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Yuriy Popov is the Customer Success Manager at KeepSolid, where they make a suite of apps. The most popular is VPN Unlimited. We dive deep into how KeepSolid pivoted to focus on where they saw the industry going, from the Snowden revelations to the continued support for better online privacy. We also talk about the importance of listening to your customers, a recurring theme on this show!
Intro: Hey, everybody. Welcome to Episode 118 of How I Built It. Today I’m talking to Yuriy Popov of KeepSolid, and he is the customer success manager there. KeepSolid is best known for its VPN app which is a really good product to talk about nowadays, with all the privacy issues. He talks a lot about, first of all, keeping customers happy. But also the evolution of the product from its inception up through some of the revelations, like 2013 Snowden revelations, and things like that. He offers a lot of really good advice on customer service and how you can best serve your base. Just like last week, I am going to at the end of this episode continue my story of how I’m building my course, Launch Your Podcast in Three Days. So be sure to stick around till the very end. But let’s get to the interview, right after a word from our sponsors.
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Joe Casabona: Today my guest is Yuriy Popov, the customer success manager at KeepSolid. Yuriy, how are you today?
Yuriy Popov: Hi, Joe. Thanks. I’m fine. Thanks for having me on your show.
Joe: My pleasure. Thanks for coming on the show. I appreciate your time. So, we’re going to be talking about exactly what KeepSolid is, and a little bit about the VPN market in general. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about KeepSolid, and what you do?
Yuriy: Sure. KeepSolid is an IT company, and we create security and productivity solutions for businesses and personal use. Currently, we have seven products in our portfolio. For example, the recent releases of the electronic signature app KeepSolid [sign], and the [AppForce] strategic planning roadmap planner. However, we are mostly known for our flagship product which is KeepSolid VPN Unlimited. It already has 10 million users worldwide. To be more specific, VPN Unlimited is a security solution that creates an encrypted funnel, and all users data travels through it. Which means that all data that the user sends or receives is hidden and protected from hackers, sniffers, spies and etc. This so-called tunnel is established between the user’s device and one of VPN Unlimited servers that are located in more than 70 regions around the globe. Thanks to what I tell those servers, the app also helps to hide your geographic location and IP address, which is useful when you want to surf the web without any restrictions or limits. Basically, it doesn’t matter where you are, on a business trip or vacation. Using VPN Unlimited, you will have access to your favorite web resources even in regions with strict internet censorship, like China or Russia or the United Arab Emirates. But speaking of the beginning of world history, VPN Unlimited was not the product we started with. KeepSolid as a company was established in 2013, and the first product we launched was photo transfer Wi-Fi, that made it possible to transfer photos and videos between iOS devices, laptops and other mobile platforms within the Wi-Fi network. Because back then, you could do this only by connecting your phone to your computer via iTunes, for example. This app [work had] worked successfully for three months until the cloud services appeared. That’s why our CEO Vasiliy Ivanov always says that making products to solve a specific problem on a device like an iPhone is a bad idea. You should make products for people instead, because as soon as Apple solves the problem that your app solves the world will not need you anymore. Just remember those apps where you could control the flashlight on your phone. One simple edit this feature today is in control center, and nobody needs those apps any longer. So, as a result, we decided not to create apps only for iPhone and started working on VP Unlimited service which had to solve people’s problem.
Joe: Gotcha. That makes perfect sense. There’s a few things that you said there that I want to touch on, one is just the general idea behind a VPN, which stands for a virtual private network. There are a lot of uses to that. Like, if I’m at a Starbucks on an open network and I’m doing banking, or– Maybe banking is a bad example because everything’s encrypted anyway, but if I’m doing something that I wouldn’t want the rest of the people in that Starbucks to know I’m doing. If I’m working on a top secret transcript for a video I’m working on, a VPN is something that will help me with that. It’ll keep my traffic on an open network private, and then it will also allow me to– A perfect example is I was in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and I wanted to watch Scrubs on Hulu, but scrubs on Hulu is geographically locked only to the United States. So, I was able to use a VPN. I don’t know if this is legal. I was able to use a VPN to basically connect through California and watch Scrubs that way.
