Interview with Robert Knapp, Co-founder & CEO Cyberghost: fighting the good fight – protecting your online privacy

Robert Knapp is co-founder and CEO of CyberGhost, one of the best known VPN suppliers worldwide. The company consists of 20 employees, who established in an extremely short time an extraordinary service with more than 2.5 million users!

As a CEO, he sets the short, mid, and long term milestones for the company and leads the people in the right direction. He always keeps his office door open and his eyes on the revenue.

He started his own company when he was 18, and since then he was self-employed, first in music and event-business, later in IT and internet. Since then, he learned everything from his own mistakes and managed to cultivate a love-hate relationship with attorneys and accountants.

He’s a sucker for excel sheets with numbers, conversion rates, St. Pauli soccer team, tattoos and Italian coffee. We couldn’t wait to hear from him how he chose to build a company in the CEE and get some more info on his perspective on privacy.

1. First of all, we know you’re very passionate about online privacy, so we’d like to ask you why do you believe it’s so important for today’s online landscape?

To have privacy simply makes the difference between a constitutional state under the rule of law and a lawless state that eliminates civil rights. There is a clear red line that divides the two. And it’s been obviously crossed. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that simply anything we do online is scanned, stored and processed by public organizations in the USA and also in Europe. There is simply zero privacy online.
But we shouldn’t forget that the confidentiality of conversations between lovers, members of a family or friends is the basis for building sustainable relationships. Being watched while we talk about our personal issues turns us from being individuals to being what the watchers expect us to be.
The possibility to meet in a private protected space is a basic requirement for the work of labor union representatives, journalists, lawyers, political activists and many more. These people are the backbone of any free society. Watching people while they organize themselves is turning everything we believe in upside down. Governments don’t have to control their people, people have to control their governments. That’s the natural order of things, not the other way around.
Moreover: confidential talks are fundamental for successful business operations. What they do right now is simply called “industrial espionage”. It’s a drawback for the development of an open market.
The overall interception of all our online conversations is a serious attack on our life as human beings, as citizens and on a free and independent entrepreneurship.
Even though some people might not realize this, our online profiles and activities are just a digital extension of our daily lives. And since an e-mail is a letter, a chat is a conversation and a Google Hangout well, still a hangout, what happens on the internet has a real and powerful impact on us.

2. What’s the advantage of being located in the CEE as privacy focused company, also considering the context of EU legislation?

I think in our case, the fact that we’re located in Romania represents a valuable asset. The European Union offers a higher standard in data security laws than the US, and it became less of a secret that in this field, Europe is structurally ahead of the USA. We could take this as a good opportunity to develop businesses around privacy and data security and kick some Silicon Valley asses. CyberGhost is right now on the way to do exactly that by building a big, sustainable privacy company.
If we have a look over the ocean right now, there are two current shutdowns of USA privacy companies due to the US National Security Agency’s pressure of installing backdoors that allow the government to access their data. First Lavabit, an email service provider, last week CryptoSeal, a VPN provider decided to close down rather than risk exposure to government monitoring. The message is pretty clear: encryption technology from US-based companies is not to be trusted and the USA is not the place to run privacy-based services.
In 2009, the Romanian Constitutional Court decided against a new data retention law which asked for the storage from ISPs of data like telephone calls made and received, emails sent and received and websites visited. It declared the whole law as unconstitutional because it breaches the right to correspondence and to privacy, considering that “taking surveillance measures without adequate and sufficient safeguards can lead to destroying democracy on the ground of defending it”.
So based on the high data security standards of the European Union and the legal situation in Romania, we made a business out of privacy. We don’t collect data like everybody in the Valley is. While others make money with big data, we make money with no data. Kinda cool, isn’t it?

3. There are voices who state that VPN companies are involuntarily protecting users with malicious intents. What is your perspective on the matter?

I know these voices well. They are repeating the mantra of security and fight against terrorism over and over again. Nobody was questioning that until now. Instead of questioning it, we all talked about the balance of security and freedom and the more “liberal” pointed on the importance of civil rights. And that’s wrong. A civil rights approach must be in the center of everything we do, if we want to be a free and liberal society. There is nothing to balance. Civil rights are invulnerable rights and there must be a very good reason to restrict them in a single case. We have to live with the fact that there is never 100% security as long as we don’t want to live in a George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four Big Brother like state.
Since 9/11 secret services all over the world built a parallel universe, a so called “deep state”, without any public control that started to have a mind-blowing life of its own. Protected by our governments, we deal right now with a secret, unregulated and antidemocratic monster. These secret services didn’t make the world a better or more secure place. There are no signs for that. All the official statements and numbers about crimes and terrorism they allegedly avoided turned out so far as a flop. The risks of dying because of terrorism are against zero. The risk of getting kidnapped and deported by the US Secret Service is significant higher.
No, CyberGhost VPN does not protect users with malicious intents. We provide privacy as a service in uncertain times, in an insecure environment.

