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Dec. 14, 2021

Nira COO, Marie Prokopets on Pivoting From Search to Security, Context Switching, Balancing Risk, and Breathing

Nira COO, Marie Prokopets on Pivoting From Search to Security, Context Switching, Balancing Risk, and Breathing

After doing $26B of M&A at Diageo, Marie Prokopets joined the startup world a cofounded Nira.com, a way to secure your company documents and access controls. As COO at Nira, Marie joins us to talk about pivoting from search to security, context switching, and what happens when vendors mess up access controls.

Marie Prokopets on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MarieProkopets

Marie Prokopets on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marieprokopets

Hiten Shah on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hnshah

Michael Koenig on LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/in/mkoenig514

Episode website: https://betweentwocoos.com/nira-coo-marie-prokopets

Transcript: https://betweentwocoos.com/nira-coo-marie-prokopets/#transcript


After doing $26B of M&A at Diageo, Marie Prokopets joined the startup world, and together with Hiten Shah, founded Nira.com a way to secure your company documents and access controls. As COO at Nira, Marie joins us to talk about pivoting from search to security, context switching, and what happens when vendors mess up access controls.

Nira.com 

Marie Prokopets on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MarieProkopets

Marie Prokopets on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marieprokopets

Hiten Shah on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hnshah

Michael Koenig on LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/in/mkoenig514 

Episode website: https://betweentwocoos.com/nira-coo-marie-prokopets

Transcript: https://betweentwocoos.com/nira-coo-marie-prokopets/#transcript

 