Yuriy: Yeah. First of all, initially the VPN technology was created to protect data that is being transferred from point A to Point B. That’s why people are using it not to specifically to hide the data from someone but to protect it. When you are, like you said, in a Starbucks and for example want to make some online payments and entering your credit card details on the web page, you definitely want to keep this data protected. That’s why you need to use VPNs. As for streaming services, the VPN services as they are right now with the VPN servers located in different countries, work like proxy servers. You get the IP address from a country that you are not actually in so you can get access to some web resources that are not allowed from your real location.
Joe: Gotcha. Absolutely. There are a lot of different applications for a VPN. This is especially useful if you’re using a website that doesn’t use HTTPS or something like that. But the other thing that I wanted to touch on was the fact that your founder and CEO said “Making products to solve a single problem on a single platform is a bad idea.” I think that’s such a great point to make because we’ve seen it time and time again with Apple. Apple adds features from popular apps, either because they think they can do it better or they like the fact that somebody else has done it and they want to integrate it themselves. Apple is not the only one, other people and other companies do that too. You shouldn’t hinge your entire business on this thing that the native platform can do quickly and cheaply.
Yuriy: Yeah. You’re right.
Joe: Gotcha. So then when that happened, your app was great for a few months, and then Apple rolled out their own version of it, and you decided to do a VPN. What kind of research went into this idea? What made you want to do a VPN?
Yuriy: Remember 2013, it was a year of Snowden revelations. At the time the world became extremely concerned about government surveillance programs and private data protection. It was obvious that bans were on the rise and we just thought, “Why not take part in this race?” The initial research we made was quite simple. We analyzed the actual competitors and saw that most of them were taking money for traffic or connection speed. So, offering the service with some limitations. We decided not to limit anything in our app, but to take money for a subscription to the service. Hence the name “Unlimited,” because we limited neither traffic nor bandwidth. We launched VPN Unlimited on iOS with only two VPN service available, and in less than one year the user base grew up significantly, and the app became a flagship in our product company portfolio. As of 2013, I believe, VPN Unlimited was among a few VPNs that limited neither traffic nor bandwidth. By the way, I’ve started my career solely as a customer service representative. I clearly remember how quickly we went from servicing 20 customers per day to 4,000 customers in just one year. So, the changes we made brought us huge success.
Joe: Gotcha. I’m keen to learn about how you scaled that up, and perhaps we could talk about that in the title question. How did you build up your customer service flow? But during the research phase of this interview, I do want to ask you about something that you mentioned in the pre-interview, or we talked about in the pre-interview, and that was discovering fake VPNs in the App Store. Because by virtue of the technology, a VPN is something that is grabbing all your traffic essentially and doing something with it. It’s taking everything that you’re sending from your machine, sending it to a proxy server before it goes off to its final destination. So there can be a big security risk there, where somebody could be hijacking your data. Is that what you were finding in the App Store?
Yuriy: Yeah, that’s– I’m not. It’s a security risk, [but you can play] [inaudible] for your reputation. Of course, we have came across a few fake VPNs in our practice. The point is, some guys develop that, it would be in servers that looked exactly like ours and upload it to the apps. Or, they even made it similar to ours. It’s possible the same colors, nearly the same logo, and the same name was– I mean, the same words were used in their name. Like VPN Unlimited, but they changed the order in some way. They even used our customer support email as their contact. So, at some point–
Yuriy: Yeah. At some point, our customer support started receiving a bunch of complaints from our supposed clients, and they were like, “Your service is bad it doesn’t match the description,” and etc. They were complaining for the service that was not provided by us, and we quickly investigated this situation, identified our loans and filed a complaint to App Store. After a while, these VPNs were removed from the store. However, Joe, cases still happen from time to time, so we stay alert.
Joe: Yeah. What advice could you offer to people who– Like, is there a way that I could, if I’m looking for your app in the App Store, if I could properly vet it and make sure that it is the right app?
Yuriy: The thing is that if you’re famous or some known well-known product, you should expect that someone will try to use your reputation and to monitor the market and keep the situation.
Joe: Gotcha. So it’s really up to the app maker to make sure once they get to a certain size that no one’s trying to hijack their app and hijack their users.
Yuriy: Yeah, right.
