What do you do when you have a badass product but the world doesn’t understand it?
That’s the question Andrew Morris, now CEO of GreyNoise, was facing.
He had information that could make a seven-figure impact for enterprises. He had a tool that could predict the kind of incidents most of us only hear about in the news. And he had the relentless drive to figure out his niche.
What he didn’t know was how to put the pieces together.
The internet is a noisy place
And GreyNoise is listening to the cacophony. GreyNoise is an intelligence company that monitors the background noise of the internet to determine what noise is—and isn’t—worth your attention.
What the hell does that mean?
Let’s start with servers. There are millions of servers powering the internet. To communicate with a server, your computer uses something called a port. Now, imagine every server is a store in a marketplace, and every port is a door to one of those stores.
Like any crowded marketplace, there are many people milling around. Most are window shopping, and some are checking to see what stores have in stock. These people are harmless. They’re just browsing. But not everyone is benign. There are thieves hanging around, too, and they’re malicious.
A lot of these thieves are standard shoplifters using common tactics. They won’t get past a store’s security system. But a few of these thieves are experienced and determined. They’re monitoring security, noting surveillance, and looking for an undetectable way to break in.
If you owned a store or two, wouldn’t it be nice to know who you should be worry about vs. who isn’t worth your time?
That’s where GreyNoise comes in. They’ve been monitoring everyone milling around the internet and collecting an insane amount of data. Through that data, they’ve created a way for companies to figure out who’s harmless, who’s a common internet pickpocket, and who’s a serious thief.
GreyNoise provides anti-threat intelligence. Instead of telling you what to worry about, they tell you what NOT to worry about.
But they didn’t start this way.
The cool thing no one understood
When Andrew Morris, CEO at GreyNoise, first started working on this idea in 2013, he didn’t even have a product in mind. He was fascinated by data he was collecting, and he assumed if he showed other people, they’d find it cool too. They didn’t. “I figured if I just showed people the data,” He says, “they would be just as excited as me. I was wrong.”
“I figured if I just showed people the data, they would be just as excited as me. I was wrong.”
But that wasn’t because he was wasting his time. He says, “There were current events I was uniquely able to see because I was paying really close attention to this niche data source...I knew the thing was coming, and no one else knew the thing was coming.”
For example, that time in 2016 when Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Amazon, and other big names crashed...for almost an entire day. That was because of something called a Mirai botnet, and it made a hell of an impact.
Events like this clued him into the fact he was exploring seriously useful information, but the pieces were slow in coming together—very slow. “I kept almost getting there,” he says, “I would build this thing, present it...and I never quite got it where I wanted it to be.” The sixth time he put the pieces together, GreyNoise was born: “I had made enough mistakes, enough times, to figure out what I was doing wrong.”
For example, during one of his first iterations, he learned GreyNoise shouldn’t be threat intelligence or a list of bad IP addresses. This is a key differentiator for GreyNoise in the security realm. Most security companies tell you who to pay attention to. GreyNoise tells you who not to pay attention to. They’re anti-threat intelligence.
“I had made enough mistakes, enough times, to figure out what I was doing wrong.”
His second big takeaway was this: the product’s selling point isn’t a web interface, it’s the API. Quick refresher: APIs are a bit like messengers. They relay instructions and responses between two pieces of software. An API is how your app communicates with other technology. In GreyNoise’s case, security professionals get the most value out of GreyNoise when they use the API alongside other security tools. He learned he didn’t need to build another screen for customers to look at.
His third big takeaway was optimizing for more than one use case. Specifically, people needed to be able to use GreyNoise outside of the command line.
By the time he approached us, he had identified all three of these takeaways and worked on his company for years. “Pretty much every time I did some iteration of GreyNoise, I took away another big thing not to do,” he says. He also had nearly 1,000 conversations with users and industry professionals before he spoke with us.
All of which meant he knew who his customers were, what they wanted, and how to give it to them, before he even walked in our door.
