Do you, like most Internet users, have a gazillion passwords for different websites and online accounts? Good passwords are hard to remember and even if you create “strong” passwords, they can still be hacked. In 2007, Stina Ehrensvärd had enough of this and decided to create a smart and easy way to safely login online. Today, her company Yubico has millions of users in more than 120 countries, and she is working with Google, the biggest Internet giant of them all, to develop the next generation secure Internet.
In 2013, Facebook, Novartis and CERN, just to name a few customers, ordered YubiKeys and deployed them for their staff. The biggest news of the year, however, was that of the official partnership with Google, deploying the YubiKey NEO with a new open standard. This will enable Yubico technology to work out-of-the-box across the Google enterprise, and eventually also for their end-users.
Military grade online security
So what is this all about? The rapid growth of online identity theft shows how vulnerable we are when logging in with a username and password. Yubico’s flagship product, the YubiKey, is a hardware authentication device that changes passwords every time it is used. A user inserts the YubiKey into a computer’s USB port, types a simple password and touches the YubiKey to confirm that he or she is physically present. It’s military grade security, strong two factor authentication and – with no software installation required – so easy to use.
100% revenue growth
Millions of users around the world see the benefits of YubiKey. Last year Yubico experienced a 100 percent revenue growth.
− I learned a lot about sales during my time at STING. Something I still carry with me is what the sales training started with; that the most important thing as a sales person is to listen to the customer and his or her needs. Being an innovator and entrepreneur, it’s sometimes easy to forget that, says Stina.
Stina was born in the US, grew up in Sweden and studied industrial product design. During her last year in college, she met Jakob, an electronic and computer engineer. They married, had three children and have for the last decade worked closely together bringing new IT-innovations to market.
– In one of our projects, we were exposed to the challenges of Internet fraud. In close dialogue with prospective customers, we understood that the solution had to be a hardware token that was really easy to use, easy to move between devices and easy to integrate with any application. So we invented the Yubikey and shortly after founded Yubico, says Stina.
Stina early on moved with her family to the United States and established Yubico on the West Coast to increase the chances to succeed. A bold move, but to Stina it was clear that it was necessary.
− When part of my team and I moved from Stockholm to Silicon Valley, we already had most of our customers in the Unites States, including leading Internet brands. Many decisions have been difficult to make, but I never had any doubt that we needed to be closer to the Internet thought leaders to scale big, says Stina.
PR great for finding team members
Yubico’s customers range from individual Internet users to e-governments and Fortune 500 companies. The company is privately held with offices in California, Sweden and the UK and has around 40 people working for the company today. Finding the right team members is crucial, but, as many of us know, it can be both time consuming and costly.
− The majority of the Yubico team members has been referred by great people we know. And a handful has contacted us over email after reading about us in the press, which is also the way the majority of our customers have found us. Good PR is a blessing for entrepreneurs with a small budget. If you have a new product, create a good story around it, and don’t be afraid of contacting journalists, says Stina.
Talking to a journalist was actually one of the most important events in the company’s history. Stina got the word out through a security journalist, which resulted in getting their first customers and two highly valuable team members on board. Another important milestone was receiving the first orders and respect from the Internet giants; a relationship that triggered the move to the US to work closer with them.
No overnight success
Stina, Yubico and YubiKey authentication technology are regularly featured in leading media, including Wired, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal. She is an accomplished speaker on Internet identity, security and entrepreneurship and was most recently named to Inc.com’s 2013 “Woman to Watch in Tech”. Getting to this point, however, has not been an easy ride.
− Yubico is not an overnight success. We have faced many challenges and several years of hard work. If you are not passionate about what you do, I would advise you to seek another path than being an entrepreneur. I am very grateful for having a great team that share my passion and determination. True passion is infectious and will attract people who want to help you, Stina continues.
“Communicating with potential customers is the most important thing”
One year after Yubico was founded, the company had almost no customers, staff or money. On top of these challenges, Stina’s husband Jakob was severely injured in an accident. With three children, a husband who could hardly move for several months, she was close to giving up her entrepreneurial dreams.
− Maybe an angel felt sorry for us, because one day when things were looking really bad, I ran into an Internet security guru and podcaster who endorsed the YubiKey to his weekly listeners of 100,000 global Internet security professionals, and that turned things around for us, says Stina.
The company has been funded with $3M from the management team and a couple of private individual investors, and is today profitable. Stina has a strong opinion on how split your time between building relationships with investors and talking to potential customers.
− I would recommend spending far more time communicating with customers than with investors. At the end of the day, paying customers is the most important thing for building sustainable companies, says Stina. When Stina started the company, she needed an office in central Stockholm, at minimum cost and ideally shared with other young tech companies.
− Someone referred me to STING, and I was happy to learn that beside a perfect location, we were offered the range of useful services, including help to apply to government funded innovation loans. The STING coaches also gave lot of great advice; some that I listened to, and some that I should have listened to, Stina says.
The next generation secure Internet
Since the company launched the YubiKey 1.0 in 2008, which has later been updated with new firmware and functionalities once or twice per year, several other products have been brought to market. The YubiKey Nano was released in 2011 and fits inside a USB-port and is so small that you can accidentally swallow it, according to Stina. In 2012 came the YubiKey NEO, which includes NFC and PKI and smart card capabilities. Today, the team is developing a YubiKey that will work seamlessly with iPhones and iPads, and a couple of other inventions that will be launched later this year.
− I have often gotten the question how I can be so enthusiastic about something so apparently boring as a “bank authentication token”. And I agree that a small USB-key that you carry on your key-chain has a limited cool factor. But when you can use it to securely access your bank, your email and your government service − all with just a simple touch − then it’s getting pretty exciting! We work with the Internet thought leaders on new open identity and authentication standards. This work holds the potential to change the world by unfolding the next generation secure Internet, and that is really cool.