As startup stories go, the tale of Magnet Forensics is unusual enough before you even get to the product.
For starters, the Waterloo-based software company has been profitable from the day it launched in 2011, which enabled it to bootstrap its way to the 215 employees (and counting) it has today.
As for company founder Jad Saliba, he’s not some University of Waterloo whiz kid, but a former patrol cop with coding chops who – after a year spent beating back a brush with cancer – developed an evidence-recovery program that everyone in law enforcement seemed to want.
For all that, Saliba made nearly no mention of money or the technical challenges of digital data recovery during a half-hour presentation at Communitech on Tuesday, part of the Pizza with the Prez series of noon-hour talks by area tech founders.
Instead, he focused on three main factors – people, purpose and passion – that have underpinned Magnet’s work in helping investigators around the world save lives and put killers behind bars. Among tech companies, Magnet’s is the kind of mission that makes conventional talk of revenue and product pivots seem pale in comparison.
“When we’re recovering evidence and they’re using our software, if there’s a bug, it doesn’t mean, like, ‘Oh, I can’t print something right now,’” Saliba said. “It means that potentially we didn’t find the evidence that put someone on jail, or didn’t find the evidence that could exonerate an innocent person.”
For a time, Saliba said, he felt that the customer should come first and employees second, but he eventually learned “I was wrong about that. What I learned over time is that people come first . . . and from there, your customers will get the best treatment, because if your employees are happy and you’re treating them well because it’s the right thing to do, they’ll also treat your customers well.”
Saliba recounted an incident from his policing career when his cruiser hit a patch of ice and crashed into a utility pole, trapping him in the wreck. He wasn’t seriously injured, but was nervous when he saw the duty inspector arrive on the scene.
“Basically, if they show up, you’ve either screwed up really badly or it’s a big call,” he said. “So generally, you don’t want the inspector there.”
But, after checking to make sure Saliba was OK, the ranking officer said, ‘Hey Jad, if you need a witness, I almost lost it just coming here on the ice; I can vouch for you.’
“It was not something I expected this guy to say,” Saliba said. “You’re kind of expecting him to come down on you as management, and it was just a really great moment that, obviously, I’ve remembered to this day.”
As an employer, Saliba has been able to pay that kind of gesture forward. He spoke of an employee whose wife was diagnosed with cancer, and how the Magnet team rallied around him to make it easier for him to spend time tending to her.
“It meant so much to him,” Saliba said, “and it really didn’t cost us much as a company to extend that to him, but it went a long way. The returns you get on that are huge compared to the work it takes to put this in, but it also just comes down to the fact that it’s the right thing to do.
“The question to ask yourselves is, what do you want to be remembered for as a boss, as a leader, as a startup entrepreneur, beyond the dollars and cents and beyond the fame and fortune?”
Moving on to the topic of purpose, Saliba focused on the importance of knowing what to care about and what to let go when taking on something difficult. Citing the popular self-help book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, he highlighted how “we need to stop avoiding struggle” and be willing to embrace pain in pursuit of a goal.
“As long as it’s the kind of pain that you enjoy, as weird as that sounds, then it’s a good thing,” Saliba said, “because it means you’re enjoying the journey whether or not some goal you have in the future ever happens.”
Saliba asked audience members to think about their own work and whether they enjoy their struggles enough to stick with them through difficult days, and “is there purpose in your company that drives you?”
At Magnet, he’s been reminded of that purpose many times when he hears from police agencies who have successfully used the company’s software to, for example, save children from sexual abuse. Saliba read out one such message during Tuesday’s talk.
“In October 2017 I stumbled across a guy in Houston, Texas who was abusing his own daughter…” the customer wrote. “We rescued her and arrested him quickly, but at initial preview, his devices were pretty devoid of evidence.”
Magnet’s software was able to recover deleted messages that refuted the man’s denials.
“Today he received a sentence of 27 years,” the customer wrote. “A four-year-old girl has a chance at a normal life as a result. Your product and your team were integral in this. Thank you for what you do.”
Turning to passion, Saliba recounted some all-night sessions leading up to major product releases in Magnet’s early days, and how he and his team recently reminisced about those times.
“One of the developers said, ‘It wasn’t great because we stayed up all night; it was great because we were there together,’” Saliba said. “We were all there together for the same reason, and that’s what can make some of those really difficult times so great in retrospect.”
He also recalled being away at a big user summit and finding a bug in some new Magnet software he wanted to demo for customers at the event.
“I emailed the team – it was a Saturday or Sunday – and I said this can wait until Monday,” Saliba said, adding that he was going to try and figure out a temporary workaround himself to do the demo. “And I get an email back within half an hour, with people saying ‘We’re heading to the office now,’ and they came in and spent the day in the office figuring out what was going on, fixed it and we were good to go for the user summit.
“Again, struggle can be good if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing,” he said. “Everyone can find something to be passionate about in their company, whatever you’re doing. It’s just a matter of giving it some thought.”