In 2006, David Gorodyansky drove to his local Silicon Valley Bank to deposit a $6 million check — the first investment in his web-security startup AnchorFree — in his beat-up old car.
It felt like the start of good times that would last forever. But not too long after that the Great Recession of 2008 hit, just in time for AnchorFree to need another cash infusion.
"It was the worst time possible," Gorodyansky says. "It was the hardest thing ever."
Ultimately, AnchorFree was able to survive, and it has since managed to raise $62.8 million total from investors including Goldman Sachs. The service now reaches 400 million people in 200 countries.
In fact, AnchorFree's flagship Hotspot Shield is often credited as making 2011's Arab Spring protests possible, helping as many as a million Egyptian citizens organize on Facebook away from spying eyes.
And in light of the ongoing Apple-FBI clash, Gorodyansky says the he's seen AnchorFree's apps hit the top of the Apple App Store all over the world in the last few weeks.
Now AnchorFree is taking what Gorodyansky says is its next big step: Bringing open internet access to billions of people around the world, competing in its own way with Facebook's controversial "Free Basics" campaign.
"We want to deliver basic human rights to billions of people," AnchorFree says.
In the US, HotSpot Shield is best known as an easy way to protect your personal information while using public Wi-Fi — at, say, Starbucks — while also letting you trick services like Netflix into thinking you live in Canada or the UK to access movies you can only find there.
But the same AnchorFree app that lets you evade Netflix's region restrictions also enables users in countries like Venezuela and Egypt to evade government censorship.
The trick is the creation of a "virtual private network," or VPN. If you subscribe to its $2.49 a month service (with a seven-day free trial), Hotspot Shield will trick your phone or PC in to securely routing its traffic through AnchorFree's own servers in the USA, keeping it away from a potential no-goodnik's gaze.
Here's a video explaining the concept:
It's been put to the test in lots of other ways, too, not all of which Gorodyansky says he saw coming. For instance, in 2013, Hotspot Shield became popular with the disabled, who wanted to prevent amputee fetishists from using their public IP addresses to find them in real life.
If a stalker tries to locate a Hotspot Shield user, "he'll show up at our data center instead of her house," Gorodyansky says.
A better web
Over the years, AnchorFree has seen the way people use Hotspot Shield change completely: At its 2006 founding, Gorodyansky says, 95% of customers were using it on their PCs and Macs. Now, as the iPhone and Android grow in popularity, it's more like 75% mobile.
With that shift, Gorodyansky says, it's time to rethink privacy on the phone. And there's no better time than now, with Apple putting encryption on everybody's radar and a huge opportunity for connecting the developing world.
"We want to add privacy and security controls to the things people do on their phones," he says.
That's why AnchorFree is building a whole new set of apps, including Kaboom Keyboard, a Snapchat picture-messaging clone that you access straight from your iPhone's keyboard. That releases next week, with more to come.
If you have to think about using a separate app, Gorodyansky says, you've already failed — it has to be immediately accessible.
"If people have to choose, they're going to choose convenience," Gorodyansky says. "Our job is to make it easy to choose privacy."
Versus Facebook and Netflix
Despite AnchorFree's recent reputation as a way for people to circumvent Netflix region restrictions, Gorodyansky says that it's overblown.
He says only 2% of Hotspot Shield users use it for Netflix, and that the company really doesn't care who's accessing the service from where. It's only Hollywood studios that care if someone in the UK is accessing a movie that only has distribution rights in the US, he says.
In fact, he hints that lots of web services are actually big fans of Hotspot Shield, since it opens the door for users all over the world to become their customers.
"Most internet services love the fact that anybody can get to them from anywhere in the world," Gorodyansky says.
It's Facebook that's going to be a trickier fight. Under Mark Zuckerberg's direct leadership, the social network has spent the last few years working on its Free Basics (formerly Internet.org) campaign, intended to hook countries like India up to the web, free for everyone.
The catch is that Free Basics only works with Facebook's own apps and those of a select few partners. And so India and Egypt have rejected Free Basics as a cynical cash grab from Facebook, forcing the initiative to be paused while it reconsiders.
But Gorodyansky says that with Hotspot Shield, and with its new range of unobtrusive apps, AnchorFree is better positioned to help get everybody online, without any regard for which services they access.
"Unlike Facebook, we're agnostic as to how people use the internet," Gorodyansky says.