Transcript

Marie Prokopets

Michael Koenig: [00:00:00] Between Two COO's is a podcasts where Chief Operating Officers from all sorts of companies come to share their insights, advice, and crazy stuff.
Michael Koenig:Hello and welcome to Between Two COO's I'm your host, Michael Koenig, and I'm excited to welcome our guests. Marie Prokopets, COO of Nira, a software as a service used by enterprise IT teams to protect company documents from an authorized access.
Michael Koenig: Welcome Marie. Thanks for being here.
Marie Prokopets: Hey, Michael. Yeah. Thanks so much for having.
Michael Koenig: Did I do Nira justice?
Marie Prokopets: Yes, that's exactly what we do.
Michael Koenig: Perfect. Well, we will definitely get there. I want to hear more about it, but you've had quite the career from strategy at PWC to Diageo and then into software. I mean, you've been a part of $26 [00:01:00] billion worth of M&A, and now you've built four software products. And oh, and you write a comedy on the side, right? So with all this going on, how'd you end up COO? What was, what was your path?
Marie Prokopets: So my path has definitely been winding. , I started out, I got a business undergrad because my parents really wanted me to study business there.
Marie Prokopets: You know, immigrants from Russia. They came over in the seventies and yeah, for them, like business was the way to go. They even told me, you can, you can be a computer scientist or you can be, you know, working at a company, just doing something related to business. And so I tried that out, my undergrad and I was like, I really don't like this back then, I just wasn't that excited about it. And it's probably that rebellious part of me that just didn't want to do it. So then I ended up getting a master's in English lit, which is like [00:02:00] so far off from, you know, business, undergrad.
Michael Koenig: Yeah. No, totally, totally. Okay.
Michael Koenig: Philosophy.
Marie Prokopets: Yeah. So you get it. So yes, you don't have to follow a certain path. Education-wise to be a COO. And then from there I kind of wanted to get a job right out of grad school. I realized that journalism just doesn't pay much at all. That was what I was thinking of back then. It was like 21 grand a year was the starting salary.
Marie Prokopets: Which like nobody can live in New York City or you have to be, you know, on that salary back then. So yeah, I ended up kind of finding my way into business writing and very quickly thereafter, I got sucked into sorted out at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, went from a marketing into the strategy and M&A consulting practice, worked on some really, really awesome deals.
Marie Prokopets: Um, really learned a ton, did not touch tech. Um, so I didn't get scared away. It was all like mostly retail, consumer automotive and a [00:03:00] few other industries, and then ended up over at Diaggio, doing strategy as well. Um, a bit of M and a, and then, um, got into productivity. Which was actually called innovation at the ICO and really loved building products.
Marie Prokopets: Like that was my first foray into building something back then it was like a physical good. And I loved that and I loved all the different aspects and I was super into all the risks. There could be in mitigating the risks, all that really nerdy stuff. And there's a lot that can go wrong, you know, when you're building something people consume.
Marie Prokopets: And then, you know, at a certain point in my career, Diageo is there for like five and a half years. I decided I wanted to go off and do something on my own. I didn't quite know what, at that point I was living in San Francisco and I, I just kinda got sucked into the startup scene because you inevitably meet people and startups when you're in San Francisco and met my co-founder.
Marie Prokopets: Um, well now co-founder. It's just, yeah, it's just history since then. So that was about five and a [00:04:00] half years ago, um, left my kind of stable, steady job and yeah. Ended up doing what I'm doing now, which is, you know, I'm the co-founder and CEO of Mira and every day is different and just constantly learning.
Michael Koenig: So how'd you end up because as, as a business person, you could've gone. Into the CEO role, you could have gone into the COO role. How did you end up in the COO position? What was it about?
Marie Prokopets: Yeah, it's really funny when I was much younger. So earlier in my career, people used to always tell me or say to each other and then tell me about it.
Marie Prokopets: Like, I can see Marie being a COO of a public company. And I always thought like, why I didn't even know what a CEO was. I'm just like, why do they think that I don't really understand. And, um, I still am. I'm still figuring that part out, but, um, and hopefully public at some point, but you know, for me really, I do love the kind of like [00:05:00] nuts and bolts of making the organization work, scaling and organization.
Marie Prokopets: I do really, I'm more kind of risk minded and thorough, and I don't like to make. , random, quick decisions, not to say that I move slowly, but I like to be pretty thoughtful. I'm also slightly more risk averse, I say, than the average startup CEO. So for me, the COO role was just kind of natural and people could see that before, before I did.
Michael Koenig: That's great. And you've found a great CEO that that was a good fit for you kind of balance each other out. Yeah.
Marie Prokopets: Yeah, we really do. I mean, we didn't have titles for our jobs for the longest time. That's something that kind of comes when you've raised money and. You just have to make up, who's doing what?
Marie Prokopets: And then especially who owns raising money. Yeah. I think that's another thing. Like, I don't love, at least today. I don't love going out in the spotlight. Like I'm not the person that wants to go and do a talk in front of 500 people. Um, I used to be afraid [00:06:00] of podcasts. That was like a couple of years ago.
Marie Prokopets: I'm okay now, but I'm, I'm less the person that wants to go run around and do fundraising and things like that. And I'm the more, the person that wants to focus on, like how do you get things going in the.
Michael Koenig: As the COO. Now, what surprised you about the role? What didn't you expect?
