This has to be one of more captivating startup pitches of the year. Pavel Durov, the founder of popular Russian social network VKontakte.com, was fired this week from his role as CEO amid claims that the government leaned on him to censor political content on the site. Now, in a Facebook post (pointedly not on VK.com…), Durov has spoken up again.
He says he has set up a temporary headquarters in Central Europe with a group of 12 engineers, and he’s making an open call for people to suggest where they should settle permanently to build new projects “with privacy and freedom of speech in mind.” First up among those, a mobile social network, as he revealed first to TechCrunch earlier this week.
“What country or city do you think would suit us best? Please feel free to comment below,” Durov writes. “To give you an idea of our preferences, we dislike bureaucracy, police states, big governments, wars, socialism and excessive regulation. We like freedoms, strong judicial systems, small governments, free markets, neutrality and civil rights.” Implication: Russia is not the place you want to be if you share those dislikes and likes.
Out goes Durov’s Seven Reasons To Stay In Russia position from the beginning of March; in comes new legislation where some international services like Facebook and Skype might get banned under a new anti-terror plan in Russia.
As of right now, Durov — who has become a cult figure with his flashing eyes, quirky humor, and defiant attitude — has had dozens of replies to the post, with suggestions ranging from Estonia to Spain, Switzerland and Singapore.
The full text of the note is below.
The developments come after Durov revealed to TechCrunch earlier this week that he had fled Russia and was planning to develop a mobile social network.
Durov notes that the engineers he has brought with him are the same team that worked on Telegram — the messaging app that was Durov’s first privacy-focused mobile effort. One line of argument against Durov by shareholders, in fact, has been that projects like this one have been distracting his attention from VK.com, effectively swapping the chicken and egg as Durov has explained it.
In any case, outside of Durov’s initial development, Telegram seems to have taken on a life of its own. Durov notes in the post that the app now seen 40 million downloads in the space of eight months. Its success has been down to a couple of forces: it taps into the wave of interest in apps that offer more security against the prying eyes of governments, as well as commercial big data trackers. And it taps into a feeling among some to find alternatives to WhatsApp now that Facebook has acquired it.
Even if 40 million sounds impressive, though, there is still a lot of space between Telegram and the top messaging apps. As a point of comparison, WhatsApp has now passed 500,000 regular users. Facebook’s own Messenger app has passed 200 million.
There is a bigger story here about how Durov is going about starting his new venture. He notes that the engineers who have come with him have a strong track record beyond Telegram, with several of them “crucial” in the development of VK.com. In itself, that is not great news for VK.com and its owners, because it implies that a strong part of the technical talent behind VK.com has been ripped out.
Durov’s regular, and popular, posts disappearing from VK.com will also play into that. “I will be posting mostly in English now,” Durov tells me. “VK is not the best platform to get feedback internationally.”
That kind of destabilization is exactly what VK.com does not need now. “At the current stage it’s important o have good operations, and important to have a full team and make a product for users,” Dmitry Grishin, the CEO of VK.com shareholder Mail.ru, told me yesterday in an interview. More of that interview here.
Durov’s full note below:
As you probably know, I am out of Russia. Me and my team of 12 engineers have a temporary HQ in Central Europe, and we are now looking for a permanent base to work from. We are choosing a new home, a country that will allow us to develop our projects with privacy and freedom of speech in mind.
Our team includes 6 ACM champions and 6 winners of other programming contests. These guys made it possible for Telegram Messenger to gather 40 million registered users worldwide just within 8 months after its launch. Several members of this team, including my brother, were crucial in making VKontakte what it is today — the only social network that defeated Facebook in an open local market. We are now going to build our next project, a mobile social network.
What country or city do you think would suit us best? Please feel free to comment below. To give you an idea of our preferences, we dislike bureaucracy, police states, big governments, wars, socialism and excessive regulation. We like freedoms, strong judicial systems, small governments, free markets, neutrality and civil rights.
P.S. If you happen to represent a government that meets our criteria, you are welcome to share ideas with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.