This summer, the Dingman Center will be conducting interviews with the eight student startups who are participating in the Terp Startup summer incubator phase of our Fearless Founders accelerator program. Participating student entrepreneurs received a stipend up to $5,000 that would enable them to work exclusively on their startups over eight weeks in the summer.
Representing cybersecurity startup Dark Sonar in Terp Startup this summer is COO and co-founder Brian Freeman, a rising mechanical engineering junior at University of Maryland. He joined the founding team after CEO George Lee, a rising senior finance major, and CTO Simon Schlegel, a rising senior computer science major, began developing cybersecurity software that is both simple to integrate and affordable for businesses of all sizes. Dark Sonar’s competitors are primarily focused on fraudulent transactions for large corporations, and charge an appropriately large amount for the privilege. The founders of Dark Sonar are looking to focus on the needs of a target market that has been largely ignored by the cybersecurity industry—small and medium sized businesses. The customizable and adaptable subscription model of Dark Sonar will make it easier for any business, big or small, to combat identity fraud.
Editor note: While the following interview was conducted solely with Brian Freeman, we reached out to George Lee separately to get his founders story for the first question.
How did you first come up with your idea?
George: I was running an internet advertising business called rewardslive and I was hit with a lot of fraudulent traffic and users. It eventually became such a threat to my business that I looked into solutions or services I could buy. They were all too expensive for the size of my business and so I thought that rewardslive would continue to suffer from fraudulent bad actors. Instead, I created a few fixes of my own so I could stop fraudulent users in their tracks and save my business. I realized then that I could create software to help protect any other website or app from certain types of fraud. Even though other solutions exist, Dark Sonar is the most cost effective and easiest software of its kind to integrate, and that’s why we are such a great service for small to medium sized businesses.
Brian: George and I were becoming part of the same business fraternity. I didn’t know him at all, and eventually we got to talking one day about how he was getting involved with this new business to help small businesses using his computer science and finance background. I’ve always been interested in business myself, but I come from a background of mechanical engineering. I’ve always been interested in the entrepreneurial mindset—I was a part of EIP (the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program) and QUEST (Quality Enhancement Systems and Teams Honors Program), and entrepreneurial thinking has been a really big part of my schooling. I’ve always wanted to get into the computer science and business side of things, and this was a unique opportunity for me to do that. It’s really awesome, the connections you can make in college.
What are some major milestones you’ve achieved so far?
Brian: The business sprang to life in December of last year when we became a legally defined entity. After that, George rolled out our first version of the software that we’re providing businesses in February. A little bit before that is when I joined the team. Now things are really starting to pick up for Dark Sonar. In March we got accepted into Terp Startup, which was huge for us because we’ve always wanted to be in an incubator. In June we got funding, we launched the final version of our website and are working on launching the final version of our software, and hopefully will start to connect to actual paying customers and businesses.
What’s your team dynamic like?
Brian: We’re all extremely involved in school but we followed our passion to get into this, so that’s our main priority right now. We all work on different parts of the business—George and Simon on software development and the tech side, and I’m working a lot on the customer acquisition and business side. We’re such an eclectic group of students. George is a finance major but he’s working with computer science, and I’m a mechanical engineering major wanting to get into the business side. So it’s really collaborative in that we can all bounce ideas off each other and it’s pushing Dark Sonar in a positive direction. We’re growing as a team as we grow Dark Sonar.
How do you feel about working in an incubator?
Brian: The incubator has been really helpful. Every one of these companies is at its own stage in development, whether its an app making its first wireframe or its someone like FroDoh talking to investors. It’s really inspirational because no matter where you look, there’s always someone or some team pushing you to succeed or keep going or challenge yourself. Not to mention our mentor, Zeki Mokhtarzada (former co-founder of Webs.com and currently founder and CEO of Thum.io), who has been super helpful so far in creating a network of people for Dark Sonar to reach out to. We talk every week, George, Zeki and I, about the development of our business, how its proceeding, what we should be doing next, who we should talk to, etc. He really likes our product. He knows it’s going to take a lot of work pushing the product to consumers, and it will take a lot of connections, but he’s been really helpful so far.
What are you hoping to achieve during Terp Startup this summer?
Brian: George and Simon launched the final product, our software. Now it’s a lot of talking to real businesses, calling them, emailing—that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. Really building a network for Dark Sonar to launch into. We’re on the cusp of really going somewhere with the business. Hopefully we’ll be getting our first customers, we’ll be getting data from those businesses and then transitioning them from a trial basis to fully-fledged paying customers.