With cyberattacks increasing globally for businesses big and small, North Texas native Tiffany Ricks aims to help protect them from one of the biggest sources of cybersecurity breaches—the companies’ own employees.
To accelerate that mission, her startup HacWare—which focuses on automated cybersecurity training—landed an oversubscribed $2.3 million seed round led by Oregon-based venture capital firm Elevate Capital.
“If you want to have a job, if you want to have a business that’s going to grow in this market, your team and your employees have got to figure out how to do their job more securely or you’re going to go out of business,” Ricks told Dallas Innovates. “There’s going to be more of a shift to the human factor, because that’s what cyber criminals are targeting right now. And they will continue.”
A background in ‘ethical hacking’
With a background in ethical hacking and helping the U.S. Department of Defense figure out how hackers with malicious intents break into a system, Ricks said she noticed the main way hackers were getting in was through phishing attacks—targeting individual employees with targeted scams. Initially, Ricks set out to make HacWare into a cybersecurity consulting firm, but she realized she needed a software tool to automate her process and expand her reach.
Launched in 2019, HacWare helps train employees to prevent themselves from being the target of an attack. It does this mostly for small and mid-sized businesses, which Ricks said are often more vulnerable, since leaders often think they’re too small to be targeted. HacWare’s technology integrates with a company’s Google Workspace or Office 365 software, sending out simulated attacks to help the business understand the risks in its system—and which individual employees may be more likely to engage with a phishing attempt. That allows HacWare to follow up with targeted cybersecurity training for specific employees at an organization.
“As they’re working in their email, (the employee) may see a message that looks suspicious, or, if they haven’t had any training, it may seem like it’s coming from someone they know or a brand they work with,” said Ricks, who splits her time between DFW and New York, after joining a Techstars program there in 2020. “The platform is trying to see are they going to reply, are they going to click on this, are they going to open up the attachment. Then it takes those insights and creates a personalized training experience, right in their email, to show them what they did wrong.”
Only about 115 Black female founders have raised more than $1M
With the new funding, which brings HacWare’s total to $2.5 million, Ricks is focused on building out her team. While not disclosing the company’s head count, Ricks said she plans to triple the number of HacWare employees in areas like engineering, sales, and marketing, with many of the new hires coming from the DFW area.
Ricks said the number of established North Texas cybersecurity firms has created a large talent pool for the space. The new hires will allow HacWare to convert existing customers in its pipeline, create more immersive training content, and build out its developer network, which helps HacWare find ways to better integrate with internal systems and human resources software platforms.
“The key for this platform is it’s what I like to call prescriptive. It really tries to understand what you don’t know and how can we train you and test to see if you actually retain that information,” Ricks said. “We want to make sure that your people know what to do, and whether (a cybersecurity software) that blocks the attacks works or not.”
Joining the seed round, which makes Ricks one of only around 115 other Black female founders to raise more than $1 million in venture capital funding, were 2.0 Ventures, Aura Innovation Fund, and Chai Angels. As part of the deal, Nitin Rai, founder and managing partner at Elevate Capital, will join HacWare’s board.
‘We’re going to put our heads down’
Ricks said HacWare will look to grow as it has for the past few years, by rapidly launching new product features on a weekly basis, including one this week aimed at phishing attacks through text messages. It’s a strategy the company adopted after pausing fundraising efforts around 2020, when it began investing its revenue in building out the product. Ricks said that allowed HacWare to connect more with customers and build the tools they want and need. And that in turn has led to more investor interest. She added that a Series A round could be in the pipeline within the next 14 to 16 months.
“There’s a huge, underserved market that hasn’t been really tapped,” Ricks said. “We’re just going to put our heads down. We’re going to focus. We’re going to give our customers what they want. We’re going to do it fast. And we’re going to outpace our competitors in an offering.”
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