03 November 2016

The story of PrivateGraffiti.zzz

PrivateGraffiti.zzz was an Internet start-up famous for its browser sharing software. It was founded by Josh Bighetti and Kumail Chugtai in late 2013. After several lawsuits the owners agreed to shut down operation in the summer of 2016. In less than two years PrivateGraffiti.zzz had generated $6.5 million in profits. Here is the story.

Mr. Bighetti and Mr. Chugtai met at the Vancouver College for Technology where they studied Computer Information Systems. Upon graduation in 2011 they entered a precarious job market.

"It was awful," Chugtai says. "Josh and I were living in this basement studio apartment on Cambie [Street]. Yes, we both worked, but for a temp staffing agency. Help desk, installing printers, that sort of thing. The odd programming job. But nothing that provided stability."

"We never had any money." Bighetti chips in. "Sometimes not even for food. And look at us now, three years later." He confidently gestures out the window of his 23rd floor Point Grey luxury condo, the North Shore mountains on the horizon.

"It was Halloween 2013," Chugtai continues. "We didn't know how to make the November rent. Our credit cards were maxed out, the refrigerator was empty, and no job prospects on the horizon. And our landlord had threatened to throw us out the month before. That's when Josh said: I wish we could just go on Bachman Properties's website and spray some graffiti on it; like in the good old days."

And thus an idea was born.

"For sure, we didn't think it would take off. We just thought it would be fun if it did." They borrowed some money from Chugtai's parents, paid their rent, and bought a server.

"The app was quickly developed, because the ideas was simple."

Basically the PrivateGraffiti.zzz app is nothing more than a browser that allows you to make changes to any website and store these changes in the cloud. If you choose to share these changes, anybody using the app can see them. "Of course, the changes wouldn't be visible on any other browser, only on ours."

"Business didn't exactly explode," Chugtai's recalls with a chuckle. "We sold our app for $1, and in the first month we had 89 downloads." But it soon took off. In the second quarter, PrivateGraffiti.zzz had a revenue of just above $16,000, and after a year a total of 365,000 downloads.

But soon their fortunes changed. "In 2014, the government of a European country -- a country that shall not be named -- indicted us for tampering with government information. There were also several large companies that weren't too happy about their websites being defaced. We weren't worried at first; we held the view that we didn't hack into any websites, and, besides, all of this was just good fun."

Early in 2015, PrivateGraffiti.zzz's legal troubles were widely reported and discussed in the media. But this only added to their growth and made them the poster children of Silicone Valley North. Nevertheless, in June 2016 Bighetti and Chugtai agreed out-of-court to shut down their servers. By that time users had downloaded their app 7,015,222 times.

The story of PrivateGraffiti.zzz is purely fictional. I wrote it because in spite of the idea being completely idiotic, it has a ring of plausibility. Worse, I fear that if the story were true, Bighetti and Chugtai would actually have a large flock of admirers if not copycats. And the shame would not be on their side. Society has a tendency to admire the rich but useless.