“Starting my own business is something I’ve always wanted to do. I knew since I was a teenager this was my ultimate goal, so most of my life I’ve been taking steps toward achieving that. But it really only became possible when I moved to the Lehigh Valley.”
Those are the words of Michael Hawkins, the President & CEO of Netizen. The Lehigh Valley-based cybersecurity company develops innovative solutions to enable a more secure cyberspace for clients in government, defense, and commercial markets.
Since its formation in 2013, Netizen has seen incredible growth. In 2019, the company was named the fastest-growing cybersecurity company in the United States, coming in at No. 47 on the Inc. 5000 list which ranks the nation’s fastest-growing private companies. It made the list again the following year at number 184 and was the 2nd fastest-growing veteran-owned and Pennsylvania-based company both times
Hawkins attributes a large portion of his success to the many resources available to small businesses and entrepreneurs in the Lehigh Valley, as well as the region’s active tech community.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is there’s a lot of the Bell Labs legacy here; you have all these data centers and IT resources here, and a lot of places from New York City and Philadelphia are storing and processing their data here in the Lehigh Valley,” he said. “There’s also a really vibrant tech community here, and it got me plugged in and engaged with everybody, and so when I was ready to start my company I decided ‘This is the place. Let’s do it.’”
Prior to coming to the Lehigh Valley, Hawkins had never lived in one place for more than 2 or 3 years during his adult life. He was familiar with the area from spending summers at his great uncle’s house in Allentown during his childhood, but when he moved to the region himself in 2010, he didn’t expect to stay for longer than a few years at first.
But he quickly realized he was in the Lehigh Valley to stay. He came to enjoy visits to Bethlehem’s Main Street, events like MusikFest and the Blues, Brews & Barbecue Festival, and restaurants like The Bayou Southern Kitchen and Bar in Bethlehem.
“The Lehigh Valley is really the epicenter of all kinds of stuff,” Hawkins said. “You don’t have the excessive hustle and bustle of a major metro, where I felt trapped by traffic all the time, but everything is accessible, everything is nearby. Philadelphia and New York City are a close drive away, but the cost of living here is so much lower, there’s plenty to do, and yet you have so much more space.”
Netizen, which employs 46 people, has developed innovative cybersecurity software products that include the award-winning AutoSTIG and Overwatch Governance Suite. In addition to being one of the fastest-growing businesses in the United States, the company has also been named as one of the nation’s Best Workplaces by Inc. Magazine and was a U.S. Department of Labor HIRE Vets Platinum Medallion awardee for veteran hiring and support for two years in a row.
Hawkins cited several resources in the Lehigh Valley that have contributed to his success, including like Ben Franklin TechVentures and Lehigh University’s Small Business Development Center, organizations like the Allentown Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) and Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), and the talent pipeline available through the region’s many great colleges, universities, and technical schools.
Netizen’s first location was in AEDC’s Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, a business incubator for manufacturing and other startups located in the refurbished former Mack Trucks Plant 4A in Allentown. The company grew quickly when they began winning federal contract work, which required it to get its own dedicated facility.
“A lot of people look at us and are surprised there’s a defense contractor in Allentown, but it really is the perfect place to be,” Hawkins said. “Lots of people here work with federal or defense clients that you might not realize, like Mack Trucks, Olympus, and B. Braun to name some of the larger ones in addition to numerous others. There’s so much happening and so much possible in the Lehigh Valley that people aren’t necessarily aware of, but they should be.”
(photo provided courtesy of Netizen)