Founders Talks: Great products result from hard work and the ability to iterate quickly. How Sentryc helps fight online product piracy and what it takes to become a founder of a tech startup

13 minutes
According to a study by the EUIPO and the OECD, the volume of international trade in counterfeit and pirated products amounts to USD 464 billion. In the EU, 5.8% of all imports from third countries are now estimated to be counterfeit and pirated goods, worth up to EUR 119 billion. Product piracy also causes people to lose jobs, has severe consequences for the environment, and is linked to exploitation of human labour or children. - It's incredible that our software can help in all those areas, making the world a slightly better place. - says Nicole Hofmann, CEO of Sentryc.

Let’s start with introductions. Can you tell us in a couple of words what Sentryc is? 

Nicole Jasmin Hofmann, CEO and co-founder, Sentryc: It’s not easy to put it into just a few words. But in a nutshell, it’s a highly efficient digital way to protect your intellectual property and image. 

Who uses Sentryc? Can you give us examples of specific companies or brands?

Actually, almost every company that is producing something would be able to benefit from our software and service. We have a wide range of customers, starting from B2B manufacturers and customers from the electrical engineering industry, so heavily B2B industrial products, ranging up to fashion, clothing, and football clubs with their merchandise. So, it’s vast, and that’s one of the things I really like about our product: we can help almost every company, regardless of whether it’s a highly specialized manufacturer who has invented something amazing or a cool brand that has become famous and that’s why they are affected by product pirates. 

Do you have any favourite customers?

It’s tough to pick one because they’re so different, including the various aspects of how they are affected and how we can help. Perhaps two interesting ones to mention are Eintracht Frankfurt and EagleBurgmann. We had been working already with them before they won the UEFA Europa League, and it was crazy to see how counterfeits increased. We were in the right place, at the right time, ready to handle it. When they started to use Sentryc, they would gather in a meeting called “TakeDown Party” and discuss what progress has been made in the company on the front of fighting piracy. So this was also fantastic feedback for us, and we also decided to have celebration rituals every time we reach a certain level of TakeDowns for all our clients. But I must emphasize that we get excited about each client as they bring us specific challenges that we enjoy solving with the help of AI.

Let’s go back to how Sentryc works. Can you tell us what it exactly does?

We have developed different AI models and use machine learning for two major things: first, we create online transparency for them, wherever their products and brands are. Second, we do not leave our clients alone with the infringements: we give them a tool to eliminate the violations with our software. Then, each time they validate the case as a counterfeit or brand abuse, our software can remove it and often as quickly as within 24 hours. If counterfeits reappear, the software will take them down automatically. The fact that the process is fully automated and continuous is significant for our customers.

Can you give us an example of the Sentryc application in practice?

Let’s take as an example a company that produces products for pets. In the first step, we gather all available information about the product. With this data, we develop a customized AI model for every customer – sometimes even for different products. We use these models to scan the web and relevant sources for them – it can be wild websites or offers on marketplaces and social media – in an intelligent way, and then we share the information about suspicious postings. The client can decide to review all of them or work with the intelligent automation we provide to reduce their workload. They can confirm the infringements by pressing the famous TakeDown button. That’s when the process at the back end starts: we automatically inform the platform, and the platform takes the offer in question offline.

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So you’re helping keep the Internet clean of counterfeit goods and unlicensed sales?

Exactly. At the same time, we help to prevent brand abuse – naming popular brands is often used to get clients’ attention while the product being sold belongs to a less famous brand. Especially on online marketplaces, brand abusers want to benefit from the high search volume of strong brands and be listed there with their no-name products. This, of course, goes on the marketing budget of the famous brand or producer, and it’s obviously another example of the illegal use of a registered trademark by an infringer.

So the “take down button” takes the place of a lawyer you would otherwise have to hire to deal with an infringement?

Not at all. We do not compete with lawyers; we support them. Our software performs searches on the Internet, contacts – in an automated way – platform providers and monitors the progress of the process. We also automated the process of documenting our actions, e.g. with screenshots. Legal education can definitely be put to better use than that. Another important aspect is that we take action fast to prevent any further harm. Together with the analytics we provide, customers and lawyers can distinguish between the small and the big fishes harming their reputation and revenue, and in this way, tackle them much more effectively with legal actions in the next step. So we’re helping not just the companies but also the lawyers to be more efficient. 

How did you start Sentryc, and why?

I studied business administration and have been developing companies for almost ten years now. I was always looking for innovation and was always interested in tech. I began my startup career as a CFO, which was very broad. Besides the financials, I was also responsible for the administration, the legal side of the business, and – a bit more unusual – marketing. That included various ties to the IP aspects. Then in one of the companies we were almost affected by the pirates ourselves. We were developing products that we wanted to bring to the market in Asia, and we were already talking to various business partners on the ground. At some point, we suddenly realized that they were trying to steal our product. It all ended fine, but it was pretty shocking, and we did have to find a way to deal with that. 

