More than a few times during his college career, Marcin Kleczynski, ’12 ENG, wondered why he was in school. Just months before his freshman year, he and his San Jose, Calif.–based partner founded the cybersecurity company Malwarebytes and launched their first product. By August 2008, the teenage CEO’s anti-virus technology was bringing in tens of thousands of dollars—and the stream of cash kept coming.
“Going to college was a tough decision,” admits the computer science major whose mother insisted he earn his degree. For the next four years, Kleczynski ran Malwarebytes out of his dorm room and apartment, balancing academics with growing a Silicon Valley company. “I went to classes like everyone else, and the computer science program at Illinois was so digital that I could listen to recordings of classes if I needed to miss a class,” he says. (He flew to San Jose two to three times a month.) “Some close friends knew about Malwarebytes; they were good at keeping me grounded.”
By the time he graduated, Malwarebytes had 250 employees, and a year later, Kleczynski moved to the Bay Area. Today, the Santa Clara, Calif.–based business has 750 employees in three countries and generates about $150 million annually.
The journey began when the Polish-born Kleczynski, who moved to Chicago at age 3, downloaded a pirated video game to his family’s computer when he was 14. The game had a virus and it was throwing ads and pop-ups onto the screen. So he found an online message board that helped people get rid of malware. A Belgian woman—she’s now director of threat research at Malwarebytes—talked him through three days of instructions to get his computer back to normal.
The 29-year-old now gives frequent talks at Illinois and helped launch the computer science department’s cybersecurity program. “There’s no playbook on how to be an entrepreneur,” he says, when asked how he learned to be a CEO. “You have to be yourself and treat people how you want to be treated, and work on and grow with your passion.”