Surf Control: Steve Purdham

Surfcontrol founder Steve Purdham shares the inspiration behind his internet security solutions company

Only weeks ago the proliferation of child pornography online was front page news. Fear and lack of control goes hand in hand with computers.

Steve Purdham and co-founder Rob Barrow were quick to move in 1996, forming Surfcontrol with a $300,000 investment. “We wanted to take what we had, which was a fairly decent $5m business, but in the land of the living dead without funding, and create a $100m business,” he says.

Already in the software field, he and Barrow looked at the two US sectors of the moment the internet and biotechnology and deciding they knew “bugger all” about the latter they chose the former. “We knew we wanted to be public and global.” Then the focus was sharpened to pornography, gambling and violent web content.

From 1996 to 1998 they built the products and marketing messages in preparation for funding. Surfcontrol listed on AIM in June 1998, raising $13m and launched the first product soon after. It had a near escape prior to launch when it realised Novell, the platform it had been working to, was being outgunned by Microsoft Windows and changed tack. “We didn’t get the design, architecture or functionality wrong – just the platform. The biggest problem would be to not realise we’d made a mistake or not change it when we did realise,” says Purdham.

As UK entrepreneurs operating out of the UK with a UK publicly funded company they then made a crucial decision, put the blinkers on and went after the more mature US consumer market at the expense of everything else.

When interested parties in Germany and France called they were given a list price and fax number and told it was up to them. “What’s the point of winning £2,000 of business and losing £10,000? We were trying to create momentum with around 50 people and you can’t do that by spreading yourself thin.”

This also involved Purdham splitting his time between the two countries his previous business had had an office in California, so it didn’t involve much of a jump. “To all intents and purposes we became a US company. We still spell things badly and have bad syntax.” He and Barrow adopted a ‘war strategy’- you establish a beach head, build up logistics and channel through and start expanding. “If you dilute your beach head the net result is it collapses in on itself.”

As for the products, Purdham had the same gameplan as Microsoft. “The key is to win mind share, rather than market share. Having loads of money isn’t a huge advantage and the product’s not all-important at first. We got ourselves the best reputation in the press, in market analysis, with competitors and customers,” says Purdham.

He co-operated with journalists, industry analysts and used gorilla and traditional marketing to the company’s advantage. “We let them know we existed and others failed to do it as good as we did. Mind share then becomes market share and you improve through customer recognition and feedback. If 20% are asking for the same thing, you can be sure it will be important.”

New market: IT protection software Company: Surfcontrol Founded: 1996 Focus: Web content filtering Owner-manager: Steve Purdham Key factors: Mind share over market share; focusing on one market; AIM fundraising; acting when he realised they’d got a fundamental wrong Turnover: $73.2m

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