Secrets of the Serial Entrepreneur: Interview with Mårten Mickos

January 19, 2019
by Charlotte Danielsson
Mårten Mickos is CEO of HackerOne, the world's most popular bug bounty platform. HackerOne helps companies connect with the best security hackers in the world to find system vulnerabilities so that these can be fixed before they are exploited by malicious actors. As a result, the companies and the internet is more secure.

Formerly SVP and GM of Hewlett-Packard's Cloud Business, CEO of Eucalyptus, EIR at Benchmark Capital and Index Ventures, SVP and GM of the Database Group of Sun Microsystems, CEO of MySQL AB. In his spare time, Mårten maintains a leadership blog called the School of Herring (

Mårten is the 2012 recipient of Silicon Vikings’ Nordic Entrepreneur of the Year Award and is the keynote speaker at our “State of Nordic Tech in the Bay: Startup Showcase 2017”

Q: What was it about HackerOne that attracted you to the company?

A: The business opportunity. And the fact that cybersecurity is the biggest challenge facing our digital society, and hacker-powered security is the best response to that.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style and what has made it so effective?

A: I believe in people. I am open, honest and direct. I believe in huge success.

Q: What is your secret to being an effective CEO in terms of building the company culture and values you need to make the company successful?

A: Lead from the front. Talk the talk and walk the walk. Be yourself, show your vulnerabilities, engage people and empower them to participate and contribute.

Q: What methods have you used to effectively encourage innovation within the companies you have led?

A: All and any methods I have ever learned about!

Q: Busy startup entrepreneurs have lots of demands on their time and are often pulled in lots of different directions, do you have any tips for effective time management and what to focus on first?

A: Nope. Meaning: I am not the expert. Expert advice is very useful. I am just not the one who has it all ready to present as clearly as the experts do.

Q: What traits do you look for when building a team?

A: Integrity, energy, and they must "get it". They must be curious, which allows them to be coachable.

Q: Any tips for effective communication between a CEO and the company board of directors and how to sell your vision for the company most effectively?

A: Communicate early, communicate often. Use all channels and methods available. Be genuine. Don't beat around the bush.

Q: Any advice for entrepreneurs on what to include (or not to include) in their pitch deck for investors?

A: First, no matter how good your investor deck is, an investment happens only when the investor and the CEO or founder see eye to eye. The investor is placing a bet on the intelligence, ability to execute, and passion of the CEO and the team. There needs to be mutual respect and a willingness to work together. If that part is missing, not even the best investor deck will bring you funding.

In terms of vital ingredients for the pitch deck, it should have information about the following 7 things:

    1)    The problem your company is solving
    2)    Your target customers described in great detail
    3)    The customer relationship lifecycle
    4)    The market and the competition
    5)    Momentum and market reaction—meaning information about how customers are receiving your offering
    6)    Your unique abilities
    7)    Facts about the company

Q: Any advice for entrepreneurs on moving beyond a failure?

A: If it is a failure where you did all you could with the best of intentions, with the highest integrity, then actually there are no failures. There are only results. If the result is good, we call it victory. If it isn’t, we call it learning. When we learn from our mistakes, they are not repeated again. This is why it is so important to feel troubled about the failure. The human mind learns the best and the quickest under pain. When we feel the pain of failure, that’s our body’s way of making sure that we learn for the next time, and that we get over it and we can move on to more success. And of course, more learning.
Also, from a leadership perspective, it is important to note that great leaders are great listeners. Without listening it is not possible to learn and understand, nor can you identify threats and opportunities. Listening is required in order to make plans, engage people and get them to commit. When repeated failure happens it is because the leadership did not listen. Listening is vital for sustained success.

Q: When scaling a company, what do you focus on first and why? How do you determine the best timing for scaling?

A: In growth business it is a common mistake to start too soon and move too slow. As a result, first you are too early and soon you are too late.

You should not start until the time is right. If and when the time is right, you should not go slowly. You should go with force and determination.

If it anyhow turns out that you started to soon, or that you started with the wrong product or wrong strategy, then you need to pivot. Pivoting comes in all shapes, sizes and forms. You will always make small adjustments, and many times you have to make a major shift - a full pivot.

In order to scale, you need product/market fit. Your offering must fit a very concrete need of the market. And it's not enough to have product fit with the innovators - the pioneering customers in the market - because there are not enough of them. You need fit with the early adopters. They will then lead you to the early majority and from there to the late majority.

When you have product/market fit, you need to make sure you have the operational ability to scale the business. Customer service functions are often the ones bottlenecking when the business starts to scale.