Marie Prokopets: Um, well, for us, and we're probably not traditional in terms of how we've structured things.
Marie Prokopets: We've put a lot of the customer facing parts of the business under the COO. So I own marketing, which includes go to market, sales and then all the kind of customer facing customer success. Eventually customer support. And I didn't expect that. I thought as a COO, maybe I'd have fewer reports or like maybe I'd be focused on, let's say legal and HR.
Marie Prokopets: Um, I didn't quite expect to have so much customer facing stuff that I was also responsible for. So that was a huge surprise. And I do think that it works really well [00:07:00] because we almost even consider for our company, you know, we're, we're a security product we're building, you know, the tool that we're building and have as for it and security folks primarily.
Marie Prokopets: And then also, you know, some secondary customers like legal and compliance, but yeah, it makes a lot of sense. We basically split the org between engineering and non-engineering. And so I ended up managing a lot of the kind of non-engineering parts of it, as well as obviously collaborating a bunch of engineering.
Marie Prokopets: And then, you know, there's the other surprises that happen, which are the daily, um, things are going off the rails. How do you fix it? I had a big one of those this morning that started at like, I think 8:00 AM or something. And so you're just constantly kind of surprised by those daily oh crap. There's this thing I have to fix.
Marie Prokopets: Yeah. And I'm sure you're used to that too. I mean, when, when, when we were chatting earlier, before we started recording, you said something like this podcast is going to help you kind of wind down after all the craziness of being a COO. And so, yeah, there's [00:08:00] just the, the daily, the daily things that you're constantly dealing with.
Marie Prokopets: And I think a CEO's role also is a bit different for a startup. That in a larger company, because you have to kind of balance risk and being risk averse and being super thorough with, okay, we don't have much time to move every day is like a huge deal. And obviously startups don't have infinite cash in the beginning, of course, either.
Marie Prokopets: So you're, you're basically fighting against the clock in so many different ways. And so that's something that I think as a COO, you have to be really flexible. And then, yeah, I think that is surprising. Like you wouldn't think CEO's are really that flexible necessarily. And, but you've got to, you've got to have that muscle.
Michael Koenig: Absolutely. And especially going into the go to market side of the business, was that something that you'd had a lot of experience with? 
Marie Prokopets: I've done a lot of things like in, in many roles at the couple of companies I've worked at and sales and customer success, [00:09:00] I had never touched anything related to. I had done some like selling materials that I, you know, worked on.
Marie Prokopets: So, and definitely a bunch of marketing stuff, but yeah, this isn't a new adventure for me, for sure. And you know, there's a lot of rigor that we can add to it from an operational standpoint, dashboarding, what are the, basically, what are the goals and outcomes? And that's what I keep pushing on constantly.
Marie Prokopets: Like every single day is. What what's the outcome of this meeting? What are the, what's the goal that we want to get to then of course, measuring ourselves against those goals? So the nice thing about sales is you can kind of systematize it and even customer success as well.
Michael Koenig: So in terms of getting acclimated to the go-to-market side, what are some resources that you found?
Marie Prokopets: I don't personally love reading a lot of the business books. I don't know if it's like that rebellious side of me from college when I was like, oh, I don't like business school. I don't know if that's [00:10:00] what's coming out yet. It might be. I learned experientially by doing and so for the go-to market side, I mean, I didn't know how to do any of this stuff in software.
Marie Prokopets: I basically. Try it, you know, you try methodology, you, you kind of guess how to do it and you do it. And I'm obviously lucky to have folks that I'm surrounded by who have tons of experience. So there's never a question I won't ask. I think that's another thing that really helps is always ask questions. If you don't understand something don't be shy or embarrassed for me on the go-to-market side, I really learn a ton from our customers.
Marie Prokopets: We have really brilliant advisors to that talking to about even like marketing ideas, go to market strategies, sales things that we're working on. Like those are brilliant resources for us. And it's different than just reading it in a book, because these are folks who have grown companies or had specific roles like they were CEOs or, you know, running [00:11:00] sales and yeah, that's the, for me, that's the best resource.
Michael Koenig: We all have those moments where you kind of look up and you go, well, never thought I'd see that. [00:12:00] Do you have one that, that comes to mind that you can share with us?
Marie Prokopets: Yeah, I'll share one. That's related to something that our product helps with, that you just came to mind. I was working with one vendor of ours that had access to a bunch of confidential information and they work with a different vendor as well. So, so there's now a second third party.
Marie Prokopets: They're not the most sophisticated vendor when it comes to like Google shared drives. And also neither is anyone necessarily. It's like, it can be really confusing. It's part of why Nira exists. And so vendor  A we'll call them basically created a folder, but they just did it by copying vendor B's folder structure that they had for like different clients.
Marie Prokopets: And it just so happened that literally every single person at vendor B Was added to this folder. It was like an all@thatcompany.COM account. Yeah. And so me I'm, like I said, I'm risk averse. I'm suddenly looking at this and I'm [00:13:00] like, okay, wait, you know, how is it that vendor B even has access to this stuff?
