As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Arne Peder Blix, CEO, and co-founder of Friend. Arne is a former Naval Submariner turned tech entrepreneur with a series of successful exits, particularly within the SaaS fintech space.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Before being introduced to my fellow co-founder Hogne Titlestad, in 2013, I had been tasked by the Norwegian Financial Services Association and Nordic Trustee to provide an anonymous communication system to protect whistleblowers. Through contact with some of the most prominent whistleblowers and technologists in the business world at that time, I quickly came to realize that providing complete digital integrity to these individuals would be virtually impossible without them having control over their operating system.
The fact is, the internet revolution has failed us in one significant way. It promised a computing platform where we could express ourselves and be creative: a place to connect and build relationships, a place free from oppression and censorship, and a place where our personal information would be secure. Instead, what we have today is an internet controlled by a few technology giants who may have begun with innocent intentions, but in the pursuit of profit are exploiting our data for commercial interest. And frankly, we owe the next generation something better than unintelligible T&Cs and monopolies that control access to information.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
This would definitely be when I was first put in touch with a fellow founder of Friend, Hogne, back at the beginning of 2014. It truly was a meeting of minds where each of us had half of the story but the pieces just needed to be put together, and it was purely by chance that our unlikely pairing came into fruition. My long-term mentor and trusted advisor happened to be supporting a project which Hogne’s father was running. The two got chatting about the incredibly complex and technical project Hogne was working on, which people were struggling to understand, and my mentor suggested that I take a look.
The first time we spoke, we covered a lot of ground — ethics, moral values and the future of computing — without actually meeting face-to-face until about a month in. Once we decided on the name, which was comparatively very easy, the learning really began to take place. While being incredibly demanding, I am confident both Hogne, and I will always look back at this period as being an unforgettable, enjoyable and very rewarding time in our pioneering early days.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
The world is beginning to wake up to the fact that companies built on the bedrock of data monetization will have problematic futures. If you build a platform and set of algorithms that prioritize engagement and monetization above everything else, you can’t simply click your fingers (or a mouse) to give autonomy or privacy back to the user, rather a proactive ethical approach must be taken from the start. Big Tech will argue that the more they know about us, the more they can help us. But as billions of people come online, the infrastructure of the internet needs to become more transparent. Big tech has harvested vast and rapidly growing amounts of data about its users which, if hacked, can cause unimaginable damage.
At Friend, we are working to break this cycle, putting users first through our internet-based operating system, accessible via any device that can support a web browser. Here users can view media, access and edit files, chat, videoconference and launch programmes and apps all from a secure and private environment. We believe that individuals must be given the choice of what data they share, and what they want to keep private from the start. We are not interested in your data and believe there is a willingness to pay for a service that ensures privacy and digital independence. We take measures to ensure that the users themselves decide and are in control. After all, it is only by aligning with users that genuine trust can be built.
How do you think this will change the world?
As it currently stands, our data is treated as a valuable commodity, and our children are born into being customers of Big Tech, through hegemonic oligopolistic loyalty programmes (siloed operating systems which don’t allow users to freely choose how they want their digital life to be). To Facebook alone, we are worth £142 — it’s a simple calculation: company value divided by total users — and yet we as the producers are reaping none of these financial benefits.
At Friend, we believe this has to change; individuals must be given a choice over what data they share, and what is kept private and be rewarded accordingly. Fuelled by our Initial Friend token Offering (FRND IFO) starting in the first half of 2019, we are set on the path of decentralization whereby the operating system will be owned and governed by its users (the token holders)- delivering freedom of choice, privacy, and access to computing for all. They will be able to suggest changes, vote on suggestions, and decide their priority, influencing the way their digital experience evolves and will be rewarded for their contributions with ‘FRND tokens.’ Users will also have the potential to earn a secondary income by sharing computing resources, storage, and bandwidth. They can then interact peer-to-peer via a marketplace where they can pay for applications services from Friend and from any other vendor wanting to sell in this space — and pay with both regular currency as well as tokens.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?
While certainly needed, the pursuit of an uncompromising approach to privacy can also be problematic. It is the pillar on which freedom of speech and even freedom itself is built, but today the ability to have one’s own opinions and freedom of choice is directly linked to their personal security. Many risk dire consequences if they disagree with the prevailing belief system of their peers, leaders, or their country. What’s more, there are no varying degrees of privacy — one either has it, or they don’t.
We live in a world where a lawful warrant must be issued, based on certain legal criterion being met, to search our houses to identify evidence of wrongdoing. Equally, we would like to think that if we have written something ‘incriminating’ in our diary, we can refuse to implicate ourselves by not giving away the key. While in the analog world this right is ours, this is not the case in the digital. Big Tech has almost unwarranted access to everything we do. By building up a profile on us from this information, it is able to predict, and subsequently manipulate, our likes and dislikes, our purchasing habits, and even the way we are going to vote — propelling the issue to systemic proportions.
