Barbara Tallent, Kevin Nickels and Colin Constable founded The @ Company in 2019 with a big idea – to flip the current model of big tech companies owning user data on its head. Instead Atsign wants to give everybody, and everything, a place to store their data and control who has access to it.
The company was fully remote from day one – rather helpful given the year of its inception. It has teams in the Bay Area, Texas, Bermuda, UK, Nigeria, India and Bangladesh. The about page is quite delightful – it’s one of the most diverse team pages we’ve ever seen.
Atsign believes people should own their own data, and be able to take advantage of it and manage it themselves. It has created a development platform that protects people’s data and allows for complete control of that data. This is data residency at the individual level. Developer relations is crucial to the company as it seeks to foster an ecosystem of third party apps that will take advantage of the opportunity to put users in control of their own data… and here where things get really ambitious, the company wants to achieve nothing less than to foster a generation of more respectful social media platforms and usage..
Atsign’s elevator pitch
We are a team of Internet optimists committed to making the Internet a more human place, where privacy is a fundamental right and everyone owns their data. In a world where now even our things are generating large amounts of data, we created the free, open-source @platform allowing developers to easily create privacy-first apps that protect people, and their things, on the Internet. Welcome! And thanks for helping us #FlipTheInternet.”
$3M August 2020
$8M July 2021
25,000+ registered @signs
Product and Go To Market
The @platform is an open-source framework that allows for the secure exchange of data between two known parties. The peer to peer platform offers a number of packages, services and widgets that developers can use to build privacy preserving apps easily. It offers end to end encryption between any 2 touch points. The pricing model is freemium – free for developers, with enterprises buying @signs if they want to take advantage of user data. The model here is somewhat like domain names. Own your own @.
Data is stored in the lightweight Dart Hive key value store. Every user has their own Hive instance. One interesting architectural decision is that because the company runs lots of small containers, and didn’t want to deal with the overhead of Kubernetes for this use case, it runs Docker Swarm running on Flatcar, the container-optimised Linux platform. It does however make use of Kubernetes for some other workloads.
On the dev business side, the company wants to tap into the idea that collecting and managing data actually carries significant costs – with regulations such as GDPR this is unarguably true. Database liability is a thing. Meanwhile the legal situation keeps changing, further complicating things. The pitch is that developers could be more productive and innovative if they weren’t constantly focusing on unnecessary data collection, and deceptive design. The company lives it too, which is great to see. “This is a cookie free site”. Refreshing!
One point of note for developers is that the company is built on Dart and Flutter, and as such, it first supported Google’s language and framework for building speedy, attractive cross platform apps. It’s using Flutter for app front ends, with full stack Dart all the way down to device drivers on IoT hardware. It recently released a Java client.
IoT is a significant focus area for the company. Devices are protected by creating cryptographic keys with Secure Enclave technology. Data is encrypted from the device to the app. Meanwhile device owners can control which subset of their data is sent to IoT hubs provided by cloud companies.
For IoT the company’s Ssh! No ports project is interesting.
Ssh No ports provides a way to ssh to a remote linux host/device without that device having any open ports (not even 22) on external interfaces. All network connectivity is outbound and there is no need to know the IP address the device has been given. As long as the device has an IP address, DNS and Internet access, you will be able to connect to it.
Competitive Landscape and Industry Context
Quite frankly, Atsign is doing something really quite distinctive. It’s not the first time we’ve heard of a play to put the user in control of their own data, but it’s uncommon enough to be a market they’ll need to create.
It’s frankly quite refreshing that a company is talking about putting the user in control of their own data without resorting to Web 3 rubric. Which is to say, Atsign is building something that actually might be called Web 3, if the term weren’t so overused, and if it weren’t focused on the idea that everything needed to be written on a blockchain. Web 3 really seems to be all about crptocurrency. Atsign really is about privacy.
A better way of building web apps and businesses with privacy built in? Extremely ambitious, but also worth a shot.
Disclosure: Atsign is a RedMonk client.