Marie Prokopets: And then why does vendor B have every single person at their company? And it was even worse. It was like they could search for this stuff. And this is things like board notes and all sorts of stuff. I don't want out there. Yeah. Um, so that was, oh, crap moment where I had to kind of scramble. I had another one of those moments today where it's another vendor A and B kind of thing, vendor A recommended, a different vendor to work with on something.
Marie Prokopets: And so cool. We trust vendor A. Vendor B was really bad and didn't align with like best practices for vendor A that we already trust. And some software that vendor A provides. And then I told vendor A, like, Hey, just so you know that they don't align. Like you shouldn't recommend these folks. And there's some other issues and vendor A, vendor B all this stuff, vendor B emails me and is like, Hey, I heard you have a [00:14:00] problem with us.
Marie Prokopets: And so I'm like, oh, And this is like multiple hours of work that was about to go to waste things, resolve themselves, but it was over the course of a day and tons of scrambling and trying to kind of manage all these relationships and being willing to walk away from people too. Like I was willing to walk away from both of the vendors.
Marie Prokopets: I'm trying to think of stuff. That's more of an oh crap.
Michael Koenig: I don't know, sharing everything from vendor A to vendor B that's, that's a pretty big, oh crap. So, and that's like a, a screaming advertisement too, for why what you're building exists. And what took you guys down that path? What took you and Hiten and the rest of your team down the path?
Marie Prokopets: Yeah, so we actually started out as an enterprise search tool. It was called FYI. And it would allow employees to basically connect to all of the different collaboration apps they were using. We supported like 24 different apps, like Gmail and [00:15:00] Google workspace and Slack and Microsoft office, all those types of things.
Marie Prokopets: Um, and then they could search across the apps and find documents they needed. And we were really focused on solving that problem. It is still to this day, a big problem. But we kind of learned this additional use case one day where he and I were onboarding a new customer to the tool in person in San Francisco.
Marie Prokopets: This was years back. And he kinda, you know, he got into our tool and he was like, what did you guys do? He started freaking out he's the CEO of like a 50 person startup. And we were like, what do you mean. And so in our collaboration app, it basically on the right sidebar, it shows every single person who has access to documents.
Marie Prokopets: And he's like, you shared the documents with all these people who shouldn't have access. And of course we didn't. So we've told them, okay, click on the people that you're concerned about and he did. And he's like, oh yeah, You know, this person [00:16:00] was a contractor. They haven't worked with us in years. They have access to all these confidential documents that are being changed all the time.
Marie Prokopets: This person like this is their personal email, they're an employee. I don't know why they have access on here. This person we fired, it's like a really bad situation and they still have access to a bunch of stuff. And so he was freaking out. They were about to do another round. Like he wanted to just have everything buttoned up for that fundraising.
Marie Prokopets: So the guy was up until 3:00 AM using our tool, basically clicking on the documents specifically that these people had access to and removing them. And that was easier than how Google did it, but it was still awful because he had to do it, you know, individual document, individual person at a time.
Marie Prokopets: So that's the first time he and I thought, okay, wow, there's something here. This is a problem. And then what we started doing after that was essentially talking to it. People, because this is what IT people do. They own this, you can look in their job descriptions. And a lot of them, it actually says, you [00:17:00] know, they have to, administer Google workspace or one drive and, you know, control access on, on documents.
Marie Prokopets: And the more IT people we talked to, the more we realized that this is both, you know, a huge problem. And also nobody solved. And something as simple, like at the simple question, right? Like who has access to your company documents and folks can't answer it. And so, so that was when we just started building the tool.
Marie Prokopets: And the more I tell people, we talked to, the more we realized, like we should not be focused on the enterprise search side of things. Like we just need to put all of our efforts towards, you know, the new security product and we have. Really focusing on that for probably the last year and a half, we've been focused on it.
Marie Prokopets: We've had customers since last year, you know, sizeable companies for sure. Public and pre IPO. And then we, we kind of went public with the fact that we had this product and we pivoted our name. So now [00:18:00] we got a new four-letter domain, which is awesome, nira.com. That was, that was not fun.
Marie Prokopets: That's another surprise from an operational standpoint is buying domains and dealing with all that stuff. And yeah, that's another story, but, we pivoted to be Nira and, just a a hundred percent focus on protecting company documents. And, you know, we started with Google workspace, but we'll be adding more applications soon and, also expanding beyond just documents.
Michael Koenig: If there are people listening right now, I guarantee that a lot of us have all experienced that where it's "oh, wow. That person stopped working here four years ago." But none of us want to admit that we found this quietly, cleaned it up. And I can think of a number of times when I personally have come across this.
Michael Koenig: And then it becomes even more of a problem when you start working with different law firms or consultants, right. You're pulling in [00:19:00] social media consultants and you just got to really tighten up those access controls so Nira makes a lot of sense. It sounds like y'all really kind of stumbled across a great solution to a problem that we all have. And maybe aren't admitting it.
Marie Prokopets: You wouldn't believe that. The stuff we find for customers. It's, it's pretty scary. I mean, just the hidden, the hidden things that sit there for years and persist and nobody has visibility into it and we've had multiple customers be like, oh my God, like there could be lawsuits on this stuff.
