K7 Computing is one of the pioneers of the cybersecurity industry in India. Eponymously named after its founder and CEO Kesavardhanan Jayaraman, K7 Computing is celebrating its 25-year journey. The company developed a free tool for the recent WannaCry ransomware attack. It protects over 20 million customers globally—both individual and enterprise users—against threats to their IT environment. It is a market leader in the consumer segment in Japan. It has evolved from an anti-virus company to a provider of total security systems. Today, because of the internet, threats can come from anywhere and the customer needs a 360o protection. K7 hopes to provide the same.
K7 is, in many ways, a unique story. It is one of the hidden gems from Chennai, although the founder and the company are well known in the security industry. Kesevan, a high school dropout, is a coding wizard. His school years were unspectacular, but for his love of numbers. Maths was a subject he excelled in. After he completed his 10th standard, he joined a computer training institute paying `750, which was a princely sum for his family then. He discovered computers and coding when he was 15, and started writing programs at a speed the class had never seen before. Although he went back to school, he lasted just a year. He was busy mastering all the programming languages of that era.
Assignments came his way and Kesevan started making money. He started working with PhD scholars, chartered accountants and other professionals, learnt their subjects, and delivered programming packages for them. In the 1980s, personal computers entered India, and so did viruses attacking PCs. “When I saw viruses invade computers, my first instinct was to help people. I knew assembly language and DOS, and so it was easy for me to write the codes to kill the virus. I did a lot of free service. I accidentally created ‘freeware’ in India,” says Kesevan.
With India opening up, the PC market picked up. The threat from viruses increased. In 1991, the virus Michelangelo was threatening to wipe out all the information stored on desktops. Kesevan took the plunge into entrepreneurship and set up K7 Computing the same year to offer anti-virus products. Why did he decide to build an anti-virus product when he had so many options with his skills? He says the concept of reverse engineering, which is what anti-virus is all about, challenged him. Those days, people opted for cheap pirated software, but were willing to pay for anti-virus.
Today, K7 would be seen as a typical start-up. It is one of the earliest companies in the country to come up with an IT product. It was bootstrapped and Kesevan did not go for any funding. He thought global and never gave up in spite of the many ups and downs he went through. It was a hand-to-mouth existence in the early days. He would not sell out, although the global leader McAfee came up with an offer in 1999. When he built his first anti-virus programme VX2000 (which he never patented), CyberMedia of the US entered into an MoU with Kesevan. He started acquiring global clients and servicing them. McAfee eventually took over CyberMedia.
By 2001, Kesevan started paying the price of growth not planned carefully. The company lacked marketing skills. It set up offices all over the country, which proved to be unviable. It focused on solutions for the latest virus, but not on the commercial aspects of the business. He was beginning to face major cash flow problems and could not pay salaries on time. Several of his top employees left.
In 2002, there was an unexpected breakthrough. Japanese software publisher SourceNext was looking out for a partner to develop a unified product that could handle security issues relating to a firewall, anti-virus and email. They asked McAfee for a reference and McAfee directed them to K7. The rest is history. “We showed we could do a product from Chennai and launched it in 2003. It proved to be a game-changer for us. We built a small team to focus on Japan. We focused on R&D, quality and speed,” says Kesevan. K7 started making money. SourceNext continues to be the market leader in Japan and K7 suite is its largest selling product.
By 2009, the company could move to a swanky office in Chennai’s IT Park from a hole in the wall. It started looking at the Indian market, that was much more complex. India continued to prefer privacy to new products. Hardware had not moved up the value chain. “Some professionals found it difficult to work with a school dropout. The software distributors we tied up with acted more like warehouse partners than distribution partners,” he says. The revenues remained flat.
From 2012 onwards, Kesevan has started making serious attempts to change his business model. “I realised that if we had to win, we should follow the FMCG model and not treat our products like commodities. We now sell like an MNC sells its toothpaste. K7 has created a strong sales force, hiring people with FMCG background. They personally approach 15,000 outlets. “We are now catering to 6,000 customers every day,” Kesevan says. The company is now seriously focusing on B2B market as well.
Technology is in the founder’s DNA. K7 has nearly all the international certifications in cybersecurity, numerous awards, and is one of the leading names mentioned in cybersecurity journals. It is among the top three in the country, edging towards number one. All its products are built in Chennai.
Having got his act together (again, without any outside funding), Kesevan is optimistic about the future. “Technology is changing everyday. We anticipated protecting user experience with the internet in 2000 itself. Mobile, IoT, online transactions are all going fast in India. Smartphones are becoming the epicentre of IT. When you lose a phone, you don’t just lose a device, you lose your privacy. We will take care of it for you. There is always growth and future in security.”
Kesevan says he still has the same passion he started with. “Programming is an art and the product is my child.” He is seriously looking at the US market. “Even a 5% market share will be huge for us.” Next on the agenda is setting up an academy for cybersecurity.