In some circumstances, sharing personal data such as browsing history can be harmless or even beneficial. However, data breaches can also have devastating consequences. Knowing this, many people would prefer to protect themselves from such threats.
PrivacyWall provides a search engine that enables users to make truly private searches. In addition, PrivacyWall also offers a desktop firewall and an Android app with the search engine built in. We reached out to company founder and CEO Jonathan Wu to gain insight into how he recognized the necessity of private searches and the value of persistence.
Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
In your own words, how would you describe your company?
PrivacyWall’s mission is to protect consumer privacy. We like to call ourselves the “#UnSearchEngine.” More than 250,000 consumers count on us every single day to protect their privacy. We’re one of the fastest-growing private search engines.
The PrivacyWall search engine does not collect or track users’ search history. We invented PrivateView, a way for users to preview any webpage in real time without revealing their IP address and without needing to install any extra software, like a VPN.
We offer a suite of products to protect consumer privacy, including our popular Android app, our Chrome and Safari extensions, and our cutting-edge Windows privacy firewall. Anyone can download our products for free.
What inspired you to take the leap and start this company?
A few years ago, I was visiting the Apple Store. Someone had forgotten to log out of their Google account and left their location history window open. I was shocked to see a history of every single place this person had visited in the past five years down to the minute. I could see every place they had visited, every restaurant they had been to. I could even see where that person was in real time at that very moment. All this data was linked to their Google search history, YouTube watch history, and every other Google service they were using.
In that moment, I thought two things: 1) I probably knew more about this person than their own family members, and 2) how frighteningly powerful big tech had become. It became clear to me that there was a massive opportunity to put consumers in control of their own data.
Search is our flagship product and just the first opportunity we are going after. At PrivacyWall, we want to be the most trusted privacy company in the world.
Who is on your team and how did you come together?
I started PrivacyWall with my brother Chris, who is our CTO. We are serial entrepreneurs. Early in my career, I was an investor at Insight Venture Partners, a leading software venture capital firm. I was the first investor in ExactTarget (IPO’d and later acquired for $2.5 billion by Salesforce.com) and Website Pros (IPO’d and acquired by Web.com for $1.5 billion). I cold-called more than 10,000 startup CEOs, and I learned that winning in the startup game takes grit, resilience, and, of course, lots of luck.
My initial investment in ExactTarget, an email marketing technology firm based in Indiana, grew 100 times when it was acquired by Salesforce.com for $2.5 billion. My investment career has been focused on helping small businesses that are located in parts of the country that have been overlooked by investors on Sand Hill Road get access to the resources that can help them grow, thrive, and compete on an even playing field.
Chris dropped out of USC to start an early tech blog called Digital Alchemy, an early competitor to TechCrunch, and it grew to more than 500,000 daily page views. It was one of the top 10 tech blogs at the time. He did this all while backpacking through Southeast Asia.
How is privacywall transforming the search engine industry?
A little-known fact is that search engines like Google, Bing, and even DuckDuckGo track the search results that users click on. Every search result you click on sends a ping to their servers, and they are able to track what websites you visit. By contrast, PrivacyWall never tracks the search results that our users click on, and we go a step further by offering PrivateView, which provides users complete privacy from being tracked by the websites in our search results. With PrivateView, users are able to request a real-time snapshot of any search result without being tracked or cookied. Websites are never able to associate any data with our users’ browsing history or retarget users with ads later.
What does the competitive landscape look like, and how do you differentiate?
Search is a $150 billion industry growing organically at 6% to 10% per year. The market is currently dominated by Google, which holds a 92% market share. More than $10 billion in incremental revenue is being added every single year. It’s a massive market opportunity. Every point of market share is worth $1.5 billion in revenue. By 2025, the market is expected to reach $210 billion. Demand is growing every single day. It’s not a zero-sum game, and we’re just getting started.
The next billion users are just getting online today. What’s super exciting for me is that they are coming from places like Latin America, South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, all markets where we are seeing exciting traction.
We’re seeing new consumer internet brands being born every single day in these markets, where big tech is being disrupted. We’re already seeing this happening. In these incredibly dynamic markets, Apple and Samsung are not the dominant smartphone vendors. Facebook and Twitter are being disrupted by upstarts.
We hope to be one of these challengers that grow to become unicorns. We were recently accepted into Parallel18, the leading startup accelerator in Latin America and the Caribbean. As part of the accelerator program, we’ve made some incredible connections with both global leaders like Amazon Web Services and multibillion-dollar conglomerates like Grupo Elektra, one of the largest retailers in Latin America. Amazon even invited us into the Amazon CTO Fellowship Program for high potential startups because it believes our technology has the potential to change the world. We’re super grateful for all the support we have received.
