There are a lot of things that can be done in the cloud. The least intuitive of them, come 2014, is keeping secrets.
Yet for all that a Toronto company has found a sustainable global niche by offering a cloud-based platform for journaling. Not journaling in a corporate sense, or an accounting sense, but plain old journaling: Writing your deepest thoughts in a diary you don't want anyone to see.
The Internet, what with being a global information network that keeps leaking private data, might not strike you as a natural place for storing confidences. But it has its conveniences: After all, a diary that exists in the cloud isn't hanging around the house; nor is it a file sitting on a hard drive.
And when Alexander Mimran, along with co-founders Michael Lawlor and Simon Wilkinson, started Penzu back in 2008, they discovered that people were interested. After 3,000 users signed up in the first week, they realized they were on to something. Today, the service boasts 1.1 million registered users, about half of whom are active.
"We give you a place in the cloud where you can write privately and not worry that it's going to get indexed," says Mr. Mimran.
The product is simple enough in concept: It offers a online journal, designed to look like an actual journal, accessible on the web and through mobile apps (about 400,000 have been downloaded). The company has grown by offering a freemium product that addresses the risk of a data leak: For a cool $19.99 a year, it lets paying users encrypt the living daylights out of their entries. This means that, in case of a data breach, all any hacker, foreign intelligence agency or employee of the company itself would see is garbled code.
The scheme also means that, if the user loses the password to their entry, it's lost to the universe. "We cannot unlock the entry, because part of the key is generated from the user's password, the other from a random hash we generate," says Mr. Mimran. (This has also led to all manner of angst-ridden commentary from password-losing customers on the company's support pages.)
Now, Penzu is readying itself for a full relaunch in the coming weeks that will bring, among other things, live syncing across mobile and web platforms and a whole new design. It's a small company, boasting a handful of full-time developers and support staff in Toronto, who work through the approximately 100 support e-mails that come in from around the world each day.
Mr. Mimran has since moved to Silicon Valley to work on another venture-backed startup, but remains actively involved. The company grew organically, supported by revenues coming in through PayPal, and built with its founders' own wallets. "I actually took a second mortgage out on my house to fund this thing," says Mr. Mimran. "It was a weird thing to do, possibly risky, but I'd do it again."