What Russian Hackers Taught Us About Our Product

Like so many others, my first “real” startup had it’s fair share of train wrecks. Given the hundreds of small decisions you have to make each day you’re bound to mess up a few and choose the wrong track.

This is a (short) story about one decision I really messed up my first time around the block. A story about how I should have hired Russian hackers that were pirating our products. Instead, I alienated customers and lost sales.

We produced and sold video screencasts (tutorials). People just loved to pirate the hell out of ‘em. I would start every day by surfing the internet looking for these pirated copies of our products in hopes of getting links and torrents removed.

At first I’d spend 15 minutes each day doing this. Then 30. Then 60. Over and over, I’d send out countless DMCA takedown requests. We’d eventually hire someone to do just this. Really.

During these sweeps though I’d normally come across someone who had just re-packaged our files (sometimes with a bit of clever ASCII art) and would then distribute them as 10 little pieces on various file hosting services.

But then I came across something totally different.

I came across an entire online Russian community that was not only re-packaging our work, they were actually altering our video content too. File sizes were drastically different. New files were being added. Worse still, these Russian versions were being pirated at a much higher rate than anything else.

But why?

Instead of digging deeper, I blindly began sending out a barrage of DMCA emails. Weeks later though the pirating still continued, their community was growing rapidly and no end was in sight.I had only agitated the bee hive. Had piracy won?

I then decided to download one of these Russian copies and what I found was eye opening.

The audio for our screencasts (some as much as 8 hours long) had been completely dubbed over in Russian. They even added sub titles. And you know what? They did a F****** awesome job.

This community wasn’t pirating our content because it cost too much or was too difficult to purchase. They were pirating our content because the “fakes” were better than the real McCoy. Ouch.

You can guess what we did next. Er rather, you can guess what we should have done next.

We should have hired the Russian hackers to do our localization.

We didn’t, but that’s a story for another time.