Brennen Byrne, a young Pomona graduate, is seeking to change the economy of the hacking world with his startup Clef, a mobile application that replaces website passwords. Byrne turned to coding for its ability to make real what he had written. QIUYUN TAN talked with Byrne to hear his thoughts on his startup, the culture in Silicon Valley, and the intersection between coding and literary theory.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea of Clef?
The idea came from about two years ago. LinkedIn lost all their passwords. It was a very big event in the industry, because it wasn’t a single person forgetting their password, but one of the giants that would be unable to keep them safe. Everyone took a step back and considered it for a bit, and came back to the table and said, “We’re gonna make passwords longer.” Then you have to do even more annoying things.
That just happened to be at this point when I was incredibly into this future-looking mobile technology. I was realizing how important phones will be to our identity. We are logging into our Facebook accounts on our phones and never logging out. That’s a very powerful signal that we are associating a piece of ourselves with the phone. … The human memory has helped us for a surprisingly long time, but it’s not getting better as quickly as computers are, so we really are approaching a point where we are going to need a device to be doing the work that we’ve been doing ourselves for a long time.
What we are doing is replacing usernames and passwords on the Web. We created this system where we can identify you based on your phone, instead of anything you need to remember or type. There is a system that developers and security experts have been using to log in for years; the reason that it doesn’t have wide production is because it is technical. You have to figure out these hard tasks. So we’re not doing something really new and radical.
How does Clef make the passwords safer?
The truth is most hacking gets into databases—very few people are going after your passwords, but a lot of people are going after Twitter’s passwords. When Twitter loses their passwords, your password is included. To attack an individual person, you usually have to care about what they have. If you are the CIA, you have to worry about that. The other thing is that we have changed the economics of the game so that if someone is attacking Clef, our database doesn’t have any information about you, it all stays on the phone. So they literally have to go to you and steal your phone out of your hand.
Have you ever had doubts about your decision to start a company before graduating from college?
When I had an idea that I was passionate about, and that I wanted to get working on, it was never a question for me that I could and should be doing it. And it is incredibly rewarding. The best thing for me about starting a company has been [that] I get to throw myself at a problem completely. There are no rules; there are no guidelines. So I just get to take my creativity, my abilities, and just flex them completely, and throw myself at a problem that’s very real, and very big. That’s incredibly empowering and gratifying. Even if I don’t make a dent in it in the end, even if my efforts fail, it feels really incredible to have pushed myself and to see what I’m capable of. I’ve surprised myself several times in ways that we succeeded that I thought we wouldn’t be capable of.
Your company just moved from San Francisco to Oakland. What motivated this decision?
The recent move to Oakland has been a big change for us. In San Francisco right now, there are a lot of people working on different startups; they are talking about it all the time, and there are a lot of resources where people are willing to help each other. … It’s totally well-intentioned. But it also means the conversations are very focused on the one topic. … In San Francisco, people always seek to network and get something out of the process. There is very little feeling of belonging. We would often feel very anonymous, temporary, and impersonal. Here, we are able to be a little bit louder in the community. The way people challenge us here has been so much more productive than things we were going to be challenged on in San Francisco. The conversation here is like: How are you going to make this impact my life when I’m not super technical?
You said you were an English major in addition to doing computer science—not a very common combination. Are there any connections between the two interests? Did your passion for English play a role in your process of starting a company?
Yeah, it’s a very weird combination. But I actually ended school as an English major. [Starting out in college] I was very happy about the fact that I was never going to take math again, had escaped it for the rest of my life. Then I went into this class called CS0, which was only for humanities majors. But I went to this class and they were like, “OK, so computer science is where you create things, and they come true, and you can build something out of the things you write.” And I, as a writer, I was like, “Really? That happens? That’s incredible, that’s a power that I haven’t had before.” So I quickly got down CS0 and moved into the real intro class. I was pretty much hooked from there and I ended up doing both.
In literary theory there is this idea of performative language—that when you write something it actually happens. In the act of writing, you are doing the action which you are writing. I’m a huge fan of that from a literary perspective. But it’s also a sort of reality in computer science. For me, it is always a creative endeavor. I have never taken computer science to be the sort of logical, restrictive discipline which a lot of people make it out to be.
Who is the entrepreneur that you look up to the most?
I think that almost everyone in the industry right now would say Elon Musk. PayPal is really cool and interesting, and then he went on to build this electrical car, Tesla, [which is] the most amazing car in the market today, and SpaceX, which is doing the most incredible space research. Elon Musk is the easy answer and probably the true one. The man is amazing.
The other person that I look up a lot to is Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. She was just given one of the hardest jobs in the tech world, which was to turn Yahoo around. We see three of the giants—Nokia, Blackberry, and Yahoo—are declining, and they all changed leaderships, and only Yahoo is suddenly sort of recovering and growing and doing a lot of interesting things. The ways she’s been tackling things has been really impressive and very interesting.