"Sorry, your password must contain at least one capital letter, one numeric value, one special character, and must not exceed a total of 12 characters.” Given that most of us would probably be ready to explode when faced with this demanding request that is often posed to us users of the internet, it’s easy to see why passwords are popularly considered to be, well, a pain. Adding to our troubles is the fact that besides creating and recalling strong passwords, one also is advised to make them unique to each website.
At the same time, recent cyber security breaches have made it pretty clear that despite all of the aforementioned efforts, the use of passwords has been painted as an insecure means of protection on the World Wide Web. It’s because of these problems that fledgling enterprises in the space of password management systems have emerged, and found a sizable market for their tools- Lebanon-based Myki is one such startup that is keen to further simplify the identity management process, condensing access into just a smartphone device.
“Myki was inspired by my grandmother’s inability to remember her usernames and passwords,” recalls Priscilla Elora Sharuk, co-founder and COO, Myki. “What started off as a hardware device for consumers like my grandmother pivoted into enterprise software for access management within organizations.” With co-founder Antoine Vincent Jebara building the earliest hardware prototype of Myki for Sharuk’s grandmother, the startup has come a long way since then, pivoting into a password management technology that helps companies and individuals secure their digital presence by keeping passwords saved only on their trusted phones.
For instance, in a corporate setting, Myki enables employees to obtain authenticated access to their accounts without the need to key in usernames or passwords- all they need is a tap of their smartphone to log in, log out, share file access, manage group activities, etc. “It allows the company administrator to see and control where users are logging in from geographically, set the time during which they are allowed access, and both provision and de-provision accounts with the click of a button,” explains Sharuk.
And that’s not all- you no longer need to rack your brains to come up with strong passwords from time to time, as Myki even supports automated password changes, with the tool assigning complex alphanumeric combinations on a scheduled basis. For those of you skeptical about how safe this password-assigning feature can be, Myki’s got that covered too, with its website declaring: “By keeping your passwords saved only on your trusted phone, we eliminate the risk of compromised accounts in case of a breach. The company does not have access to these passwords, and cannot share them even if it wanted to.” Further, in case a user loses their smartphone, reporting the same will cause Myki to be revoked, and the user is then set up on a new trusted device.
Myki launched its product in private beta in September 2016 on a platform that’s almost every startup’s dream: TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. The upstart also holds the distinction of being the first MENA-based company till date to fight it out at TechCrunch Battlefield, a challenge that sees some of the world’s top early-stage startups compete for the Disrupt Cup among the who’s who of Silicon Valley. Myki’s presence at the global event has gone beyond being a positive PR for the startup.
Since then, Myki’s product has been successful in achieving user validation at a steady pace- Myki claims it’s currently onboarding users at a “10% rate week over week,” and Sharuk says that its community of early adopters has helped the startup “test and iterate the product at a rapid pace.” Serving corporate clients in MENA, Europe, US, and other regions, Myki also claims that its B2C segment “is in the works,” with a waiting list of “over 40,000” individual customers showing interest in the solution.
Metrics such as these makes one wonder about the factor that differentiates the startup from the large number of competitors in the industry, and one particular aspect stands out. The concept of decentralization of access that Myki’s solution promotes, and the use of an everyday smartphone device of the user as the access point (as opposed to the cloud), clearly differentiate the tool. Security credentials aren’t stored in the cloud -which often figures as a soft target for cyber attacks- and are contained within a trusted device protected by biometric controls.
“The promise of the cloud in the early 2000’s made everyone excited about the idea of never having to store any information locally, and while it was the solution to many of the issues related to sharing and convenience, it introduced a huge problem,” notes Sharuk. She explains further storing passwords in the cloud “creates a single point of failure, which leads to catastrophic consequences in the case of a breach.” Fortunately for Myki, the startup’s ability to convert a disruptive idea into a viable business model (Myki charges a minimum monthly basic subscription fee of US$5 per user per month within the enterprise setting) hasn’t gone unnoticed.
One of the region’s leading VC firms today focusing on tech startups, BECO Capital, was among the early backers of Myki, with the startup closing a seed round of US$1.2 million led by BECO Capital, with participation of B&Y Venture Partners and Leap Ventures in early 2017. “We like to call the investorentrepreneur relationship a marriage,” Sharuk says. “And we are pleased to say that we are happily married to our investors.” Speaking about the startup’s relationship with investors BECO, Sharuk adds, “They [BECO] are our backbone, they continue to drive and motivate us and open doors for growth. The mentorship we receive, coupled with the constant support allows us to take the calculated risks we know will push our product further.”
