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André Ferraz of Incognia: “Lack of privacy and lack of good user experience”

We have created a digital identity that is private and secure by leveraging location technologies. The reason why we decided to use location technology was that in the era of IoT we are going to be interacting with digital devices everywhere we go, and our location matters. As a part of our series about business leaders […]

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We have created a digital identity that is private and secure by leveraging location technologies. The reason why we decided to use location technology was that in the era of IoT we are going to be interacting with digital devices everywhere we go, and our location matters.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing André Ferraz.

André Ferraz is the CEO and co-founder of Incognia, a private identity company, with teams in the U.S. and Brazil, that provides location behavioral biometrics to banks, fintech and mobile commerce for mobile fraud prevention. Originally from Brazil, André founded his first company while a university student in computer science. André and his co-founders developed location technology that is now deployed on 60M smartphones and has been recognized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and Microsoft, as the world’s most precise geolocation platform.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My backstory starts with my father’s influence. He is a computer science professor and because of that I had access to computers and exposure to technical information at a very early age, and this definitely had a significant influence on my career path. I was more into the attack side of security. I was interested in trying to understand how to find bugs and security flaws. This is where it started for me, hacking into computers and computer systems drove my passion for fixing bugs and making systems more secure. When I was in college, I started doing research on the Internet of Things (IoT) and I realized that we will very soon get to the point where every object is connected to the internet and hacking will be even more dangerous. For example, say that you own a connected car, someone could hack into your car and turn off the brakes. The same applies to medical appliances, home appliances and more. Everything, every object, could be potentially hacked and that was really scary to me.

I realized that to protect the privacy and security of users in the era of IoT, we would need a new type of identity — one that is not related to our real information (name, SSN, email, etc.) but that could uniquely locate us in the real world. That is why I decided to build this company, to create a digital identity that is not linked to our real identity and at the same time provides very secure authentication with no friction for any type of application.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We have created a digital identity that is private and secure by leveraging location technologies. The reason why we decided to use location technology was that in the era of IoT we are going to be interacting with digital devices everywhere we go, and our location matters.

If we know that you and your personal device are in a certain room, we can use this information to connect your personal device to all the IoT devices in that same room. That was the main insight that drove us to focus our research on location technologies. We also realized that the location behavior of each person is completely unique and would enable us to create a digital identity or fingerprint. For someone to impersonate an individual’s location behavior, that person would need to go to all the same places that you go, and also would need to predict where you are going next, and even access some places that are private, such as your home or place of work. We thought that it would be more difficult to steal or impersonate such an identity based on location behavior, and that’s why we decided to invest in location and create this proprietary technology.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I made many mistakes early on, as I was trying to solve a problem that was ahead of its time. When I started 10 years ago there wasn’t IoT, there wasn’t even infrastructure for IoT to grow, like 5G networks for example, so the timing just wasn’t right. I knew this would be a very complex technology so I wasn’t discouraged and knew I should start building it right away.

A major issue I had was financing the business, so I needed to create new products that would address short term problems using the location technology. As a team we failed miserably with three different products! The first failed product involved using our location technology to create apps for shopping malls, so that once you enter a shopping mall you would find where you were and you would be able to guide yourself within the venue. Our second product was kind of like Google Maps for indoor venues. Think airports, shopping malls, museums, etc. We then started selling our location technology to developers, but the developers didn’t know what to do with it either.

Finally we found an application where we were able to monetize and grow the business to the point where we are today. It required a lot of resilience for us to keep testing different products until we got to a point in which one of those was interesting for customers. Now that the timing is finally right, we are focused on our digital identity product. You’re likely familiar with some of today’s mobile applications that are facing issues related to security and fraud. We are now finally addressing the problems that we have wanted to address since the beginning.

The lesson that I’ve learned from this journey, and from the early days, is that timing is a really important thing for businesses, and that the market is not always ready for new technologies to be adopted.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

We all definitely need a little help along our journey. I would say that my first true mentor was my father. He is a very inspiring person and he taught me a lot about computer science in general, but particularly about ubiquitous computing, which is the area I became most interested in and ultimately decided to pursue. Ubiquitous computing is the academic term for what we call more commercially, the Internet of Things (IoT) — it would be the optimal implementation of the IoT in which we reach a level of automation where we don’t interact with computers on the same level we do today (i.e. not pressing any buttons, etc.).

My father was by far the first and most important mentor I’ve had during my career and it’s interesting because I’m a business owner and he is an academic so most people assume this mentor relationship wouldn’t work — but it did because in the end we had the common passion which was science and inventing new technologies. He has had a big impact, since the inception of the first company and he has always been very supportive.

Later I became part of Endeavor, which is a network of entrepreneurs and mentors. Being part of Endeavor was fantastic because I had access to many mentors. I come from a city in Brazil, in which entrepreneurship is not that common, and it was really difficult to find people that already had experience in building and scaling technology companies. That was challenging. I had to learn most of the things I know today about business by myself.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I believe in most cases, disruption is a good thing. Obviously there are some times when innovation should move a bit slower, when we’re talking about things that could seriously impact people’s lives over the long-term. For instance, when talking about health care, if you launch a medication that proves to be very good in the short-term, there may be very bad long-term effects. The disruption in fields such as medicine needs a certain level of conservatism.

