Geenius Interview with Cyttraction CEO Carolin Desirée Toepfer

The original article was published on the Estonian platform

What is the Cyttraction idea? What does this company offer or do?

People are bored by cybersecurity awareness training. Yet, they are streaming like crazy on platforms like Netflix. This often appears like pure entertainment but is, in fact, considered educational content by many in younger generations. We believe that turning cybersecurity awareness training into a studio-quality entertainment format will make individuals and employees want to listen and remember on a wholly different level. True cybersecurity skills cannot come from that but situational awareness. And this is a proven first barrier against attackers – within any organisation or society.

But isn’t streaming a volatile business model?

People have indeed seen failures of Netflix copycats and even Netflix is seen as inferior long-term to, for example, Disney in the so-called ‘streaming wars’. And for pure entertainment, that may be true. What we do, however, leverages the emotional attraction of a specific training format versus an equally specific demand. Consumers or users may be largely indifferent as to where they stream for more or less the same thrills. For cybersecurity awareness, the playing field is much less homogeneous: if you want to get your employees to love their training, your streaming choice becomes much more focused. And right now, our offering would be unique.

How would You explain your business idea to grandmother?

The Internet is a place where everything is possible. But it is also a dangerous place. We teach people to evade these dangers in a way that makes them feel entertained, not lectured. And they can serve themselves with that – or, alternatively, their bosses for them.

Why did you decide to establish the company in Estonia?

We considered other places, like the US. But many lean administrative processes and the expertise in the local cybersecurity scene convinced us of Estonia at a time when the political and social environment in the US was, and still is, volatile to a certain degree.

How and when was Cyttraction born?

Cyttraction is a venture of German cdt digital GmbH, which I founded a while back as a company builder. We started working on Cyttraction in January 2020 and founded the OÜ in September. The idea, however, goes back some years prior to my cybersecurity training experience as a consultant. Yet, my co-founder Hanns’ parallel experience with large corporate training programs and market disruption was a bit of a touchstone, when we had a chat in a Berlin café in 2018 and again in late 2019.

How big was the team in the beginning and how big is it now?

We are a management team of three: Marieluise Maiwald, Hanns Schempp and myself. Marieluise has an extensive background in designing and delivering learning programs for the past 15 years. She knows best, which buttons to push for informational content to turn fun and memorable. Hanns is an accomplished marketing leader, innovator and strategist with a track record in growing business. My personal focus is technology and coding since was a teenager, and I am also able to angle our business as a political scientist, certified data protection officer and IT security expert. Add to that our technical advisors and a growing team of currently ten marketing and sales experts, from a number of countries, partly cross-providing from Cyttraction’s sister company emoticomms, our marketing-on-demand hothouse, and you already have a pretty vibrant environment.

Why do you think this service or the company is important to other people and businesses?

Even before Covid, the world was looking at a hiring gap of 3.5 to 4.4 million cybersecurity experts. Markets, and this is no secret either, lose billions each year to hacker attacks. Technical solutions can only cover so much around managing and tracking security behaviour when restricted in their function by regulatory environments around hybrid IT infrastructures. This is why skilled and attentive users are particularly important. Complex ecosystems require both highly trained experts and active situational awareness of a larger workforce. Compliance-centred training offers in companies often don’t match workflows and are imposed, rather than selected. We are changing this by putting the learner center-stage using the trigger of attractive entertainment, simple yet secure digital platform access and machine learning to take the weight off the topic and make people want to initiate the behavioural change that is required by it. The way they love to watch and listen.

Who are the main clients? To who does your business cater?

At the moment, we are mostly offering pilot projects to global companies from the primary and re-insurance industry as well as educational institutions and companies. We also receive requests for management trainings providing insights into IT security, forensics and our business model from other industries – part of which could also result in good partnerships. We are building a learning product that is not only open to large companies but also to individual users. Over time, this will create a growing ‘learning library’ to cover a multitude of work areas, IT systems and processes, for which cybersecurity awareness is crucial. We have also pledged to donate one course per licence sold to a schoolchild, student or unemployed person. Cybersecurity, after all, concerns all of us and is a skill that plays a major role in career planning and job applications.

Where is your business’s main market?

We think in terms of regulatory geographies rather than countries. For us, the US remains particularly important and we are planning to open our next office in New York. Yet, our home market, the European Union, as well as Switzerland and the UK remain key. Mid-term, we are also planning to expand local market representation also in Japan. Besides commercial markets, we are also aiming to help governments strenghtening nationwide cybersecurity efforts.

What is your business plan, how will you become or stay profitable?

Cyttraction will offer trainings that feature celebrities and subject matter experts as trainer tandems in feature film-type screenplays to be streamed as studio-quality video from a machine learning-augmented online platform on a subscription basis. Straight from launch, this offering will be available globally to not only companies but also consumers, with the associated opportunity for scaling among up to 9.65 million users until 2026. We expect to be able to sustain the profitability from this platform leverage by, first of all, large B2B contracts, e.g. with highly regulated clients like global insurance and pharmaceutical companies.
As of today, with external funding in the works, I follow a natural bootstrapping approach, so the group’s companies can remain operational for quite some time without investment – in a worst case-scenario. Reality as a female founder has taught me to remain that resourceful. Pilot projects and discussions with suitable investors are very promising.

How has Corona changed or affected the business?

We are walking a fine line between the opportunities and pitfalls of the pandemic. Since we are a technology ‘shop’ and team, besides our ties to the media industry, we have have always worked remotely. However, like many others, we have lost projects with clients who ran into financial difficulties or delays. We have used the time free-up from this to strengthen our product-market-fit, partnering and piloting ties – basically everything that can be done to storm right out of the gate the pandemic had temporarily closed.

What are your plans for next year?

In addition to working with pilot clients, we continue to talk to investors. Our focus still lies with our EUR 10 million offering that has been becoming more interesting to venture and angel investors with the current surge in the cybersecurity market and rebalanced technology investment strategies of these players for 2021. In spring, we will set up our first cybersecurity lab here in Tallinn. As soon as the pandemic is more manageable and our first sales targets will be achieved, we plan to take step 2 by setting up additional camp in the US. This will enable us to produce in closer alignment with local customer expectations.

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