That Stanford Thing The Story of a Startup and the Students Behind It

When Ross Chanin ’09 arrived AT STANFORD LAW SCHOOL IN 2006, HE HAD MUCH MORE ON HIS MIND THAN HIS FIRST YEAR OF LEGAL STUDIES. He had a plan—a business plan developed with friends to start a company that would address privacy rights, slander, and individuals’ control of their information in the smoke and mirrors world of the Web. Barely a year later that company, ReputationDefender, seems to have hit a nerve with the public as people across the country and throughout the world have come to the realization that their Internet identity is their identity and—knowing that— protecting it is vital. • The genesis of the company is a familiar one: a couple of friends bouncing ideas around. It was Chanin’s friend, Michael Fertik, who first posed the question to Chanin in April 2006: “Did you know that there are pictures of my girlfriend on the Internet?”

The two saw a norm developing: people looking to the Web for information on individuals for just about any reason—from job and school applications, to apartment lease agreements, to prospective dates.

“Today, 77 percent of executive recruiters are vetting candidates online and of that number 35 percent did not take a candidate because of what they found out online,” says Chanin. “And our research tells us that for a college-educated individual, it’s probably closer to 90 percent of employers who are looking online at job candidates. The implication of this information about you on the Web is far reaching.”

They ran with the idea. During the summer before law school began, Chanin dove into the project, working with Fertik to develop the company’s business plan. Fertik, now the company’s CEO, had been around the startup block before. As a budding entrepreneur, he started a technology company while still in his junior year of history and English studies at Harvard—and sold it before he entered his first year at Harvard Law.

By the time August 2006 rolled around, Fertik and Chanin had enough angel investment in place for Fertik to turn down a job offer at a Silicon Valley firm and focus full time on managing development of the company’s software and website. Meanwhile Chanin tried to focus on his first year of legal studies, while working with Fertik in every spare moment he had.

“I was in the library a lot—but I wasn’t always studying law,” he says.

They were soon joined by another Stanford student, Owen Tripp (MBA ’08), introduced to the team by a mutual friend who thought there would be synergy. When they met at the Happy Donuts on El Camino, there was. Tripp, who developed software at eBay before starting his MBA, describes the meeting as “totally Stanford, totally Silicon Valley.”

“There’s a kind of beautiful way that the people on campus will know each other—and get to know each other,” he says. “There are lots of great law schools; there are lots of great business schools. But this community of Stanford is the single most entrepreneurial place in the world. It’s why I came here.”

Still working from their laptops and apartments, they launched the company in October 2006 with two products— MyReputation and MyChild—that provide monitoring services that scour the Web, aided by the company’s powerful search technology. The results are often surprising. “It can be quite discomforting to see how much information is out there about you, especially because we know that for every search online, one in three is of people,” says Chanin.

The service is offered monthly, much like a credit report. If a client discovers untrue or dated material and wants it removed, ReputationDefender’s service agents write to the Web host, politely asking that it be removed. Calls often ensue and, in some cases, clients are referred to legal counsel for more serious persuasion. The team decided early on that it should not get into the legal business, preferring to develop a network of referral firms.

But that a company like this was started by lawyers is no accident.

“The way in which the Internet is used is constantly evolving and the law just has not kept up,” says Chanin, citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which effectively gives immunity from liability to any Internet publisher or reproducer of information. As long as the site host did not create the material, there is not only no liability for it but no legal incentive to take the material down, he adds.

This legal dilemma was brought clearly into focus earlier this year when several women law students realized that the widely read legal message board, AutoAdmit, contained untrue—and anonymous—postings about them. Taking a hard free speech line, the site’s founder and operator refused to take the offending postings down. Coverage of the case revealed that some of the women believed that the postings had hurt their chances of finding employment. That case is now in the courts.

Chanin and his team are familiar with the AutoAdmit case; some of the victims sought their assistance. When ReputationDefender comes up against website operators like AutoAdmit, a creative workaround is sometimes needed. That’s where another of their services, MyEdge, comes in.

That Stanford Thing The Story of a Startup and the Students Behind It

MyEdge, launched in January 2007, serves several kinds of clients. Some want information removed, while others want active reputation management that highlights their most important accomplishments. MyEdge achieves these goals by cleaning up the mostoften viewed first few pages of an Internet search. And for those who have no Internet persona, which can be an issue in itself, the company will help develop one. Though not cheap— MyEdge pricing starts at $10,000—the service can be a PR tool for executives, politicians, and companies—all wanting their “Google handshake” to be impressive. Here the technology developed by ReputationDefender helps to ensure that the information the client wants seen by the public pops up early in a search.

Last December, the team celebrated a milestone as it moved into offices on the outskirts of Menlo Park. Already a bit cramped, the team has steadily expanded—it now numbers more than 25 full-time employees. These are heady days for Chanin, Fertik, Tripp, and the staff. Google ReputationDefender and you quickly see it cited in reports in the Washington Post, NPR, the BBC, and elsewhere. And at last count, the service is offered in 21 countries, from Germany to Sweden to South Africa.

While the team and client list grow, the founders aren’t resting on their laurels. Tripp talks excitedly about the launch of their newest product, MyPrivacy, which, he says, will erase from the Web private information such as telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, names of relatives, e-mail addresses, and home addresses—all the key pieces of information for which identity thieves and uninvited marketers search.

“It’s unbelievable—some 139 million Americans have registered with the ‘DoNot-Call Registry.’ People want their privacy back, and this service should go a long way in helping to give them that,” he says. SL