A look behind the scenes. By Haylee Read.
At Emsisoft, there is no corner office with a view, no central headquarters that I could wander through unseen. Only a blue and grey logo, existing only online, with an untold story behind it. The lack of office makes Christian Mairoll a hard man to interview, yet, here I am with an appointment, winding up a back road through the heights of a valley, near Nelson, New Zealand. Population 5,321. I cannot see any of them, the road is deserted. Locals call this part of the country the Top of the South, I call it the beginning to nowhere. Not even a cafe at sight. The gravel pit road is cradled by mountains and tall pine trees. Christian Mairoll is the face of a company that – apparently – doesn’t have a company face. Given that Emsisoft was founded in Austria in 2003 and is now run from Christian Mairoll’s eco lifestyle block in rural New Zealand, there are many questions to be asked. If only I can find the house in the raising fog.
When I first spot Christian, he is waving. I am not sure what I expected but I am positively surprised that the CEO of a software enterprise greets me in a t-shirt, jeans and socks. I too leave my shoes at the door, he walks me along the kid’s rooms to the lounge area. There is no office in sight, just a large desk in the lounge housing his computer, couches and a well-used ping pong table.
“It is possible to compete with the big players, with a small team, in a competitive market.”
Like most founders of the early consumer software era, Christian Mairoll didn’t have a direct intention to start a career in information security.
“I didn’t expect this when it all started” smiles Christian, showing me his monitor which has approximately 15 tabs open for all the tasks he’s currently working on.
“For me it all started with a problem. In 1998 when I was 16, a so called ‘friend’ sent me a file via the back then very famous instant messenger ICQ and told me I should have a look at this ‘program’. At that time, I was just a curious guy who tried everything computer related, so, I executed that file without asking further. A few minutes later my CD-ROM drive opened unexpectedly. And shut. And opened again. And shut. Open. Shut. So, I knew there was something wrong.
The file was actually an early version of Back Orifice” he continues while making a cup of tea for us in his immaculate kitchen. “This introduced me into the terrific world of trojans. Well, terrific back then. Not to be compared with threats nowadays. But I investigated further to understand how that stuff works and how one could prevent new infections easily. What started as a simple script soon became a full program called “Anti-Trojan.”
A few years later the software was able to detect and block several hundreds of famous Trojans. At that time antivirus companies didn’t focus on Trojans so it was a great niche to set up a little business, besides my main job as a developer and later, software product manager. 5 years and several hundred thousand downloads of “Anti-Trojan” later, I founded Emsisoft and made it my main job. Today about 6 million people use our products and every day we add detection signatures for more than 300,000 new threats. But that’s how it started, at least. For me personally it then became about being able to prove that it is possible to compete with the big players in a very competitive market even if you join the industry late and with a small team. I mean, look at this, we’re in the middle of nowhere. I run a virtual company with many more team members.” He stops and wonders, then says: “15 years and 35 employees later, I still haven’t met more than 5 of them. Everyone works as a freelancer, everyone has flexible hours. Works from home. Or the beach. Or wherever they want. We have team members across all time zones worldwide with all sorts of backgrounds and personal stories. This sort of freedom connects us as a company, a team and a brand. It’s what makes us different, unique and” he proudly smiles “good. Maybe that’s what makes the difference. Maybe that’s what makes us successful. Our software actually does what it should. Not more, not less. It simply works. And so do our team, from wherever they are.”
“It’s the free will to join a collaboration that keeps it together.”
I get the impression that even the things Christian attributes to chance are carefully considered and intentional, down to the design of his house.
“I made the decision to build this house on a 33 degree angle to optimize natural light during the sunlight hours,” he explains. There is a mechanical directness in his demeanor but also a gentle joy in what he has accomplished.
“Sustainability is important in business and in the creation of a home,” he explains. “Form should always follow function. We don’t build a home to impose restrictions on our movements. The house should offer us the freedom to enjoy our time here, to move around as we wish. It should serve us. It is the same with business and the global structure we have allows us to do that.
Call it open source employment or digital transformation, it’s an ecosystem based on openness and team effort.
“Initially, I was forced to hire people from lower income countries like Russia because without external funds it was simply impossible for me as a one man show to hire highly skilled developers in my home country – Austria. Later we realized that it is an amazing opportunity for the company, too. With team members from all parts of the world we are able to better understand the different customer’s requirements. Most of our employees are located in Western and Eastern Europe including Russia, others are based in the United States, Asia and the Southern Pacific area.
