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A look at VPN through the provider’s lens

Today, few solutions measure up against VPNs when it comes to popularity. This tech has been gathering steam for years due to a surge in remote work, continuously improving privacy hygiene across the board, and the trend to protest geographically-flavored web restrictions. Most of the time, these services are viewed from the end-user’s perspective. But let’s try to think outside the box for a moment and zoom in on the VPN territory from the other side of the fence, that is to say, through the eyes of a company that faces a good deal of challenges when providing such solutions.

To begin with, this industry is extremely saturated. You must have heard about major players in the area. Surfshark is a good example; NordVPN and ExpressVPN belong in the pantheon as well. Perhaps some of you are using one of these services already. Meanwhile, you might have no clue how many small and medium-sized VPN providers are out there.

Furthermore, the VPN ecosystem is quite heterogeneous. Some of these tools are designed for English-speaking audiences only, some focus on the controversial Chinese market, and some offer free solutions with seemingly no strings attached. The paid services across the spectrum use far-flung pricing models, where monthly fees range from $1 to $100.

The moral of the story is that the VPN market is a replete one, there’s a bevy of services to choose from, and the competition is really tight. To survive – and thrive – in this dynamic niche, the provider has to set the right priorities, take online marketing seriously, and hone its reputation continuously.

VPN is a very “intimate” service

Underestimating the role of customer psychology is a slippery slope. Here’s the thing: persuading people to use a specific VPN service isn’t easy at all. It’s much harder than selling a piece of software via an app store or, for instance, raking in commercial subscriptions to online radio.

When a customer subscribes to online radio, the worst thing that may happen is that the service won’t work as intended and they won’t get a refund. In other words, they lose several dozen bucks at the most and move on with their day.

When a user opts into a VPN and pays the subscription fee, there’s a potential risk of a third party getting hold of private correspondence, credit card numbers, social network access credentials as well as other sensitive data. Hopefully the provider has no evil intentions and unconditionally carries through with its promises regarding a no-logs policy, but those vigilant usually don’t take such claims for granted.

That being said, the service has to win users’ loyalty and trust in order to succeed. It’s truly a great thing if a VPN tool boasts excellent ratings on some of the top review sites, or if the company’s Facebook profile is full of positive feedback. And it’s unlikely that someone will ever want to use your service unless it’s backed by favorable comments and reviews on the internet. The goal is to build trust with the customer, so it’s in the provider’s best interest to play fair all along.

Complex network configurations

Since VPN is a customer-centric service, proper tech support is another cornerstone of this business model. Most of the time, the users run into the same spectrum of issues that are a no-brainer to address. Therefore, in an ideal world, turning to a turnkey customer service solution like Zendesk and creating a comprehensive product knowledge base with walkthroughs on solving the common problems should suffice.

However, the issues can get ticklish. For example, the provider may be contacted by a customer who subscribed to the service but cannot connect. In the course of communication, the support rep tries to collects breadcrumbs of information and finds out the following:

  • The user is trying to go online on an iPad connected to a 5G network and serving as a WiFi access point.
  • A MacBook is connected to this WiFi access point.
  • Another VPN service is running on the laptop.
  • There’s a conflict between the mobile VPN on the iPad and this whole chain (most likely a routing issue).

It can be tedious to troubleshoot offbeat cases like that, and ultimately, the outcome is either a successful fix or – you guessed it – a refund. Of course, the former is the perfect aftermath, but it’s not always the case.

Also, dealing with people who are always disgruntled is not uncommon. Some of them consider themselves to be experts in computer networking, when they’re actually not. Striking a balance between addressing tech issues and ensuring customer satisfaction is a nontrivial task.

Users’ foul play

When a customer subscribes to the service and configures the connection on their own without asking any questions, it might seem like a theoretical best-case scenario. That does happen a lot, but sometimes things get tricky.

Imagine the following situation: the next day, the company receives an email from a web hosting provider saying that its servers are being abused to download content whose proprietor isn’t happy with such activity.

Moreover, if the VPN sticks with a no-logs policy (which is the norm these days), then it cannot identify which customer has been downloading copyrighted materials. Fortunately, it may be possible to identify that person by the connection timestamp and details in the abuse report.

The next move is to contact the user and say that according to the EULA they aren’t allowed to use the VPN for illegal purposes, after which they quietly stop doing it. The web hosting provider might let off the service for the first time but threaten to suspend the account if such misunderstandings reoccur. That’s certainly a happy ending, but it could get worse.

It’s a fair bet that many of the abuses stem from VPN’s general affordability. Consequently, carders, hackers and other cybercriminals use more expensive, abuse-proof VPNs. The fans of freebies can easily find and use a free alternative or proxy as long as they don’t intend to engage in dubious practices.

Dedicated IPs

A dedicated IP is a hugely popular on-demand feature. The caveat is that it can be fairly pricey because the default web hosting service might not allow you to add extra IP addresses to the servers. Therefore, this would probably require renting a separate server.

Some users want a dedicated IP that has never been in use before. Furthermore, they might need some guarantees and proof. Long story short, wannabe VPNs should think about this feature in advance and have a viable mechanism in store to make it work.

The Great Firewall of China

Quite a few VPN services have recently discontinued operation in the Chinese market over the years. The so-called “Great Firewall of China” is getting increasingly intelligent and effective at blocking VPNs. At some point, it was rumored that changing OpenVPN port to tcp:443 did the trick, but that’s a far cry from being the case today.

The Great Firewall of China differentiates between OpenVPN traffic and HTTPS, so you need to disguise connections as something else to get around this. From a provider’s perspective, it’s important to understand that its customers would have to install certain software in addition to the mainstream OpenVPN client. Therefore, maintaining secure connections requires using a custom VPN client which, along with regular updates, would have extra components in place for obfuscating the traffic as it’s traveling to the VPN server.

The bottom line

The VPN technology continues to be very promising, but at the same time it’s a challenge to implement. To succeed, a provider must put together a team of experts who are proficient in network configuration, programming, and ideally have a profound understanding of Unix systems.

It’s also crucial to create proprietary client applications for all major desktop and mobile platforms. Well-thought-out online marketing and tech support are inalienable components of a prosperous service’s business model, too. Pair all that with a customer-first strategy, and the result should live up to the expectations.


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