Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Q&A with Austin Hill of Project Ojibwe

After founding Zero Knowledge several years ago and building that into one of the biggest and most widely discussed privacy software concerns, Austin Hill is back as Executive Instigator and Founder of Project Ojibwe. Find out more at and his blog . Project Ojibwe is still in stealth mode, but Austin was good enough to answer some of Breakout Performance's questions. Some very interesting insights are included:
Question 1. Looking back on Zero Knowledge, what were the keys to breaking through and getting such huge attention in 99/00?

Like most things, it was the culmination of many little decisions and moves we made. If I had to summarize the main item it would describe it as our missionary zeal as opposed to mercenary drive. We were authentic in our passion.

At Zero-Knowledge Systems, we led the company with our hearts. This would cause problems (see number 2) later but our passion in spreading our vision by evangelizing a different course for how the Internet could evolve was bold. We didn’t speak like other executives. We spoke like true believers. This allowed us to recruit some of the top minds in the field of cryptography, privacy which added to the momentum of the company. We were also unafraid to be risky. Our first press release ever issued was to criticize the US government for attempting to restrict access to cryptography on the anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and to launch a community movement to protest their efforts to force other countries to restrict access to cryptography. At a time when a lot of people were concerned about privacy as an issue we presented them with something to believe in. We also relentlessly spread the word. I traveled extensively and spoke around the world spreading our vision. This made our company the experts on a topic that was important, relevant and continues to challenge the Internet community today.

Question 2. What's one "lesson learned" from that experience which you would share with other entrepreneurs about to do a start-up?

The biggest would be to develop double vision. Guy Kawasaki talks about two types of views for startups, telescopic and microscopic. Those people with telescopic viewpoints look into the future with a clear vision of how their idea will manifest and be important. Those who have a microscopic point of view tend to focus intensely on the details of the implementations, the small steps required to move a ball forward. Every company and entrepreneur needs to develop both. While I think we had a great vision, our microscopic view was pointed in the wrong direction. We focused on details of advanced cryptography and technical implementations that really didn’t matter to the market we wanted to reach. We assumed that the credibility of the security experts, and media would translate into adoption by mass market users. I think if we had spent more time focusing on our goal of providing easy to use privacy for the average person, and focused our microscope on the steps required for that instead of the steps required to build the most advanced secure privacy system we would have had more success with our initial offering.

Double vision is something I’m learning to appreciate, but I think it’s only the growing experience of making mistakes that is helping me learn to focus on the right things today.

I don’t regret our approach that much though, since it was that very bold vision and the fact we were building something that was technically respected that allowed us to surround ourselves with an incredible team of talented individuals. We had the resources and people to adapt, learn our lessons and keep the company alive and kicking at a time when many others were dying. If we had been developing something more ‘practical and simple’ then I’m not sure we wouldn’t have been one of the many other dead pool companies. Instead Radialpoint is an incredibly successful and fast growing company. Our investors faith in us wasn’t misplaced. The team there has earned their success and I couldn’t be more proud of them.

Question 3. You got to work with your father and brother at Zero Knowledge. How was that? Did it help or hurt working with family?

I’ve been lucky to be in business with my family in many ventures. We’ve made angel investments together, and have even backed our brother Jeremy who runs a Segway rental and tour company in Montreal (SegCanada – ) . . Like with all partnerships, there are time when things get tense. Sometimes that stress is easier to handle when you know your family and most trusted partners are there by your side. At other times, there are unique elements of stress that reflect the personal nature of the partnership.

There were some challenges, but in the end I couldn’t be happier with the results. My brother and father are the people who I trust take care of the team at Radialpoint who have been so loyal to us.

Question 4. Will either one be part of Project Ojibwe?

Most of what I know in about business I learned with my brother and father by my side, so it’s hard to separate family from any of my business affairs. While I’m hard at work on my startup (Project Ojibwe), I am incredible lucky to have partners who have supported me in leaving Radialpoint. They are taking care of business and I owe them huge thanks for that. Radialpoint was just named to Deloitte’s Fast 50 technology firms (#21 in Canada) so they have a full plate running that company J

Question 5. What can you share with us about Project Ojibwe?

We are interested in how social communities form around acts of generosity. There are very old customs of involving social bonds and community that we believe can be reintroduced in fun ways to the Internet community. We consider ourselves social entrepreneurs, but ultimately we care about our users having fun while conducting random acts of kindness.

Sorry to be vague, but that’s all for now.

Question 6. You could go anyplace. Why stay in Montreal?

I’m back an forth across Canada and North America. I still have a place in Calgary and family there. At the end of the day, Montreal has some unique advantages for startups. They come with costs and tradeoffs, but after 4 startups and 12 years in the city I believe it remains one of the best places in North America to build software companies. The talent pool, the cities culture and quality of life are all great reasons to stay.

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