It’s an unspoken truth. Every interaction we have with an app or a website might be providing data we don’t even think about on a day-to-day basis.
That’s part of the reason why Durham-based startup Rownd was formed—to offer an easy-to-use portal where customers can see and control how their data is being used while ensuring companies are compliant with data-privacy regulations.
Rownd’s Founder Robert Thelen is a former senior product manager at IBM who originally started Rownd as a “smart driving” company to track your vehicle in which the driver owned the data. Thelen knew that competitors were selling data to others so they could figure out where you live, where you work, where you got food or went for daycare. He said these companies were even able to tell if a loved one was in the car with you while driving or if you’re stressed or hungry, which Thelen likens to having a spy in the backseat watching everything you do.
But through interviews with potential customers, he discovered that many were not interested in the driving part of Rownd but instead kept coming back to this issue of data privacy, Thelen said.
Then laws like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act emerged in an effort to regulate how businesses can utilize user data. At IBM, Thelen was responsible for implementing a solution for this and got a firsthand look at how much effort it was for large companies to become compliant with these types of laws.
So Rownd in its current form was born in 2019, offering tools to make it possible for small- and medium-sized businesses to add data privacy and ownership tools to a website in minutes. Rownd is also one of the 12 finalists for NC IDEA’s $50K SEED grants.
Data privacy is becoming a greater concern, and Thelen said it came to a front for him when his daughter was born. He thought about how when he went to high school, Facebook didn’t even exist but as time passed, more companies began taking more and more of our data.
“Then I was looking at my daughter and I realized that she is about to enter a world where she has no control over her data, where her online persona is someone else’s,” Thelen said. “And by the time she is 10 or 11 or 12 or whenever she gets a cell phone and signs up for whatever the next Facebook is or Snapchat or Tik Tok, even more will be gone. And it’s either that I do something right now to create a world where she owns her data—or maybe it might never happen.”
Successful beta test
Rownd has completed a successful beta test with more than 20 customers and raised $90,000 in investments. Four customers have prepaid and 10 have committed to continued use once Rownd fully launches in the months to come. So far app and website developers and small- to medium-sized retail and restaurant businesses have been Rownd’s primary types of customer.
On the Rownd portal, each end user has their own encryption key. On a client company’s website or app, consumers can click—through Rownd—to see what data is collected. They can then choose to update or revoke access to this information.
In polls and surveys they’ve done, Thelen said people are 90% more likely to give more data if they feel they can revoke it at any time.
Thelen said as of now, there are millions of zombie databases that leave the potential for others to gather information to steal your identity or log into your accounts.
“The average startup still thinks that data is an asset,” Thelen said. “I will tell you that data is a liability for 99% of companies. And if you don’t look at it that way, you’re gonna be smacked when these laws change or regulations come.”
With a subscription SaaS business model, there are Freemium, team and enterprise monthly pricing options for Rownd’s portal.
Thelen said that just a few months ago, executives at some of the giant tech companies went in front of Congress to argue against data-privacy regulations. Thelen said these tech giants allege that there’s no other way to do it; that without taking data, everything falls apart and you lose productivity. He wants to prove them wrong.
“What we want to prove is that there’s a different business model,” he said. “It’s a business model that does not exploit people. It doesn’t exploit your experiences. It doesn’t exploit what you do. It doesn’t exploit who you are and what you’re looking at and try to build a model of you. It just uses data it asks for and then it goes away. A world where you own your data. You also own your privacy. You also own your silent moments.”
Bold but simple vision
Thelen wants data control to be decided by the people and hopes that by showing that smaller businesses can do this with Rownd, the giant corporate companies will eventually give users that right as well.
Altogether, Thelen said Rownd’s mission is very simple.
“We believe everyone deserves individual data privacy, ownership and security,” Thelen said. “Everyone deserves that. Our vision is grand, and our vision is that we want to be the place where 7 billion people store their data. But even if we don’t do that, our mission is not that we do it; it is that it just exists. So even if we nudge the world in that direction and someone else takes over, I’m pretty happy about that.”
For Rownd, Thelen said the sky’s the limit. He hopes to add around six employees in the next year and aims to have one million customer end-users on Rownd’s platform.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a mixed bag for Rownd’s growth.
Still, the playing field has been leveled in pitching to investors from across the country as the pandemic has normalized virtual meetings, Thelen said.
Ultimately there is increased relevancy as a majority of Americans expressed they did not want to use a contract tracing app, partly due to concern over where the data was going.
“Our goals are to be a sustainable company,” Thelen said. “We have no plans of being a unicorn. We want to be like a zebra. We want to be sustainable.”