SAN JOSE -- At age 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, Illinois, next to Chicago, he taught himself computer programming and learned everything he could about the nefarious world of 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, he proudly notes, the San Jose-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 -- pronounced kla-CHIN-ski -- recently talked about how he started his business at such a young age in an interview that was edited for length and clarity.
Q What happened when you were 14 with the virus you got on your parents' PC?
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 in 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.
Contact Steve Johnson at 408-920-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews.
Job: CEO of Malwarebytes
Birth date: Nov. 1, 1989
Birthplace: Lodz, Poland
Education: Bachelor's degree in computer science, University of Illinois
Residence: Palo Alto
five things about marcin kleczynski
1. As a child, he yearned to be a train conductor, but later switched his ambition to becoming a pilot and spent considerable time playing a flight-simulator game.
2. In 2011, he got his pilot's license and is taking additional training to bolster his flight skills.
3. He only recently stopped commuting to the Bay Area from Illinois, found a place to live in Palo Alto and "got suckered into buying two cats by my girlfriend."
4. Before starting Malwarebytes, his only other job was working part time at an Illinois computer-repair shop.
5. Although he came to the U.S. from Poland when he was 3, he speaks fluent Polish. That's because, after immigrating from that country, his mother refused to speak to him in English.