However winning the favor of such key regional investors has not come easy to Myki. Calling the entire fundraising process as “the most equally stressful and exhilarating experience,” Sharuk urges founders going in for investment meetings to be on their “A-game, ready to answer tough questions with equal doses of conviction and humility, and ready to take in feedback and learn from the experience altogether.”
And experience is something that the Myki team seems to have obtained in abundance in its growth journey. From competing in local challenges such as Banque du Liban Accelerate to gaining global exposure through platforms like TechCrunch and PitchForce San Francisco, Sharuk’s landscape architecture background (contributing to Myki’s futuristic user interface) and Jebara’s new generation tech skills has emerged as a winning combination. Another trait that every aspiring entrepreneur in the region must emulate, which has helped the co-founders come this far, is their self-confessed nature to “get over the fear of criticism” in building their product.
“Our extrovert attitude in putting our ideas out there, getting as much feedback as possible, building, reiterating and repeating is what helped us build our brand,” says Sharuk. Their investor BECO Capital also endorses the skills and business potential of the startup. In a statement on the funding, Amir Farha, co-founder and Managing Partner, BECO Capital says, “MYKI is one of the players well-positioned to build a global company and solve this universal problem [cyber attacks], starting from the region. The founders are exceptional Arab entrepreneurs who are passionate about their original invention, and are building a transformational solution targeting a large and rapidly growing market.” Armed with the right attitude, product strength, funding, and mentorship, while Myki can seem unstoppable in its mission to empower users with the tools needed to navigate the digital world, Sharuk admits to seeing a key challenge in scaling the venture: market awareness.
She notes a requirement to continuously educate users on the significance of “managing and securing” their digital access, especially in the MENA region. It is at this point that I ask Sharuk about the business case for an advanced technology such as Myki’s in making MENA its target market, and she’s quick to explain the startup’s strategy in this regard. “Creating a working model here [in MENA] and then replicating it elsewhere to scale is one way for us to do things,” she says. “Companies in the region are becoming more and more aware of the importance of protecting access to proprietary data and that is something we can bank on and are here to help them achieve.”
On top of everything, there’s one key factor that the founders count among their greatest strengths, which gives them confidence about growing their business beyond MENA- the strong team of “thinkers and doers” they have on board. “The Myki team continues to grow at a rapid pace, and three superb talents have joined in the past month alone,” says Sharuk. So much so that when people ask the co-founders to refer an amazing developer, Sharuk is quick to tell them: “They are all on our team.” With this kind of technical prowess, it shouldn’t be long before the MENA startup is able to attract global companies and consumers to adopt its solution to simplify access points. As for us: we at Entrepreneur are just waiting for the day to say goodbye to passwords!
'TREP TALK Priscilla Elora Sharuk, co-founder and COO, Myki
What is your outlook on MENA’s tech startup ecosystem? Do you think the region’s entrepreneurs can scale their businesses here without moving to the West?
“There has been a massive shift in the ecosystem over the past few years. Industry jargon is now almost a day-to-day slang, and while some were trying to model our ecosystem after Silicon Valley, I do believe that we are starting to see a certain customized approach native to our region’s culture, business sense and values. Everyone always looks West, and while it is excellent credibility/product validation, entrepreneurs seem to forget that there is a market ready for disruption right at their fingertips. Dream to conquer markets cross continent, but start by solving issues in and around your region to help your direct community and the region at large.”
What is your take on the evolution of entrepreneurship ecosystem in Lebanon?
“MENA’s up and coming startup scene is one to watch, and I believe Lebanon has one of the most vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystems I have ever experienced. The most beautiful thing about the Lebanese ecosystem is the people and their willingness to help others. There is nothing more wonderful than people genuinely pushing each other forward, making introductions, referrals and giving each other constructive criticism; that is how I believe we progress an entire ecosystem.”
What is the one key feedback you received at TechCrunch Disrupt that you have incorporated in the business?
“One of my favorite experiences during my time in San Francisco for TechCrunch was sitting down with Ned Desmond (COO of TechCrunch and General Manager of AOL Tech and Engadget). After congratulating me for being the first MENA-based female entrepreneur to make it to TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield, he urged me to continue to rise up to the opportunities and take them back home to inspire others. That is something key that I have brought back with me, and something that I work towards every day.”
What are your top three tips for an entrepreneur to start a business here in the MENA region?
“One, do not be afraid to get your idea out there, all criticism is constructive. Two, people are ready to help, all you need to do is ask. Three, if you want to do well, do not make a cultural iteration of a Western product; create a unique product that solves a real pain point.”