Mariano Nunez of Onapsis: “A startup also needs to know its market”

A startup also needs to know its market. It’s essential to know the market your company is in is big, growing, and has the opportunity for growth. Try to recognize if it’s a market you can dominate versus starting a company in a market that is a “red ocean”. Consider starting a company in an […]

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A startup also needs to know its market. It’s essential to know the market your company is in is big, growing, and has the opportunity for growth. Try to recognize if it’s a market you can dominate versus starting a company in a market that is a “red ocean”. Consider starting a company in an established market or possibly create a different market segment that you can really own.

New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.

As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mariano Nunez.

As CEO, Mariano drives the strategic direction of the cybersecurity company, Onapsis. Under his leadership, Onapsis has become one of the fastest-growing technology and cybersecurity companies in the world.

Starting his career as a cybersecurity researcher, Mariano was the first to publicly present on cybersecurity risks affecting SAP platforms and how to mitigate them at major conferences such as RSA, Black Hat and SANS. He was the developer of the first open-source ERP penetration testing framework and has discovered critical security vulnerabilities in SAP, Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft applications.

Mariano has been interviewed and featured in mainstream media such as CNN, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The New York Times. He has been distinguished by EY as “Entrepreneur of The Year 2018”, by MIT as a “Top 35 Innovator under the age of 35”, and by the Boston Business Journal as a “40 Under 40 honoree”, as well as having been selected as an Endeavor Entrepreneur. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and has completed executive training programs at Harvard Business School and Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and it’s a pretty unusual story how I got into cybersecurity. When I was twelve years old, I watched a movie called Hackers and that’s when I fell in love with ethical hacking and the intellectual challenges that come along with cybersecurity. A few months after watching that movie, I was on a trip with my family and there was a gentleman selling books on the street. This book called Maximum Security by Greg Shipley caught my eye and I begged my mom to buy it for me, even though I still couldn’t read English that well. As a twelve-year-old boy, I read the 800-page book cover to cover and fell in love with hacking and cybersecurity.

There was this legendary security researcher in Argentina that I really admired, so I reached out to him and asked if I could join his company. He initially said “no” because I was only 16. I tried again at 18 and said that I would work for free, and so I got my first job working in cybersecurity — and he even paid me, I was in heaven! I have been working in the industry ever since.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

The “aha moment” that led to the creation of Onapsis came when I was working in this first job as a professional “ethical hacker”. A customer hired us to break into their applications and find security flaws before real bad hackers could. As I was testing the application, I realized it was running on an application I didn’t recognize: SAP.

After some research, I realized that SAP was (and still is) one of the most critical business applications on the entire planet. As I started to test the customer application, I found some very critical vulnerabilities in the SAP platform. As I continued to dig into this problem, I quickly realized no one else was researching SAP vulnerabilities or discovered them before. This was a huge “aha moment” for me.

SAP is one of the biggest applications in business, and it runs most of the world’s transaction revenue. Yet it was wildly ignored by the security community. And without a lot of knowledge or experience, I discovered vulnerabilities that no one else was talking about. So that was the beginning where I thought there was potentially a big problem, and therefore a big opportunity, around the security of the world’s most business-critical applications.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Beyond the technical founder at my first job, Julio, there were a group of security researchers from Argentina that had founded an amazing company called Core. They had built it from the ground up and expanded into the United States, selling a very innovative solution for many of the top government organizations in the U.S. These folks were a true inspiration to me and the entire cybersecurity ecosystem in Latin America.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Onapsis stands out because we not only created a company but a whole new market category in cybersecurity. We were the pioneers that realized the largest organizations on the planet were completely exposed to cyberattacks through their business-critical applications. That really sets us apart. As a result, we are now the leaders in this space and are able to communicate that most organizations are not properly securing SAP, Oracle, Salesforce, and other business-critical environments.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We have been able to use the success of Onapsis to have a huge impact on the world and help those less fortunate. At Onapsis, we recognize the importance of giving back to communities and the meaningful impact it brings to the lives of those around us. The Onapsis Cares, aka OnaCares, program was established in 2017 with the mission to inspire, improve, and strengthen individuals while supporting activities that promote positive change in the communities where Onapsis has offices and beyond. These programs align with the Onapsis mission statement to positively affect the quality of life for others through educational and philanthropic initiatives.

