Thoughts on Privacy

Privacy has always been an important topic but has taken on increased attention in the last year. But first – what do we mean by privacy?  I think a good definition is that privacy is the ability to be free from being observed or bothered and to determine whether, if, and how information isto be revealed.  Privacy is a broad concept and ranges from the physical to information about us to our thoughts and ideas and can be related to both individuals and groups or organizations.

Our society sees privacy not just as a desirable state but as a basic human right.  The right to privacy, while actually not explicitly stated, is thought to be clearly implied in the Bill of Rights and later constitutional amendments via their protection of beliefs (1st), home (3rd), person (4th), information (5th) and basic liberties (14th).  Similar protections exist in other free countries.

Psychological research has shown what is intuitively obvious – privacy is a basic human need, perhaps not at the level of our physical or security needs but a strong need nonetheless. It is natural to want and to protect a private space.  We lower the blinds on our windows and seek out places in nature to be alone.  Young children have very little privacy, they gain more as they mature.  Privacy affirms our dignity and makes us feel respected.  The founders of our nation recognized this need and protected it. They also recognized the risk and tendency of government to overreach and drew a protective line.

The importance of this need and subsequent right to privacy leads to the tremendous anxiety we feel when this right is violated.  Learning that our online account is hacked is the modern day equivalent of the enemy tribe invading our territory or a robber entering our home.  It is not surprising that emotions run high when this happens as many women shared in this SheByShe survey.

Despite its importance, we willingly and frequently make compromises around privacy.  At a personal level, sharing private thoughts and feelings leads to intimacy – intimacy cannot be achieved without relinquishing some privacy – and our intimate relationships are precious.  We compromise privacy to enable others such as doctors to help us.  More commonly, we compromise privacy for convenience.  There are innumerable benefits we reap when we use modern technologies to manage our lives.  But we make those compromises based on the promises of the companies whose products we are using. And they are our compromises to specifically make.

When we give up some of our privacy to loved ones, professionals or organizations we are trusting them with something precious. When our government crosses the privacy line or the promises of a company we relied on were not kept, it is our human nature to react viscerally. We go beyond the intellectual and feel it in our gut.  It is a violation.  There is even more sensitivity to this topic in places where those violations were systematic in the past.  The Orwellian state so well depicted in “The Life of Others” actually happened.  It is no wonder that Europe has led the US in advocating for privacy protections.

Modern internet businesses have tremendous responsibility.  The most sensitive of information can be in our online accounts and too often those responsibilities have been breached.  To make matters worse, those breaches have often not been accompanied by adequate acknowledgement of or remorse for the breach. I am amazed by the lackadaisical and casual attitude from Facebook on their most recent “research” project.

Not surprisingly, I am in favor of stronger privacy protections from our government.  At the moment it seems as if we have the “fox watching the chicken coop” and both political parties are guilty (something about absolute power corrupting absolutely).  Stronger oversight and privacy advocacy is needed.  Stricter rules for company privacy and consequences for violations are important as well. If they care about this topic, consumers need to vote with their feet and patronize companies that better respect and value privacy.

In the case of services dominated by large near-monopolies such as Google and Facebook, however, that vote becomes impractical. The tremendous economies of scale in search have meant that solutions offering enhanced privacy such as DuckDuckGo are less robust and the tremendous network effects in social networking have made it incredibly difficult to create a real alternative to Facebook.

When facing difficult problems I often think of this phrase by John Sloan Dickey, which I first heard at Dartmouth.   “The world’s troubles are your troubles … and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”  Humans created this problem so I’m optimistic that “better humans” can solve it. Technology is part of the problem but can also be the solution.

Brilliant humans have invented the many forms of modern cryptography and encryption and the public key architecture that makes it usable at scale.  There is still a tremendous gap, however. These secure encryption solution are not easy enough to use – there are simply too many usability hurdles.  For instance, TrueCrypt and its alternatives can be used in combination with public cloud solutions such as SugarSync and DropBox to ensure data privacy but this is not usable or practical for most people. Secure email solutions and private browsing options such as Tor also lack ease of use.

I’ve written previously to Beware of False Dichotomies.  I’m convinced that security v. usability is ultimately a false dichotomy and the person or company who proves this will enjoy tremendous business opportunity.  You should not need to be a hacker to be able to have confidence that your browsing or communication will remain private.  We can fix the privacy problems we face.

Catching a Wave

When I wrote about my transition recently, I mentioned my excitement about the possibility of working with up-and-coming startups and helping them develop their products and businesses.  I also can’t seem to ever get enough of the productivity tool space – (e.g. Yahoo! Mail, Netscape Communicator, SugarSync – I’m hooked!)  I get a thrill seeing how these tools and technologies can improve people’s lives.  So when the founders of Catch asked me to consult with them as acting CEO I was thrilled to jump in.

