By Erika Hanson
Rob Cheng never imagined when he left Gateway in 1999 that he would start a company that would become one of the top antivirus platforms in the country. But 20 years later, that’s exactly what’s happened.
Rob Cheng, CEO and founder of PC Matic, started out his executive career with Gateway 2000 in North Sioux City, South Dakota, as the company’s first Director of Marketing, and a pioneer of using then-uncharted tactics to sell computers directly to customers over the phone. By the time Cheng left, he had been promoted to Senior Vice President of Worldwide Sales, Marketing and Support.
Cheng then took Gateway’s spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, and from it crafted PC Pitstop, the first parent company of what would later become PC Matic.
“After leaving Gateway, I visited Rick Snyder,” says Cheng. “Rick was the president of Gateway and he had created a venture capital firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I visited one of the firms in which Rick had invested related to software to diagnose common computer problems. I tried to help the firm but it ultimately failed. At the same time, the internet was taking hold. The epiphany was to create a website that would diagnose common computer problems over the internet.” PC Pitstop was the result – a free computer diagnostic website that soon became an internet sensation.
In 2009, the company’s significant growth fostered the creation of PC Matic, a comprehensive software tool used for the maintenance and security of all of a consumer’s computers. But the original iteration used a third-party antivirus product, and when that version started to show signs of infection, Cheng switched gears and developed his own antivirus product, the only one of its kind based entirely in the United States.
PC Matic is one of the few antivirus platforms that uses whitelist technology to detect and stop ransomware and viruses from infecting PCs, as opposed to the blacklist technology other companies rely on. And that differentiation has provided a solid methodology to separate PC Matic from the competition. But the industry continues to pose challenges.
Color Block: “Ransomware has escalated to the point where the nation is at crisis,” says Cheng. “In fact, Louisiana has declared a state of emergency due to cyber security, so I feel an urgency to drive PC Matic quicker to being a world class security solution.” “The enemy is successfully penetrating the areas where our cyber security is the weakest. Furthermore, too many people and organizations are paying ransoms, guaranteeing the attacks grow.”
Cheng forecasts that the private and public sectors are the company’s largest opportunities for growth in the next few years.
“As the ransomware crisis evolves, it’s imperative that we establish ourselves in the business and government space. This has been tricky because the way that businesses and governments choose antivirus is complex and evolving. Somehow, we need to insert ourselves into this shifting marketplace.”
Color Block: One of the most interesting facets of the company could be its work-from-home model. All 55 PC Matic employees, Cheng included, work remotely, out of their homes. Four employees work in the Siouxland area, three of whom also worked with Cheng at Gateway. And the model has proven successful.
“There are tremendous advantages to working from home,” says Cheng. “I personally cannot imagine ever working any other way. I believe that I can live a more fulfilling and productive life without the daily commute. We can also hire the best person in the nation for a job, rather than being limited by geography.”
But some challenges do exist.
“On the other hand, it is not easy to ensure that everyone is productive and moving in the same direction,” says Cheng. “We have two company meetings a year which allow employees to connect on a work and social level while exploring a new city. [Gateway founder] Ted Waitt used to say that a company is no more than a group of people striving for a common goal. In a work at home company, it is my job to make sure that everyone can see that goal.
“Part of the unknown is how to continue to scale a remote workforce to much larger sizes than we are today. I haven’t figured out the details, but somehow I know it can be done.”
Cheng says it’s been important to him to maintain ties with former friends and Gateway co-workers in the Siouxland area.
“Working at a successful rocket ship like Gateway was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that few people will ever know,” says Cheng. “We made one of the most important technology companies in the world in Western Iowa and South Dakota. One time, Intel said that Gateway was the rabbit that all the other PC companies followed. The Gateway experience was so powerful that I believe it binds us together even after Gateway’s demise.”
According to Cheng, finding a niche in an industry he’s passionate about has kept him focused on his goals.
Color Block: “One of the clichés is ‘do something you love,’ but in my case it has been true. Ever since I was a boy, I have loved computers and from an early age I enjoyed programming them. In my 20s, I bought my first computer, and I loved programming it as a hobby. That’s also how I met Ted [Waitt]. Then in my 30s, I stopped programming to focus on Gateway, but when I started PC Matic, I had the itch again. Sadly, the co-founders were more skilled than I, and I was told to focus on sales and marketing. So I did.”
Cheng says his experience and education groomed him to start and maintain a successful business of his own. “I have an MBA, and I don’t think I could have gotten this far without that knowledge. If you want to make a business, then you need to know how businesses work.”
At this point in his career, Rob Cheng is nothing less than excited about what’s to come.
“PC Matic is a known brand and has a sustainable and profitable business model,” says Cheng. “In the very beginning, I was worried that the company would fail and it would suck me dry. Since that didn’t happen, I haven’t felt like quitting. I just turned 60 this month, and I am happy to report that I am in good health with a wonderful family; I wouldn’t change a thing.”