At a time when governments and oppressive regimes around the world are actively restricting web access to its citizens, including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China and most recently Russia, and with it freedom of speech, VPN (virtual private network) services like hide.me have surged in popularity.
Created in 2012 by tech entrepreneur Sebastian Schaub, hide.me is being used by over 10 million people globally to ensure their data and privacy online is protected.
Schaub has worked in the internet security industry for over 10 years, working on different IT security projects for different governments. What prompted him to start hide.me was more profound.
He says: “I’d always been a huge believer in privacy and I want to see a world where privacy is a basic human right and not a privilege for the few. The question was, what the best way for it to actually happen?”
Mostly the answer was an encryption tool that could help people stay anonymous and maintain their privacy online. Schaub did some research to see if there was anything already out there that could do this.
“I realized that a VPN is the closest thing that could help people to encrypt their connections and keep them safe online,” he says. “I was equally certain that the VPNs in their existing form back then were not even close to what I had in mind, so I decided to create one myself.”
A VPN can create a secure connection to another network over the internet and can be used to access region-restricted websites, and shield browsing activity from prying eyes on public Wi-Fi.
What Schaub had in mind was something so simple that users wouldn’t think twice about using it and so fast, they don’t feel the difference while they are connected to a VPN.
There were challenges, the first one being funding. At that time VPNs were seen as occupying a grey area, and in many cases, used as a tool used for shady activities online.
“For investors, that was something that prevented them from moving forwards,” says Schaub. “I m proud of the fact that we’ve managed to self-fund hide.me without external investment to date. That’s a huge achievement.”
His next big challenge was attracting the right talent. He was building what many considered to be an unrealistic dream and it was tough finding people who shared his vision and wanted to be involved.
“Fortunately there are always some people who are in it because their goals are aligned with your own,” he says. “Eventually I managed to find like minded people and build a team of five who started working on hide.me.”
Schaub also struggled with building a scalable infrastructure, mainly because they were the first ones to build one that actually protected the privacy of users online.
He says: “Being true to my vision, I had to offer a free version of our VPN that allowed basic users to maintain their privacy, and that’s why we had to design our architecture in such a way that we could scale quickly whenever we needed to.”
Significantly hide.me is not part of the Five Eyes, Nine Eyes, or Fourteen Eyes networks, an agreement between multiple countries where Internet traffic is logged.
“People are trusting us with something more precious than their money and that’s their privacy,” says Schaub. “As a team we are committed to doing everything we can to strengthen this trust of our users in our brand. If we are linked in any way to these X eyes networks, we can’t stay true to our initial promise of making people anonymous and our users will have absolutely no reason to trust us.”
The company has grown quickly – Schaub admits he never thought they would ever celebrate 15 millionth users – and now has a team of 15 people all working remotely. The business, which has been profitable since its launch, turned over $10 million in the 2019 fiscal year, and also remains completely self funded.
Covering 55 locations in 35 countries and over 1,400 servers throughout Asia, Europe and The Americas, users are able to download hide.me to their smartphones, laptops and PCs and surf the web safe in the knowledge they are protected.
Looking to the future Schaub plans to continue to improve the product and simplify it further. He also wants to focus more on educating users about the importance of privacy.
“We believe that awareness levels around Internet privacy are low,” he says. “We have made efforts in the past to educate users, but we believe that more we need to invest more into this practice.”
Ultimately he aims to grow the hide.me user base to 70 million in the next five years. However, one of the most important future goals for hide.me concerns the empowering of individuals with the right to freedom of speech and especially for people who live under oppressive regimes.
“Very often we see governments around the world ban social media services to restrict their citizens from freely expressing their opinions,” he says. “We believe that a VPN is a great tool to enable people to express themselves freely and hide.me will be flag bearer in solving this problem.”