The idea behind the GreyNoise project
Morris didn’t ask us to work on the core GreyNoise product (the API). He asked us to revamp, from scratch, an interface called the visualizer. Why build an interface, when the core value is the API? Because the interface tells an important story users need to hear to buy access to the main product.
Many people have never heard of internet background noise. Or if they have, they think it’s not a big deal. The visualizer combats both hurdles. It showcases how real, big, and important all the noise is. What’s more, it gets users excited about the data the API manages.
All of which makes the visualizer a powerful marketing tool. It drives demand by showcasing what GreyNoise can do, why it matters, and why the users would want to purchase the API. And because the visualizer is the first of its kind, it also establishes GreyNoise as an industry leader.
At least, this is what the GreyNoise team wanted the visualizer to do. But the original version was unattractive and difficult to use.
Morris wanted something more accessible and impactful—a gorgeous interface into the GreyNoise data that anyone could use. He wanted a lot of other things, too. He says, “I came in wanting to do every single thing under the sun.” Like most founders, his vision for this project was huge. Way too huge to do everything upfront.
Extracting value for customers
To narrow the scope of his vision (and get his idea into users’ hands more quickly), we started this project the way we start every project: with a Roadmapping Session. In our session with GreyNoise, we doubled down on user perspectives. To do that, we didn’t have to know anything about the data GreyNoise had been collecting; we just needed to know what goes into creating a loveable product for customers.
“They forced me to think about our product from the user’s perspective.”
He says, “Andrew and Austin knew absolutely nothing about internet background noise, and they were still asking me questions that were relevant, that had never even occurred to me before, that were extremely pertinent to what we needed to work on.” And that’s when he realized, “these guys don’t need to know anything about internet scanning. It doesn’t matter. They understand products, user experience, and design, and that’s what is really important here.”
Here’s what that looked like: in the Roadmapping Session, we presented him with a series of screens and worked with him to identify what should go on each page. There was finite space, and only valuable items could fit. So we asked, “what’s important to show users here?”
This forced him to “think about our product from the user’s perspective” and “pare it down to things that really matter.”
Prioritizing 5 key use cases and working backward
To prioritize what actually went into the first iteration of the visualizer, Morris focused on 5 distinct use cases and worked backward to enable those. He’d uncovered these use cases from years of working with the data, improving GreyNoise, and interacting with users.
If a feature or idea wasn’t crucial to one of those use cases, it went on the chopping block. “Anything that wasn’t contributing to those 5 things didn’t matter,” he says.
“It’s never scary to leave something out.”
The idea of cutting and trimming so many ideas may sound unnerving, but Morris said it wasn’t at all scary. From his perspective, “you can always come back. Perfect is the enemy of good. You need to get something in people’s faces as soon as possible.”
Admittedly, this is easier when you have a reason to get something out. He describes GreyNoise as a “scantily-funded” small company, and they don’t have the budget for—or the luxury of—pursuing perfection. So leaving unimportant items out, in order to deliver value to the market quickly, meant progress.
“Perfect is the enemy of good. You need to get something people’s faces as soon as possible.”
Trusting the process, even when you think it’s stupid
Before we hopped into full-fledged mockups (what most people imagine when they hear “designs”), we had more groundwork to do. For example, moodboards and wireframes.
Moodboards are one way designers gather inspiration and define vision. Usually they look like a collection of styles and images the founder likes. Think of it as a design map. It helps everyone get on the same page.
This is important because what a designer imagines when they say “moody” may be entirely different from what you imagine when you hear the word. (Personally, I picture an artsy hotel bar in Chattanooga.) Associating specific visuals with nebulous descriptors helps align the founder, designer, and developers.
That makes sense if you’ve been through a formal design process before. But if you haven’t, it can feel as hokey as a gift shop slogan slapped on a coffee mug. And Morris? He was pretty skeptical of this part. At the time, he thought mood boards were kooky and a big waste of time. But he trusted us and went through the process.
