As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Husayn Kassai.
Husayn Kassai is the CEO and co-founder of Onfido. Onfido uses machine learning to build trust in an online world, by helping businesses digitally verify people’s identities. Founded in 2012, Onfido has grown to a team of 250, received over $100m in investment and works with over 1,500 companies globally.
Named as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30”, and having received the Startups Awards’ “Young Entrepreneur of the Year”, his company recently placed #1 in the FinTech50, which ranks 2,000 fintech companies for their innovation and disruption.
Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Itstarted when I turned 10 and my family moved from Iran to the UK. I remember it took them a few months to be able to open a bank account and rent in their own name, all because they weren’t registered on a credit bureau. Ultimately, these are logs of everyone’s date of birth, name and address that are gathered at the point of someone opening a bank account face-to-face. It excludes half of the world’s adult population without a banking relationship or not on a credit bureau, and, therefore, excluded from financial services. This concept of not having access and being excluded because your name wasn’t on “the list” was confusing to me as a kid, and later inspired me to start a company focused on making identity the key to access.
Half of the world’s adult population (roughly 2 billion people) are under or unbanked and don’t have a credit bureau record. This means they are excluded from accessing basic services and also financially penalized. For example, some have to pay up to 16% in remittance fees, rather than the ~1% that those with access have. This hardly seems fair.
With all the hacks and data breaches, personal information is ending up on the Dark Web making the credit bureaus no longer fit for purpose. It’s estimated that up to 5% of world GDP (i.e. $2tn) is laundered money and less than 1% of this is seized by authorities. This is a shameful stat. What other industry has a 99% failure rate?
Thanks to our AI-powered identity verification technology, we can prove who an individual is in a remote setting with just a photo of their identity document and a selfie. This opens up access to services people need and allows businesses across the board to prove their users really are who they claim to be, protecting themselves from fraudsters.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
One of our biggest challenges when first leading the company which still holds true today, is the competition for talent. The sophisticated nature of our technology means that we spend huge amounts of time ensuring we are hiring the best engineers, researchers and customer support professionals globally because everything we’ve achieved is down to the quality of the team behind it. We’re at 250 people now and will be a different company at 400 people or 1,000 people. It doesn’t just scale up evenly. You need to think carefully about the balance of the company: how teams work with each other and how you facilitate the best cross-team communication.
I learned not just to plan for the near term (2–3 years), but for the long-term (5–10 years), as growth can come quicker than you expect. Equally, it is crucial to invest in the company culture early on (the norms and unspoken rules) because this is the glue that keeps everything together later on.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Picking the right people and investors to help grow the company was critical — these team members helped lay the foundation on which we were able to build and scale. They were all equally hungry and shared in our mission to solve the identity problem.
As for external success factors, having the right product at the right time has helped us empower fintech companies to scale up quickly in the face of tough Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulations. And being able to inject ‘trust’ in trusted marketplaces, which have exploded in recent years, is another big factor.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
Solve a problem — not an idea that your mother, flatmate or cousin finds cute, but what a customer would spend money on; or would further a cause in a material way (if non-profit).
Be persistent but not hard-headed — listen to as many viewpoints and feedback as you can, be lean and scientific in learning whether you are making progress or chasing vanity metrics.
Be selective on hiring — 99% of your success is exclusively down to the quality and dedication of your team; not having the right product in the right place (as we’re told). 1% is fortunate timing. Ensure you hire the very best, and never compromise on competency and culture fit (in equal measure). This is the most important lesson. (% figures depend on industry, broadly for illustrative purposes only, no legal actions, all rights reserved).
Create a culture to be proud of — once you have the dream team (point 3), ensure that there is perfect teamwork. What isn’t captured by the team, and processes, is in the culture (unspoken rules) — how decisions are made. Fostering and strengthening an extraordinary culture should take up the second largest part of your time at scale-up stage, after hiring.
Don’t be shy — you need to shoot for being the biggest company in your space, or ideally creating a new space/market. You need to have a plan to get there, and feel 100% certain that with enough hard work, teamwork and a sprinkle of luck, you’ll get there. When you’re hiring execs from the world’s best companies, they need to see it in your eyes, and believe that they can back you. So don’t be shy.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Work hard but also make sure you enjoy yourself. Take time to recharge your batteries with family or friends and do the things you’ve always wanted to do. Don’t keep a bucket list, live your bucket list — it’ll make you stronger at work!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s probably tough for some parents to get the right balance between being supportive and controlling, as most of my friends from the subcontinent know well! I’m lucky that my mother supported my career choices unconditionally, however unconventional they may have appeared, even if she still doesn’t know exactly what I do!
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally, we’re constantly improving our machine-learning software, which scans documents uploaded via webcam or smartphone to detect fraudulent documents and then compares it against a person’s selfie. We recently hired the former Head of Robotics and Computer Vision at Amazon to help us make this process quicker and more transparent to our customers, so they know why we reached a particular decision. Once we have established our global footprint, the ultimate goal is to make identity the key to access, by offering everyone in the world a chance to own and control their legal identity, with the ability to seamlessly access all services.
Personally, I want to do more for the 1.1 billion people who do not have a government identity to begin with (the identity excluded). In some countries, the government is either unable, unwilling or simply not trusted to provide a legal identity. We will soon have the means to help there too. I know that this may not fall under a “personal” bucket, but I strongly believe that identity inclusion is the first step towards achieving economic justice (it’s a popularly cited fact that a 1% increase in inclusion would result in a 3.6% increase in GDP). Secondly, for the rest of us (~5 billion) who have an identity footprint (the identity included), we need to start taking privacy a lot more seriously and I personally want to do whatever necessary to stop the big tech giants continuing to be able to easily profile us online, and therefore have the upper-hand. There is a path forward to enable access and security, but without having to compromise on privacy — I see it as achieving social justice.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Creating a more open world where identity is the key to access. A world where more of the unbanked and underbanked can access the online services they need and where we catch more of the fraudsters to prevent money going to criminal activity.
To do this we need to move away from the centralized credit bureau, a sort of leaking database model, to a decentralized world where the consumer owns and controls their legal identity. This is what we are trying to achieve by partnering with companies like Civic for its digital wallet and taking part in the FCAs government sandbox, alongside Deloitte, Everynm, Signicat and uPort, which is exploring the portability of consumer identities in the financial services sector. Moreover, we’ve started to power digital identity programs such as one for the Faroe Islands, which intends to digitize services for citizens, industry and the public sector in one joint infrastructure, allowing citizens to more easily share and secure their legal identities.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
It would be a movement towards people taking back control of their own legal identities. There have been so many data leaks and people’s accounts are being hacked every single day. Getting more companies involved in what we call ‘portable identity’ or decentralized identity will help. Companies wishing to find out more can visit the Decentralized Identity Foundation, the FIDO Alliance and the Self-Sovereign Identity Incubator, which are all good starting points. The movement has already started. 🙂
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Very easily. My Twitter handle is @husaynkassai. I look forward to hearing what your readers have to say.