The virtual company structure allows a maximum in flexibility but it’s not without its challenges. We work hard to stay connected with all employees as the team grows. We reduced internal communication to the most effective channels which are instant messaging, forums and email. Phone- and video-calls, as well as standard meetings turned out to be highly ineffective time eaters.”
“And the company name?” I ask.
“My initials (MC) are pronounced (em-si) in English. Plus, the software. Emsisoft.” He grins. “Back then it was officially named “Emsi Software GmbH” as the Austrian company court required a descriptive name. They argued that “Emsisoft” could also be some kind of toilet paper vendor name too.” he laughs. “A few years later that law was changed and random names were possible, so I changed it to “Emsisoft GmbH”, as I always intended it to be. However, that didn’t last very long.
In 2014 my family and I decided to move permanently from Austria to New Zealand. We already ‘tested’ living in New Zealand for 12 months in 2012 and when we returned back to Austria we realized that New Zealand was just the better place for us to live and raise children. So, I shut down the company in Austria and re-founded it in New Zealand as “Emsisoft Ltd”.”
“Emsisoft does not gain financial profit from anyone’s personal or business emergency. Ever.”
The online threat landscape is rapidly changing. Covering old threats and catching out new ones before they become a problem is of the highest importance to Emsisoft.
“In response to constant malware threats, we focus on our core competency: Malware detection and removal. We’ve noticed tendencies of antivirus companies to expand their product range in all directions, adding hundreds of new features that just a few people really need. Some of them seem to have lost focus on the core competency and fall significantly back in malware detection tests. Our goal is to permanently optimize our technology to always give our customers the best available protection. Multiple test victories and awards confirm that we are on a good path.
Our flagship product is and always was Emsisoft Anti-Malware. It’s a full antivirus solution featuring the dual-scan-engine, web protection and behavior blocking. Emsisoft Anti-Malware is strong in detection, light in scanning and everyday CPU use and easy to manage and configure, even for beginners.
“So what makes you special?” I wonder. “With so many team members worldwide, there is always someone available in our customers’ time zones. It’s crucial to act fast in this industry. Not only fast to react to new dangers and malware outbreaks, but in our response time to our customers. If users have an urgent problem with a malware infection, chances are that they’ll be lead to Emsisoft when searching for help. We respond quickly and offer all of our customers a malware removal guarantee. We learned that staying in touch closely with the users is very important. We listen to the customers’ carefully to learn what they really want. Quick, professional and straightforward customer support is the best example of something that users will honour in the long run.”
Another significant difference is Emsisoft’s company ethics. We are very eager to be, stay and keep things honest. For example, we offer a range of freeware products for malware removal that we bundle in our Emsisoft Emergency Kit. It includes our dual-engine scanner. We deliver this Emergency Kit on an USB stick to our customers or online. The key goal for this product was always that the emergency kit would be free, no questions asked, no strings attached. Emsisoft does not make money out of emergencies, we just help where help is needed and trust the customer will appreciate this gesture. The same goes for our growing number of ransomware decrypters that we provide for free to victims.”
Form follows function.
An almost black sheep walks by the fence outside the large window. We look out over the valley hills. Christian and his family re-evaluated their approach to life during a trip to New Zealand. They found a life unlike like they in Europe.
In January 2014, ten months before arriving in New Zealand, the Mairoll family found an interesting piece of land that was for sale online. “In Austria it’s almost impossible to buy such a large section of 1.4 ha for a reasonable price, but we found this place just a few km away from the town centre. We didn’t even see the section in real life, but we couldn’t take the risk of being too late, so we bought it online after asking a random traveller to take some shots with his drone for us.”
Now, they grow their own veggies, keep only farm animals that either deliver meat or eggs and have books about permaculture and native weeds on their shelves. In his lunch breaks, Christian plants native trees and harvests cherry tomatoes from the garden. The house, recently built based on European standards is not quite the palace one might expect from the CEO of a successful software enterprise. It’s a bungalow with 3 or 4 bedrooms, responsibly built; the kitchen fitted out with quality home appliances to save water, power and energy. The house is ecologically sound and planned thoroughly down to floorboards and the angle of the sun. Form follows function.
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Emsisoft may have its roots in Austria, but its heart and brain now lives in New Zealand. When Christian and his family moved 18,000km to the other side of the world they did so to live differently. It is not only a process, it is the result of a personal and corporate ethos that also inspired the individual lives of their global team members and, in turn, the customers who trust and rely on Emsisoft products.