To set the stage here, he had handed us a serious design challenge. He told our team, “I need something beautiful that doesn’t look like a website.” He wanted texture, a ton of negative space, and something that didn’t remotely look like most sites out there. On top of those parameters, he self-describes himself as a stickler for visuals and admits, “I was basically giving them a lot of weird requests.”
That’s why the preliminary steps of the design process were crucial. And when we shared Austin’s initial designs, his exact reaction was:
Thanks to the design process, including moodboards, we were able to translate his tricky idea for the site into tangible mockups. He says, “The very first mockup Austin showed me was the exact thing we went with...I was like, WHOOAAA THAT’S IT!!”
The first thing he did with those designs? Share them with early-adopters.
Involving customers often and earlu
He was so excited about the designs, he circulated them with GreyNoise’s Slack community, investors, and trusted friends. Most people don’t bother to share a work in progress, so this was unusual (but smart). Then he did something else most founders don’t do at this stage—he listened and collected feedback.
He received input from 50+ people, and passed on most of the responses, unfiltered, to our team. That is, except for the bullshit responses.
To determine whether a piece of feedback was bullshit or valuable, he evaluated it against a few factors. If the feedback checked any of the following boxes, he called bullshit and didn’t pass the comment on to our team:
- Missed the point
- Addressed a factor we intentionally ignored at that stage
- Overly focused on cosmetics
- Outside of the brand
- Outside of Morris’s principles
For example, he didn’t pass on comments like “the style of the wireframe sucks.” This is bullshit feedback because it addresses a factor the team was intentionally ignoring; wireframes are blueprints, and they purposefully have no styling.
Another piece of feedback he called bullshit on was “you should use emojis for these things.” Emojis are fine (we’re obviously fans and, confession, thought they might work here), but they don’t fit the GreyNoise brand or personality...at all. He recommends, “Any feedback that goes against your principles is probably bad feedback. Disregard it.”
One other important thing: he didn’t weigh feedback from users or investors differently. If anything, he gave more weight to user feedback, unless an investor was knowledgeable about internet background noise. His main concern was optimizing for users, not additional funding.
“Any feedback that goes against your principles is probably bad feedback. Disregard it.”
Sharing designs wasn’t just for fun or marketing antics (aka COMING SOON!). The feedback GreyNoise collected directly translated into design improvements. He estimates for every 1 in 5 people, “we made a tangible change based on something that they recommended. Generally because they thought of something we didn’t think of.”
Introducing the GreyNoise visualizer
The new GreyNoise visualizer doesn’t look anything like a security product. In fact, it’s more reminiscent of a video game than a standard website.
From a scramble effect on the homepage, to the limited color scheme, all the design choices are intentional.
The scramble effect is a fun visual detail, courtesy of Austin Carr, that contributes to the video game feel.
But as we’ve written about before, good design isn’t just visuals. It’s also how a user moves through a product and gets value from it. One of the main purposes of the visualizer is to help people grasp how big of a deal internet background noise is. To do that, users need to effectively engage with and explore the data.
The primary way they engage the data is through the search bar. So we (mainly the talented Austin Carr) spent substantial effort on small details like autocomplete. The autocomplete feature is key because it helps users discover new queries and expand simple ones. This allows repeat users to conduct more and more complex searches. The version you see below, with inline and scrollable results, took over 30 hours of work.
Once users receive search results, they derive value from diving into the data. That’s why almost everything is clickable. Most tags, examples, and results are items you can click and explore. Plus, the web app is incredibly fast, so clicking through these things is painless.
Check out the visualizer for yourself here: https://viz.greynoise.io/
Why the visualizer is important for GreyNoise
What GreyNoise is doing with their data is difficult to conceptualize. And if you don’t have the ability to drive through the data, you don’t understand how much of it there is. Without this kind of tool, it’s easy to imagine there’s not much internet background noise and it’s not a big deal or relevant to current events. The visualizer makes GreyNoise’s relevance and impact more vivid.
