While 540 millions of Facebook user’s records have been found on unprotected Amazon servers, Russian “Zukerberk” continue to fight for privacy and security of information on the Internet.
Let us introduce to you Pavel Durov, founder of Russian social network VKontakte (rebranded to VK) and the Telegram Messenger, young billionaire in exile and Neo of the real world.

Name: Pavel Durov;

Job: entrepreneur, coder;

Career duration: 2006 – now;

Country: Russia, now in exile, travelling;

Net worth (Forbes as for 04.04.2019): $2.7B;

“Our right to privacy is more important than the fear of terrorism.” Pavel Durov
In a country where freedom of speech has been given less than 30 years ago, the new generation are ready to fight for it. And they already have a hero, a symbol and a martyr.

We are talking about Pavel Durov, known as “Russian Zuckerberg”, by now has become more associated with Neo from “The Matrix”. Due to both his style and deeds.

Despite he still very young (just 35 years old this year), he’s already become a billionaire (Forbes value him at $2.7B as for April 2019), built the main social network of Russia, been forced out of the own company, created another one. And nowadays his name alone – Pavel Durov – makes common people trust and use his new messenger app, and convinces investors to give millions of dollars for a quite risky project.

Short story

Pavel was born in 1984 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), but spent most of his childhood in Turin, Italy, due to his father work. Has elder brother Nikolai, who taught him coding and later became the main ally both in creating online platforms and resist authorities.

From early childhood, Pavel Durov had little regard for figures of authority. He began coding aged 10 and created his first multi-player game soon afterwards. While still in school, a young Pavel used his skills to hack the school’s computer network. He changed the welcoming screen to: “Must Die” alongside a photo of his least favourite teacher. The school retaliated by cutting access to the network. But Pavel cracked the new passwords every time. What a nasty kid he was. What a rioter he remains.

Pavel founded VKontakte fresh out of St. Petersburg State University in 2006, initially designed as a social platform for university students. Users were allowed freely to upload, download and search for different types of content, including subjects of copyright, such as books, music, films and series. In a way, VK for a quite long period of time (while Pavel managed it) was known as a huge outpost of piracy in Russian Internet. It fastly became popular and, as for February 2019, it was ranked 15th in Alexa’s global Top 500 sites. According to SimilarWeb, VK is the 9th most visited website in the world.

From the very beginng the entrepreneur, who counts Steve Jobs and Che Guevara among his heroes, also allowed the platform to become a space for campaigners disaffected with President Putin to air their views.

In December 2011, Durov woke to find armed Russian security forces outside his St. Petersburg apartment, threatening to bash in the door unless Durov shut the VK account of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Durov refused, and posted news of the government’s actions online, surprising many Russians and boosting support for VK.

After Russia’s war with Ukraine erupted, Durov again refused government orders—this time, in April 2014, to hand over the personal data of Ukraine’s opposition leaders from their VK accounts—and then posted fiery comments online. Shortly after he was fired as CEO of VK and left Russia.

While still at VKontakte, Durov had secretly set up a new company called Digital Fortress. Its headquarters in Buffalo, New York, reportedly had enough server capacity to house one-third of VKontakte’s traffic. In August 2013, Pavel opened the secret – the Durovs had been working on an encrypted chat service called Telegram.

Telegram and Pavel-walking-billboard

Pavel provided the capital — he had left Russia with $300 million in his pocket from selling his VKontakte shares — and its “ideology” for Telegram. Nikolai was responsible for the coding.

The result of their cooperation this time was a messaging service that rivals bigger players on the market like WhatsApp by promising to protect users from third-party interference. User data is encrypted and stored in several jurisdictions — making it difficult for third parties to access. A secret chat option allows users to send messages with self-destruct timers.

Pavel reportedly burns through $1 million of his own cash every month to keep the project going. He told Fortune magazine in an interview that he would start looking for investors in several years, but according to Telegram’s website: “Making profits will never be a goal.” As for the end of 2018 Telegram has more than 200 million users worldwide and only 15 millions of them are in Russia.

In a way, Pavel Durov became “walking billboard” for the Telegram. The Durovs say the idea for Telegram was born out of their need to communicate privately while the Russian security services were breathing down their necks.

At the beginning of 2018 Durovs confronted authorities once again. This time not only Russian. Due to its highly confidential nature, Telegram Messenger accused to be frequently used by terrorist and criminals.

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Towards the end of March 2018, in order to track terrorist threats, a Russian court notified Telegram that they must hand over the encryption keys for the smartphone app to the Federal Security Service (FSB). Durov has said he would not hand over any of the encryption keys. In an attempt to block users in Russia from using Telegram 16 million IP addresses were blocked by the authorities April 16, 2018. Durov has fought back by handing out bitcoin to enterprises running VPN’s to circumvent the IP block.

