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This Seattle Startup Built a Premium Subscription Service for a Niche Browser

Tenta Browser has been downloaded 2 million times on Google Play

5 Minute Read

In a Google-dominated world that even Microsoft couldn’t crack, is there an industry for niche browsers? 

Tenta Browser has found a path to success. The Seattle-based startup offers an encrypted browser with a built-in VPN and an ad blocker. Since launching in 2016, the app, which is available on Android and in a limited form on iOS, has been downloaded ~2 million times on Google Play, with 1 million of those downloads coming since March. It also has more than 17k ratings on Google Play with a 4.3 score.  

We spoke with Tenta Browser co-founder Jen McEwen about how the co-founders got their idea from a previous adult entertainment app business, their tips for growth and how they’re marketing to a mainstream audience that might be unfamiliar with encrypted browsing. The interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity. 

Takeaways

  • Tenta Browser’s base product is free. It also has premium services from which it draws revenue. At first the company offered unlimited VPNs but then charged $7 monthly for device-wide VPN. When it changed the price to $1, the user base skyrocketed. McEwen says the company looked to the WhatsApp’s $1 subscription model as a successful guide for charging a small amount. It has seen “hockey stick” growth in the last few months since the change.  
  • Tenta Browser also increased its user base in its second year by simplifying its design and offerings. Rather than complicate customers, it employed a default setting with its key functions like ad blocker and VPN, and then offered more in advanced settings. 
  • The company has defeated competitors by offering truly encrypted browsing. Most other services in the app store, McEwen says, are “glorified incognito mode browsers.” She believes mainstream users are beginning to see the importance of encryption after Cambridge Analytica and other privacy-related scandals. 

What were you doing before Tenta Browser that led into the founding of this company?

My partners (Jesse Adams, Christopher O’Connell) and I, we founded our first company, My Candy. It’s in the adult space. It’s in the adult app store on Android. We started that about, well actually 10 years ago. We provide the shelf for the market space for adult apps, games, comics, videos, eBooks, a whole bunch of things.

Our customers there started asking over the years for more privacy features like, “Hey, I have this phone, but my kid wants to play games on it and I don’t want them to see the content, so how can I keep this stuff protected from my kids’ eyes?” Or they were in parts of the world where they couldn’t access content. They were asking us to do things like built in VPN and things like that, so they could access content they wanted to see.

We started building those things into My Candy and then over time we were like, ‘Wait a minute, why are we pigeonholing ourselves?’ The reason why I say ‘pigeonholing’ is because even though My Candy is a pretty technologically sound, strong company, it’s serving the adult industry. There’s a lot of obstacles in our way in just doing that business.

We couldn’t be on Google Play. We couldn’t use MailChimp. We had to do our own billing and things like that.

We were building these privacy tools into My Candy and we thought, wait, we’re pigeonholing ourselves again. Also, privacy is not something that only people watching adult content want or need or deserve. This is something that everybody should have. That made us think bigger.

So what went into your transitioning from building features for My Candy to starting a new app?

The single point of contact that most people have to the internet is the browser. We started from the ground up with a browser that has a very strong crypto-graphic foundation. 

All browsers today or most browsers today are built on what I feel is an antiquated model to an advertising model and we’ve seen that get exploited over the years. We built Tenta to be private by default.

Then, instead of relying on collecting user data and then selling it to somebody else, which the user doesn’t get any part of — besides being exploited — we built tools to help users protect themselves as they are navigating through the internet. Yeah, that’s how Tenta started. It was from our adult customers into something that everybody should use.

You mentioned rethinking the entire business model, so what is the business model then? How do you get revenue without it being based on the old ad model?

A lot of the things in Tenta are free. We have full data encryption. We have built in VPN. Everything that you do in the browser is encrypted and even your downloads, your bookmarks, or tabs. We do have premium subscription tiers, so if you want to connect to a different VPN server, then that would be where you’d have to have a pro account. If you want to have a custom DNS into the browser, then that’s another pro feature.

But yeah, it’s tools and not data, is what we like to say. Yeah, right now it’s choosing different VPN locations. We’ll give you the first one for free, the fastest location near you for free and unlimited. There’s no cap on how much bandwidth you can use, but if you want to change it up, then that’s where the pro membership kicks in.

Why Android?

We focused on Android first because that’s where we’re really strong at, having built on Android for over 10 years. We have an iOS app out now, but it’s not a browser. It’s a VPN and DNS app. That’s available on the Apple app store. But if you want to get the full fledged browser on Android, then you’d go to Google Play for now.

Then we’re working on Windows and desktop next and then integrating our own billing, so we don’t have to be reliant on Apple or Google for that. A lot of people don’t want to use that anyway. Once we have that available, then you can just download Tenta from our website.

Who are your customers and why have they wanted this?

We have obviously the tech savvy, privacy focused people who are already aware of the big problems that plague the internet and are specifically looking out for something that can protect them. They know what they’re looking for and they are advanced users. We also wanted to make Tenta super easy to use and super fast so that you would be insane to choose another browser that doesn’t protect your privacy.