Joe: Gotcha. It sounds like, and this will be the last line of questioning– The last question in this line of questioning. It seems like it sounds like you discovered this because they used your customer support address. So, somebody e-mailed you and said “I’m having a problem with this app,” and you discovered it that way?
Yuriy: Yeah. That was the main signal for us. We were just– One day we both started getting a lot of complaints, and we just started to find out what happened to that and discovered that there is another app on the App Store that looks like ours. Almost the same.
Joe: Gotcha. Cool. Thanks for that information, that’s interesting to me. We see a lot of that going around now. I’m primarily in the WordPress space, and so you see people taking open source code and repackaging it as their own, or selling it for very cheaply. I know a lot of developers who listen to this can relate to the problems that you’re seeing as well.
Yuriy: It not only happens in IT. There are a lot of fakes of Nike, Adidas, and you can find such cases in every marketing domain.
Joe: Absolutely. You’ll see the fake Louis Vuitton where it’s a W instead of a V or something.
Yuriy: That’s exactly what I mean.
Joe: Cool. Something else that you mentioned was you remember when you went from 25 customers to 4,000 over the course of a year, and now you said you have some order of magnitude more than that. Right?
Joe: What was it like, as I ask “How did you build it?” You’re a customer success manager. I’m interested in hearing, how did you build your customer support platform?
Yuriy: The customer support platform?
Joe: Like, how did you scale up your customer support?
Yuriy: When we started five years ago, the team was very small. When I joined the team there were only two customer representatives, and because of their small the amount of customers in those days. But when we started to notice that the amount of our users is growing, we just started to grow our support team, and when we were starting, we were using just the male channels. Simple male clients, [inaudible]. After that when the [inaudible] channels that customers could use to contact us, we started to try on different platforms to receive customer feedback and other things. But thank goodness those days are gone, and right now there is a big team of experts working on this.
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Joe: Are you using any specific tools to help you manage a bigger support team? Help Scout is popular in the WordPress space. Is there something else that you use?
Yuriy: Yeah, our customer support team uses Zendesk platform to collect all their requests from users from different channels. From emails, Facebook pages, Instagram, Twitter, and others.
Joe: Wow. Does Zendesk do that automatically, like you connect your social channels and then it pulls in support requests? Or is somebody checking these and then putting them in Zendesk for the support team?
Yuriy: Now everything is being made automatically. You, at the very start you integrate all your accounts within Zendesk. Your Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. Then all the requests go in from these different channels, they’re being collected in a single queue, and you can answer all the requests going from different channels just one by one in a single queue. It’s more convenient than using just any email.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Especially because Twitter is a very common, at least a common way for me, to reach out to support teams. If I can’t find the normal channel or if the normal channel isn’t working. I’ve been in this situation where I’ve emailed a company, and three weeks goes by with no word, with no response. Then I’ll tweet them once, and they respond more quickly. It’s great that you have a tool that can make sure it all gets aggregated into one place.
Yuriy: We’re just trying to utilize as many incoming channels as we can, to make sure that people will anyway get in touch with us.
Joe: That’s fantastic. So, you have this– You’ve scaled your support team. Was scaling the app similar? Like, as you as you built out the VPN or the VPN app. Is that as reliant on a bunch of concurrent traffic as say a website? Or were you just super happy to see millions of people using this VPN now?
Yuriy: No, we just– Of course we were happy to see that there was so many people interested in our product, but we understood where we– We were understanding that we now have to work harder to solve all of them.
Joe: Gotcha. Cool. As we approach, as we talk through the rest of this interview, is there anything more that you want to say about how you built out the app itself? Did you as the customer success manager and being on customer support, did you work closely with the development team to fix bugs, to add features, and things like that?
Yuriy: Yeah, in our company we think that the developers and QA team should work together, closely together. Because there are a lot of things they can discuss just sitting next to each other, and that’s very beneficial for both of them. For both those departments.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Was there a feature that got rolled out that you were excited to see because you knew that it was a strain on the customer support area?
