It's a challenge interviewing Eugene Kaspersky, the CEO Kaspersky Lab – and I've done it a few times. You come prepared with a list of questions, but he doesn't answer any of them. At least not in the way you expect or want.
Take my opening gambit: let's talk consumerisation. Most in the industry will happily and readily discuss the challenge of managing personal devices in the enterprise.
With Kaspersky I get a dissertation on the entire future of IT. It's not a question of the question being lost in translation either. I think. Here goes then: interview number 3.
“Consumerisation? The first time I heard about consumerisation was in 1996 or 1997. In IT it's not about consumerisation or about IT security. The environment has changed so quickly with new services, new social networks etcera. Consumers change brands so quickly. It's a fight for speed, it's a fight for battery life, and it's a fight for system resources ... in the end it's a technology fight and it's mostly about the products based on the same technologies, same formulas BUT different marketing. That's consumerisation.” he says.
Is it? Let's leave that one. Maybe come back to the challenge of managing these devices in the enterprise a little later. What about the iPad I venture, surely this is an example of a consumer device that is changing the world?
Kaspersky laughs and points me to Samsung recently citing the concept of the iPad first appearing in a scene within Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey – a film made in 1968 (you can find the scene on YouTube and yep, Samsung has a point). This is part of the South Korean tech giant trying to prevent Apple putting an injunction on sales of its Samsung Galaxy Tab. “Did you see that? Very funny, ha ha!” he says. I guess it is. He continues.
“At the moment Apple has a big market share. But I am sure that in the future Android will dominate. It happened 30 years ago with the Apple II and IBM PC. The question who is going to be a leader: Microsoft or Android? My view is that if Microsoft follows the Apple closed system it doesn't have any chance to have a visible market share in mobile. Because the winner is the vendor able to build community.” he says. What he really means is, I think, an open developer community, after all Apple has a pretty successful community of users.
“We do. One of the reasons we have been successful is our partner community, which is hugely valuable to us. We are very loyal to our partners and they remain loyal to the company and this arc allows us to develop new products.” he says.
It's certainly true that Kaspersky Lab has been remarkably successful across the globe and in markets that it may not have been expected to do well such as the US.
Kaspersky, all thoughts about the challenges consumerisation now off my mind, fires off some stats for my delight. He grins the famous Kaspersky grin, when you don't know whether he is serious or not.
“Symantec has around 2 billion endpoints, McAfee has 1 billon, Trend Micro around half a billion – us, the same. In terms of territories we are everywhere, we have a very visible market share and presence everywhere around the globe, except Japan and South Korea. Japan is an extremely conservative (that is, a hard to crack) market. The two most conservative markets are the UK and Japan, why? I don't know –maybe it's because they are both island-based countries. Brits are known as a very conservative nation, so the Japanese."
He explains that will change and its all about marketing, particularly in Japan. One wheeze is to sponsor a Japanese pop group comprising apparently 20 young women. He suddenly whips out one of the various marketing trinkets that are scattered throughout his office to make his point.
It's a paper fan emblazoned with the company logo and picture of one of the said Japanese women. This then is the way to sell anti-malware in Japan. For a taste, try visiting kasperksy.co.jp – it's certainly different. Sophos, eat your heart out.
But you can't deny the company's success in the aftermarket. And now he's determined to get a slice of the pre-load market. And if he's half as successful then Symantec, McAfee should be worried. On the pin board behind his desk is a list of target PC manufactures. I'm not allowed to see it up close but one can does not need much imagination to realise who might be on that list.
“We are very successful in consumer retail; consumers are much less loyal to a product and are more likely to change. We are not such a big name in PC preload. We are not able to get in touch with big names… yet.” He points to a green line on the list. “We are there” he says, with a look that suggests he expects to be further up the list the next time we meet. He probably will be.
So I mention McAfee and its new silicon daddy, Intel. Doesn't this make his life a little easier, a competitor pretty much taken out of the AV market by a parent that pretty much understands hardware only?
“Yes, I was very happy!” he says and laughs again. “McAfee will change its focus and concentrate on hardware. I said this last year, now its reality. Its excellent end point technologies will suffer. They will be closer to the hardware, Intel is a hardware company – I don't know any successful software project from Intel…except one, Intel's C++ compiler because it is optimised for Intel!”
