide have created at Duo Security.
All photos by Doug Coombe