Marie Prokopets: This is really scary.
Michael Koenig: You should have like a little icon that just reminds people to breathe.
Marie Prokopets: That's just a good idea.
Michael Koenig: It's all gonna, everything's gonna be okay. Just a reminder. Everything's going to be okay. Just breathe. It's kind of like an apple watch.
Marie Prokopets: Yeah. I love that. Yeah, that is good. Yeah. It's funny too.
Marie Prokopets: Yeah. It scares like startups all the way up. With startups. I mean, I'm sure you've [00:20:00] created a document on a personal account you don't even realize sometimes. And then yeah. One other thing I want to say about just the problem. It's interesting. We did a, we did a security survey, basically like employee security practices and this blew my mind.
Marie Prokopets: I think it was the 32% of people said that they can literally today go and access documents from previous employers that are currently sitting in Google Dropbox or Microsoft products. Like they still have access that blew my mind. And then like 20% were like, we didn't check. So it could be way higher.
Marie Prokopets: So it's yeah. It's, it's just frightening.
Michael Koenig: Yeah, absolutely. Well, yeah, the last question. For new COO's for the veterans that are going into a new business to their next role, what advice would you give them to someone just walking in and trying to learn the ropes and figure out what they need to do? [00:21:00]
Marie Prokopets: I think, you know, first of all, you want to treat every experience like a learning experience.
Marie Prokopets: Um, I was talking to someone earlier today. It was just, I was interviewing a candidate and they're at really large companies and they're super operationally minded. And they were just asking like at a startup or a smaller company, how do you deal with the lack of resources? How do you ask someone what to do when there's nobody there?
Marie Prokopets: Like there's no real resource that knows the answer and it's on you. And so for me, it's been a big exercise in being open to. Learn and make mistakes and obviously do your best to not make super egregious mistakes and obviously take measured risks. But I think having that kind of learning mindset and not putting so much pressure on yourself to have the right answer immediately is really, really helpful.
Marie Prokopets: Or else you're just going to kind of get stunned by all the things that are being thrown at you. I think also just really learning how to context. [00:22:00] And for some people that comes naturally and for some other people, they have to kind of learn to do that because as a COO, you're just going to have to deal with just all the different issues that are coming at you, all the different people in the company that you need to work with, all the different initiatives, you just have to be able to go from one thing and then like, shut that right off once you're done with it.
Marie Prokopets: And then move on to the next thing that you have to tell. I don't know if you ever deal with that, but that's one that I'm just like constantly context switching all day long.
Michael Koenig: Absolutely. That's what it's about. Sometimes you feel like you're playing whack-a-mole. Do you have any secret tips for context switching?
Marie Prokopets: I think just not getting hung up on like basically you have to let something go. You can't get hung up and keep thinking about something. Like you can't be in one conversation with somebody and then like have your next meeting and continue thinking about the last thing. I take a lot of notes, actually.
Marie Prokopets: That is one of my, I [00:23:00] wouldn't say it's just for COO's, but that's like one of my hidden really, I guess, talents or super powers, I take like crazy organized notes. And so then anytime that this thing comes up again. I can just like, look in the notes and then I can give exactly what happened. Know sometimes I'm like, I mean, you can see me on the video, but like, I've got a million of these lying around.
Marie Prokopets: So I have a million of the kind of handwritten notes, but for me, I'd just type a lot. So during meetings that helps me both process information as well as again, be able to come back to it and context, which, because I'm not worried about keeping all of that information straight.
Marie Prokopets: Like it's, it's just there if I need it. Right.
Michael Koenig: Well, there you have it. That's great advice. So figure out how to context switch everyone. Don't make decisions quickly, let
Marie Prokopets: things move quickly
Michael Koenig: and make [00:24:00] them don't listen, don't make them quickly, but maybe that's that. And that'll be, that'll be the, the title of this episode.
Michael Koenig: Well, there you have it. So Nira.com, is that where people should go to check it out?
Marie Prokopets: Yeah, absolutely Nira.com. You can obviously find me or my co-founder on Twitter, @MarieProkopets. And then my co-founders he's @HNshaw is his Twitter. He's got more followers than me, but quite a few.
Michael Koenig: Well, listen, everyone go check out Nira. And when you find out all of the random people that have access to your documents, just remember it's going to be okay. It's going to be okay. Breathe.
Michael Koenig: Thanks for listening to Between Two COO's I'm your host, Michael Koenig, and very special. thank you to our guest, Marie Prokopets, for dropping some knowledge on us. Tune in next time for our next COO chat Between Two COO's [00:25:00] and be sure to subscribe on apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode. Just visit https://betweentwocoos.com for more. And if you have a minute, please leave us a review on apple podcasts and tell others about the show so they can get great advice from phenomenal COO's. Thanks for listening to this week's episode and tune in next time, and until then so long.
Marie Prokopets Profile Photo

Marie Prokopets

COO

Marie Prokopets is the cofounder and COO of Nira, an infosec product focused on document access controls for IT teams. Prior to founding Nira, Marie was the Director of Innovation and Strategy at Diageo where she oversaw over $26B in M&A activity. On top of being a multi-time founder and prior corporate exec, Marie is also an award-winning comedian.