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Telegram – A Story Of Doing Business Against Surveillance


The 36-year old Pavel Durov is worth $3.4 billionaire according to Forbes - and with good reason!

He is the creator of Vkontakte, the largest social media network in the former Soviet Union, worth $5.53 billion at the time he sold his shares to start a simple messaging app.

The billionaire abandoned his permanent residence in Russia and has become the most controversial tech entrepreneur ever. He doesn't own any property, he bought his citizenship in the smallest of the sovereign Caribbean Islands, and defies the corporations' and governments' expectations on how he runs his business.

Have you heard of a billionaire who is not a state president, a political party leader nor a CEO but just a Product Manager?

Here is the story of Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram:

How Did it All Start?

Pavel was born in Leningrad, today's St. Petersburg, Russia. He spent his childhood in Turin, Italy where his father, Valery, was working as a Professor at the University for Classical Philology. His passion for computers and technology was obvious and thoroughly supported by his older brother Nikolai Durov, himself a genius in the field of mathematics and physics. From early childhood, Pavel had little regard for figures of authority, showing off his budding skills in cracking passwords during high school.

Later when Durovs moved back to Russia, Pavel studied linguistics, and even while being a student he started sowing the first seedlings of what would become the billion worth enterprising project Vkontakte.

Keeping In Touch With Vkontakte

Shortly after graduating in 2006, Pavel registered the domain of the most popular social media website in Russia, Vkontakte, meaning 'to keep in touch', or VK in short.

During the first year, the network was built upon invitations only in the university circles. Pavel's wish was to keep in touch with fellow graduates on one hand and to create, on the other hand, the missing online connecting network among the young professionals from highly profiled Russian universities. The network was a hit and it's user base numbers were skyrocketing, spreading rapidly out of the university cycles through the former soviet countries. By 2012, the number of users had risen to 170 million.

For many, VKs beginning and visual outlook reminds of Facebook, but it is not just a copy and paste story. For Facebook it was easy to be open from the start and to integrate the already available services such as Youtube and Spotify providing more exciting experience on the platform.

"We had to build everything from scratch. There was no such support system on the Russian market. If the users wanted it was not possible to just send them to YouTube. We had to make an all-encompassing audio and video system, a centralized system at the beginning that became more open after 6 years," says Pavel.

Running a Business on The Tip Of a Blade

The large VK network was far from not being on the radar of the Russian surveillance services. In fact, during the protests against the establishment in 2011, the protestors and the opposition leaders from Russia and Ukraine were using VK to coordinate the upheaval which put them in the crosshairs.

Russia's state security apparatus lumbered into action, trying to intimidate the tech entrepreneur and force him to shut down the profiles of six opposition leaders. Pavel had to endure several standoff talks with the police during 2011 and 2012. In reply to the pressure, he posted a picture of his hooded dog pulling his tongue out to the authorities. Not only was his deep value of liberty of speech compromised, but also his home - when a rapid response special unit entered his apartment.

In 2015, after a lot of pressure, he was forced to sell his part of the shares in VK, to the government-controlled companies for a depreciated amount of $300 million. With the bitter taste of injustice, Pavel set about creating a messaging app that would avoid the inquisitive state surveillance methods, giving people the liberty to express their opinions online. By state, he meant the Russian state. His business field from then on became the global cyberspace, as he struggled to protect users from the prying eyes of the world's governments.

From a Telegram App to a Global Censorship Disruptor

It started in 2013, when Pavel and his college acquaintance, Alex Neff from Buffalo, launched the project that would mark history in the modern end-to-end encrypted messengers app - Telegram. In the beginning, while Pavel was still VKs CEO, the project was run through the joint Digital Fortress LLC, a USA based cloud hosting platform for tech startups. The stakes were high, since Pavel wanted to make an open-source app with a minimalistic outlook that wouldn't be involved in any marketing whatsoever, ad-free, and offering users complete confidentiality of their data via untraceable communication features for outside sources.

A team of 10 to 15 tech-savvies was working from rented offices in London and Berlin to integrate the new encryption protocol, known as the MTProto, developed by Nikolai. In 2017, the technical team produced an advanced version, MTP Proto 2.0 to correct the criticized cryptographic vulnerabilities. Due to failure to regulate the residence permits of the professionals behind Telegram, after two years of nomadic work and life, the whole team moved to Dubai, where Pavel is currently running the operations.

The app gained massive popularity with 400 million subscribers from all around the world - Russia, Brasil, and even China!

Keeping Identities Safe

Telegram was used by Chinese human rights lawyers to criticize the Chinese Communist Party. Presently, through his channel, Pavel criticizes Apple who is requesting to remove three channels in Belarus where the users expose the names of their oppressors.

Pavel and his team are constantly dealing with blockages and the removal of their app from internet search engines. The team is fiercely busy with publicly denoting their challenges with the app stores or the ban requests, and with modulating its responses bearing their core principles and purposes. To this date, that is the core of Telegrams' uncommon and unwritten marketing approach, in the making, every day on Pavels Telegram channel.

Telegram's encrypted messaging features are attractive not only to the freedom fighters, but also terrorist groups, sex traffickers, and child abusers. Therefore, they put forth actions to root out the abusers and boost their technical capacity in countering malicious content.

Investments in the Telegram of the Future

For now, the annual budget to run the free app is $12 million privately invested by Pavel. The official policy is that, if ever it is necessary to continue their service without the owners' support it will be through introducing charges for non-essential services on certain Telegrams features.

In 2018, Telegram launched an Initial Coin Offering for a massive upgrade to a new blockchain platform called the Telegram Open Network. The offering was based on selling a future token, Gram, in two rounds of a total of $1.7 billion. Last October, the US Securities and Exchange Commission was enabled to get a 'restraining order' against Telegram, based on an alleged unregistered and ongoing digital token offering in the US stemming from the platform. This influenced the official cancellation of Pavels active involvement in the project and officially putting on hold the activities after the civic settlement started in June of 2020.

Whether and in which direction the development ambitions for the Telegram app will continue is yet to be seen. For the time being the Telegram app has demonstrated its noble purposes, with the longest history of building resilience to government and corporate surveillance - through a simple, private app!