At 14, Marcin Kleczynski accidentally downloaded a virus into his parents’ computer, which was supposed to have been protected with anti-virus software. So he set about to understand how something like that could happen and launched his career in one of the tech industry’s hottest areas.
While he was in high school in Bensenville, Ill., near Chicago, he taught himself computer programming and learned everything he could about hackers. By the time he was 18, he was racking up millions of dollars in sales from his college dorm room with his new company, Malwarebytes. And today – roughly 10 years after infecting that computer – his San Jose, Calif.-based cybersecurity firm is making a profit, doubling its annual sales and boasts 141 employees, with positions open for another 40 people.
The Polish-born Kleczynski recently talked about how he started his business at such a young age; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What happened when you were 14 with the virus you got on your parents’ PC?
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A: We shared a computer, and I think I was downloading some pirated game at the time. I executed a file and boom, there it was, the infection. My parents had some kind of anti-virus installed, so I went, “That’s not supposed to happen.”
I didn’t have $300 to go to Geek Squad or Staples or an office-repair center. So I went on Google and typed in my symptoms. I stumbled upon a website where a group of volunteers would help people online with their computer problems. Somebody came to my rescue not more than three hours later, but it took three days to fix my computer.
Q: That prompted you as a high-school freshman to learn how to write software to combat malware?
A: Yeah. Just somebody helping me with a problem like that, it blew my mind. There are good people out there who, if you post a question online, will help you fix your computer for free. I decided to stick around this community and become a volunteer. I went from a person being helped to a person helping others. I bought a “Visual Basic for Dummies” book from the 1990s, and I started learning how to program.
Q: Going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to pursue computer science while launching your first product must have been a challenge, especially after you moved your company to San Jose.
A: When the product came out in January of 2008, all of these volunteers ended up buying it. We made $5,000 in our first month, which paid for servers and a support guy. I ran this company out of a dorm room, making millions of dollars in revenue. Commuted back and forth between Champaign and the cornfields to the Bay Area. In 2012, I wrapped up my education with the worst GPA you can think of.
Q: Did your parents give you any financial help to get into the cybersecurity business?
A: No. Zero. Not a dollar. Until last year, my mom was still like, “Oh, it’s a cool school project.” I mean, my mom is extremely proud now, but I don’t think the reality set in until about last year when we were turning over $10 million, $20 million in revenue. She was naive to the whole fact that this was going on. My stepdad was extremely supportive. So he’s the reason I started programming and went to college for computer science.
Q: Malwarebytes just got a $30 million infusion from Highland Capital Partners. You were a bootstrapped company before that. What are your long-term plans?
A: That cash is going to be used for building out our sales team, building out our engineering team. The exit strategy is not so clear. I hired a chief financial officer who has IPO experience if we wanted to go public. That’s something we have open. I’ve gone through acquisition talks with several big anti-virus companies, and none of them seemed exciting to me. I want to do what’s best for the shareholders, which is the employees here, the people who have gotten us to where we are right now. When we raised this $30 million, we took a big chunk and gave it out to the employees. I have a job thanks to them, so I want to take care of them.