Our internship program assists and addresses the cybersecurity skills gap, helping those who want to pursue jobs in the security industry. Unlike the typical internship program where people are recruited from the top universities, the Onapsis internship program currently only accepts applicants from low-income communities in Argentina. These interns get the opportunity to work at our largest research and development center in Argentina. This philosophy allows us to teach and eventually employ individuals from less privileged backgrounds who may not have the opportunity to attend a top university. Thanks to the success of Onapsis, we can provide excellent opportunities to young individuals eager to begin their career paths. These opportunities have had an enormous impact — not only on our company, but also on the cybersecurity industry.

In 2019, we also made an executive decision to expand our volunteer and charity program and align it with business initiatives. Rather than investing in branded giveaways and “swag” for conference-goers, we donate the allotted funds to charitable organizations. When the world went completely virtual as a result of the pandemic, we didn’t stop contributing. For virtual conferences, we took the program a step further. When customers or prospects participated in an online webinar or virtually visited a trade show booth — Onapsis made donations to organizations of their choice.

In 2020 alone, Onapsis donated more than 40,000 dollars to charitable organizations, including The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 50Legs, Feeding America, UNICEF, and many others.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Resiliency, perseverance, and integrity.

  • Resiliency was instrumental to our success. As a bootstrapped startup from Argentina, we faced tough times, from running out of money to team members leaving for other opportunities. And, of course, going through a global pandemic, which we navigated with resiliency as a team. We had to rapidly adjust to a completely remote workforce and rethink our go-to-market strategy and execution as an organization.
  • The other trait is perseverance. When we first founded Onapsis and were pitching to investors in the U.S., we received a hundred “no’s.” Venture capitalists and security experts regularly told me they did not believe securing business-critical systems was a problem. So, we had to persevere and continue to convince investors of the huge opportunity ahead.
  • Finally: integrity. Integrity helped us navigate a lot of decisions during the early years of the company and even today. Having strong principles helped me make hard decisions that were not only good for the company and its operations, but also aligned with what I thought was the right thing to do.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

When I was moving to the U.S. from Argentina, I was a first-time, immigrant CEO trying to evolve and adapt to running a company in the U.S.. I remember hearing this cliche advice — “fake it till you make it.” Now that I look back at that advice, it’s very shallow. I don’t believe that’s an honest way to operate or lead an organization. What’s most important is always to be as genuine as you can. Make sure you’re partnered with good, honest people along the way. Never try to fake it and pretend to be something you’re not.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

The initial years were the hardest. My co-founders and I come from middle-class families in Argentina, so we didn’t have a network or access to capital. We started Onapsis in my co-founder’s bedroom in a Buenos Aires neighborhood. We didn’t have an air conditioner in the summer, and we didn’t have heat in the winter. We had to figure out ways to work and concentrate with what we had.

When we relocated to the U.S., it was a tough challenge for everything from fundraising to hiring. We didn’t have any connections or an established network in the U.S. We had to build our go-to-market teams from scratch, without having done this before, and in a significantly different cultural environment. It was really hard to break through.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Drive comes from your determination to succeed. In my case, I knew I wanted to create and lead a successful business and I didn’t see these challenges as roadblocks but rather just part of the journey. I once read someone defining what it means to start a business or to be an entrepreneur is a form of self-expression. A founder’s journey comes with a lot of challenges and hard times, but you must keep your eye on the bigger goals and stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve. Those challenges and hard times are only temporary. Always stay focused on the ultimate vision.

Other techniques and strategies that I use to overcome challenges is spending quality time with my wife and my daughter. I also enjoy meditating. It’s a technique that I’ve used over the years and have found it to be extremely helpful. It helps me balance and navigate business challenges while staying centered and focused on my goals.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

This is a difficult question. Leading a high growth-startup, highs and lows occur daily. One morning you can get bad news and you start to worry that your business may fail, but five minutes later you may get great news and think, “yes, we’ll absolutely succeed”. This cycle can happen a couple of times all in one day!

Being an entrepreneur is like being on an emotional rollercoaster. There are frequent highs and lows — very highs and very lows. For me, I always try to keep perspective. This is just the daily process of leading a company. When you put the highs and lows into perspective, you start to realize that the highs aren’t that high, and the lows aren’t that low — you have a better view of things and stay balanced. For your mental state, this is very important and helpful.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

That is a great question. It depends on what the founder wants to do with the business and on a personal level with his life. When you decide to raise money from investors, you’re essentially injecting a lot of design principles into your business. Essentially, these partners will help you scale the business faster, but at the end of the day they need to see a return on their investment.