The visualizer is also important because it gives people the autonomy to use GreyNoise data in ways Morris’s team hasn’t thought of yet. For example, he didn’t expect people to use GreyNoise data to:
- Map the time between when a vulnerability is announced and when you get hit hard by large-scale attackers. This essentially tells companies how long they have to “fix their shit” before they’re seriously attacked.
- Reverse engineer why the most common attacks are happening. If bad guys are doing something often, it’s because they’re able to make money off it. So the signals that occur the most in the data are generally the most profitable signals.
But perhaps the coolest thing of all is how much people love using this thing.
Results so far: improving bounce rate by 80% and time on page by 300% 🙀
As a marketing tool, the GreyNoise visualizer is effectively engaging people who are interested in internet background noise. Two leading indicators of this are bounce rate and average time on page. Since the revamp, bounce rate has improved by a mindblowing 80%. And the average time on page has improved 300%. Meaning, people are spending a lot more time interacting with this thing.
It’s also giving users an easy way to share the GreyNoise brand and data. We put in extra hours to make sure you can share any visualizer search result by copy and pasting the URL. The GreyNoise team reports they’ve seen users doing this frequently in chat and social media. Good news for exposure!
And then there are accounts. GreyNoise provides little incentive for you to create an account. The only benefits are these: unlimited searches, sporadic updates, and access to the enterprise API for two weeks. You can already access the tool and data for free, without ever signing up. Yet in just 60 days, users have created over 1,300 accounts.
On the revenue front, it’s too soon to tell if the web app will directly translate into sales, but that’s not the main purpose of the visualizer. GreyNoise is intentionally liberal about granting access to their data. Morris says, “the world is still realizing, slowly, that it needs this thing, and we don’t want to interrupt them while they’re doing that.” He knows it’s very difficult to convince someone they need something and sell that thing in the same breath. So the visualizer is about effective convincing, not big-digit sales.
Establishing authority and a defensible moat
The visualizer doesn’t have a direct line to sales, but that doesn’t mean it provides zero business benefits. One very powerful thing the visualizer does is raise the barrier for entry into this niche. Morris says, “It puts us in a more defensible position. Anyone who wants to come and eat our lunch now has to do something at least as good, if not better.”
Plus, in users’ minds, the visualizer helps establish GreyNoises’s authority. He says, “When you only do one thing, and that thing is ultra-specific, you have to do it really, really, really well. It’s table stakes."
“Anyone who wants to come and eat our lunch now has to do something at least as good, if not better.”
“It’s a success in progress.”
There’s still a lot of work left to do, and we’re excited about that. GreyNoise too. He says, “This has been a really important part of the process that has gotten us a lot further to where we’re trying to go.”
What’s that destination? GreyNoise is on a mission to “demystify internet background noise completely.” They want users to turn to GreyNoise for any and every question that has to do with this topic. GreyNoise aims to be the go-to name for anything related to internet scanning. And the visualizer, Morris says, takes them “way, way closer to getting there.”
Update: In August 2020, GreyNoise announced a $4.8M seed investment led by CRV. 🎉
How to succeed: Morris’s advice for other founders
As we mentioned earlier, Morris has been working on this problem for years and has learned a lot of lessons along the way. Here are some things he wishes he could’ve told himself when he first started:
You have to take complete ownership and responsibility
When it comes to making your idea a reality, he says, “no one is going to care about it more than you.” He advises founders take total ownership and authority of their business, because no one else will do this for you.
You don’t need to be great at everything
Especially at the beginning, you’ll be in charge of everything. But this doesn’t mean you have to be good at everything. He says, “It’s fine that you don’t know everything, and you need to accept that you don’t know everything.” You just need to be good enough to grow to a size where you can hire some help.
“It’s fine that you don’t know everything.”
This might seem like it goes against the first piece of advice—how can you outsource roles and still have complete ownership?—but they’re complementary. He says, “many people are going to care about sales, HR, and programming more than you do. But no one is going to care about the whole fucking thing more than you do.” Outsource your weaknesses, but captain the ship.
