Since the NSA spying scandal rocked the media last year, nearly everyone has considered how secure their online interactions are – regardless whether they’re technophobes or technophiles. Amidst this surveillance climate, services dedicating to protecting individuals’ privacy online have become big business and increasingly popular among internet users. One of these providers is Berlin-based ZenMate – launched in 2013, its encrypted browser plugin is used by over one million people in close to 200 countries. We talked to one of ZenMate’s founders, Simon Specka, to discover how his service aims to provide everyone with a freer and more secure internet.
Who are you and what is your startup all about?
I’m Simon, the co-founder of ZenMate. What ZenMate does is allow people to securely surf the web, without having to worry about whether their data is being accessed or hacked. The ZenMate browser plugin works similarly to a VPN by providing an encrypted web experience – what makes it stand out is its speed and usability. Our users are at the core of our service, which is why it is super easy to install the ZenMate plugin, users can download it in a one-click process. We also allow our users to choose their geographic location, so they can access online content on sites like Netflix and Hulu regardless where they are in the world.
How did you come up with the idea and why did you decide to make a business out of it?
My co-founder Markus Hänel and I are very passionate about protecting the rights of internet users. We believe that people have the right to be able to browse the web without fearing that their security or privacy is being compromised. Last year, the issue of privacy online obviously came to a fore when the scandal of the NSA spying programme was revealed. This provided the perfect climate to launch ZenMate as since then, people have really started considering their online security. Basically, via ZenMate, we hope to help facilitate a private, more secure and happier internet for all. After we had started working on ZenMate, we pitched and got accepted into the first cycle of the Axel Springer Plug and Play accelerator programme in Berlin.
What have you noticed about the countries in which ZenMate is most popular?
What we find really interesting is the recent increase in downloads in countries with political turmoil – such as Venezuela and Ukraine. When the turmoil and uprisings first started happening, we noticed a considerable spike in users in these countries straightaway. A lot of our early growth was in countries with restricted access to the internet, including China and Iran. But even in Europe and the US, we’ve experienced healthy growth – these users particularly like that they can change their location to gain access to geographically-restricted online content.
Who are your biggest competitors?
Our competitors include full VPN providers such as Hotspot Shield or TunnelBear. However, there are three major differences between them and us – for one, they charge for their service at an early stage. Secondly, ZenMate is much easier to set up in comparison to their solutions. As a simple browser plugin, even non-technical users can wrap their heads around how ZenMate works. Also, the one-click installation process is super easy and fast. The final and most important difference between ZenMate and its competitors is that it doesn’t sacrifice browsing speed – we are faster than even our paid competitors.
Have you received financing? Yes, we received a small amount of financing from the accelerator programme and additional seed funding from Project A Ventures – a VC and company builder. A number of well-known business angels in Germany also invested in ZenMate. We’re currently in the process of raising another round so that we can work on some new features.
What have you got planned next for ZenMate?
We’re in the process of developing ZenMate for mobile – both Android and iOS. We’re also always working to improve our online browsing tool as well.
You recently announced you’d reached one million users – what does this milestone mean for you?
Reaching one million users is a major milestone for us. That really proved that people want to be able to browse the web securely, anonymously and encrypted – without having to worry about being hacked or anyone spying on their data. We think it’s great that people have started to take their online privacy seriously and are actively doing something to protect themselves on the internet.