"Founders Who Fundraise" is a blog series highlighting founders in the Bowery Capital portfolio and their origin stories. Have you ever wondered how founders come up with their ideas, how they approach testing and validating, as well as their approach to fundraising? This series will share stories from the founder’s POV and provide insight on the inner workings of starting a VC backed business.
Belsasar "Bel" Lepe is the Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Cerby, an identity security company that addresses nonstandard application risk. Belsasar discusses the origins of Cerby, how he made the decision to launch the company with a Co-founder, the utility behind fundraising, how the fundraising environment has changed in the last 18 months, and the recently announced Series A funding. He also speaks to his personal growth since starting Cerby, and the importance of leaning on those in your trusted network. Belasasar was previously Co-founder and CTO at Ooyala, where he led global product teams in achieving two successful exits. He is an active advisor and investor in start-ups, with a specific focus on Latin America.
How did you come up with the idea for Cerby?
As a former CTO, it always seemed risky to me that there were applications business users wanted to use, but that IT teams were unwilling to approve or support because of their lack of identity standards support. Security tools have traditionally been built with only security and IT users in mind, but many applications that businesses depend on are not up to the necessary security standards.
We refer to these applications as nonstandard apps. Nonstandard applications don’t fit into enterprise IT and security programs because they lack support for modern identity protocols like SAML for SSO and SCIM for automated onboarding and offboarding of users.
So, I knew this problem existed, but I could never quantify how real the pain was and—more importantly—if IT and security teams would be willing to pay to solve the problem. Then, my Co-founder Vidal González and I were connected with a customer from Vidal’s previous company, Wizeline. This customer not only articulated this same problem but quantified the willingness to spend to solve the problem. That verification of a real market opportunity was all Vidal and I needed to hear to jump in and further validate the willingness to pay.
We wanted to build a company that went against the traditional model—a holistic solution that empowers employees and security teams with automation, control, visibility, and a seamless end-user experience that even non-technical users can easily understand. That’s how Cerby was born and how we made these nonstandard apps manageable for businesses from a cybersecurity standpoint.
Can you share how you found Vidal and some of the details around the formation of the company with a co-founder? You had a great career before so why not start it by yourself?
I’ve known Vidal for 14 years. We worked together as part of my last company, Ooyala, and Vidal headed up our engineering team in Mexico. He and I worked closely together—in the trenches—launching several of the most significant video properties online at the time, like ESPN, Bloomberg, and Univision.
Keeping that in mind, building a company is hard, and credit to those individuals who brave the process as solo founders. In my experience, if you know someone you trust who complements your skill set, it’s a no-brainer to team up with that person to build a company together. It’s always great to have someone working side-by-side with you, in the trenches, with the same amount of skin in the game.
Talk to us about your process for raising money. Did you do market validation before? Build the product in advance? How did you think about it?
We were already in market with very large and notable enterprises like Fox, Dentsu, L’Oreal, and Colgate. At this point, we had validated the problem and what the product should look like to solve it.
We planned to raise our Series A at the end of the Summer of 2023, but then we received a preemptive term sheet. That moved our fundraising process forward by approximately three months.
Even with a preemptive term sheet, a lot of due diligence work and prep was still required to close the round.
Give us a window into the recently announced Series A? What was the process like?
Every fundraising effort I have participated in across Cerby, and my last company, has been different. For this round, we received a preemptive term sheet from an investor who ended up being a major strategic player in our Series A round.
As we “filled out” the round, we spoke with 40 or so additional investors, half of whom expressed interest in investing. We ultimately ended up with a round that was 3x oversubscribed. That also means about half of the investors we spoke to said “no” to our Series A round.
End to end, it was about a three-and-a-half-month process. There was a lot more rigor this time, even when normalizing for the typical added due diligence you see when going from Seed to Series A. That, to me, shows how different the fundraising environment is from 18 months ago. There are many more proof points you need to be able to show. You need more customer introductions, product usage data, and proof points around how the company will grow and scale into a proper business.
What was it like balancing the fundraising with operations / day-to-day responsibilities?
It’s not easy. Fundraising is a full-time job. And on top of it, you also need to do your normal day job as a CEO—which isn’t always easy either.
But, I do find a lot of utility in these periods when you, as a founder, need to fundraise and still run the business. On any given day, you might pitch 3 to 5 investors or customer references from the investor. This allows you to iterate and harden your company pitch in a way you can’t during a standard customer sales process.
Why do I say that? If an investor says no, you can usually dig into why. You don’t always get that same level of blunt and direct feedback from a traditional sales process.
I’m not saying I enjoy these periods, but it is undeniable that I get some great feedback that makes its way back into the normal, day-to-day operation of the business. You don’t usually get this tight, brutally honest feedback loop outside fundraising cycles. For that, I’m grateful to be performing this balancing act—difficult as it may be—when the outcomes are a successful funding round and new, actionable insights.
Reflecting on your journey so far, what is something that has changed in your life professionally and personally since starting Cerby?
There’s something to the “work smarter, not harder” cliché. I was a 20-year-old when I co-founded my last company. All-nighters, energy drinks, and cyclical burnout were the foundations of every product I developed and every customer I supported. Eventually, we sold the company for $440M in a successful exit.
As a 30-something-year-old, I am still working my butt off, but I am way more productive for the same amount of energy expended. During these years, I’ve learned to lean on my advisors, mentors, peers, and team much more than I did the first time. And I’ve applied that lesson to my personal life as well. This mindset also validates how beneficial having a Co-founder was when building Cerby.
I’m fortunate that we at Cerby have such an outstanding network we can call upon to short-circuit the acquisition of helpful scar tissue. This is a key change relative to my last time as a founder.
Belsasar Lepe's deep knowledge in building and scaling successful startups offers invaluable guidance to other aspiring entrepreneurs. His ability to capitalize on industry-wide problems, juggle fundraising and operational efforts, and know when to call upon his network demonstrates the importance of meticulous planning and self-awareness. Also, his emphasis on working smarter, not harder, serves as a reminder to entrepreneurs to leverage their energy for optimal productivity.