Having had those experiences, when I met my co-founder Hendrik who introduced me to the technology, I immediately understood what we could do with it. What was important for me was that I knew from the beginning that if we do it right, we’re going to help businesses and consumers, making online shopping safer. That’s how it all started.

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CFO and marketing skills are a very good match. What was the biggest challenge in founding your own business?

The COVID pandemic was at least the most shocking one. We met in 2019, decided to do it at the end of 2019 and launched the MVP at the beginning of 2020. We went to dinner to celebrate the launch, and a couple of days later, everything was in lockdown. Definitely not an ideal moment to start a company. But in the end, we did figure it out, and the fact that we are a tech company was definitely making it easier to keep the company going compared to some other businesses. Secondly, the COVID pandemic caused a spike in online shopping, which increased our clients’ awareness regarding the need to keep track of online distribution channels and clean them. 

Do you like being the CEO? What do you like most and least about being CEO and founder?

Yes, I do like it. The founder mindset is something that has probably always been in my DNA. Ever since I was a child, I have wanted to have my own company, but I can’t really explain why. Being a CEO has also always been something natural for me, and I have been continuously developing a set of skills that I see as necessary to do that job as well as possible. Combining the responsibilities of a CFO and CMO in my past careers definitely helped and I’ve always enjoyed that, as well as the fact that as a CEO, you need to understand and analyse many different things, from tech through finance to marketing and sales. But that can also become a challenge – you need to identify the right level of involvement, which is not always easy. 

What are the top 3 characteristics that make a founder?

A good understanding of numbers and analytical skills, as well as marketing and sales skills for sure. But perhaps even more important is grit, persistence, and a certain amount of bravery. And then it helps a lot if you are an expert or become an expert in the field. 

What do you appreciate most about having a co-founder?

Every founder has these moments when they feel lonely. There are always decisions you need to think through. It’s extremely valuable if you have someone to exchange those thoughts with, as no one understands the founder like another founder. 

During your founder journey, did you have to make any decisions that were particularly difficult? 

That’s a straightforward question for me to answer. It involves a really hard type of decision: it’s when you have to let people go. Luckily I didn’t have to do it very often in my career, but still, it’s the most difficult situation you have to deal with. It’s especially true in a startup, where you have small teams and close relationships, so people are important to you. But it is part of your job and responsibility for the whole company, and there are many ways to handle such things respectfully and fairly.

I’m guessing that enjoying the rounds you’ve raised is definitely easier. What do you think makes Sentryc attractive for the investors?

It would be best to ask the investors themselves! But we’ve been told that the investors appreciate the team we have managed to assemble: it’s diverse, and everyone has different perceptions, with the overall effect of those dynamics being very favourable and allowing us to progress. But of course, the output of our work is also a very attractive product with a sustainable business model. There have been product pirates since the first inventions, and there will always be product pirates to fight back. Sentryc software has a mission and purpose: on the one hand, we support businesses that have been investing in building products, brands and reputations, but we also support the end consumers. When you look at it from other angles, product piracy also causes people to lose jobs, and it often has severe consequences for the environment, as producing counterfeit goods causes loads of environmental damage. Not to mention the exploitation of human labour or children. It’s incredible that our software can help in all those areas, making the world a slightly better place. 

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Tar Heel Capital Pathfinder is one of your earliest investors. How did you meet Arek Seńko, and how did the investment come about?

One of our angel investors introduced us, and the idea caught Arek from the first moment. Arek is very experienced in technology and building software, so it was great to have him on board right from the start. It probably prevented us from making many mistakes we could have committed if he and his team hadn’t supported us.

Are you still getting that support?

Yes, of course. We regularly discuss topics important for Sentryc, especially related to the technology side of the business. Aside from that, we can almost always count on the support of Pathfinder’s and Red Sky’s tech teams. That comes very handy, especially when we’re taking on new projects or running out of capacity in the peak times of accumulated work. We are pleased to have Pathfinder on board. 

Can you tell us a bit about what’s next for Sentryc?

We constantly track trends where product piracy goes and where commerce goes, meaning both B2C commerce and B2B procurement processes. In a few years, how we buy things will change completely. It will be exciting to see what happens with web3, virtual shopping, and avatars. We must start preparing for this as product pirates, unfortunately, are smart and quick. So we need to be smart and quick, too.

What advice would you give to a fresh founder of a tech startup? Any lessons learnt that you would be keen to share?

Be brave and iterate. Don’t be afraid to get advice from mentors right from the beginning. And don’t expect your first strategy, plan or product to work out perfectly immediately. Great products result from hard work and the ability to iterate quickly.

Would you like to build your startup with us?

Let’s talk.