How Anna Sainsbury built GeoComply — a global leader in cybersecurity.
2021 RBC Momentum Award Winner
By Karen van Kampen
Anna Sainsbury has always been a problem solver, passionate about bringing function to dysfunctional things, no matter how big or small. “I take as much satisfaction in loading a dishwasher as I do solving a major compliance issue in a jurisdiction or building a new product,” says Anna. “Really whatever it is that needs doing, I can be passionate about the end result.”
While working in testing and compliance in the gaming space, Anna discovered a problem that needed solving: How do you use technology to confirm someone’s true location when they are interacting online? She met the challenge — and then co-founded and became CEO of GeoComply, a cyber security company that is a global leader in geolocation compliance solutions for fintech, iGaming, and online broadcasting.
A decade later, Anna was honoured as the 2021 winner of the RBC Momentum Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that recognizes an entrepreneur who has created a responsive business that can adapt to changing market environments and leverage opportunities for continued growth.
Becoming an entrepreneur happened very organically, says Anna. Her dad had his own business and she was close to the founder of her first employer, so there were a lot of business owner-related conversations around her.
“As an entrepreneur or even as a young person, you’re trying to find your stride and decide what you want to do,” she says. Committing to a 30-year career path can seem too much, says Anna, while having internal flexibility and seeing how to contribute to the bigger picture can open up more doors. “I’ve just been naturally curious to have conversations and enjoy the ride.”
“It was a struggle. But I personally love struggles.”
For five years, Anna worked in testing and compliance in the gaming industry, gaining experience in the European and Asian markets. The U.S. was seen as the next big market to come online, yet iGaming was challenging. Transmission of gaming data between states was banned, so it was imperative to determine the accurate location of players. This was difficult, with tampering tools being used to mask people’s locations. GeoComply solved the problem by creating compliance-grade virtual fences.
Founded in 2011, it took two years to launch the geolocation compliance software — which proved more challenging than Anna had imagined. “It was a struggle,” she recalls. “But I personally love struggles.”
GeoComply was ahead of its time, which made it difficult to provide solutions to a problem that many clients weren’t yet aware of. “All these hero stories of what it’s like to set up a strong tech company or a unicorn make it all sound so easy,” says Anna, explaining that the reality was quite different, “when doors are being closed in your face and people don’t get what you are saying.”
There were people who tried to dissuade Anna from pursuing the innovative idea. When deciding who to turn to for advice, Anna says it’s important to have a trusted group of advisors who aren’t conflicted or have a reason for you to fail, and are also qualified to give an opinion. “Really look at what incentivizes someone to give advice,” says Anna, “and why might their advice be advantageous or not for you to listen to.”
It’s also important to celebrate all the little wins along the way. When first starting out, “There may be all sorts of personal things that come up, like imposter syndrome,” she says. “But once you make that first sale or you get that little win in a meeting, it’s so rewarding.”
GeoComply began as a small, four-staff operation and has grown steadily to become a global leader in cybersecurity with more than 375 staff and offices in the United States, Canada, Poland, and Vietnam. It provides geolocation compliance services for clients including Amazon Prime Video, BBC, and FanDuel. GeoComply’s product is installed on more than 500 million devices worldwide.
The company is also focused on social responsibility, and is helping to create a sustainable and safe gaming industry. It set up Conscious Gaming, an independent, non-profit organization that provides tools for users to self-exclude from sports betting and casino gaming. It’s like a lock on your fridge, says Anna, which prevents people from placing bets if they wish to take a break from online gaming. The organization works with gaming operators, regulators, and advocacy groups to promote responsible iGaming.
GeoComply also donates software and works with regulators and non-profit partners, including the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and the Child Rescue Coalition, to enhance online safety, protecting children and combating child exploitation.
“There is a lot of effort that goes into creating the pipeline so we can reach that diversity across all of our teams at all levels.”
Within the organization, they have set a goal to maintain 50% of women in roles from middle management to the board level. It is an interesting challenge, says Anna, as many women may not consider career paths in privacy and mobile development. “There is a lot of effort that goes into creating the pipeline so we can reach that diversity across all of our teams at all levels,” says Anna. This includes providing scholarships and return-to-work programs for women who have paused their careers or left the workforce.
Once women are brought to the table, “we take responsibility for nurturing them,” says Anna, by providing learning and development courses in order to have women move into more senior seats. Having both women and men at the table “brings balance to the conversation,” she says.
The learning and development of its employees is an area of focus for GeoComply. Anna wants to ensure that “people feel like we are giving them enough inspiration to be diving in and getting to commit to the career path they dreamed for themselves,” she says. One of their professional development initiatives is the G-Force Oxford Strategic Leadership Program, a one-year program that has individuals participate remotely through interactive learning seminars, and work directly with instructors and tutors from Oxford University. There’s an in-person final module and graduation ceremony on the Oxford campus.
At such a high-growth company, the challenges are relentless, says Anna. “You’re constantly out of your comfort zone and scaling to a place that you’ve never been before,” she says. “A lot of people who work for us are like hungry activists wanting to make change.”
The ever-changing digital industry also requires constant problem solving, adaptation, and ingenuity to protect against geolocation fraud and geo-piracy. “It is a challenge of innovation and a good Tom and Jerry Show — cat and mouse,” says Anna, explaining that there is innovation on both sides. “Fraudsters are innovative. They push the boundaries,” she says. “We have to be more innovative and follow these trends. That’s the exciting part.”