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Big Ideas: “Replace Paper ID Cards With Digital ID Cards” with Yoti CEO Robin Tombs

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Tombs, a serial tech entrepreneur and investor. Robin is CEO and Co-founder of Yoti, the digital identity app. Prior to Yoti, Robin was Co-founder and Finance Director at Gamesys, […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Tombs, a serial tech entrepreneur and investor. Robin is CEO and Co-founder of Yoti, the digital identity app. Prior to Yoti, Robin was Co-founder and Finance Director at Gamesys, one of the world’s leading online gaming operators. He is also a serial angel investor in a handful of technology companies and a trustee of Future First.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I worked at PWC as a Chartered Accountant from 1993 to 1997 in London before co-founding IDM, a web game business, with Noel Hayden. We sold IDM in 1999 and used some of these proceeds to co-found Gamesys, one of the world’s leading online gaming operators. Through Gamesys, I was involved in checking age and identity for over 1.5m UK customers in compliance with UK Regulations, so was well aware of the identity challenges businesses have to deal with.

Then in 2014 at a Spartan race event in California, I saw thousands of people proving their identity with paper ID documents. The process was long, outdated and a potential security risk, with people leaving valuable ID documents in a tent during the race. I thought, surely there’s better way of checking who people are. So myself and my Yoti co-founder Duncan Francis put a team together to develop a digital identity — and that was the start of Yoti.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In 1997, aged 28, I left a secure, well paid job at PWC to join a strapped for cash entrepreneur Noel Hayden. Noel had just founded IDM, a small web development business, based above his wife’s hair salon in Wimbledon.

Within a year, we were broke and my debit card withdrawn. Through perseverance, hard work and some luck, we sold IDM and reinvested some of the proceeds in founding and developing Gamesys, which is now one of the world’s most successful online gaming businesses.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

The current identity system is broken — organizations and governments still rely on paper or card-based forms of identity verification, because proving who we are online to a high degree of certainty has been difficult. This process of creating physical forms of identity can take days or weeks instead of seconds, and often results in us sharing excessive amounts of personal information, putting us at great risk of identity fraud. Millions of ID documents are lost every year, and over 1.1 billion people around the world don’t have any form of identification. We want to help fix this.

Yoti is a global digital identity platform and free consumer app that gives individuals a simple, fast and secure way of proving who they are, online and in person.

How do you think this will change the world?

Transparency, trust, privacy and control are the topics surrounding our data today for good reason. We’re building a global identity platform that people can trust around principles of transparency and privacy — changing the way people prove their identity by putting them in control of their data. We’re a company that can’t track your data, never mind sell it. Once your Yoti is verified then the only person that can share your information is you.

Individuals can create a free, digital identity in minutes, and have a secure proof of identity for many areas of their life, including:

  • Proving their identity to businesses, without showing and photocopying paper documents. In the UK alone, over a million documents are lost every year and £18.6million is spent on replacing driving licenses. Individuals can use Yoti to just share the necessary details, such as their name and age, without showing paper documents or disclosing excessive amounts of personal information — helping to protect them from the ever-growing risk of identity fraud.
  • Proving their age at supermarket self-checkouts. Waiting for age approval is a source of frustration for many shoppers who just want to get home as quickly as possible. Individuals can use the free Yoti app or our age estimation technology Yoti Age Scan (YAS) to prove their age in seconds. Yoti will be rolled out in US and UK supermarkets over the coming months and we’re already working with specialty spirit Jägermeister who are using Yoti for age verification online.
  • Proving their age to access age-restricted content online. Recent reports have shown how easy it is for underage people to create social media accounts and dating profiles. Yoti Age Scan (YAS) is being used by social networking site Yubo to flag any accounts where someone seems to have misstated their age. Individuals who have had their account flagged will be able to use the Yoti app to then verify their age. Age verification is a vital step to help to protect young people online, and it’s fantastic to be working with Yubo to help make the internet safer for young people. Our technology can also be used to help adult websites ensure their content only reaches people of age and complies with local regulations like the UK’s Digital Economy Act, which requires all adults to prove they are 18 or over to access adult content online.
  • Confirming the identity of people they meet online. Setting up fake profiles on the internet is easy and unregulated, and innocent people are falling victim to scams which cost time, money and emotional distress. Last year Brits lost £41 million to dating scams, and romance fraud accounted for the highest financial losses of all online crimes in the US, with reported losses exceeding $230 million. Individuals can use Yoti to swap verified details with people they meet online, giving them peace of mind about who they’re speaking to. We’re working with dating sites around the world, including TrulyMadly a leading dating app in India, to help verify the identity of individuals and create a more trusted community of daters. We’re also working with classifieds site Freeads to create more trust between online buyers and sellers.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Technology continues to gather pace. While people welcome the improved speed, simplicity and cost savings digital solutions bring, society and regulation understandably struggle to keep up with the speed and variety of advancements.