4. Given the widely publicized discussion around data privacy this year, how has user behavior changed?

The easiest thing to notice after Edward Snowden exposed the NSA program PRISM is the nature of the questions people are asking. If before this story they wanted to know what a VPN is and why they need it, now people want to know about our internal data security regulations, how we deal with tracking, how we organize our server management, how fast our service is – stuff like that. So we found ourselves adding more and more answers to our FAQ every week. And our traction nearly doubled overnight.
Other interesting effects of these events are the fact that people suddenly woke up and realized that politicians are not making real efforts to protect them, taking care of their own rights and interests and neglecting their obligations. It’s like they suddenly realized they are just tools in a complicated power play. So they began encrypting data and communication by themselves.

5. How do you find and recruit talent in Romania and the CEE?

We don’t. Very simple. I would like to answer the question like “it is easy, we go out, get them drunk and let them sign CyberGhost contracts”, but it’s not like that. As we started CyberGhost SRL in 2011, we hired the first seven employees with different backgrounds like IT, sales and office organization. We started to build up the headquarters for the business operations here, while the development was in Germany.
I learned that nobody in the team ever worked for a VPN company or an internet startup before. But then again, neither did I. There is simply no ecosystem in Bucharest, not for internet businesses and even less for VPN operations where you can hire people that have experience in what we do. So, we started to realize that we have to learn together and create an environment that favors the professional development of people.
Right now, after 2 years, we are a team of 20. We learnt a lot of things at CyberGhost and at the moment, we operate a sales department, a marketing & public relations department, a product management, a development team and technical costumer support. Everything based on the needs of a freemium model internet service provider that wants to be the market leader in Consumer VPN business in the next five years. I am very proud to be part of this extraordinary group of people I work with at CyberGhost.
From here on, we are able to add and train more and more talents to our team and make them “internet industry specialists”. It already happened that the first people left CyberGhost to work in bigger corporations because they got a job in the domain in which we trained them. A good sign, that we obviously do a very good job in improving local resources.

6. Could you tell us a little more about your 50/50 hiring policy in terms of gender distribution and its benefits for the company?

I simply believe that it is a huge mistake not to hire a minimum of 50% women. Man and women can sometimes seem alike, but there are a lot of things we do not have in common. Basically man and women are different, so both can add different values to the company. One of the gender differences is that women have verbal skills, they are able to talk and communicate, they have a broader vocabulary, they are faster in finding the right words, they have incredible people and negotiation skills. Women are good in networked thinking, they notice opportunities where men don’t – because men already decided for the first one they saw. To have a mixed team means to have two feet to stand on and walk with: a right and a left one.

7. What are the main differentiators for products in the VPN market? What tactics do you use to consolidate CyberGhost’s USP?

There are a lot of product differentiators in the VPN market: speed of the service, number of supported protocols, number of supported devices or operational systems, number of servers, ease of use and so forth. And I could say now that CyberGhost VPN is the service with the best features and that this will make the difference on the long run. But I will not do that. I mean, we are really trying to build the greatest VPN network on this planet. But that will not make the difference.
The difference does not lie in what you do, but in the reasons why you do it. Here, at CyberGhost, we believe that privacy is important, we know the value of it and we know that along with security and freedom is essential to our digital and real lives. The belief of people at CyberGhost is the USP, not the features we build. If we build one thing, then that is trust.

8. What is it like to be a German living in Romania and managing a tech company that’s 50/50 German and Romanian? How come all the decision factors are in Romania, even thought the German market is brimming with qualified product management specialists?

It’s indeed quite funny because usually the decision factors of a distributed company are in US, Germany, UK and the engineering part and maybe the technical support team is in Romania or somewhere in CEE. In our case, the core engineering is in Germany and all the other parts are in Bucharest.
Well, it works. The respective characteristics of Germans and Romanians fit well together. Germans are well organized, fast, effective and gifted in execution. Romanians are creative, hardworking and gifted in tech and languages. That’s a killer combination. And since we are selling to more than 150 different countries B2C, we are anyway well advised not to be just a German-Romanian company and transform more and more by adapting a lot more from foreign cultures to a real international organization.
I am more convinced than ever that CyberGhost VPN has the basics and assets for becoming a truly meaningful global player in the field of online security. So we are on the best way to prove that you can build and operate an international business from Romania – exactly as companies like Bitdefender or Avangate already did.

How about these great answers, eh? We’re more than happy to have CyberGhost as one of our main partners at How to Web this year! We not only work together to create this event, but also learn a lot from each other in the process.

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