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Top-ranked workplace among small firms, KnowBe4 blends cyber savvy, hard work and fun

At the start of each workday at 9 a.m. sharp, KnowBe4 employees gather around bright orange floor cushions in an area of the office called the "town hall" to discuss goals of the day and encourage a "team attitude." Courtesy of KnowBe4
At the start of each workday at 9 a.m. sharp, KnowBe4 employees gather around bright orange floor cushions in an area of the office called the "town hall" to discuss goals of the day and encourage a "team attitude." Courtesy of KnowBe4
Published Apr. 11, 2016

CLEARWATER

Phishing. Ransomware. CEO fraud. ¶ These are the cybersecurity scams awash in the world start-up company KnowBe4 was created to defend against. Its business — providing security awareness training to banks, businesses and organizations — is booming as hacker attacks continue to escalate. ¶ This company specializes in training company employees, particularly at banks, but also big retailers and businesses with household names. The mission: To show how not to be fooled by clever hackers. Whether hackers "knock" online with seductive emails or try so-called "social engineering" by sweet-talking directly by phone, these bad guys are trying to convince workers to unknowingly allow them access to corporate computer systems in order to make an illegal buck.

KnowBe4 does not just train client employees but challenges them, periodically using "penetration tests" against client companies in the role of "hackers." Then the security firm consults with its customers to point out weak spots and those employees who are "phish-prone" — vulnerable to hackers posing as legitimate business people — and offer additional training as needed.

"People need to think before they click," KnowBe4 CEO Stu Sjouwerman told the Wall Street Journal in February. Experts say 70 percent of IT breaches can be attributed to human slip-ups rather than technology flaws in the firewalls that protect corporate data.

Stopping hackers and keeping client companies happy, their employees well trained and corporate information secure are what drives Sjouwerman. And his fast-growing young KnowBe4 —his fifth start-up in a mix that includes the cybersecurity firm Sunbelt Software — is apparently a very satisfying place to work.

KnowBe4 ranks first this year among small companies in the Times' 2016 Top Workplaces survey. It is the six-year-old firm's first appearance on the 100-company workplace list, now in its seventh year.

What makes KnowBe4 so special? Plenty, based on a recent visit to its downtown Clearwater office on the top floor of the Clearwater Tower office at 33 N Garden Ave. Sure, windows offer stunning near-360-degree vistas of the city, including Clearwater Bay and the causeway connecting to Clearwater Beach. Yes, the break room is abundant with goodies on the "Wall of Snacks." And the company is liberal with staff bonuses when sales goals are met.

All good. But not so unusual. What seems to drive workplace enthusiasm at KnowBe4 is an affection and respect for CEO Sjouwerman who, on most days operates from his stand-up desk out in the office's main room. He prefers, he says, a "no door policy."

In its own survey with KnowBe4 employees, Workplace Dynamics (the Pennsylvania firm that works with the Times here and dozens of other newspapers across the country on Top Workplace surveys) found that company workers enjoy the close-knit atmosphere. They like working and playing hard. And they have a lot of faith that Sjouwerman can continue to rapidly grow the business.

"We love him," says company spokesperson Kathy Wattman. That sentiment echoes in the survey interviews done with company workers. The Workplace Dynamics survey each year cites three executives — one for large, midsized and small companies — for leadership based on employee feedback. Sjouwerman was named this year in the small firm category.

Years ago, the CEO reached out to infamous, high-profile hacker Kevin Mitnick, recently released from jail, to become a partner in KnowBe4 and even have the title "Chief Hacking Officer." It proved a marketing coup. Mitnick is considered among the best in convincing a company's employees to unwittingly give up corporate secrets, He now runs his own consulting firm to use his expertise to help fight the very hacking skills he once employed so well.

KnowBe4's slogan is Human Error. Conquered. The company had 52 employees when first surveyed late last year. By late March that number had grown to nearly 90. The company has an option to take the office floor beneath it to handle a workforce it expects to grow to several hundred.

Each workday at 9 a.m. sharp, employees gather around floor cushions in an area of the office called the "town hall" to discuss goals of the day and encourage a "team attitude." In moments of celebration, Sjouwerman distributes "Stu Bucks" and uses a gun that can shoot stacks of currency into the air. In December, the staff was treated to a dinner and went together to see the just-released Star Wars movie.

Company executives like to quote the "three golden rules of Knowbe4" (also noted on the firm's online video). One: "Do it right the first time." Two: "Do it fast." Three: "Have fun while you do it."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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