Optimize for an eventual outcome, not an immediate output
“You need to figure out if you want to learn how to successfully build a business, if you want to get rich, or if you want to solve a problem,” he says. You can’t optimize for more than one of those at time. He says, “Figure out which one is important to you, because that’s going to change a lot of things down the line.”
“You can’t fall in love with an idea...the output is not what you think it’s going to be.”
Most founders optimize for outputs—a specific product or deliverable—but this is dangerous. Although he’s guilty of doing it, he says, “You can’t fall in love with an idea...the output is not what you think it’s going to be. If it was, you would’ve fucking gotten it right on the first try.” You have to be flexible and optimize for eventual success as opposed to a specific output you can’t yet define.
“It’s better to trust people and get fucked, than keep cards to your chest.”
“You’re going to have a net better result from being open with people, and trusting and working with people,” he says. Much more so than if you keep your cards to your chest and narrowly dodge a big betrayal. Morris himself has been screwed over—multiple times—so this comes from experience. But he insists the benefits of trusting people outweigh the risks and negatives.
He says, “If the idea is good enough, if there’s value to the thing you’re setting out to do, people are going to try to imitate and copy, and that’s an unavoidable fact of life.” But you should “look at that as a positive thing,” he says, “because it means other people are so onboard with your vision that they want some of the spoils of it for themselves. It’s validating.”
“If the idea is good enough...people are going to try to imitate and copy, and that’s an unavoidable fact of life.”
There’s a lot of bullshit in business, so take advantage of the positives
He says there’s “an ungodly amount of thankless work” in running a business. “There’s a lot of short-term failure involved and it’s demoralizing,” he says. It’s no secret being a founder is grueling. It takes a big toll on your mental health, physical health, and relationships.
So it’s important you balance out the hard stuff with the benefits of being a founder. Some of the positives of running your own company include controlling your company culture and work hours. He says, “You have to take advantage of those. Or else you’re getting all the negatives of being a founder and none of the positives.” So, for starters, make sure you take days off.
3 more lessons for aspiring founders
The lessons above are things Morris explicitly advises, but they’re not all we gleaned from working with him. Here are 3 additional lessons we’d recommend to founders.
If you want to build a great product, involve your customers
While there will always be some level of guesswork in product building, you can cut down your number of guesses by listening to your customers. Morris identified his main use cases through conversations. We knew how to improve designs thanks to user feedback. And when Morris first started sharing the beta version with users, most of the feature requests he received were already in our pipeline. He knew what should be in the pipeline, because he knew his customers.
This level of customer-centricity is what some of the best companies out there, like Amazon and Intercom, are built on. If you want a great product, keep in mind it exists to deliver value to customers, and include them early and often in your process.
Limited funding lights a nice, hot fire under your butt
If you’re bootstrapped or have a limited amount of funding, you have a few months of runway at any given time. Ultimately, you want to lengthen that runway. But in the meantime, it should give you some serious sink-or-swim motivation. In GreyNoise’s case, their “borderline bootstrapped” status motivated them to release a lean version of the visualizer quickly, and add to it over time, instead of spending years building the whole vision from the start.
Overnight success is (still) a myth
Morris didn’t come up with this idea over a latte on Monday and email us on Tuesday. He spent years working on a problem he was passionate about. He built multiple versions, talked with hundreds of people, and dug deep into one particular niche.
It’s tempting to view the visualizer as the result of a few months of work—as a founder’s idea we “brought to life” with some elbow grease and smarts. The project certainly involved some of that from our incredible team. But ultimately, the visualizer, and how much users love it, is the result of years of hard work and lessons learned by the GreyNoise team.
So if you’re in your own trenches of hard work and learning lessons, don’t let those seeming overnight successes internet discourage you. They’re myths. The real successes are built with time, diligence, customers, and a whole lot of passion.