The Fastest Growing Anti-Virus Software Developer You’ve Never Heard Of

5/7/09Follow @bvbigelow

The economy might be stalling, but sales of anti-virus software developed by San Diego-based Eset, which have been almost doubling every year since 2005, are rising fast at the beginning of a classic S-shaped curve of market penetration.

I know this because Eset’s founding CEO Anton Zajac, who began his career as a theoretical physicist in what is now Slovakia, enthusiastically drew the graph for me when I met with him this week. Zajac keeps a big paper tablet on an easel in his office for just such occasions, and he also explained in mathematical terms that Eset’s growth rate, which was expressed as a derivative, is equal to r P(t) (1-P(t)).

I confess I had a hard time absorbing this, perhaps because his corner office, on the 19th floor of a high-rise in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood, has a stunning view of the San Diego harbor and sailboats in the bay. But here’s one relevant point: “During the conficker worm attacks, our sales tripled,” Zajac said. Online sales of Eset’s anti-virus software, which typically range between $60,000 and $80,000 a day, hit the carnival bell on April 1st with more than $200,000 worth of software downloads in one day.

Anton Zajac

Anton Zajac

Zajac said Eset’s global sales hit $112 million in 2008, and about $60 million were recorded in the first three months of 2009. Last year’s sales amounted to a 79 percent gain over 2007 sales of $62.6 million, a number that had to be verified for Eset to qualify for Inc magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies for the second consecutive year. Likewise, Eset’s 2007 sales represented an 85 percent increase over the company’s 2006 sales of $33.8 million.

Zajac says Eset has about 70 million customers worldwide, but the company is not well-known in the United States, where Zajac estimates its market penetration is only about 2 percent. That is largely due to Eset’s origins—the business started in Slovakia in 1991 and continues to operate what Zajac calls a production headquarters in Bratislava. Another factor may be that Eset has received no venture funding, and remains privately owned. It has about 300 employees worldwide, including about 130 in San Diego.

But Eset spokesman Christopher Dale says the company has been gradually gaining more recognition since it opened its San Diego office in 1999. Dale notes that the current (June 2009) issue of Consumer Reports ranks Eset’s “Smart Security” as the best overall subscription-based security software package for PCs, although at $90 it also is the priciest to download.

Zajac attributes the company’s success to the innovative approach Eset has taken to defeat malicious software. He says conventional anti-virus products defend against Internet worms, viruses, spyware, trojans, and other malware by identifying the known signatures of such nasty bits of code—a technique that requires knowing the malware’s signature in order to look for it. While Eset’s products also use signature scanning to compare against known threats, Zajac says the main feature relies on “advanced heuristics” that use intelligent search strategies to recognize elements of malware in new code.

“The idea was to create a product that doesn’t need continual updates,” Zajac says. Eset’s products also use heuristics functions to run samples of executable code in a way that’s isolated from the PC operating system, in what Zajac called “a mockup version of your PC created within your PC.” In testing whether malware code samples might be dangerous, Zajac said this “ThreatSense” engine also communicates with Eset’s Web-based threat center, “so on a daily basis, the center gets between 100,000 and 300,000 new files that are malicious.” In effect, the concept distributes some of the malware screening process to the machines of every Eset customer.

Zajac said he is particularly proud of the fact that Eset’s first anti-virus product was certified in 1998 for detecting 100 percent of “in-the-wild” computer viruses with no false alarms by Virus Bulletin, a British online virus newsletter. Since then, Zajac says Eset products have made the VB certification list 55 times, along with many other security software industry awards.

“When we started, Zajac said, “a new virus would appear every one or two months. Only a few teenagers who wanted to be famous would create malicious code. Now we get hundreds of thousands of viruses a day that are being created by organized crime.”

It’s the sort of problem that has helped drive Eset’s exponential sales growth, and as Zajac noted, that has also helped the company build its brand awareness.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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