In other industries, disruption is definitely very good and much needed. For example, what you see today in the financial services industry is really quite amazing. We’re starting to see more and more competition because you have startups creating digital banks that offer better services, are more efficient, and have better rates because they have a smaller cost structure. It’s great to see disruptive innovation in industries in which we can adapt quickly if something goes wrong. It’s critical to have people in every single industry who are questioning and disrupting the status quo and I believe it’s thinking like this which drives innovation everywhere. We need people that are questioning the way things work today and trying to test new ideas to innovate.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

I come from a very technical background so the sales and marketing side of the business was always an afterthought for me. I was more excited to build the technology and sell it and just bring someone else in for marketing. One day I was talking to a mentor and we were talking about scaling issues and I mentioned that my current sales leader was not performing well. My mentor told me that I should take on the sales responsibility because if I don’t know what it takes to be in that person’s shoes, I will never be able to manage that type of person or hire the right person for that position. This was uncomfortable for me, but the next day I decided to allocate most of my time for sales and suddenly I was passionate about it. Suddenly I was really excited about closing deals and opening new opportunities with customers. That experience influenced me a lot and I became more knowledgeable about the sales and marketing process and I became capable of contributing and also finding the best people to work with on my team.

Another piece of sound advice I received was around trying to fix the governance of the company. We were young and our capital structure was not optimal so we wanted to renegotiate the governance of the company. My biggest fear was that we were starting a negotiation with a very large investor company that had hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets and we were college students fighting to gain more control over our company. A mentor told me that when you hold the power to both create, and also destroy something, you have control over the situation. That was very inspiring and led me to approach our investors and state that if we didn’t fix the company governance the way we were proposing, we would leave the company. At the time we were a very early stage company so if we left the company, there would be no one to create the business we had envisioned, and the company would definitely be destroyed. When we told the investors that we were prepared to leave the company, that was definitely a big risk, obviously we could have lost everything by doing that, but it worked out.

Finally, the last thing which was interesting was when we were scaling the company we had two executives that didn’t work well together and I was trying to fix the situation. One of the executives was in a position of blaming other people and saying that every problem that happened wasn’t their fault. The other executive, from a business standpoint, did not complain and was heads down doing their work. My approach was to try to address the complaints from the first executive. I was explaining my situation to a mentor and what this mentor told me was that you should not protect the weak from the strong, you should protect the strong from the weak. In the end, you should stand by people who are resilient and not be on the side of the people that complain all the time and make excuses about why the work isn’t getting done. When I changed my approach the interesting thing was that the executive that was complaining realized that I was no longer going to interfere on his behalf with his problems. This led to a better relationship between the two executives, and they started communicating directly. Both started working together really well, and both started performing very well for the company. I stopped interfering in the process and I started to allow more autonomy to my team and as a result the team became much stronger and performed much better than before.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

In the early days, I didn’t know anyone, or even have a team, so making the first sale was extremely challenging. I also didn’t have a budget to hire a salesperson or run ads. I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn and searching for leads manually. I would try to discover email addresses and send custom emails about our product. I would spend at least four hours a day searching on LinkedIn for email addresses and I would send thousands of emails. All the time and effort spent worked out and that is how we secured our first customers.

The heavy lifting in the very beginning was extremely important, and honestly looking back, I was doing something that doesn’t scale at all, but I knew I didn’t want to send generic automated emails to our target customers. I would take the time to write each email myself. It was a lot of work but was valuable as we were able to test our messaging and then tailor it to each unique customer. While I no longer spend four hours a day scouring LinkedIn for customers and writing custom emails, it’s a practice I don’t take for granted because it really helped to refine our messaging with potential customers.

Another thing I did was attend as many events as I could to network and get my name and product out there. I didn’t have money to sponsor events, so I would always make sure to ask questions during panels or sessions. I would attend every session I could and I would always ask a question in which I would have the opportunity to speak about our product and I would always stand up so that people could recognize me later when I was networking on the show floor. In the end it was the not-so scalable things I did for the company that generated our first customers and pipeline of qualified leads.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I believe the most important thing a company can do is offer their customers a secure but also private and frictionless experience. Most organizations think that they need to balance between security, privacy and user experience and that those three things are antagonistic in that you can’t have all three at the same time at an optimal level. I’m on a mission to prove these companies wrong by creating a new type of identity for the internet.

I believe that identity is one of the biggest problems on the internet today. From fake accounts that are spreading fake news and hate speech, to fake accounts that are being created to steal money from people or to launder money at financial institutions, fraudsters are everywhere you look online. Identity is a central piece of the internet but the way it was built and is currently being used is not optimal to keep identities secure and that is the problem we are trying to fix.

We want to create a new identity for the internet, particularly looking toward the next era of IoT. I believe that by doing that we can fix some of the biggest problems we are being faced with, namely lack of security, lack of privacy and lack of good user experience.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Start with Why by Simon Sinek: This book really inspired me to become a person and a leader who is able to inspire other people and shift my focus more on why we should do something instead of what we should do. This book has also inspired and helped me build the foundations of a strong company culture at Incognia.

Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord: This book dives into Netflix’s corporate culture. I view Netflix as a role model for corporate culture, freedom and responsibility.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz: Being an entrepreneur and a CEO is a lonely and often very stressful job. I’m constantly thinking about making new opportunities and how to solve problems. Reading this book reminded me that I am not alone with the successes and failures that come with being the CEO of a company.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In all honesty, a life lesson quote that strongly resonates with me is Nike’s “Just do it.” That’s the way I think about most actionable things. Making things happen, testing out different scenarios and sometimes failing is usually much better than simply spending a lot of time thinking about what could go wrong, and what could go right. You never really know until you try. Usually when I have an idea I just go for it and that has had a huge impact on my life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would create a movement around privacy. Internet privacy is tremendously important and if we don’t have privacy on the internet then we do not have any freedom, but rather the illusion of freedom.

How can our readers follow you online?

If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m pretty into internet privacy so I don’t use many social networks online. You can connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andreferraz/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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