Principles, Privacy, and Profit

During our earliest Maple brainstorming meetings, I did a lot of listening. Chris would get on a roll talking about everything she wanted Maple to be (“one place to put everything on my mind, accessible anywhere and anytime”), and I’d listen, envisioning how to make it all happen. At first it was straight-forward. When you’ve built software for as long as I have it’s all the same after a while. Data in, data out, all through some fancy user interface. Repeat.

One of these conversations stands out to me even now, 3 years later. Chris was brainstorming functionality, I was building data models in my head, and she started bandying about terms like “personal insights” and “diary” and “sleep tracker”. I had one of those record scratch moments.

This wasn’t going to be like any system I’d ever built.

Yes, it would collect data and present it back to its users. But Maple also needed to protect its data (and by extension, its users) like no system I’d conceived of before. It became clear that for people to trust us with their deepest thoughts and ideas, we couldn’t also have their e-mails, phone numbers, or even their names. That would be way too much personal stuff in one place, and it felt like a violation of privacy to even consider it. I’m generally shocked and appalled at how much information companies collect about me, and I didn’t want to do that to other people.

I interrupted Chris mid-sentence to say: “Ok, we need to make a commitment right now that we’re not going to be evil and spy on our users. Ever. In any way, for any one. We have to find a way to do everything we’re talking about without violating anyone’s privacy. If people can’t trust Maple with their innermost thoughts and ideas, they won’t use it. This is going to make building it way harder on us, but it’s important.”

She paused to reflect, replied “Of course”, and turned back to the whiteboard to continue her thought.

From that day forward, every design and business decision we’ve made has circled back to the principle of privacy and protection in some way, because it was so important that we build a product that doesn’t prey on people’s privacy. We had to protect our users.

But there was something in it for me, too.

Building Maple to be completely anonymous meant that its design would be much more complicated than normal software. While other companies out there are busy finding ways to collect as much information about you as they can, from as many places as possible, we wanted the opposite: someplace safe for your stuff.

That made it a challenge, and I love a good challenge.

This is the kind of work I live for. It’s not the rote “build another mobile app” or “put together a UI framework” drudgery that so many of us programmers slog through every day. It’s something bigger. It’s saying “I can do that” when everyone else is silent; it’s knowing when to abandon one idea for another that might work better; it’s never giving up until you’ve done what you set out to do. And that satisfaction from finally achieving what you want to accomplish truly is priceless.

The challenge to keep Maple secure, private and anonymous hasn’t been all technical. We’ve abandoned easy sources of revenue because they would mean we’d be tracking more about our users than we felt comfortable about. We’ve had meetings with marketing firms that bombed because they said they couldn’t advertise our product unless we gave up on our privacy restrictions to allow ad trackers. And we’ve had to create complex internal processes for our small team to follow just to ensure we don’t overstep our bounds.

Maybe we made it harder on ourselves than we could have, but we wouldn’t have done it any other way.

We knew we were making a great product and we knew it would be greater still if we didn’t sacrifice privacy for profit. This confidence kept us going every time we ran into a road block. We knew we were doing the right thing not because it was easy, but despite it being hard.

Our hope is that Maple’s success proves that companies don’t have to violate their customer’s privacy to have a viable software service. We may not be able to grow as big as companies built on your data like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and we’re totally OK with that. We want to make money, sure, but the primary motivation behind Maple always was to offer something of value to people and make the world a better place. We believe that’s not a “two steps back, one step forward” proposition.

You can’t do evil while trying to do good.

We aren’t going to get everything right all the time, but we’re damn sure going to try. When it comes to problem solving, not giving up is just as important as creativity. We’ve come far since those early brainstorming meetings, and while we’ve got more challenges ahead, we’re proud of both what we’ve built and the principles we stuck to while building it. After all, we wanted to use Maple ourselves, and we do, knowing that it’s safe and secure from prying eyes.

So feel free to Maple something, knowing that we’ve got your back and we are right in there with you!

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Scott Waletzko is the managing partner responsible for all things technical at R. Alliance, including the design and development of Maple.

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