In the midst of the Egyptian revolution, David Gorodyansky and Eugene Malobrodsky, co-founders of AnchorFree, came in to work one sunny morning and realized something peculiar: Overnight, their company had scored about a million new customers in Egypt.
"It was absolutely fascinating," says Gorodyansky. "Our original idea for AnchorFree was to make your Facebook and e-mail become just as secure as a banking site. But we didn't plan on AnchorFree becoming a [means for disrupting] censorship."
AnchorFree's most popular free download, Hotspot Shield, allows users to circumvent government censors on the Web. So when the Egyptian government made a last-ditch effort to stymie the country's revolts by blocking Twitter, people just downloaded AnchorFree's product to access the social media site.
Just five years ago, AnchorFree was a fledgling online security and privacy start-up in Silicon Valley, started by two Hebrew school pals who already had a previous high tech venture and an IPO under their belts. But a call from Bert Roberts, the former chairman of MCI, changed everything: He was interested in investing and wanted to see their offices in Sunnyvalle, California. Oddly enough, Gorodyansky and Malobrodsky cringed.
"Our office was just a little hole-in-the-wall," says the now 29-year-old Gorodyansky. "One of our employees had a domesticated wolf who ran around the office, so we thought, "Oh man, this guy is going to fly in on his private jet, he's going to see this wolf, he's going to see the bright orange walls, and he's going to walk out."
"I was surprised," recalls Gorodyansky. "He liked the dog." Roberts put up nearly half of the company's $6 million Series A funding.
Now, approximately nine million people from more than 100 countries use AnchorFree, accessing about two billion Web pages every month. The company spends nothing on advertising; the founders credit word-of-mouth with the site's success.
AnchorFree makes money from ads, and though the company does not disclose revenue, the founders say the company, which has 22 full-time employees, has been profitable since 2009. It also scored an addition $5 million in venture funding from Dallas-based Renn Capital and from individual investors.
"The truth of the matter is that we always wanted to do something beyond making money—we wanted something that had a social impact. The second priority was generating money," Gorodyansky says.
During the Egyptian revolution, for example, Gorodyansky proudly reports that about a million users were able to access Twitter the night it was blocked by the Egyptian government in January 2011. "Two billion people use the Web, and 600 million live in regions that censor the Web," says Gorodyansky. "We want to help people with something very basic—access to information." Next stop, he says: "China."