Vietnam security firm seeks global dollars

newsmaker Vietnamese success Bach Khoa Internet Security has a strong local base, but now faces challenge to bring its products to the international market.

Nguyen Tu Quang

newsmaker Since its inception in 2001, Bach Khoa Internet Security (BKIS) has made significant strides to win over the skeptical local market and become one of the main security vendors operating in Vietnam.

According to founder and CEO, Nguyen Tu Quang, the company had to constantly battle, and overcome, local sentiments that view "foreign-made products [to be] without doubt, better than domestic alternatives". And while its free online security software was widely used when introduced in 1995, he later had to face criticisms from users after the company decided to launch a commercial version of the software.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, the 34-year-old university lecturer-cum-entrepreneur was candid about the journey to establish BKIS as a global security force, the company's plans to expand globally and key trends that would impact the overall security landscape in 2010.

Q: Where do you see BKIS currently in the global security field?
Nguyen: I personally started working on computer viruses with a few friends in 1995, so the company has, in fact, 15 years of experience in the field, which is comparable with other notable security vendors like Symantec, Kaspersky and BitDefender.

It was also in 1995 that we released our first free antivirus software that ran on the MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) operating system, but because our company is based in a developing country, the product has not been widely known. Nevertheless, we are confident that BKIS is one of the top security companies in research experience and employing one of the most specialized workforces around.

Some of our most notable achievements include our monitoring and analysis of the Conficker virus, discovering the first vulnerability in Google's Chrome browser as well as tracking down the source of the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on Korean and American government Web sites in July 2009.

How are you competing with the bigger global players?
Companies such as Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro have an advantage over us because they started promoting their businesses globally earlier, and it's not easy to compete with them.

However, it's never too late to start. We have years of experience in developing security software, and BKIS currently has 10 million customers in Vietnam. We recognize that we lack a brand identity among international users, which is why we are enhancing our promotional campaigns so that our software will become more popular with customers worldwide.

What markets are you looking to break into?
In the information technology arena, and in particular the antivirus sector, the U.S. market symbolizes that of the global market, and this is where we are channeling our efforts into. If we succeed in this market, we will be recognized internationally.

As founder and CEO of BKIS, what are the challenges you have to tackle in 2010?
In order to be a success globally, the company needs the support from all the IT professionals locally. However, this support is lacking currently, even though we have done well in Vietnam.

There's a reason for this. Due to our nation's war-ravaged history our economy is still lagging behind more advanced ones in the region, so locals tend to view made-in-Vietnam products as inferior and incomparable to those made abroad. Our products are similarly affected by this outlook.

So even though BKIS is not a newcomer in the security industry, we not only have to win over local consumers but we have to improve our global branding--an area which the company does not have much experience in--too.

Why are you confident of achieving international recognition?
The reason why I am so confident of our product--the Bach Khoa Antivirus (BKAV) software--is because we have fended off competitors who have tried to enter the Vietnamese market. Trend Micro, for example, came into the market in 2003 but is no longer mentioned by local consumers while BitDefender faced the same fate when it entered the fray in 2007. Currently, our only competitor is Kaspersky, but we retain an overwhelming market share over its products.

The Internet is an environment without boundaries after all, so viruses that appear in Vietnam would also turn up in other parts of the world. Since our BKAV software is proven in Vietnam, it will also be recognized by users in the global market.

You established BKIS' reputation with the release of your free antivirus software. Was it difficult when you decided to charge users for the commercial version?
We had to experience some difficulties during the commercialization process since we decided to introduce the paid software four years ago.

The key challenge was in convincing users of the difference between using BkavPro and our freeware version--the former provides direct technical support and includes advanced features not found in the free software. We also had to convince users that buying software licenses is as necessary and natural as paying for groceries at the supermarket. This is because the software piracy rate in Vietnam is up to 85 percent, and many are used to getting their programs free.

What kind of business culture have you inculcated in BKIS?
Our corporate slogan reads like this: "Do your best, the rest will come". This resonates with our primary motivation to do our utmost to help others. This is why we decided to release our freeware in the first place.

However, in order to develop a sustainable growth system so that we can help consumers in a more professional way, we had no choice but to commercialize our products. Still, the desire to contribute to make people's lives better always resides within us. After all, helping each other is a tradition of Vietnamese people.

Most of your employees are said to be recruited locally. Is the talent pool sufficient, and are there any plans to hire internationally?
At present, we have a staff of more than 500, of which many are experts in the fields of security and antivirus. Almost all of these security experts are recruited from Hanoi University of Technology--the school I lecture in, and which is also the biggest tech university in Vietnam.

Based on the fact that we are able to service 10 million customers, this proves that our human resource is sufficient. Furthermore, the security specialists employed by us are not recruited after they graduate. In fact, we select first-year students to train them using our own programs, which last four to five years until they graduate. It's only after they graduate, though, will they participate in product research and development.

Of course, in our efforts to bring our products to the global market, we must also recruit international employees, but I see them more as people who would help develop the market and increase sales for us. In terms of our key labor force, we will still retain a strong Vietnamese identity. This is because Vietnamese, in general, and our specialists in particular, possess certain characteristics that are suitable for the field of Internet security, such as intelligence, logical reasoning, patience and passion in their work.

In your opinion, what are some key trends that would impact the industry significantly?
The antivirus industry will continue to grow strongly as people increasingly depend on information systems and the Internet; this will be further accelerated once the cloud computing trend becomes a reality. Data will no longer just be stored in our personal computers (PCs) but also in data banks in public or private clouds, which would lead to the widening of security risks.

Some security vendors are also fighting a losing battle trying to keep up with consumers' needs. These vendors, unable to deal with the many variants of viruses, are resorting to a "better kill all than miss one" strategy. This is a dangerous mindset, and it will have to be changed.

Another possible problem would be a shortage in manpower. A security expert must have a comprehensive understanding of both hardware and software, but these professionals are hard to come by nowadays. This is why we have focused on grooming our own pool of experts.