Fish and Pepper: A new team in south Kansas City...and it’s not a restaurant

You can’t see the cloud where Fishtech charts its business course.

You can’t see the four pillars on which serial entrepreneur Gary Fish says he’s building his third internet security company in Kansas City.

But you can see Pepper, a charming little robot that will tell you about Fishtech. And a sample row of Fish’s muscle car collection. And a wall of wine forming a conference room wall.

The bright and trendy new office building that Fish has planted at 13333 Holmes Road is a decidedly different addition to the growing Martin City commercial revitalization.

The 48-year-old Fish, who made millions by founding in Kansas City and later selling FishNet Security and FireMon, two other internet security-related companies, says he got bored in retirement, missed working with people, and wanted to get back into “the next big thing” in cyber security.

While his first companies dealt with on-premise digital security, Fishtech looks to the cloud, where uncharted amounts of data reside.

“Your stuff no longer is on your own servers,” Fish said. “It’s on servers you don’t have access to. Your data is everywhere, so we’re selling services to build security in the cloud environment.”

Fishtech’s target clients so far are mainly Fortune 2000 businesses with large security needs, such as health care, banking and insurance firms.

“There’s no border to our business now,” said Fish, who has hired about 55 employees since launching Fishtech in April 2016. Some of them work in the quirky new building; others are scattered in Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Chicago.

On a recent day, a programmer in Denver was working on Pepper via a camera mounted in a Fishtech office. The robot is a gimmick, sure, but it’s also part of Fish’s intent to dig further into artificial intelligence.

Pepper, developed by SoftBank Robotics Corp., is just under 4 feet tall. At 61 pounds, she’s being programmed to recognize tones of voice and facial expressions through cameras, touch sensors, an accelerometer and other sensors in an “endocrine-type multi-layer neural network.”

She now responds to programmed questions, cocks her head, gestures and travels on her rolling pedestal. Programmers also claim her ability to read emotion.

“Now, we rely heavily on people to find threats to security in large amounts of data,” Fish explained. “We may be able to get AI to find out faster when a threat is real or not.”

Fish acknowledged that he still relies on building a good team of human beings. And that’s where his four pillars come in. He labels them people, process, technology and facility.

The latter pillar speaks to the new $10 million building, a two-story structure that’s suited for both business and partying. It’s designed to be a showplace that can wow potential customers.

“A facility needs to be a place of collaboration, a place where people want to work, a place where they’re proud to bring customers,” Fish said.

That’s why he’s parked some of his car collection (he owns more than two dozen) inside the building and showcased the wall of wine.

“People who are into tech tend to be into cars and wine, too,” Fish said. “This gives something to talk about. It builds rapport.”

The building’s first floor doesn’t look much like an office. It sports a conference room, an open kitchen, a big meeting space with a stage — Fish envisions holding TED-type talks there — an attached covered patio with additional cooking facilities, and artwork on the walls.

That list doesn’t tell the whole story, though. The conference room, for example, doesn’t have a traditional table. It has low-slung, white, upholstered chairs grouped around natural wood coffee tables. It has a fireplace wall at one end and an 84-inch touch screen on another. Opposite the screen is the wine wall (another Fish passion), visible from within the room only if the “active glass” wall is clear.

Active glass? Active glass relies on a film containing low voltage current sandwiched between two panes of glass. When you flip the switch, the electrical charge turns the glass opaque. When you shut it off, the glass becomes transparent again.

Fish attended DeVry Technical Institute before being hired for an information technology job at JE Dunn. In 1996, at age 26, he went out on his own, starting an internet consulting business and nabbing Capital Electric and Sprint among his early clients.

As the Y2K furor built, raising worldwide awareness about internet security, Fish’s new company, named FishNet Security, grew in the Kansas City Crossroads Arts District. The company later relocated to the Sprint campus in Overland Park. Fish sold controlling interest in FishNet in 2008 to a private equity firm for an undisclosed sum that was estimated in the business press at $100 million.

In 2004, he had spun off FireMon from FishNet, and in 2014 sold controlling interest in that, too.

“But I missed being in the security space,” he said. “Six to eight months into ‘retirement’ I was ready to start another business. Starting Fishtech wasn’t much of a leap of faith. There’s so much opportunity in this space. We just have to build the company and execute. We have to constantly look for tech-solution folk to partner within the cloud tech space.”

Some of the people Fish has hired so far work on the second floor of the new office building, where every modern workspace trend is present. There are no individually assigned desks. Workers can choose to be where the mood fits.

Some choose desktops that can be raised to work while standing. Some gravitate to high-top tables in glass-enclosed huddle rooms. Some interact at restaurant-like booths. Others sit at more traditional “cubes” or work areas separated by vibrant yellow metalwork screens. And some take laptops out on the covered patio.

Back in one corner of the second floor, you might find someone’s feet sticking out from the egg-like Metronap, a combination lounge chair and quiet chamber provided for guilt-free naps or escape time if needed.

“We’re all about customer satisfaction, but I also want this to be a place where people are proud to work, a place where they want to work,” Fish said. “It’s all about recruiting in a competitive industry.”

Fish said he wanted to place the building where it could be a catalyst for other redevelopment. Government officials agreed it was a worthy venture in an area that qualified as low-income or economically distressed under Missouri state policies. In 2015, Fishtech was awarded a 100 percent property tax abatement for 14 years — worth about $2 million — by the Enhanced Enterprise Zone board.

The company also received a Missouri Works tax incentive worth slightly more than $1 million, allowing it to retain its state withholding taxes on new jobs for five years, provided it created 43 jobs within two years of the March 2016 announcement. The company promised average annual salaries of $119,000 in the economic development filing.

“My goal is help build a tech campus in Martin City,” Fish said.

His next step will be to start construction soon on a 20,000-square-foot Fishtech Cloud Security Operations Center immediately north of the Fishtech headquarters. Employees there will work 24/7 to provide cyber security monitoring services for clients.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford