Ten Years Ago: Reminiscing about Zero-Knowledge

zks-logo.jpgTen years ago, I left Boston to go work at an exciting startup called Zero-Knowledge Systems. Zero-Knowledge was all about putting the consumer in control of their privacy. Even looking back, I have no regrets. I’m proud of what I was working towards during the internet bubble, and I know a lot of people who can’t say that.

We struggled with the tremendously hard problem of privacy. We did it for something bigger and more important than ordering your groceries online. We didn’t succeed at the first business plan, or the second, but we plugged away at it, listened to prospective customers and partners, and the company is still in business and going strong as RadialPoint.

We learned an awful lot. We learned that people are awfully passionate about privacy. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up to try our software. We had a guy who called support after buying a new computer to get privacy. I remember the woman who took his call telling me how sad she was she had to get off the phone and take other calls. And we learned that what we meant when we said privacy wasn’t what other people meant.

I think too much of today’s privacy debate is wrapped up in a similarly nebulous term, identity theft. It’s hard to address a problem that’s so vague. But that’s a post about today, not about ten years ago.

We hired a lot of great people who I knew. I met a lot of great people, too. Went to work with one of them, Dave Clauson at another startup, Reflective. Work with some of them again (Hi Christian! Hi Stefan!).

For me, the key lesson was to really drink deep of your prospective customer’s pain. To accept that they may have a label that you really understand better than them (“privacy”) and that it doesn’t matter. What matters is how they see it, and how they understand your solution. Zero-Knowledge made me skeptical of great technology as a problem solver, when the customer is asked to understand it or care. Your customers never care about your technology anymore. They care about what pain it solves.

I’d love to go back and tell myself ten years ago to love the customer better. There’s other lessons. I’d love to seized the day and some of its opportunities better. But in the end, that flight to Montreal put me on the path to where I am today.

So a huge thank you to all of our customers and prospective customers. Thank you to Ian for introducing me to Austin. Thank you, Austin and Hamnett for offering me the job. Thank you to all of my co-workers, employees and friends of the company.

6 thoughts on “Ten Years Ago: Reminiscing about Zero-Knowledge

  1. I was a huge fan of that service and company. I think that getting people to pay for “privacy” was and is a challenge, but between identity theft and “compliance”, it has become much easier to describe what it is you’re protecting.
    I’ll never forget when Austin told me that he had a certain government agency viewing Freedom (the ZKS product) as a potential tool to fight online child predators. That conversation planted the seed of a paper I’m outlining now on the shared requirements for anonymity and strong attribution that I’m coming to believe that ALL Internet constituencies (people and governments) share, depending on context.

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