“A VPN So Fast It Hurts”
Eric Menzel of ValeVPN on the Product,
App Development, and Community
ValeVPN allows users to set their own virtual private servers right from their phones, the power no users had before.
We met the founder Eric Menzel to learn more about what sets ValeVPN apart and how it managed to raise $220,000+ on Kickstarter shortly after its release in September 2022.
Your own private server with one press of a button
Eric, to begin with, could you please give us some broad strokes of how the project started? How was the idea born and who were the people at the origins?
I traveled the world for business and pleasure, and one of the things I identified when traveling in places like China, Eastern Europe, and South
America, was that existing VPNs were not very good. They were very unreliable in getting stable connections.
So I thought, “Why can’t users have their own private server with one press of a button?” That's where it all came from.
In the original iteration of this, it was me and Robin (Robin Dutson, Sales & Marketing at ValeVPN).
At that time, we would manually start our own servers running on Amazon AWS. We would go to places like Columbia and Peru and test those in the middle of the jungle. It all worked well, so we thought that we should probably make this available to everybody.
Users fighting for bandwidth
What was not very good about other VPNs? On the ValeVPN website, it even says “Other VPNs suck”=) Why so?
The biggest problem with the other providers is that they have a cost-first model, where they want all of their users to use their single server. I
mean, a million users all go to that one server! The reason why providers do it is to save money. And it's a bad user experience because it's like a
competition all the time.
You're stuck in an arena with 10,000 other users on one server, fighting for bandwidth, trying to win priority access.
What makes us different? We're not like a traditional VPN, a virtual private network sending 10,000 users to one server.
We're closer to what they call a VPS, a virtual private server provider. This means that with one touch of a button, the user can start their own private server in all the big clouds, Google Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle. One day, IBM maybe!
We’re just wondering, why has no one else done this before? Because it sounds great yet so simple!
It's a good question. You know, it wasn't until 1972 that a man invented the idea to put little wheels on your airport luggage. I mean, that's an obvious thing, right? Like wheels on your luggage to go to the airport. Still, for 1000 years, people carried their luggage with no wheels.
A VPN for programmers and everyone else
Aside from what you described now, are there any specific things about ValeVPN? Killer features, as they say?
That's classified, the “killer features.” What we're coming out with is a product for somebody who understands some technology. We're giving people
the power to control their servers. They can fully configure and fully launch their own private servers right on their phone, which is the power that
no users had before.
That includes changing ports, protocols, cloud providers, DNS, and individual settings. For instance, drop connections and kill connections.
That’s complicated. And you had to be a programmer to do it.
So I thought, “Why can't I make it fun? Why can't I make it easy, when with the touch of a couple of buttons, you are out of a place like China or Iran?” That's the power of what we're doing.
So as of now (we interviewed Eric on November 18, 2022), it’s almost 2,000 people supporting you on Kickstarter. Are all of them tech minds? Is ValeVPN for someone as tech-savvy as yourself or for everyone out there?
They vary. Most of the people on Kickstarter already have used some other VPNs. They're familiar with what a VPN is and they're currently paying one
of our competitors. But they understand what we're doing is different, so they want to be a part of it from the early stages.
What’s the secret of such crazy success on Kickstarter? How did you form such a loyal community around your project?
These people that are coming to support our project this early, we want to treat them like family. Because they really are a part of our team.
They're going to come into this with no guarantees that we're going to succeed, but they're going to support us with money and test the product on
bugs. They're the ones that are going to make ValeVPN successful and I want to convey that to the whole community. That is the purpose of Kickstarter:
taking a really good idea and kickstarting it to success.
So you basically, you see Kickstarter not as a crowdfunding platform, because that's just one side of it, but as an opportunity to create a community of people that are willing to dedicate their time and their effort.
That's right, Kickstarter is not a place where you come and milk the cow. That's not what it's for. This is a community that you have to nurture and work with. And they've been very supportive. And they've been very forgiving. Some people think that paying for a product that's not finished makes no sense. And I say them, “The purpose of you being here is not to use a finished product, like going to the store and buying something, but to make a better product. So come work with me to make this the best product possible.”
At this point, could you please tell us about the Lifetime Subscription feature that you have? How many people are in already? Why add this not quite profitable functionality business-wise?
A lifetime subscription is not a revenue model for money. It’s a liability, meaning that I have a responsibility to take care of subscribers for the
rest of their lives. They will cost me money, but their help can’t be overstated.
They're trading instability and testing and effort for getting access to the early product and being with us for a whole lifetime of service.
I’d say it's like opening a buffet restaurant where you say to the people that the first 1,000 guests can pay one fee and eat everything.
