David Gorodyansky: Young Entrepreneur Enabling Free Speech in the Middle East

by / ⠀Entrepreneur Interviews / April 5, 2011

We had a chance to speak with David Gorodyansky who is the founder of AnchorFree and its newest product Hotspot Shield. Hotspot Shield secures the pages people browse online and in turn allows people to access sites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google and more in countries that have restrictions on internet use.

Recently Hotspot Shield has been a major player in Egypt and Libya where the governments have stepped in and put restrictions on the internet. Hotspot Shields traffic went from 100,000 to a million overnight when Egypt implemented restrictions. Continue reading to learn more about how David is helping people communicate around the world…

Your company has been recognized as a major player in the recent revolution in the Middle East and is enabling free speech in places like China.  Did you start your company trying to change the world?

We always wanted to change the world.  I grew up inspired by people like Muhammad Yunus and other entrepreneurs that worked for improving the world for social good.  Our original vision was to impact people’s lives by giving away a free ad-supported privacy/security tool (called Hotspot Shield) to millions of users online. The value proposition of Hotspot Shield is that it secures every page users visit, making email, search, Facebook, etc, just as secure as banking sites.  Another benefit of Hotspot Shield is that it assigns a private identity to each user, protecting the user’s real identity from being tracked.

We launched AnchorFree with a vision that every user in the world can be in control of their personal data online and can be secure and private while surfing the web. My co-founder and I were both 23 when we launched AnchorFree.  In the beginning we did not envision that our product would be used as one of the main tools to access information, bypass censorship and communicate between users.  Millions of users around the world figured out that they can use us to become secure and private, and therefore bypass restrictions that many countries and ISPs have on content.  We have become an enabler for users that want to get to Google, Facebook, YouTube, Orkut, Skype, CNN, BBC, etc. in regions where such sites are censored.

It is fascinating how users often determine the course of Internet companies.  Millions of users from all over the world started using us as a way to get to information, share ideas, read the news, etc.  We are flattered that we have the opportunity to make such a real, fundamental impact on the availability of information around the world and on people’s everyday lives.

How large of a problem is internet censorship online in emerging markets?

One third of the world lives under Internet censorship.  Out of about 2 billion Internet users, more than 600 million live in regions that censor the web.

You have a goal of reaching 100 million users.  You are at 9 million now–how do you plan on achieving such growth?

Most of our growth is organic, by word of mouth.  We have become an important part of people’s everyday life.  If you can’t get to Facebook or YouTube in a given country, all you have to do is turn on AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield and these sites become immediately available.   We plan on continuing to grow by adding real value to people’s everyday lives.  We once had a user email us who was stationed in the US military abroad in a country that censored Facebook.  His wife posted pictures of his kids on Facebook and he could only get to see them through AnchorFree. He thanked us for enabling him to keep him in touch with his family.  I think the more value we can add to users, the more people will spread the word about Hotspot Shield and hopefully millions of additional users will adopt the product.  We have a firm plan to get to 100 million users in the next few years and we are very focused on reaching that goal.  We’re driven by adding value to people world-wide and that enables us to keep achieving our goals. We’ve had continuous triple digit growth year over year.

At Hotspot Shield you have the ability to see history unfold, as traffic in different regions of the world spikes.  Recently you saw that Libya shut off the internet to their people.  How are we still seeing live pictures of what’s going on in Libya?

We see very interesting trends and patterns in places like Libya and Egypt.  Based on trends in our traffic we can see different events as they’re happening in these countries. For instance, in Libya we see traffic go up during the day and drop to zero at night.  This most likely means that the government there shuts off all Internet access for the night and turns it back on in the morning.  They likely want to have the Internet on during the day for the oil companies to do business, but once people go home from work in the evenings, all Internet access gets shut off.  We can see this by watching our usage patterns.  We can also tell when people are at lunch and when people are praying based on traffic drops; when people are done with lunch and prayer, traffic spikes again.

The United States is currently trying to pass a bill that would increase the American government’s cybersecurity, including what some people are calling our own kill switch on the internet.  How vulnerable is the United States to cyberterrorism?

I don’t have much to say on the Internet kill switch, I find it hard to believe that the US will pass this.  However there is other legislature called the “Do not track” bill, that protects consumers against tracking by third parties online.  I think this is interesting, given the fact that consumers do need to be protected online.  However, AnchorFree already protects 9 million consumers per month at no cost to the users…thus the regulation is good, but a solution already exists in the private sector.

Your traffic spiked from 100,000 to a million overnight in Egypt and Hotspot Shield clearly allowed revolutionaries to log on to Facebook and Twitter to help organize.  Have any cool stories to share?

Most people that got on Facebook and Twitter got to these sites through AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield. The interesting story about Egypt is that when the demonstrations happened, our traffic soared from 100,000 users to 1,000,000 overnight. However, in a few days all of the Internet in Egypt got shut down.  We were expecting our traffic to drop to zero. The traffic did drop, but not completely.  We wondered how people can be using us if the Internet got shut off.  Then users reported that they were using their dial up and phone connections to get online, use Hotspot Shield and get to Twitter to communicate what was going on.  We found that fascinating.

In addition to changing course of history, you are also making a ton of money.  Who’s backing your venture and how effective has your ad based revenue model been?

We’re backed by $11 million in venture capital from a group of industry thought leaders and venture investors that really believe in consumer privacy and Internet freedom.  Among some of our venture investors are individuals such as Bert Roberts (former CEO and chairman of MCI) and Esther Dyson (active investor and board director of WPP and Yandex).

What can the Under30CEO community do to help enable people the right to information and free speech via the internet throughout the globe?

We can certainly use everybody’s help in spreading the word about AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield.  Tell friends and family members about it and use us while traveling and to be secure/private when surfing the web both at home and abroad.  Spreading the word about Hotspot Shield will help more users gain access to information and will further enable free speech around the world.

Any advice to people who want make money by solving global issues?

Yes.  Focus on solving the global issues first and on making money second.  As long as you have a rational solution to a real problem, money will follow.  Follow your passion and solve real problems – that’s the best advice I can give.

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