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H4XL Spotlight: Canvass Labs

Why a solid understanding of customer needs was a game-changer for this startup.


This is one in an occasional series looking at the journeys of startup teams that have come through H4XLabs.


By Ellen Chang



Peter Shin was at the peak of a successful career at Qualcomm, surveying and evaluating different technologies in the software security industry, when everything changed.

Over the course of three days, the comfortable existence the computer scientist had built for himself was rocked by three life-changing moments: a new U.S. president took office, his son was born, and his father was hospitalized with a life-threatening illness (he has since recovered).

Shin was living the American Dream, but reflected in those events were realities he couldn’t ignore: Life is short, it is precious, and it is ever-changing. The realization served as a wake-up call that solidified in him a desire to do more than build a nice life for himself and his immediate family.

“This was an awakening for me,” Shin said. “I knew then that I wanted to make a difference and help the next generations. I had to do more, and I was ready to take the necessary risks to make that happen.”

The immediate question was what, exactly, “doing more” would be. Shin turned to what he knew. Given his position and life’s work, he understood more than most the threat hackers posed to a world increasingly built on stores of sensitive data.

Examples already were beginning to manifest, perhaps none more noteworthy than the 2011 infiltration of Sony Playstation’s data, in which account details, passwords, email addresses, and IP addresses of more than 4.4 million users were leaked. In the scramble that followed, Sony staff slept at their desks during the arduous task of manually checking third-party software and entering all data back into the system by hand. But the damage had been done. The personal safety of Sony’s users was compromised.

Shin already was aware of what many others have gained through painful hindsight (including from recent hacks at SolarWinds and Colonial Pipeline): the field of cyber security, while often overlooked, faced one of the greatest threats to the modern free world.

He knew there could be better ways to protect operating systems. And he believed the answer lay in Artificial Intelligence, a means that could provide more thorough protection with fewer resources, for less cost.

Trouble was, he knew his corporate position didn’t give him the freedom to innovate on the scale needed to make a difference in this high-tech arena. So, he quit his job; began experimenting with developing new AI security software; and shortly thereafter launched a startup, Canvass Labs.

“I felt motivated to not only create the most simple-to-use and effective software on the market, but to also educate organizations about the risks before something catastrophic happened.”

Defining “customers” and understanding their needs

It has been four years since Shin launched Canvass Labs. In that time he has hired a small staff of highly capable computer scientists and business professionals, and has supported both public and private sectors with his groundbreaking technology.

To maximize the scope and reach of their work, Shin and his Chief Operating Officer, Rachel Costello, challenged their thinking with H4XLabs’ technology accelerator. It was in working with the team of experts at H4XLabs that Shin's team received deliberately honest feedback that challenged their assumptions and previous analysis of their customer interviews. Their time working with H4XLabs taught them that it isn’t enough to talk to customers; perpetual, purposeful digging through interview after interview with industry stakeholders produces more penetrating results that can be a game-changer.

To date, the Canvass Labs team has completed more than 100 in-depth interviews, using each discussion to grasp a better idea of customer pain points, fears, and ambitions. In time a theme began to manifest: each customer was not a single entity, but was instead made up of disparate, sometimes conflicting subgroups.

This became illuminated for us through our near-nonstop discovery: the importance of knowing the differences between our ‘users and our buyers’ -- what motivates them and what frustrates them,” explained Costello. “We began to really know how a CEO of a company may feel versus the staff in his or her IT department. We learned we have to connect with, and build relationships with both, and do so differently.”

Prior to working with H4XLabs, her team didn’t think about separating their conversations to better serve the needs of the two groups. They had a single, standard communications strategy that encapsulated both. Discovering the vast differences between the two audiences was a revelation. C-level executives who buy cyber security platforms have different pain points from developers and engineers who have a higher risk tolerance and a greater distrust of external products that could overlap with their job descriptions.

As a result of this actualization, Shin and Costello decided to split labor, and began to conduct separate, targeted communications and bridge-building efforts with buyers and users. In this way each Canvass Labs team member focused on their own personal strengths, while better assisting their customers with more tailored, personalized engagement.

“If you're coming up with an innovation, it's best to figure out who your customers are, and what nuanced differences may lie within those customers, through intense customer discovery,” said Costello. “Do this even before you come up with an innovation. This will save you a lot of time and money. We wish we had done that. But we are back on track with aggressive customer discovery and are making major strides.”

Customer discovery also means sometimes understanding what someone needs before they do. By digging into buyers’ and users’ problems, and gaining the proper amount of context, Shin and Costello believe they can offer solutions more specifically tailored to their customers’ desired outcomes.

Early commercial solutions is the winning strategy

The members of Canvass Labs garnered other sound wisdom from their experiences and time within H4XLabs. They believe that commercial traction should be a priority early, and explained that it is far more advantageous for innovators to gain commercial success, and let the government come to purchase that product or service after, via a commercial off-the-shelf, or COTS.

“I think there's a misconception among startups like us that if you just get into the government market, that's going to be the end. But that’s not true anymore,” Costello said. “In the past, during World War II, the US Government drove innovation, but over time the commercial sector has reached beyond government research and development. Now, it's better to succeed as a commercial entity and then potentially go to a dual-use atmosphere.”

Canvass Labs is poised for greater growth in the years to come, with recent collaborations with the U.S. Navy, and sights set on the financial, medical, and intel communities.

They credit their positive outlook to a solid understanding of their customers – and to what keeps them up at night. Shin knows that the past four years have brought him ever closer to his goal of making the world a safer and better place for future generations.

But he isn’t finished yet.


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