Beyond PrivateView, our suite of privacy-protecting products includes the PrivacyWall data protection firewall, which blocks more than 3,000 trackers and stops data collection at the operating system level. If you are like me, you have dozens of apps open at any one time. Existing products in the market like ad blockers only work inside the browser while allowing the browser itself and other commonly installed apps to continue to collect data. Even users who have switched their search engine away from Google will continue to have their browsing and search history collected by Google if they use Google Chrome. With our firewall installed, data collection by all your apps can be stopped with one click.
There are competitors who offer point solutions, but they only address part of the privacy puzzle. No one else has a suite of privacy-protecting products like PrivacyWall.
How do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?
Search is just the first beachhead. We plan to use the proceeds of this raise to hire developers and data scientists to improve the PrivacyWall search engine and further development of advanced privacy-protecting technologies, such as our desktop privacy firewall. Our goal is to provide 360-degree privacy protection for our users, regardless of where they are or what device they are using, and we are going to grow our product lineup and increase marketing so that more people are aware of our products.
Environmental, social, and governance investors have often talked about stakeholder capitalism. We will be using blockchain to make that a reality. We’re developing a crypto token called PrivacyCoin (PRIV), and we’re building a decentralized finance exchange so that anyone can be a stakeholder in PrivacyWall. PRIV will be our governance token. Every stakeholder will be able to raise proposals and vote on features on our product roadmap.
If a stakeholder no longer believes in our cause, they can choose to liquidate it on the PrivacyCoin decentralized exchange. We believe this offers a level of transparency, liquidity, and stakeholder rights that most publicly traded companies do not offer their shareholders today.
What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?
Our mission is to democratize access to privacy tools and services, and we believe that starts with empowering and including our users in our growth. Growing up first-generation, low-income in Silicon Valley, I know what it’s like to be looking from the outside in. That’s why we’re offering our users the first chance to invest in PrivacyWall with our crowdfunding campaign on Wefunder.
Traditionally, tech companies have raised capital from venture capital firms located in Silicon Valley and New York. This leads to a lack of diversity in viewpoints and ideas when it comes to how to grow the business. It has the potential to be detrimental to users because only a very small, elite group of investors stands to benefit from the company’s growth, and the interests of this group may not be aligned with the interests of the users.
By allowing our customers to be our first investors, we solve that alignment challenge while also allowing them to be the first to benefit from our growth.
As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? have you set any future goals for the company?
I’ve spoken to analysts at several bulge bracket investment banks who have taken a personal interest in our company.
There are very few markets that are as big as the search market, growing as fast organically, that is dominated by a single company. As a result, I can see multiple exit opportunities in front of us, including acquisition by a strategic acquirer that is interested in entering the search market or an IPO.
The search market today is like the telecom market in 1984, before the Department of Justice broke up AT&T. I sometimes wonder if we would still be using rotary telephones if the breakup had not happened. Would AT&T have partnered with Apple to introduce the iPhone if it didn’t have to worry about competitors launching it first? Without a competitive telecom market, would Apple be the $2.4 trillion company it is today?
Google today is worth $1.9 trillion. I believe restoring competition in the search market will unlock tremendous amounts of shareholder value in the next five to 10 years and, as history shows, not only benefit Google but also competitors like PrivacyWall.
As a minority and underrepresented founder, what difficulties have you encountered working on your company? what advice would you give to other minority founders?
I believe success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Minority founders simply have to work harder, but that also means we have to work smarter and help one another succeed because oftentimes we don’t have the networks or connections that have been passed down from generation to generation.
That extends to the business itself. By default, the business needs to be profitable because fundraising is simply more difficult. That means running a tighter ship, keeping an eye on operating costs, scaling opportunities when we find them, and being innovative. That also means being more focused and disciplined in our product roadmap and building what our customers need.
When I started out as a venture capitalist, I couldn’t have counted on more than one hand the number of minority or women partners at the most prestigious venture capital firms on Sand Hill Road. Today, things have started to change, however imperfectly, and I want to be part of leading that change.
My advice is to be open to connecting, to lift as you rise, and to be present in the community and help in any way you can. Through our civic action initiatives, we are empowering low-income and underserved communities to enter the digital age through the Federal Lifetime Internet program. As a platform, we have the power to steer traffic, and we have referred more than 50,000 families to the Federal Lifetime Internet Program offering free or discounted high speed internet access, so anyone can learn and work at home.
It’s up to all of us to bend the arc of history towards a more inclusive future.
We look forward to seeing where Jonathan and his team take the company. PrivacyWall is currently raising on Wefunder.