Industry: Cybersecurity, IT Services
Founded date: 2020
As most of us, Joel Lee, wasn’t sure which path to take after graduating from university. He looked at his grades, picked out which modules he did the best in, and went in that direction.
He is now the co-founder and CEO of Protos Labs, winner of (CSA) Cybersecurity Agency of Singapore’s Innovation Call and the first cyber company to provide full service support for a cyber insurance product in Asia. Hard skills played well with luck in Joel's beginnings, but that alone isn’t enough to keep a startup afloat. So what did it take for Joel to be a startup founder?
Joel Lee started his career at the Ministry of Home Affairs, a government body of Singapore, where he worked with deep intelligence. This is where he confirmed, not only his strength in cybersecurity, but also his affinity to it. After a company or two and several promotions, Joel started to question himself.
“Do I want to continue doing this, working as I did for ten years,
or do I want to step out and do something that I know is my true strength?”
He has always wanted to do something himself and from his track record, he knew that pioneering was his strength. And just as he did after university, he took a leap of faith, in a direction he knew he was good at - doing something different. In 2020 he left Booz Allen Hamilton, a prestigious company, to build Protos Labs. It was a pivotal moment in his, and his family's life. Leaving a stable and well paid job to risk it all for a startup. And as all founders come to know, it can certainly be tough to start your own business. Joel had to go to for 24 months without salary, building up Protos Labs.
“There are certain times that you look into your bank account
and the amount keeps going down every month.
You’re a company with one or two staff. Where is this going?”
Halfway through, he started a secondary company, to help himself and the Protos Labs afloat. Fortunately, the Employment Services Company, now in the midst of an exit, broke even in its second month. It even achieved 40x growth in its first year. In 2021, Simeon Tan joined as his co-founder. It was also the time that they joined the (CSA) Cybersecurity Agency of Singapore’s Innovation Call. As a very early stage startup, they applied to the competition relying their application on faith. It was also known at the time that winners are usually large vendors unlike themselves. Even when the odds were stacked against them, their faith in a higher power gave them the strength and courage to keep going. Commercial evaluation round, passed. They never gave up. Academia evaluation round, passed. And in the end, their faith did not let them down. Technical evaluation round, passed. They became the first early stage startup in Singapore history to win the CSA national competition.
Winning the competition landed them a $500,000 contract, which meant that they needed a $500,000 team. They had to attract talent quickly. Developers, cyber risk staff, data scientists, all the people required to complete this advanced project. And as they did, their burn rate went up significantly. Burning ten times more than usual while their funds were not coming in fast enough. Joel recalls this as a moment that shook them.
“When you start, there are thousands of different challenges that
could shake you to the very core of why you do what you do.
And there will be many times that you will be tempted to give up.
So if your motivation is not clear and it's not strong,
quite frankly, it's quite tempting to throw in the towel sometimes.”
Going from one investor to another asking for funding. They realized that they needed to improve their pitch to communicate their purpose and vision better. And as they did, it became a turning point for Protos Labs. Several interests started coming in, so much so that they became oversubscribed about two times. This was a pivotal moment for their company as it marked the beginning of a new era of growth and success.
What contributes to Joel’s success? For one, family was an invaluable source of support during his journey. His wife’s unwavering support made all the difference in his success. And on top of that, Joel was clear with his purpose - pioneering the first Cyber InsurTech in Asia to capture the market.
“Be really clear why you're doing something.
For example, if it's for money, then be sure that there's
a strong enough motivation that will hold you through.
For me, I think it was a lot about purpose.
It was a lot about pioneering something and doing something different.”