An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with John Ackerly, the co-founder and CEO of Virtru, which was honored in our:
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Washington, D.C.
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Washington, D.C.
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Washington, D.C.
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in Washington, D.C.
Tell us the origin story of Virtru – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
My brother Will and I founded Virtru almost ten years ago to empower people to share data with the confidence that they are already in control. I saw first-hand the challenges of sharing sensitive data as the lead pre and post-9/11 technology policy advisor, and Will, a security researcher at the NSA, developed a data-centric encryption approach called the Trusted Data Format (TDF) to secure the use, and prevent exposure of, that data.
The lack of ability to securely collaborate on data was at the heart of our failure to stop the 9/11 attacks. It also led both to surveillance overreach as well as, ironically, to Edward Snowden’s ability to exfiltrate data. Ultimately, however, we saw that by protecting the data itself, the value of data can be unlocked. Fast forward to 2020 and the current pandemic, and the social imperative of being able to securely collaborate on sensitive data is more pressing than ever.
The opportunity to unlock the power of data is what pushed us to start Virtru. Fast forward nearly 10 years and we’ve built a platform that doesn’t just protect data, but also preserves and enforces its rightful ownership to accelerate data sharing. We call that establishing verifiable trust. What we build at Virtru empowers individual or organizational data owners to secure and fully manage access (or the removal of that access) to specific data at all times, no matter where it is created, stored, or shared. As a result, individuals maintain complete control over how their data is accessed and used, whether it is being analyzed or even monetized.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
It took three years from when we started the company in 2011 to get our first customer in 2014. Many thought we were crazy in those early years because we were bootstrapping the company without any customers to show for it. But there is one guiding principle that has been at Virtru’s forefront all these years. We knew that in order to be successful, we had to solve the 30 year challenge facing end-to-end encryption: we had to make our solution truly easy to use. Today, we are a design company as much as we are a security company and that is reflected in the 20k organizations and millions of end users that trust Virtru to protect their most sensitive data.
What does the future hold for Virtru?
To steal a line from the old BASF commercials, at Virtru, we don’t make a lot of the applications you use to create and share data – we make them more trustworthy. Following the mission of establishing verifiable and enforceable trust at an individual level, Virtru’s platform provides a foundation for instilling complete integrity of data and interactions and an immutable individual authority model no matter where data is created, stored, or shared.
A perfect and timely example of how Virtru can imbue trust into most any data context is our working with a number of technology partners, including major healthcare institutions and federal agencies, to assemble a privacy-native and patient-first pandemic toolbox. This comprises everything from sharing COVID-19 test results, contact tracing efforts, and hospital resource/response planning, to telehealth assessments and genomic/scientific research sharing.
With verifiable trust, we can empower the healthcare system to rapidly activate doctors and responders, not data collectors, ensure trust in healthcare providers and not just an app, and endow ultimate control of personal privacy in the hands of patients, not governments or “Big Tech.” In this way, we can not only safely accelerate individual care, but also verify that data will only be used to inform and augment the care of others in need.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Washington DC?
When many think of technology startups, they long have thought of Silicon Valley or the Northeast, with other pockets distributed around the country. But not only has the DC tech scene cemented itself as a technology innovation hub, I believe it has leapfrogged other regions as gravity welled for more impactful and important advances that affect peoples’ lives.
I remember when we first participated in SXSW’s DC Tech Pavillion in 2015 and I was struck by Mayor Murial Bowser’s clear commitment to fostering a strong tech ecosystem right here in DC. Our ability to draw from close proximity to world-class education and research, combined with the influence and focus of government agencies and think tanks, creates a powerful platform for opportunity, support, and global exposure.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
First and foremost, mission matters. Use your mission as a north star to help maintain focus, especially during difficult times (there are plenty of those in startups). Your mission will guide you when you realize that it takes 3x as long and is 3x as expensive as you initially thought.
Second, focus on delivering a product that works. Ensure that your product is differentiated and that your go to market strategy is best-in-class, but be realistic. Never over-promise. We have always believed in delivering targeted solutions that solve real problems and expanded from there. For us, that meant really honing in on protecting data shared via email (a vexing challenge for decades), and have since expanded that capability to other data sharing environments.
Finally, don’t boil the ocean. Find repeatability where you can and take care of your customers. When you do that, you will naturally build evangelist and powerful user networks that prove invaluable in the years to come.