Yuriy: There were a lot of features, and as a client and customer centric company, we always listen to requests from our users, and we think that they are the best advisors to us. We pay attention to all the feedback we receive. If some of our users wishes or complaints coincide, that’s an indication for us that they have missing a key element or needs an update. That’s actually how our trusted networks feature, which allows people to apply at least some Wi-Fi connection that they think absolutely secure and to where they don’t need the VPN connection to be enabled. Or another example is streaming services, and they occupy a special place among the requests we receive from our users, like Netflix and others. Remember when Netflix announced a crackdown on VPNs?
Yuriy: Many VPN services have given up on fighting against the streaming giant. We also faced this issue, but today we are happy to say we overcame it. Even though it is a cat and mouse game, the good news is that we now provide access to the biggest streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, BBC, [VCA Player] and others. To summarize, we measure customer satisfaction and sometimes frustration every time we update the app. Of course, it’s impossible to implement all the suggestions and address all the concerns we receive, but really good ideas and requests from users are always highly ranked from our list of plans.
Joe: That’s fantastic. I’ll say, I’m very happy to hear about the streaming services that you were able to come up with a solution for that because it’s– I understand why Netflix would do it. They have certain deals with the content creators that maybe you’re only allowed to stream this content, but as a US citizen if I’m travelling somewhere and I want to watch content that I would normally have access to because I’m in the United States 99.9% of the time, it would be nice to be able to access that. Or, when I was in Mexico for the major league baseball playoffs, and I wanted to watch that game. A VPN helped me watch the game, which I wasn’t– The Yankee game specifically. I wasn’t able to watch the Yankees any other way besides through the help of a VPN, which is nice to be able to do that.
Yuriy: Yeah. You’re right. I can slightly understand that, for example, Chinese government do to their people and they doesn’t allow to access Facebook. But when an American guy travels to China and cannot access his favorite Netflix show or Facebook page, that’s another thing. That’s where the VPN can help.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. So, while we’re wrapping up this section I do want to ask– I guess it was earlier this year, as we record this is 2018, I don’t know how familiar you are with the United States politics. I don’t know if you’re located in the US.
Yuriy: I try to stay away from politics.
Joe: That’s smart. But the FCC here in the United States or the FCC in the United States ruled to repeal net neutrality. That’s a hot button issue. I know that right around that the time that happened VPNs got very popular. Did you notice an uptick in sales or downloads or anything like that? Because of net neutrality?
Yuriy: Yeah. This is not the only case. Every time when you’re in USA or in Brazil, when they block their votes out, we can notice a significant rise of the registration. This is just when people are not allowed to do something, and they’re trying to find some ways to bypass.
Joe: Right. When something happens in the news, and people think they’re going to lose something they have, they go through the channels they need to. So, cool. Very cool. As we wind down this interview I do want to ask you– This is a question that has two sides of the same coin. What’s one of the major transformations that VPN Unlimited went through that you like or that you’re proud of, and what are your plans for the future?
Yuriy: The major transformations. I can’t say that VPN Unlimited transformed into something different, it’s just been growing fast and changing better to feed our clients. As I mentioned, we started in November 2013 with VPN Unlimited available only on one platform, iOS, and with only two VPN servers. One was in Netherlands because it was the most affordable option in Europe and the second one was in Los Angeles because we needed a United States server. The next priority was to buy a server in Japan, to cover that part of the globe. However, it took some time as Japan has the highest prices for servers and the most complex contract terms. So by the end of to 2013, we had released three app updates with improved push notification system, Japanese and Korean localization, and much more improvements to stability and connections.
Yuriy: Yeah. The next two years were very fruitful because we released a new version of the app with completely fresh new design to better feed customer needs. The user interface became more intuitive and easy to manage, and we finally became available on Mac OS, Microsoft Windows, and Linux. So, finally, our users could use VPN Unlimited on all their devices.
Joe: Wow, that’s fantastic. Forgive me for maybe not knowing this, and maybe this is an obvious question that I didn’t realize. You guys own all of this? This makes sense as I’m saying it now. You guys own the servers that you’re routing traffic to, and you don’t just find some waypoint to route the traffic to?
Yuriy: We control those servers. We have full control on them.
Joe: Yeah, that makes. Like I said, as I’m saying it, that makes way more sense because you want to make sure that you understand all the traffic, or that you are keeping all of that data safe. That no one is hijacking that data.