If your goal is to just run the business without any pressure on growth or expectations, then bootstrapping is probably the way to go. On the other hand, if you want to create something that scales super-fast, you might need a lot of capital that you may not have access to. This is where fundraising helps. It becomes your vehicle to grow a company quickly, not only with access to money but also partnering with investors and smart people that will help accelerate your company’s growth.

If you decide to raise capital or bootstrap a startup, it’s not only a business choice — it’s a life choice. My recommendation would be that even if you’re planning to raise capital (and you’re going to need capital) it’s important to bootstrap the business for a bit before you raise. Fund the business however you can initially, but first work to get some traction before raising your first round. This can help maximize the fundraising opportunity.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

  1. From the very beginning, a successful startup needs a great team behind the project. Having a good team that you can trust both professionally and personally is extremely important. You’re going to go through a lot with this team as the company scales. Whether they’re your co-founders or executive team, make sure you trust them, and they are good human beings.
  2. A startup also needs to know its market. It’s essential to know the market your company is in is big, growing, and has the opportunity for growth. Try to recognize if it’s a market you can dominate versus starting a company in a market that is a “red ocean”. Consider starting a company in an established market or possibly create a different market segment that you can really own.
  3. Make sure your product or service has a sustainable advantage. It’s important to approach the problem in a different, new way that creates more value over time.
  4. Have a clear mind that you want your startup to make an impact and have purpose behind what you do every day. You’re building something that’s important and can help other people or other companies instead of just trying to get rich quickly.
  5. Finally, you need some luck. Of course, it’s impossible to control this, but I really like the saying that “luck favors the prepared mind” — so it’s good to work on the company and yourself to be ready for when luck “hits”.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One of the biggest mistakes I commonly see CEOs and founders make is underestimating how hard the journey is and how long it will take to start seeing success. There are anomalies, you see these “overnight” successful startups. Still, in many cases, those overnight successes took a lot of time to develop the specific product and the market value behind it. It takes time to see growth and capitalize on it. It doesn’t happen overnight. On top of underestimating the time it’ll take to make the startup successful, people underestimate how much money it takes and the importance of having a strong business and balance sheet to weather the storms and all the iterations that it will take to scale.

This is pretty hard — especially in the early days of starting a business. At the start, it may not seem like work. Your company’s product or service is something you’re deeply passionate about. Therefore, it feels like you’re working on a hobby because you’re doing something you’ve always wanted to do. It may be hard to keep regular working hours, and you may see yourself working every day for 14-hours a day.

The trick is to stay focused on work, but also prioritize yourself and your wellbeing. Make time to exercise, it’s important for your mind to move your body. Mentally, it’s also helpful to meditate. Meditation is something I’ve put a lot of importance on.

It’s also essential to take time off to rest, relax, and recharge. Even if your company is something you love, give your brain time to readjust and recharge. One thing that really helps me reset is when I go on vacation, I go full out-of-office mode. My staff knows they can text me or call me for something urgent, but I do not check emails. I turn off all email and work communication apps on my phones so I can fully unplug. Otherwise, it’s not a vacation. Checking emails or Slack during your time off means your brain is still working and operating on work at a tactical level.

If I could start a movement, it would probably be something to give opportunities to the less fortunate. I believe that meritocracy is a little bit of an illusion. Everyone doesn’t have the same opportunities, and success is not purely based on effort. People are just born into different contexts and raised in different ways.

And these two factors can really hamper someone’s chances of being successful. I’d like to start a movement that helps level the playing field and give more people better opportunities. Mentorship combined with education and job opportunities can genuinely change people’s trajectory. So, if we can somehow start a movement to give underserved people more opportunities, great things will happen.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Honestly, the person I’d really love to meet is Argentine soccer star, Lionel Messi. He’s a big inspiration to me for what he does on the field, but as importantly, off the field.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can connect with me on LinkedIn [] and follow me on Twitter [].

Also feel free to follow my company pages.

LinkedIn —

Twitter —

These social channels are the best way to stay in the know about what we’re doing at Onapsis.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

It was my pleasure! Thanks a lot.

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