“I don't want to say it's the wrong decision, I don't want to say that their ambition to build new security standards is necessarily a bad business decision. But for us in the end point security business, its very good news because one is out!” he says.
What about the other big beast – Symantec. No Intel inside there, instead a giant that still pretty much dominates the security market and increasingly one with enterprise services attached?
“Yes but the difference is that Symantec is taking on new areas too quickly. They are just buying companies. We are going very slowly, we want to guarantee that what we are doing we are doing in a very, very good way. Symantec is a public company, it's a very big company and their targets are financial. I want to keep my company having different targets, but some human targets… to save the world.” he says.
This saving the world bit, no smile accompanies that. Ironically it's an ambition he shares with the now departed former McAfee CEO Dave DeWalt – who liked to bang on like this in front of customers and press but you knew it was just marketing, flim flam. Is it the same with Kaspersky? Is it just something to say? Maybe he does believe he is, like his company slogan says “here to save the world”. I can't tell. Maybe it doesn't matter, maybe we should just admire his business sense and single minded vision and focus for his company, one he is determined to keep true to that vision.
“To keep the spirit of the company we have to be very careful about the people we employ here which is why we are extremely conservative about acquisitions. I don't want to damage the company with strangers. There has been only one acquisition in the history of the company, the Spamtest Project…six or seven years ago. We have come to close to other acquisitions but we pulled back. It's dangerous for the company.” he says
That sounds weird or even a little “Russian” to me but it is tempered by what he says next. Kaspersky is an advocate of independence and employees that can think and act for themselves. So it's about getting high grade, high value employees?
“People need to be able to take their own decisions. Kaspersky Lab is like an army of semi-independent people but to run this army we need to have a special spirit. I need to trust people in the company and to trust them I need to be sure of them, and if they are random people from acquired companies I cannot be sure of them.I want to keep that freedom to keep building my company” he says, the first time he has talked of the company as “his”.
“The most successful companies are like this. Its about spirit, it's about management. So to get back to our competition, we are not moving resources, we are allocating more resources slowly to enterprise products.” he says.
How important is Kaspersky to Russia then? After all it's one of the few Russian businesses not connected to oil or gas that is well known outside Russian borders – you can even see it logo travelling at 200mph on the F1 circuits around the globe.
“I think it is better for you to ask Russia! But we are an example to other Russian IT companies on how to build an international company. Most Russian IT companies are focused on the domestic market. Many of their managers are 50, 60 years old born in the Soviet Union…” he says.
But at 46 that Kaspersky is close enough to that bracket . He too could have built an inward facing, reasonably successful anti-virus business but he didn't. I'm at the end of my third interview (in five years) with the CEO of Kaspersky Lab I'm no closer to understanding the man or his success – except that he is contradictory, dominant and charismatic.
Take the contradictions – one minute he talks about getting into the preload market, which is largely for the consumer market, and in the next breath tells me that PCs in the home are finished - “just for old people”. It's all about mobile now – except in the enterprise! Consumerisation is just about a fight for consumers wallet.
Was it lost in translation? Is it just Russian bluff? Maybe he's right? What is consumerisation except just another facet of keepinf systems secure, why get hung up on it? Maybe it is saving the world. Stick to what you know, be a leader in your filed in the world will follow. Here's to the next time then.
When Kaspersky Lab's sponsorship of the Ferrari F1 team is mentioned, Kaspersky become very animated – thrilled even. He's just returned from the Italian GP at Monza.
He pulls out copy of an Italian newspaper featuring a photo of Ferrari drivers standing in front of Kaspersky logo in Ferrari pits. “We didn't pay for that!” he says. He's not a natural motorsport fan, but as he puts it: “as a man, I like it”.
“It was a commercial decision. We were looking for a global sponsorship but football was too simple a game. We wanted a technical sport to match Kaspersky Lab's image. It's also a very dedicated technical team there, it's a garage full to technicians and lot of computers. A Formula One car is a big computer with wheels” he says, not inaccurately.
Kaspersky uses the sponsorship to entertain customers and partners. “They are very happy when we ask them to come to Formula One races. We take them to the garage, sometimes they meet the drivers.
So has it been commercially effective? “We are still waiting for financial figures but my impression is that it is. When we met Ferrari, we just said: ‘We are serious about this'. And we are; because Ferrari doesn't let just anyone be a sponsor…they are very selective”. he says.