As our lives slowly merge with technology we are further becoming targets of data harvesting and manipulation — stuck in a vicious cycle where our individual rights and freedoms are slowly but surely becoming suppressed. To retain individualism and freedom of choice, that is, to avoid becoming a slave to our consumer-driven digital helpers (Alexa or Siri), it is essential that we can choose our own digital experience.
Without privacy and the ability to vent our thoughts, the world will become a dangerous place. Understandably, offering high-grade privacy (encryption) and digital independence to the masses is not something that will be taken lightly by governmental and surveillance agencies around the world. I, however, believe that what we know and can openly debate can be managed and that it is when we censor and deprive people of their freedoms, that we begin to increase risk. Transparency is the only way forward in a world where everyone can post something publicly on social media.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
Owing to my prior work in trying to ensure anonymity to whistleblowers, I was well aware of the need for a digital friend that everyone, everywhere, can trust. For that reason, when I came to meet Hogne who, like me, recognized that there was a severe lack of trust in Big Tech corporations that control the majority of computing power, and who was already beginning to work on an operating system it just seemed like fate.
We both saw eye-to-eye on key issues related to privacy, freedom, empowerment, intelligence, and integration (the five pillars on which Friend is built), as well as the need for digital independence and freedom of choice. This, combined with the unique blend of his terrific computer science skills and deep technology knowledge and knack for philosophy and with my 15+ years of experience in fintech, equity-based incentives and building up companies, was really the tipping point in the inception of Friend.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
A successful Initial Contribution Offering (ICO) to set the platform on the path of decentralization. Due to be completed in the first half of 2019, we have decided to do our ICO from Norway, with the intention of setting the standard for other companies to follow, cooperating with the Norwegian Financial Supervisory Authorities, as well as the country’s major banks and tier 1 law firms, to ensure compliance and optimal tax structure.
On top of this, we are also looking for VC investment which will be used to aid with recruitment and to retain existing talent. While efforts have been focussed on perfecting the deep technical capabilities of Friend, design and user experience are now top priorities.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s always about the People. My success to date has almost certainly come from the careful choosing of colleagues, teams, investors, and advisors. These are the people who form the backbone of a company and therefore must be committed to a shared vision.
- Everything takes longer than you think and will cost more too. Never underestimate this. There have been a number of projects which set out to achieve but failed at what Friend is doing as a result of insufficient funds and unrealistic business plans. Where possible, we try to learn from the downfalls of our predecessors and be more realistic in our approach.
- Persistency wins — always. The trick is to keep at it. We have met a lot of resistance and even incredulity, with people thinking Friend was a scam, along the way. But through sheer persistence have turned this around and are increasingly gaining credit for our perfect timing and visionary thinking.
- If people think you are crazy, you are probably on the right path to success. Those who question the status quo and are bold enough to think they can change the world are often the ones that do. For all those who told me the idea behind Friend was unworkable — I’ve had many others asking how they can help make it a reality.
- Know when to say no, and this can be very hard to do. Learning to say no at the right times can keep you from compromising your personal values as well as those of your business. At Friend, we have been very careful to map out who we are and what we believe but also, and equally as important, that which we are not.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Hailing from Norway, a country which went through both a financial crisis and an oil crash in the same decade, I am well aware of the need to future proof one’s career. As a nation, numerous initiatives, accelerators, and programmes have been put into place to fuel the diversification away from oil and allow a new-look economy to thrive by solving real-world problems. On an individual level, I believe a focus on the conversion of societal common sense into commercial success, via technological innovation, is becoming increasingly necessary in creating value moving forward.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Friend, absolutely! But beyond this, I would like to invest in emerging tech such as artificial intelligence and augmented reality. As society progresses, this technology will become digital extensions of the self, and I would be keen to back organizations who are taking an ethical approach to this innovation by ensuring its goals are aligned with those of society.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
I think much of my career has been shaped by the Norwegian penchant for transparency and openness as well as my time spent living abroad, serving as a Naval Officer. Meeting and working alongside people from a number of different cultures and backgrounds has been instrumental in my development, teaching me how to trust others. The ability to trust, and figure out who you can trust is an invaluable skill in management, and I always strive to lead with a clear mind, warm heart and clean hands.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Your inner voice is not always the most overpowering, you have to listen carefully and remember to remain balanced. Confidence can easily develop into overconfidence, and so those who are most successful are assertive enough to operate meaningfully in the space between humbleness and overconfidence.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Access to computing is a human right and should not be owned or controlled by corporations. As the human race digitizes itself, digital independence and freedom to choose will become increasingly important, and we see a world that delivers the promise of the internet age and unleashes the creativity of every person, outside the grasp of Big Tech. Based in Norway, with the values of social democracy, integrity, and transparency deeply ingrained in our project, Friend can change the way humans interact with computers giving them the freedom to choose your own digital experience. The Internet is not free, it’s been kidnapped, and Friend is here to free it!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Twitter — https://twitter.com/friendupcloud
LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/arnepederblix/