Then the big, big map is everybody else who’s becoming aware of how much they’re being exploited. We built a browser to meet them where they’re going. Really, we tried to build it to be simple enough to use so that I could just hand this off to my grandfather and my grandmother and they would know how to use the browser.

Three years ago when we first were telling people, ‘Hey, we’re going to build a browser.’ Their reactions were, ‘Are you nuts? Who builds a browser now?’ But actually it was great timing. Great timing, but also really terrible for all of us in the world because it all came to light how the digital data we’ve all been making over the past 30 years was and how it’s been used against us.

You’re seeing basically more and more, for lack of a better word, regular people want this privacy that maybe they weren’t aware of in the past?

Everyday folks who are learning about Cambridge Analytica and seeing all these headlines and they don’t know what to do. And it’s a configuration nightmare right now for most privacy tools that are available. It can be overwhelming, so they don’t even know how to get started.

We want to reach those customers or those people, internet users, who do know that they should be paying attention to their privacy and their data, but they just don’t know how to get started. We built a browser that has all this on by default and makes it super easy for regular users to protect themselves.

But how do you reach them and let them know this secure product exists? 

We do a lot of third party validation. We work with EFF integrating known browser extensions and tools that people use on their everyday browsers, like Chrome and Firefox. We do third party reviews of our code, open- sourcing our code. 

That doesn’t actually get my grandfather or my grandmother to know about Tenta. So honestly, we have to still play by some of the current game. Advertising on Facebook, which really hurts to have to say that you do. But it’s like, “Hey guys, get off of Facebook,” with a boosted post on why you should use Tenta. 

You have to find the users where they are.

In terms of the competitors, are there other people who have the same service you provide or like you were saying, they provide bits and pieces of it?

In the past few years, there’s been a ton of incognito browsers that have been popping up in the app stores. A lot of these are really glorified incognito mode browsers. They’re not really protecting. The difference between incognito mode and a full private browser is that incognito mode doesn’t really protect you. It protects you against local attacks, but it’s not an encrypted connection to the internet.

There’s a lot of those, but other browsers that are really taking the privacy issue to heart, I think a great one is Brave. It’s a browser that’s really trying to take privacy head-on.

How many downloads or customers have you had so far?

Last time I checked, we were about 2 million downloads of Tenta on Google Play. I don’t know what the number is on Apple.

How has it grown over the last two and a half years? In the first year, about how many downloads were there?

The first year was pretty slow. To be honest, the reason, there’s a couple of reasons why. We made a couple mistakes. We over-designed it because there were so many new tools that we were adding to a browser and there’s so many ways you can protect yourself. 

We ended up over-designing it and that was pretty slow for us for the first couple of years or first year or so. Then with every update that we made to our interface, we made it simpler and simpler and then everything just came on by default and then you could do advanced settings. That really skyrocketed our downloads and our user base.

Earlier this year, back in June, we did a change in our billing model. Before it used to be, you get every single location, VPN location, for free, but if you want to protect your entire device and have device wide VPN, that’s when we up-sell you. That is when you can join the pro membership to get that.

That was $7 a month. We’ve lowered it to $1 a month.

It’s a huge hockey stick. It’s just skyrocketed in July, in June.

We took a lot of hints from WhatsApp from many years ago where encrypted chat, $1 a year. We took a lot of notes from that and that really did work out in our favor quite a bit without costing us.

About how much revenue are you taking in this year?

I’m not sure if we’re going to share that number right now.

With people wanting this more private experience on the web and it just seems like there’s a push back against technology and the different things that it’s brought. Where else do you see opportunities going in this space?

I’m really interested in privacy focused blockchain services and protocols. I think that can be incredible. The web that we have today, built 30 years ago or more, wasn’t built with privacy in mind or security in mind as we’re all aware of now. Over the past few decades, it’s just been a series of patches. We’re on pretty shaky ground right now.

While blockchain folks are trying to solve this problem and they’re building Web 3, I think that can be an incredible place to get started. Blockchain and privacy don’t mean the same thing and sometimes they can be the antithesis of the exact opposite of each other. But with this new Web 3 that’s being built, having privacy focused or private by design services and protocols for that new Web is very promising.

Then also creating, building the interfaces to access that new website or that new internet, that Web 3. One interface is the browser. That’s what Tenta is. We partnered with some promising blockchain companies that we’re pretty interested in like MetaMask and RightMesh and Orchid. Either moving into privacy focused blockchain or the interface to be the gateway to that new internet, I think would be a great place for people to focus on.

RightMesh is super interesting. They’re creating a decentralized mesh network to bring the internet to places that lack proper infrastructure. If you and I are right next to each other and I want to send you a picture of, I don’t know, a flower or a cat or something, there’s no reason that it has to go up to a server and come back down to you. That’s another vulnerability point. With their technology, I can send it directly to your device, but it’s encrypted the entire way.

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