Maybe you have 1,000 really greedy people come in and eat all your food. Then you're in trouble. But maybe not. Maybe you have 1,000 people that just appreciate the restaurant and want it to succeed. They come, pay the fee, and have one or two plates of food.
The people behind ValeVPN
Let’s speak about creating the app. We know you are a programmer yourself. So what type are you—the “do-it-yourself” kind of guy or more of a manager one?
I'm a technology executive. It's my responsibility to understand the technology from the top all the way to the bottom. And I need to be able to not
only understand it from a very high level. I need to understand it all. But I won't write code. It keeps developers honest because nor am I the one
who comes and looks at their code, but they don’t want to betray the trust that we have.
One of the challenges to being somebody who understands technology is going the extra mile. I never take no for an answer and I hate to hear, “Oh,
I can't do it.” You know, there's always a way to make it work. When I first proposed that we do this company with one press of a button to launch, I
was told it was impossible. Whenever I hear a developer say “That's impossible,” I say, “Okay, let's figure out how it's possible.”
And we always find a way.
Henry Ford came up with the idea of the V8 engine. And every engineer who saw the design said it was impossible to do. He fired them and hired younger engineers who didn’t take no for an answer, and now it’s the Ford Motor Company that we all know.
What were the most exciting moments on the project? Critical ones?
It’s a long story. When I first came up with this concept, I recruited two people to start with us and they're both Ukrainians.
was from Dnipro and Sergei Borodkin was from Odesa. Andrew was a programmer and Sergey was a DevOps engineer. Andrew had built applications for iOS,
Android, a desktop application, and the full stack servers, and Sergey was the DevOps engineer.
Andrew was one of the most brilliant men that I've ever met in my life. Tragically, he passed away in October 2021, after we worked together for almost two years.
I attended his funeral in Dnipro and near that time I met Julia (Julia Yashchuk, Business Analyst at Anadea).
It’s her who connected me to the mobile app development company Anadea.
I showed them what I had, a 60–70 percent working application which I needed 100 percent ready.
The project had its highs and its lows. The first time Anadea stepped into a code base was not very smooth. It was one man writing all the applications, so you can imagine one man with knowledge of everything. The code was not excellent — it was okay. And it’s always difficult to step into another person's code. But in the end, Anadea was very successful with that.
I want to thank all the team and particularly Olexii (Oleksii Stoliar, Android Developer at Anadea) because
he's everything you want in a programmer. He looks at the problem and he says, “I estimated four hours for this problem,” and he will fix it within
three hours and identify two more problems along the way. And instead of saying, “I saw two problems, they exist,” he fixes them within the same
three hours. Because of his attention and his love and care for the product, our product is a hundred and ten percent better than all the others.
We couldn't have done it without Anadea, but it took four people to replace Andrew, he was that incredible.
Cold marketing vs. Hot referral
Eric, imagine you were not referred to Anadea by someone else. How would you choose a company to work on your software project? Like, how would you say “These are the guys I can work with, I can trust”?
That's a great question. Trust.
Any company that provides a product or a service will say it’s capable of doing what it says it does. The only way to prove it is to try. You claim that you can do this thing? Do it and then, if you are successful at that, let's do a bigger thing. And if you can be successful at that too, then you worth working with.
There are two sides to it. First, there’s always the cold marketing side.
If I just found your website, I probably wouldn't think twice. I would look at it skip as it's the same garbage. Everybody else says “We're the best,
we develop…” It's all the same.
Why Anadea was different for me is because it was a hot referral, which I believe to be the most powerful tool. If people you work with refer you to a service provider, you'll almost always get that because there's trust immediately.
The second thing is that, when I meet the team for initial discussions and proposals, you weren’t trying to push me into a more expensive route. While almost every single person I would talk to would say the same thing — rebuild the product from scratch — you adapted. You agreed to build up based on what I already had, although it could be not the most convenient or profitable way for you.
The app launched a couple of months ago, in September. Do you have any metrics of success? What are the goals for, let’s say, a one-year span?
The target metrics that we're looking to are 1 million downloads in each of the app stores and 55,000 active users in the next twelve months.
Currently, we have approximately 1,100 iPhone users. They are all from Kickstarter — we did no marketing at all. And we still have a lot of work to do by
January–February, which is when version two of the application, the improved one, comes out. Then we start marketing it to the general population.
Could you elaborate on this version two? What will it encompass?
We're going to increase the extent to which an individual user can control their VPS. And there will be some advanced features as well, which I can’t talk
about just yet. And ultimately, there is a consumer product that you're building right now and there will also be an enterprise product for big customers.
Slightly different but of the same blood, like brother and sister.
Eric, the final question. What are the first three words that come to mind when you hear “Anadea”?
Don't dream of it, work for it!
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