Published September 15, 2015
Volume 23, Number 9
Francis Dinha’s Path to Success Covers Three Continents,
By Jay Hipps
For some people, the path to the freedom of success is straightforward. For others, it is a bit more involved. For Francis Dinha, co-founder and CEO of OpenVPN and its sister company, Private Tunnel, it has involved three continents, four languages, and a breathtaking level of determination.
“I tell my kids a story as an example: There is a mountain, and on top of the mountain is this good life — all kinds of foods, everything is there. It’s a perfect life that you want to reach,” he says. “There are two ways of reaching it: You can climb the mountain or you can take an elevator. Which way would you go? The answer most people tell me is that they would take the elevator — it’s easy. The only problem with the elevator is that you’re not going to make yourself stronger, because while there are good things on the top of the mountain, it’s competitive. If you climb the mountain, you gain the strength, and when you have that strength you’re going to be able to compete. And that’s what I believe.”
Humble Beginnings in Iraq
Dinha has climbed several mountains in his life. Born in northern Iraq to an Assyrian Christian family, he grew up speaking Arabic and Assyrian, an Aramaic language. His family moved to Baghdad when he was a child, and he discovered an interest in science early in his schooling. “The first time Texas Instruments came out with a calculator, I was very, very curious about it. That curiosity led me to decide, ‘I want to learn this stuff,’” he says. “I was very lucky and gifted with math and physics, I was very good in science and all these related things, so I knew I was going to be an engineer and that I would be venturing into that area of computer engineering.”
Despite that certainty, he ran into difficulties pursuing that path. “In Iraq, if I wanted to build something, it was illegal to go and buy transistors. I walked for hours down to stores to try to fit things together and build things, and I couldn’t,” he says. “They would tell me, ‘this is illegal — you cannot buy this stuff.’ And I would think, why does it have to be that way? ‘Only the government has control of those things, so you have to work for the government, you have to be part of the military,’ and I said, forget it.”
A New Language and a New Country
He explored his options and decided to attend college in Sweden, only to face another obstacle: He had to pass a proficiency test in university-level Swedish. Despite having only eight months to prepare, he did just that and, in the summer of 1977, he set out for Scandinavia, relieved to be leaving Iraq behind.
“I know at the time that I was moving to Sweden, I was telling my relatives, ‘I don’t believe in Iraq. I don’t believe in the political system there. There is a lot of corruption, this is bad, bad, bad for Iraq, and I’m leaving — I don’t want to live here. I want to live in a country where I can experience freedom. Here, I can’t express my opinion, I can’t express my view. This is not right.’
“When I went to Sweden and experienced that freedom I thought wow, this is exactly the society I love. I love the idea that I can speak my mind, I love the idea that I can freely speak about religion, I can freely speak about the political system. Basically, I can freely participate in this process.” He kept his family informed of his new experiences and a year later managed to help his relatives emigrate as well, avoiding the turmoil and destruction that came with the onset of the Iran/Iraq war in 1980.
At college in Linköping, a city outside Stockholm, he studied both hardware and software, learning the ins and outs of computing on several levels before earning his masters and eventually teaching. “I was teaching programming, I was teaching circuit theory — various subjects related to computer science and computer engineering, all in Swedish,” he says. He was a year away from earning his Ph.D. when, in 1986, he received a call from a former colleague who had taken a job in Dallas informing him of an opportunity. He flew into the U.S. for the interview and decided to try life away from academia for a year or two.
Into the World of Business
The company, DSP Technology, designed digital signal processing (DSP) applications for telecom companies. They sponsored Dinha’s work visa and, eventually, his green card, helping pave the way for the U.S. citizenship which Dinha later earned. “I never went back to school, never finished my Ph.D.,” he says.
He did, however, return to Sweden, if only briefly. After more than two years at DSP and three at another telecom supplier, DSC Communications, he was hired as an architect and broadband system engineer at Ericsson, where he worked both in the U.S. and Sweden from 1991 to 1996.
“I was an architect, mostly working with the business aspect and strategic direction for Ericsson across all their business units,” Dinha says. “I went back again to Stockholm for two years, and I thought, ‘I don’t really like it here. Sweden is a beautiful country but it’s not for me as an entrepreneur. You can start your own company but it’s not the same.’ I always felt the U.S. was the right place for me, so when we moved back, we moved to Silicon Valley.”
His first business as an entrepreneur was called NewCom Technologies, which specialized in the specification, design, implementation, and system integration of IP networking software and hardware products. Dinha characterizes it as “mostly a consulting company,” and with Ericsson as its first client, it did “pretty well” — generating over $2.4 million in revenue in under three years.
His next venture, which he founded in 1999 and served as CTO, was PacketStream, a company whose patented technology enabled dynamic Quality of Service provisioning of IP networks, including the Internet. While that company attracted both investors and customers, it was not able to survive the first dot com crash and Dinha departed in 2003.