Soon after that several thousand protesters, mostly young people, demonstrated in Moscow against the attempted blockage, some carrying signs such as “Don’t Block On Me” and throwing paper aeroplanes, which are Telegram’s symbol. On the same day, Iran’s judiciary banned Telegram because authorities believe it was used to organize protest rallies in January. The Telegram also has been blocked in China.

In her World Economic Forum address in Davos, Theresa May also called for technology companies to do more to deal with harmful and illegal online activity. She singled out Telegram “because smaller platforms can quickly become home to criminals and terrorists”.

By now Durov brothers have paid to become a citizen of St Kitts and Nevis but remain on the move around the world, changing location every few months. It would likely be dangerous for Pavel to return to Russia, but he’s become a kind of hero for privacy activists in the country.

Personal Brand in work

These days the Durov’s are working on the blockchain network called TON (Telegram Open Network), which seems to be a quite risky project and the launching date has already postponed several times. But investors still trust Pavel and in March 2018 the Durov brothers revealed that they raised $850 million in the second round of their ICO from 94 investors.

“Maybe @Durov is an angel. I hope so! But angels have fallen before,” Snowden has tweeted as a reaction to the whole Durov’s story. Ironically, Snowden, who had been called by Pavel his “personal hero”, was granted political asylum in Russia.

After all, “Durov” name, along with white paper aeroplane (Telegram logo) and a dog wearing a hoodie (Pavel’s “spirit animal”), become symbols of free Internet and confrontation with authorities. Which are very romantic, but in a way too idealistic. Still, Durov poses himself as a peaceful rebel, and young active people like it.

Can we call this “personal brand”? Sure, we can. Let’s analyse a little bit the main traits of it and Pavel Durov’s personality in general.

This picture could be the first what comes to the mind of young Russian when he or she thinks about Durov.

Then – rebel and fighter for freedom. “Father” (even if still very young) of the main Russian social media platform. Amazingly rich. And crazy, out of control, playing dangerous games.

The dog appeared in 2011 when Durov responded to government demands for more control over his site by sharing that photo. His message to the Kremlin was clear: He wasn’t going to do what it wanted.

Another strange and extremely extravagant thing took place in the very centre of St Petersburg. Pavel Durov was caught on camera throwing paper aeroplanes out of his office window in beautiful Singer building, carefully folded from 5,000-rouble notes (about 150$ that time).

In 2013, Durov was accused of being behind the wheel of a white Mercedes car that struck a police officer in Moscow. He denied the allegation and claimed that he couldn’t even drive.

In 2016 Durov threw a huge party in Barcelona to celebrate reaching 100 million monthly active users of Telegram. David Blaine was there to entertain the crowd with magic tricks.

Social media presence and absence

All these crazy deeds go together with Pavel’s proclamations of his strong believes and ideas. He is a self-described libertarian and vegetarian. He gives his people what they are seeking: freedom of speech and privacy. That’s what Russians are seeking for centuries and don’t want to lose at least at the Internet. After all, he claims that he does it for free.

People love this type of sacrifice and follow him. Watching him very closely. And that’s where his outstanding way of using social media begins.

He has his style in social media, and, similarly to a rock star, he knows the value of silence. People follow his page, but he doesn’t really follow anyone. He can post one message in several months and it becomes highly visible. Why? Because his audience is waiting for any single word of his. The longer he remains speechless, the hotter his “tweets” become.

He wears only black and keeps fit. He never smiles to the camera and most of his photos on Instagram are just nature or architecture. When authorities are trying to force him doing anything, he laughs and posts something provocative. Not only dogs, by the way.

After Russia blocks his messaging app, Pavel posted in his Instagram photo of himself, topless, and adding hashtag PutinShirtlessChallenge in order to tweak the Russian president’s own topless photos.

Takeaways

But after all these strange, bright and resounding deed, at the basics, we should keep in mind the main points of building such a big and powerful brand. His talent as an entrepreneur and coder, his team and – the most important – his brother.

Nikolai Durov became strong and loyal ally for his little brother. While Nikolai was responsible for the coding, Pavel could give all his energy in running the business, solving problems with the “offline” world, finding investors and creating the strong brand of “Durov”.

So what can we learn from this story?

  • First, give people what they want
  • Stand for your beliefs
  • Laugh facing problems
  • Find loyal ally

However, there is a big question that remains unanswered. Do exile and persecution worth this popularity? For sure, without it, Durov couldn’t attract so much attention and investments to his venturesome project TON. Huge ideas require huge sacrifice. But it doesn’t really work for everyone.

 

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