Business Rx: How can Distil build a market for a service people don’t realize they need?

The entrepreneur

Bad “bots” are lurking on the Internet, and Rami Essaid is out to catch them. These bots are any kind of computer code or program created to systematically attack Web sites to steal data or wreak fraudulent havoc.

Essaid teamed with some developer friends as an after-work project to create a cloud solution to stop the troublemakers. They started Arlington-based Distil in April 2011 to help digital publishers protect their content. They say Distil’s platform eliminates the need for other security measures, including Captcha programs — those boxes on Web sites that ask users to copy distorted text to verify they are not a computer program. There are an estimated 200 million Captchas that get filled out every day, Essaid said, but only a small fraction of sites that need protection against bots even use that line of defense.

“We’re finding new and more ways that bots are harming people,” Essaid said. “People are coming to us to help solve their bot problem. We’re almost like an antivirus for Web sites.”

The pitch

Essaid

Distil helps companies identify and block malicious ‘bots’ to prevent data theft and spam. When bots scrape content, they steal your visitors, your revenue and your [search engine optimization] rank. Distil stops this by seamlessly distinguishing human visitors from malicious bots, with no false positives.

“The biggest problem in data theft is once someone copies your content, it devalues your content. They are siphoning away your users and killing off your business slowly. This is of particular concern to digital publishers and online databases. For e-commerce companies, if your competition is using your pricing info to undercut you, they are pulling away your business.

“No other solution in the market to date addresses the problem of malicious bots in the same manner as Distil. Our unique fingerprinting of bots’ signatures allows us to maintain and grow a database of known malicious bots.

“When a person visits a Web site using our system, they won’t notice Distil. They might see their Web sites actually loading faster, but other than that, there is no noticeable difference.

“Though we started out helping digital publishers, our product works the same way for any Web site. The only thing we’ve had to do is constantly adapt our messaging to include all the new things that we can help with. Right now, we’re working with digital publishers, e-commerce companies, online directories, advertisers and enterprises that want to prevent fraud.

“Distil is entering a brand new market, with no existing thought leadership or demand. The largest business challenge we face is how to educate our potential customers on the need for our service. The only people who are currently looking for our solution are the people who have materialistically been harmed by bots before. Many more people may be experiencing some detrimental effects from malicious bots, but might not even realize it.”

The advice

Elana Fine, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship

“You need to create an ‘antibot’ market (vs. antivirus) and establish Distil as a leader in that new market. Your marketing materials can read ‘We are the leading vendor of antibot software’ — even if you are leading a market of one. Start by talking to your current customers to figure out what messages resonate with them and what might work with others in the industry so you know where to invest your time and resources. Ask them how they learned about malicious bots, how they found out about you, what conferences they attend, who their competitors are, etc. This will point you in the right direction.

“You can also take cues from others in the security space, such as those in the ‘BYOD’ [Bring Your Own Device to work] market. These markets are very new and require quite a bit of education for your potential clients. PR and earned media will go a long way to help with that. Speak on panels at the top conferences your customers attend, hustle at trade shows and maintain a strong social media presence.

“Consider other ways to tap into your current clients to educate the market. You could set up a referral service, offering current customers discounts for their stories of the threats bots pose and their endorsement of Distil’s services. Start with your existing customers.”

The reaction

Essaid

“We’ve been educating potential clients on the danger of bots through such activities as sending informative e-mails and holding educational webinars. It’s as much about PR as it is about marketing. We’re talking to media and industry influencers to get them talking about the problem.”

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