I’m so impressed with what this small team has accomplished.  They have an absolutely gorgeous app – so beautiful that Apple has it plastered all over their home page, store and headquarters.    applehqCatch is at the intersection of some of the most exciting trends in technology – mobile, collaboration, ideation, search, cloud and b.y.o.d.   At the same time, Catch, like many early-stage, technology driven companies, has yet to figure out and implement its long-term business model.

So what is Catch?  Catch is a mobile-based collaborative note taking application.  While simple note-taking functionality a la Evernote or Google Keep is great, I believe that notes achieve their true power as the most natural basis for collaboration.  We see this clearly in the usage patterns of Catch – all kinds of business teams sharing notes to manage projects, update status – even manage field sales teams.  And the best part is it’s super light-weight, intuitive and easy-to-use.

Having a couple of months off to enjoy my family (including my east-coast children), reconnect with friends, read, hike and recharge has been great but not a long-term state for me, at least not now.  I love my work and feel fortunate to have been connected to Catch and for this timing to work out.

Some exciting things in the works here that you’ll be hearing about in the weeks ahead – stay tuned!

Transition Time

I’ve written quite often on this blog about transitions – they are a natural part of life and any business ecosystem, and embracing change is part of making the most of new opportunities.  2013 marks a transition for SugarSync, and myself.  We have launched a search for a new CEO.

SugarSync has undergone a wonderful transition over the last several months.  SugarSync 2.0 launched successfully to great reviews including PCWorld and PCMagazine.  I couldn’t be more proud of this product.  Our team of designers and engineers took our highly-rated core sync foundation and rearchitected the user experience for simplicity while continuing to innovate around sharing.  The goal was to better serve an ever-expanding set of users, including businesses and larger enterprises who are rapidly moving to the cloud. Consumerization of IT is real and we are experiencing this phenomenon first hand at SugarSync.

Simultaneously, the mass-market consumer space is experiencing a competitive environment that poses challenges for any company who wants to invest in growth.  SugarSync is in a prime position to continue our growth trajectory serving business customers in addition to consumers. From a product perspective, our strategy remains strong. The vast majority of upcoming features will serve both audiences extremely well.

From a company prospective, SugarSync needs to evolve its strategy to better serve business customers. This means dramatically expanding SaaS channel opportunities and corporate sales functions, among other changes.

After quite a bit of thoughtful introspection, I came to the realization that SugarSync would be best led by a CEO with deep and recent expertise in this type of SaaS enterprise environment.  After further discussion with our board of directors, we agreed to begin the search for a new CEO for SugarSync.

It’s impossible to fully express my gratitude to and appreciation of the entire SugarSync team. What an amazing group of professionals and technologists. I will continue to serve as CEO and Board member during this transition and will do everything in my power to support the Board and new CEO.  After four years of building such an exciting business, I am committed to doing everything possible to make sure we realize SugarSync’s maximum potential.

Of course, this was an extremely difficult decision.   I have often said that while I did not give birth to SugarSync (for that I need to thank its visionary founders), I adopted it and have loved it as if I were here from the start.   I joined the company during one of the most challenging economic times in Silicon Valley’s history.  We were near bankruptcy, the broader economy had melted down and employees were fleeing – we were down to 13 people.   I’ve loved pouring my energies into rebuilding the team, launching a successful freemium model, signing and launching many major partnerships with global companies such as Samsung, Lenovo, and many others.  We’ve raised multiple rounds of financing at increasing (more than twenty fold) valuations, and so much more. SugarSync increased its user base five fold last year and experienced a dramatic increase in our revenue. We were proud of achieving 99th in the 2011 Inc500 with $11million of revenue and have continued to exceed a 100% growth rate. More importantly, the business is in an excellent financial position to continue strong growth.  I’ve been honored to be a part of this team.

So…what’s next for me?  SugarSync was a turnaround situation based on an idea and a dream from the original founders.  I have some startup ideas of my own and I’m excited to invest time vetting these possibilities to understand their true potential.   In addition, given my experience leading both direct-to-consumer and partner-oriented successes at SugarSync, I am being approached by several companies to advise or help lead the charge to solve similar go-to-market challenges.  I want to be able to give those opportunities due consideration and I’m really looking forward to helping make a difference in start-up successes.

And finally, as readers here know, I’m deeply passionate about supporting women in startups and technology. Silicon Valley is more welcoming to women entrepreneurs than ever before in my 20+ years here, and it’s an exciting time to support this new generation of leaders. I’m looking forward to having the time to take a more direct and active role in supporting their success.

As CEO of SugarSync I haven’t had the time to participate fully in the broader conversation of women in technology and, even more interestingly, envisioning new experiences on the internet – I look forward to doing that in the coming months.

I’d like to take one last opportunity to thank the amazing SugarSync team, our dedicated board of directors, and most importantly, all of our loyal customers. This has been an amazing and humbling experience, and I’m grateful for every second of it.

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