This Founder Wants To Go Head To Head With Facebook's Most Used Feature

Bastian Purrer
Foundation for a ...
from New York City
started March 2022
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This Founder Wants To Go Head To Head With Facebook's Most Used Feature

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Bastian and I started humanID or the Foundation for a Human Internet. HumanID is a nonprofit organization that is driven by open-source developers and volunteers. And over the last few years has built an anonymous online and anonymous Single Sign-On (SSO) as an alternative to invasive tools such as the login with Facebook or the login with Google. We started this organization with the help of Harvard Business School and Mozilla and have since then expanded this to hundreds of users across various sites, such as social media sites, whistleblowing services, and other products that respect the privacy of their users and want to block spam and automated accounts.

Since we are a nonprofit, we are not making any profits, but we are charging a small amount to cover the cost of running the service. It's around 1 cent per user. We're trying to keep this as small as possible since obviously, revenue is not our main goal.



What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I have been working in digital marketing for over 10 years and started an E-commerce company before and during that time. As such, I've been responsible for buying user data from Facebook and Google and targeting people with these creepy ads that follow you around or send newsletters that nobody has been asking for. All these bad things have been done with our data.

So I've been pretty aware of how problematic the online privacy situation is. In 2019, I was building an E-commerce company in Indonesia, the world's third-biggest democracy. During the local elections for president, I worked with one of the political parties and realized the extent all parties were using bot networks and spam factories to spread misinformation, spread lies, and fake news. Everyone was doing that, it was completely normalized as a part of Political Marketing.

humanID has been created to fight for privacy and against fake news at once. We call it a human internet, which is an internet where everyone only has one account, but that account is truly secure. Just like what we take for granted with elections, everyone just gets to vote once, but that vote is anonymous and protected. We believe the internet should be following similar principles. We would have healthy online communities where people feel safe, and where everyone's voice has the same value, no matter who you are.

Nobody should be able to buy themselves a fake grassroots movement that spreads fake news. That is why humanID is a nonprofit. Competing solutions, such as Facebook Login and Google Login, do not have an incentive to reduce the data they're collecting. They don't have an incentive to limit how many user profiles they let us create and to limit campaigns, Facebook pretends that it has 2.8 billion users. Facebook also publicly admits in its ‘Transparency Report’ that it deleted more than 5 billion fake accounts last year. 5 billion versus 2.8 billion. Now internally, Facebook, of course, has an incentive to not slow down and keep growing their user numbers since that's a number that they report every quarter to Wall Street. So, they don't have an incentive to be too strict. And studies say that up to 50% of Facebook accounts are fake. Based on my experience in the industry and what I've seen, that seems like a realistic estimate.

Take us through the process of building the original project.



My co-founders and I spent over six months researching the best solution to this problem, how to create a login that limits how many accounts one person can create or associates higher costs with account creation than simply creating an email account. But on the other hand, this needs to be done in a way that keeps users entirely private and saves no user data. We've looked at different options from biometrics to the blockchain. And ultimately, the solution we invented had to be extremely convenient and easy to use, and easy to integrate for platform partners.

What humanID does is act as a trusted verification layer. We verify users' unique, exclusive phone numbers, but then delete that phone number and just save a hash that is unique to both the user and the platform. We're doing this 100% open source. And the phone number is never exposed to the end client; the hash we create cannot be reversed to recreate the phone number. So in 2019, we then went through building the core back end and set up user interviews with consumers to see how they react to different interfaces. We realized that just exposing the word "anonymously", and "Login anonymously" is causing a massively positive reaction and curiosity. But also that it needs to be a very fast process because people know how easy the alternatives of Facebook or Google are. And then after that, we started talking to potential clients in different industries, from social media to health-tracking apps, to whistleblowing apps, and tried to understand which market segments we should focus on.

Describe the process of launching the business.

What then got us to launch a business with our first clients was COVID tracking apps at the time in early 2020, and then later a whistleblowing app for employees. Since our users are completely anonymous, we cannot do user interviews with existing users, which is a challenge. You can't tell user stories when we don't know the users. And we didn't have any budget since we are a nonprofit.