A Vision to Pursue
In pondering his next move, he says, “I had a vision about the cloud.” He set up a data center, hired a couple of engineers, and installed servers with the idea that “things would be moving to data centers; things are going to be managed there.” Realizing that standard Internet protocols fail to provide private, secure access to the cloud, he investigated virtual private network (VPN) technology, only to find that the existing VPNs did not fit the model he envisioned. Talking with his staff, they came to the realization that the product they needed did not yet exist — music to the ears of any entrepreneur who might be able to build it themselves.
It turned out that product was in development, however, as an open source software project called OpenVPN. “I looked at the software and thought, ‘I think I can contribute some ideas here,’ so I contacted James Yonan, the author, and said, ‘I want to build this.’” The partnership clicked and eventually Dinha suggested they join forces, and they became the co-founders of OpenVPN Technologies and Private Tunnel.
“What led me to do this is that I believe the Internet is a very unsafe place,” says Dinha. “There’s a lot of information flowing between your machine and the Internet. It’s going in very clear text, clear HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol).” Large businesses are aware that HTTP offers no security on its own, and typically require remote users to access company servers using some type of VPN technology. Dinha’s idea is to make that technology accessible to individual consumers and small businesses as well. “What if we create that last mile and make it so you can connect securely? Now you have a ubiquitous Internet but you also have that security.”
The fact that OpenVPN is open source offers both unique challenges and unique opportunities. The source code is available online at no cost — there is no secret intellectual property to own or protect, which is an approach that many companies would find unthinkable. Dinha sees several advantages to the approach, however.
“I really believe in open innovation. Even before OpenVPN, I wondered why we keep all our source code closed, especially in the security space,” he explains. “If I have a box and I come to you and say, ‘here is a box that’s going to do everything securely,’ and you ask, ‘how do you build this box? What’s in it?,’ many companies say, ‘oh, that’s secret — we’re not going to tell you our algorithms, but it’s really secure — trust us.’ With the open source model, we are saying, ‘here is the source code, here are the algorithms,’ and the experts and the scientists can look at it and determine that yes, these algorithms are very hard to break. That will give you more credibility in the marketplace when you do that.”
Another advantage is that those who modify or add to your open source project must do so on an open source basis themselves. “Google is taking our OpenVPN and using it for their internal (systems), and they’re building another thing on top of it. They have to open source that, whatever it is, so in a way they’re contributing,” he says. “If I can get somebody like Google or somebody like Redhat to participate in the open source, it helps me as a small company to really expand my ecosystem.”
The Competition is an Aide to Growth
Dinha even sees advantages to what many would see as open source’s biggest drawback: Other businesses can use the same technology at no cost, which is something that happens all the time with OpenVPN. Competitors with Private Tunnel, Dinha’s fee-based OpenVPN cloud service for small businesses and consumers, can use OpenVPN without paying any licensing fees. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword because they compete with us, but on the other hand it’s broadening our market — they’re educating the market, they’re paving the road for us. OpenVPN is becoming a standard.
“And if we are the authors of OpenVPN and offer a cloud service for security for small businesses and consumers, what do you think people will do when they see that one service is offered by the creator of this technology and another is offered by someone else? Who would they trust? That’s why we have a lot of businesses coming to us rather than going to a third party.”
His company’s growth, all achieved organically without venture capital, shows that the model is working. “We’re growing at the rate of 40 to 50 percent every year in terms of our revenue and this is our fourth year of profitability,” Dinha says. “Since the beginning, our software has been downloaded more than 50 million times, and we now have more than 3.6 million users who use Private Tunnel’s service, and that’s expanding. We get over 100,000 signups every month.”
Passion and Incremental Growth
Despite the interest shown by venture capitalists and the prospective payday that their involvement might offer, Dinha is content to grow the company incrementally.
“In my opinion, if a founder thinks, ‘I’m going to exit, I’m going to exit,’ they’re going to fail. You cannot build a successful company if you’re thinking about an exit. You have to build a successful company because you’re interested in building the product and you’re interested in delivering something that someone else hasn’t been able to do. You want to make a difference. If you are unable to do that, then forget it — if it’s all about money, I may as well be in the hedge fund business.
“The whole idea of building a product is that you have a passion for it. You want to reach that goal, you want to reach that step. The money is just a side effect. If the money is the main goal, it’s really the wrong thing for the founder to do, and I see that all the time — people want to make their first million, their first five million, their first 10 million so they can experience their freedom, right? Financial freedom. But for me, I’ve been free since I moved to Sweden.”
Information on Dinha’s two companies may be found at openvpn.net and privatetunnel.com.
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- Business Bits
- Francis Dinha's Path to Success Covers Three Continents, Four Languages
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