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Spencer Thompson’s mission-driven mantra is driving Prelude’s impact in cybersecurity

Insight Partners | May 29, 2024| 4 min. read

Spencer Thompson was 20 years old when he founded his first company, Sokanu, in 2012. The company acted as a career advancement platform to help people decide the best career — or next professional move — for them. His mission was to increase social mobility and create meaningful careers for low-wage workers.

“I grew up in Niagara Falls,” says Thompson, CEO and cofounder of Prelude. “My dad worked in manufacturing, and I had a stay-at-home mom. Unemployment in my town was really high.”

Before it was acquired in 2020, Sokanu had more than 10M users a year.  “It was…helping a lot of people find their dream career,” says Thompson.

The success of Sokanu and its social impact sparked something in him.

“In 2019, we looked at our data and determined that many people — in the U.S. in particular — had the ability to be junior cybersecurity analysts,” he says. “They just didn’t know it yet.”

Thompson created a new business, an early version of Prelude, to find and harness this untapped talent pool of skilled individuals earning less than $20,000 a year and train them to be cybersecurity analysts within six months, launching them into a new career and tripling their pay.

“That was how I got involved in the cybersecurity space,” he says. “Though unfortunately, COVID-19 killed that business.”

“The secret to our success is in our name”

The next iteration of Prelude was born in 2020 with cofounder David Hunt, then a cybersecurity engineer at MITRE. The pair wanted to solve a very specific problem for organizations of all sizes.

“What happens when a board member sees a cyberattack on the news and asks their team, ‘Are we vulnerable to this attack?’,” Thompson asks. “This is the fundamental question in cyber, the one that keeps people up at night.”

The answer is usually “I don’t know,” prompting a flurry of activity. First, the Chief Security Officer (CSO) will ask the team that same question. Threat intelligence then examines the threat and produces a 40-page document analyzing the threat and any potential vulnerabilities. Finally, protections are put in place, validated, and tested.

“This process takes months,” Thompson says. “That’s unacceptable.”

“By the time these protections are in place, the situation has changed and there are new variations or new threats entirely.”

Prelude has a different approach, creating a simulated, synthetic version of the attack. “We mirror all the behaviors of the threat without doing any damage,” explains Thompson. “The secret to our success is in our name: Prelude. It means the thing before the real event happens.”

An infinite number of attacks

Prelude can analyze cybersecurity threats and generate protection in under five minutes. The technology uses AI to anticipate and neutralize not only the individual attack but also future variations.

The impact of a technology like this cannot be overstated. Cybercrime is predicted to cost the world $10.5T USD by 2025, according to research and market intelligence firm Cybersecurity Ventures. A recent report by the National Cyber Security Centre found that all types of cyber threats — state and non-state — are already using AI to some extent.

“If the cost of performing an attack falls to zero, and the time it takes to perform the threat is also effectively zero, an infinite number of attacks can be performed almost instantly,” Thompson explains.

“However, we can create an infinite number of defensive permutations at machine speed. And we are investing in the core infrastructure to create protections before the threats happen.”

“This is a market in constant flux, and we change with it.”

Thompson also reveals that cybersecurity is an incredibly dynamic industry. “The product we developed in 2023 was irrelevant come 2024. That is true of any cybersecurity company. This is a market in constant flux, and we change with it.”

“Everything matters”

When the stakes are this high, teams need to consistently perform at the highest level. Thompson believes that the secret to Prelude’s success is something that most people don’t associate with fast-growth tech firms: humility.

“Humility is baked into the culture here,” he explains. “Talk to anyone inside or outside the business, and they will say the same thing. It’s important in a world that’s changing all the time because if you think you know everything in cyber, you’re basically dead in the water already.”

“Humility plus curiosity gives you the ability to adapt to this changing world.”

As a leader, Thompson tries to live his values, treating everyone fairly and with respect. “We have extraordinarily talented people here,” he says. “They can do anything they want. That’s why we have a culture of deep intellectualism and morality. Our mission is to prevent cyberattacks from happening. That’s what gets us all out of bed in the morning.”

At Prelude, the company motto is: “Everything matters.” This encourages every member of the 30-person team to give their all.

“There shouldn’t be a comma out of place in our communications,” says Thompson. “If you imbue excellence into everything, you show customers and partners that you really care.”

Scale up your career: See all open roles at Prelude.

The investor POV

“Once people see Prelude’s technology in action, they are convinced.”

Steve Ward Managing Director, Insight Partners

Steve Ward came across Prelude back when he was CISO at Home Depot. “A smart security engineer was using it and really liked it,” he says. “You don’t often hear people rave about security software, so you pay attention when it happens.” When Ward joined Insight as a managing director in 2021, he reached out to Thompson to build a relationship.

“He was familiar with our super primitive open-source version, and I felt that was a strong foundation to build upon,” says Thompson. Thompson knew that to win enterprise clients and adhere to their rigorous compliance rules, he would have to abandon the open-source route.

Prelude had several investment offers on the table, but Ward stood out as someone who could add value, he explains. “I didn’t really know him, but I had this Spidey-sense that he would end up being one of the most important people in the company. And I was right.”

Prelude raised a $24M Series A in April 2022 from multiple investors, including Insight Partners and Sequoia.

“We have become friends too,” says Thompson of he and Ward’s relationship. “It is a true partnership. I believe that I have the partners with the deepest expertise to help me accelerate my vision.”

Putting a partnership into action

In an industry where failure can be catastrophic, there’s no margin for error. Thompson didn’t rush to spend his Series A capital — he spent six months honing and tempering a precise strategy that could give Prelude the edge on cybercriminals.

“For me, you earn the right to spend capital as you unlock new opportunities and de-risk your strategy,” is Thompson’s refreshing take.

“Product is my forte,” says Ward. “I see my role as supporting Spencer on his roadmap, introducing him to as many CSOs and operators as I can so he can understand their perspectives and challenges.”

Ward also helped Thompson hire his first VP of sales and advised Thompson on a different go-to-market approach. “We learned that operators did not want to plug into yet another agent as more software slows down the workstation,” Ward explains.

Prelude did a landmark deal with cybersecurity behemoth CrowdStrike last year that gives the company access to millions of end users. “If you think of apps on an iPhone, Prelude is now a widget on CrowdStrike’s platform,” Ward explains.

Aiming for radical growth

Prelude operates in a very competitive industry with the likes of Microsoft and Google all working to automate their defensive cyber activities. “But we’re still the only ones that have cracked this particular problem,” says Thompson. “And we have just announced some exciting new speed-focused capabilities.”

“Once people see Prelude’s technology in action, they are convinced,” says Ward. “It’s like watching a kid hear for the first time after surgery.”

Success, for Thompson, is continuing to delight customers while significantly raising the national security floor. That’s his overarching mission.

“We want to impact as many organizations — big or small — as possible.”

Ward believes Prelude will achieve great things this year. “He slowed right down on product last year, but that means now he can move quickly but in an organized way,” says Ward. “It’s not the typical thing you hear a venture capitalist say, but it was the right strategy for Spencer, and we will be proved right in 2024.”

“We want to triple the size of the team and quadruple our customer base within 12 months,” adds Thompson.

“We just want to keep doing that over and over: radical growth.”