International startups shouldn’t call it quits just because a big American competitor tries to muscle into their homeland, said Pavel Durov on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.
His company, VKontakte, is the top social networking destination in Russia — even bigger than Facebook there. He believes by focusing on “speed, ease of use, and functionality,” you can defeat bloated apps that don’t understand how to localize well.
“I think that when you’re small, you can be faster,” he said, giving the example of how VKontakte developed its Android app. It was developed by just one guy, who was 17 years old when Durov hired him. That’s against a team of hundreds of developers behind Facebook’s Android app.
Indeed, even Mark Zuckerberg has given Durov props for keeping Facebook at bay in Russia. Just earlier this month, he mentioned VKontakte in an interview with YCombinator’s Paul Graham at Startup School in Silicon Valley.
Zuckerberg said, “VKontakte are the international Olympiad computing champions. It’s a small team and they did an awesome job of cloning Facebook.” Zuckerberg said VKontakte’s home-turf advantages included “less strict content laws” and allowing illegal file downloads.
The Facebook CEO went on, “We have not been able to beat them. We have linear growth there and I’m pretty sure we’ll pass them eventually. But it’s been almost 10 years and we still have not beat them in Russia.”
Today, Durov said he believes that other European Facebook rivals could have kept up if they didn’t lose faith. He said the German rival StudiVZ just sold too early.
“They sold very early in 2007 and when founders sell, the company goes down,” Durov said. “Why did they lose hope? I think that they were too afraid of a big global competitor like Facebook. They had a chance like we did at VK.”
Durov said the recent NSA scandals around privacy could give international startups some extra ammunition to fight off American invaders. He argued that the United States’ far-reaching surveillance programs could scare people into thinking their data isn’t safe with U.S. companies.
Durov explained “These scandals are just another opportunity we have to promote ourselves as a decent alternative.”