Ping Identity CEO Durand to Colorado Entrepreneurs: Be Unreasonable

Don’t tell Ping Identity co-founder and CEO Andre Durand his company isn’t a startup anymore—especially if you work for him.

And definitely don’t tell Durand you want to buy Ping Identity and take him away from his dream of building a $1 billion company.

I ran into Durand during Denver Startup Week, and he discussed his passion for Denver, Ping Identity’s history, the need for mentorship, and why Colorado companies need to start being unreasonable.

Ping Identity creates network security software the features single sign-on and identity access management capabilities. It has raised a total of $90 million in venture capital since it was founded in 2002, including a $44 million round this summer. Ping Identity employs more than 330 people worldwide and has more than 1,000 clients, including half the Fortune 100. The success has put the company on the path for an IPO in 2014 or 2015.

Here are some highlights from our conversation. Durand’s quotes have been edited for clarity, and an earlier version of this story has been updated to improve the flow and add two clarifications Durand requested.

Is Ping Identity a startup?

“I’ve been asked the question by a lot of employees who say ‘We’re not a startup anymore.’ The hell we’re not a startup anymore. A startup is a state of mind. We’ll be a startup until we say we’re done being a startup. We could be a $1 billion startup going to $10 billion, but we’re a startup.”

Durand later e-mailed to clarify what that would mean.

“It means we have more to do. As long as we’re growing and have aspirations of more, we’ll be a startup in my mind. I’d be proud to be a $1 billion startup going to $10 billion.”

Why get involved in Denver Startup Week?

“I just think there’s a incredible potential for tech in the Denver market, so to be part of all that early startup energy is where the fun is at.”

How Denver has changed since 2002

“The concept of Denver as a place for tech startups was nonexistent back when we started, and now it’s tangible, the feeling that Denver has a tech scene. I would say that we’re beginning to believe.”

One warning and a piece of advice for early stage startups

“Even small decisions can kill a startup. As you get larger, you are insulated from bad decisions, as often you have the wherewithal to survive. With a startup, you’ve really got to be careful in the early formative stages. Seemingly small, innocuous decisions can often lead to an unsuccessful outcome.

“So what do you do to lower risk in those scenarios? It’s scientifically proven that if you surround yourself with people who have the right experience you will make better decisions. Everything related to mentoring is just critical to get these small, newer companies off the ground.”

The importance of getting to scale

“Money aside, the importance of experienced management cannot be understated. Tech is fast paced and highly competitive, and you’re not really insulated in a geography in tech…. Almost from day one, you’re competing on a global scale.

“Who startup entrepreneurs are surrounding themselves with is a really big deal. Experience will lower risk and help startups keep pace in a global, fast-paced environment. The reality is, a lot of the experience Denver startups need is on the coasts. It’s a fact. So the question becomes, how do we bring, or otherwise import, that talent to Denver. I think it’s critical to compete at scale.”

The need for local entrepreneurs to be unreasonable and audacious

“It’s a fairly controversial comment, but I say it to be provocative—Denver is like a feeder fish for the East and the West coasts. What does that mean? It means that we’re selling out and when we do, our talent drains to the coasts. That has to reverse. We have to stop the bleeding and start importing talent.

“How do you stop the bleeding? Part of it is the mindset of our entrepreneurs. Our entrepreneurs are too reasonable, meaning the first decent, reasonable offer they have to sell, they sell. We need to be a little bit more unreasonable, a little bit more audacious. …

“We need to think bigger so that we refuse those early offers when they come, because they’re invariably going to come. If you’re successful, they’re going to come. When the coasts come to Denver to buy innovation and talent, today they say, ‘This is perfect, great tech, great people, and best of all, a totally reasonable price!’

What Durand said when Ping Identity received those offers

“We’ve had several, and I’m totally unreasonable. You’re going to take me out of my opportunity to build a billion dollar company? No!”

In conversation, Durand was exaggerating a bit for effect. He asked that that be clarified.

“You’re going to have to offer a lot to take us out of our opportunity to build a billion dollar company,” he said in an e-mail.

Fear, greed, and aspirations

“If fear and greed drive us, all I’m speaking to is playing a little bit more to the greed side of the equation. I don’t mean that in a bad way, and it kind of goes hand in hand. It’s saying, ‘No, I’ve got bigger aspirations. I don’t want to be taken out of my game to be absorbed by some big entity on the coast.’

Bringing experience and attitude to high altitude

“The West coast especially thinks big and I love that. The geography demands it. It’s so competitive it’s not even an option. We need to bring a part of that thinking here.

How to bring that talent here from the coasts

Startups increasing their scale should be willing “to hire [senior level talent] there even if they’re not willing to move. At least we can have their intelligence working for these companies.

“I don’t think we’ll get to the stage where we’ll be an attractive geography for the more experienced tech talent until we build some truly substantial companies here and the risk is lower. That’s going to take time to get companies to scale, I’m talking well beyond IPOs. The IPO isn’t the gate, I’m talking about billion dollar companies.”

Creating companies of that scale “is a 10-year play.”

I wrapped up the interview by asking Durand what companies he thought were thinking big and on a trajectory similar to Ping Identity. Off the top of his head he named SendGrid, LogRhythm, ReadyTalk, Four Winds Interactive, and PaySimple.

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