Therefore, we use sort of me and my co-founders –who at the time studied at Harvard Business School– to get some exposure and get a little bit of funding. And then we posted online and got overwhelming support from hundreds of volunteers from senior developers that signed up to help us and that has carried us until today. The vision resonates with a lot of people.


Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We are definitely in a special situation: As a nonprofit, we have fewer financial resources. What has worked well for us is SEO - Search Engine Optimization.

Specifically, we are writing a lot of content on login and authentication-related technical topics, and these have over time grown and are now 70 to 80% of the traffic to our website. All without any financial investments whatsoever. And it just keeps growing, even if we stop investing. And it pays back in many other ways, such as a subscription to the newsletter for example.

In terms of retaining our customers, our nonprofit status has helped us achieve a higher trust level. In terms of the sustainability of our pricing, we can offer more transparency with exactly every penny of their payments at the base of our cost structure and keep our profit margin at zero - which we have to do. With this, we can offer a service at an extremely competitive cost.

And then with some of our customers, there's a strong value alignment, such as other nonprofits or people who truly care about the privacy of their users. Imagine, for example, a whistleblowing service is not just financially incentivized to keep their users secure (a leak could be an existential threat), but they are likely also for ideological and idealistic reasons that they care to not suffer a data leak.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We are still beginning our journey for sure. We have several clients that have proven our use case. And we are looking to grow with larger clients and more public awareness to change how people think about privacy and the human internet.

And we see that a lot of our clients are set up for strong growth. I believe that as a SaaS service with high visibility to the end user (the login is the first thing users see), we can grow together with our clients and that the success of our clients alone can grow our overall user base.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I have previously run for-profit eCommerce companies. So running a nonprofit really has taught me a lot and particularly about the advantages of building relationships and motivating team members. In a way, it's also a lot easier because there's just an assumption of positive intention within the team.

You have a lot fewer politics or jealousy within the team. So from a personal leadership perspective, it has been invaluable. As a business, nonprofits take a specific important role in creating trust within the marketplace.

We can make decisions and promises that for-profits couldn't do. For example, we can truly promise our users that we will not start selling their data. For-profits have again and again walked back that promise. We can make that promise much stronger as we don't have a financial incentive to break that promise. And instead would break the values incorporated in our foundation’s articles of incorporation. And I think that pays back.

As an example, imagine trying to build a nonprofit or for-profit that competes with Wikipedia. You just not be able to offer the product at this price. You would also not be able to motivate such a large volunteer base to help. And you would not gain the trust of the end users to such an extent because they would always be more worried that you currently are corruptible and your content is not impartial.

humanID is in a similar position when it comes to online identity.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use Discord instead of Slack for internal communication. We are a fully remote company that has built a very strong asynchronous culture as well. Which has affected our productivity massively. Our strong knowledge sharing has made for a very different business culture and of course, saved us massive amounts of money in terms of overhead office and so on. Also, the ability to just hire anywhere is unbeatable.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I think if you care about making an impact, you should consider enshrining that in your company in a way that cannot be changed by future leaders. Many founders started with a noble purpose, but then eventually had to realize that their creation was used for the opposite goal.

Instead tried to enshrine this from the beginning. And you can do that not only by starting a nonprofit. But other legal tools, such as the Public Benefits Corporation give you options that don’t necessarily restrict your ability to fundraise.

But the problem is, you have to think about that at the very, very beginning when you start, most entrepreneurs have so many other problems. But it will chase you years down the line. And you might end up financially successful but not successful in what you started the company to do.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always looking for senior advisors to help build the company even with volunteer time. We also of course always look for financial donations to help us. And I'm also currently building a board of experienced professionals that are willing to contribute more to our costs. And to learn more, I'll link our website, also my TED talks about finding fake news, and our vision video that talks about our mission to create a human internet and restore privacy and democracy on the web.

Where can we go to learn more?

Bastian Purrer, Founder of Foundation for a Human Internet
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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