Yuriy: As a company that provides security services, we need to have control on all the servers because they are used to transfer all users data and it’s very important for us to keep it safe.
Joe: Awesome. Fantastic. So, what are your plans for the future of VPN Unlimited?
Yuriy: Become much better. I’m in– We certainly don’t intend to rest on our laurels. Much remains to be done in terms of improvements. KeepSolid, VPN Unlimited. As you mentioned, the net neutrality, it’s also important for us to support the net neutrality and freedom of speech on the internet by providing equal access to web content to people around the world. That’s why we are focusing our efforts on improving our custom VPN protocol. KeepSolid [inaudible].
Joe: Nice. Very nice. That’s fantastic to hear. As we wrap up, I do need to ask you my favorite question. Which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?
Yuriy: A trade secret? It’s pretty simple and obvious. When you sell to people, you must talk to them and learn what they think about your product, because at the end of the day your clients are the driving force of your business. What I like is if you don’t take care of your clients, someone else will.
Joe: I love that. “If you don’t take care of your client, someone else will.” That is a great note to end the show on. Yuriy, thanks for joining me. How can people find you?
Yuriy: On LinkedIn, and you can contact [inaudible] support team and ask them to provide my contacts.
Joe: All right. I will link those both in the show notes. Yuriy, thanks for joining me today. I appreciate your time.
Yuriy: Thanks for having me on your show. Have a good day, Joe.
Outro: Thanks so much to Yuriy for joining us today. I loved his advice about products, talking to your users, and of course privacy. I liked this interview. It’s generally different from what we usually talk about on the show, and that’s always good to mix it up a little bit. My question of the week for you is, “Do you use a VPN? If so, which one? Let me know by e-mailing me Joe@HowIBuilt.it or on Twitter, @jcasabona. For all of the show notes you can head over to How I Built.it/118. Thanks again so much to our sponsors, Plesk, Castos and Pantheon. If you liked this episode, be sure to rate it, leave a review maybe, over on Apple podcasts. It helps people discover the show.
Miniseries: To continue the story of how I’m building this class– This course, Launch Your Podcast in Three Days. Last week I talked about the inception, the idea and where it came from, and generally, my follow up question is “What kind of research did you do?” Let me tell you, and I did not do much research. I already know how to make a podcast website. I figured the few conversations I had at podcast movement were good enough for me to build out this idea. I talked to a few other people in the space who might help promote it, but after I built the course, I realized I didn’t do a very good job of building authority or buzz around the course. I also realized that while my course is priced differently from Pat Flynn’s, for example, it doesn’t give a whole view of the podcasting process from start to finish. It takes this one thing and teaches people how to do that, and that’s maybe too small of a niche. Because people are basically coming in midstream, and my target was podcasters and not freelancers who need to build podcast websites. With that, I had more conversations with folks. People who decided not to buy the course, I got some feedback that it was too expensive. I got feedback that they were hoping for the gear to buy and how to setup the gear and how to record your first episode, and things like that. Stuff I wasn’t covering. So with that, those conversations I was having with folks, I decided to revamp the outline and take a deep dive into other podcasting courses to see what they were offering and how I could differentiate myself and what kind of pricing works. I settled on the $100 to $150 dollar range, it’s currently $100 dollars right now, and I’m adding a ton of content to it as I record this. I think the biggest takeaways were that I did the whole course without much research into what people wanted. A mistake that I should have know not to make from hosting this show because that’s a big piece of advice I get a lot. But also, I’m also correcting the course. No pun intended there. I am taking feedback and conversations I had, and I think I’m building out something that I believe people want, and something I can be excited about. The other side of that is I’m taking time to build authority too, and I’m putting out more podcast related content. I am doing more webinars and talks on how to start podcasts, and that’s going to establish the trust that I need to establish with this course. People like you, who listen to the show, know I know what I’m doing. But if somebody doesn’t listen to my podcast, they might be wondering, “What does this guy know about podcasting?” If you want to learn more about the course or the journey, you can head over to How I Built.it/podcast and over there you’ll also get an exclusive deal where you can get the course for 50% off, that includes free lifetime updates, by using the code BUILD. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time, get out there and build something.