After 25 years of internet growth and the rise of big data, people are witnessing the other side of our connected world. Some embrace this, others fear it. From scams and scandals to a lack of understanding about new technologies, concerns around transparency, trust, privacy and control are understandably mounting.

We want to be the solution to everyone’s fears around transparency, trust, privacy and control. We’re building Yoti around principles which are regulated by an independent Guardian Council — the antithesis of big tech and data companies.

Building the world’s trusted identity platform means building trust, which is not an easy task today for any company. But, by staying on track with our principles and in close collaboration with all of our stakeholders including businesses and governments, we can achieve our goal of putting people in control of their data and fixing the broken identity system.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Back in 2014, my co-founder Duncan and I were at a Spartan Race at Vail Lake in California. It was a beautiful sunny day and there were thousands of people taking part. But this meant there were big queues — one for registration, another for signing injury waivers where everyone had to show their photo ID, and a final queue for bag drop. It was a long and painful process.

Duncan and I thought there had to be a better way for people to prove their identity, and by the time we got off the plane in London we’d decided, we’re going try and solve this. We’re going to build a digital identity that gives people a better way of proving who they are.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Individuals only need to create their Yoti once and then they have a secure digital identity for life. But Yoti becomes even more useful to them if they can use it in as many places as possible. We’re already working with some fantastic global brands and governments including:

  • Jägermeister, who are letting individuals use the Yoti app to prove their age when buying age-restricted products on the new www.jagershop.co.uk. As a result, Jägermeister are accepting debit card payments on its online shop for the first time. Yoti offers a more secure and robust solution than age affirmation pages (AAPs) or checkboxes — which can be easily falsified by minors.
  • Digital checkout leaders NCR, who have integrated our technology into their FastLane SelfServ™ Checkout solution to help improve the shopping experience for customers buying age-restricted items. This will be rolled out in US and UK supermarkets soon.
  • The Government of Jersey selected Yoti as their official digital ID provider, giving citizens a modern way to prove their identity. Jersey residents are now able to securely prove who they are when dealing with the Government online and in person. This system ensures residents are completely in control of their own data, and they can also use Yoti to prove their age at bars, clubs, festivals and more.
  • Yubo, a social networking site, are using Yoti’s age estimation technology Yoti Age Scan (YAS) to help flag accounts where individuals appear to have misstated their age — a vital step to help protect young people online.
  • Heathrow Airport are working with us to explore biometric travel and help improve the passenger journey.

These are just a handful of some of the great businesses we’re already working with, but it’s not just companies who need to adopt and support our technology. For Yoti to be an accepted form of ID in different countries and industries, we must meet regulation in various locations. We’ve spoken with regulators in California, and a variety in the UK including the BBFC and Gambling Commission. The BBFC in particular recognizes innovative approaches to age verification.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • To work out quickly whether people you hire are team players focused on team success or whether they are more focused on personal, individual wins. Ensuring your work colleagues are motivated, empowered and keen to see the whole team succeed together is crucial to the whole company being a success.
  • To invest more time in young people with common sense and passion. At Gamesys we were forced to hire some young, low cost, non-graduate staff. Many of them became outstanding business people, who are now either managing teams at Gamesys or running their own successful businesses.
  • To focus a team on medium term success, over short term wins. At Yoti we have focused on building and investing in the right, secure digital identity system, to ensure we have the best chance of delivering our mission to become the world’s most trusted identity platform. There are no shortcuts when trying to achieve something so ambitious.
  • Don’t avoid or ignore difficult team decisions in the hope the problem might go away. People who are not right for an organization create bad vibes and harm the quality and dynamics of the team. Good team people suffer and know management are avoiding their responsibility to act, which affects morale.
  • To capture key data to help improve decision making. Back in 2005, we had a very talented math guy at Gamesys, who developed an algorithm that predicted high quality playership from their first few interactions on site. This algorithm created a very strong competitive advantage for many years.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Never stop learning. Always be up for taking on new challenges, experiencing new things, learning new skills and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. This is particularly important in the tech industry where things move so quickly.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

Consumer owned digital identity!

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

  • Take some risks and learn from your mistakes. It’s far better to give something a go and make a mistake, then not even try it in the first place.
  • Enjoy what you do in both your personal and professional life.
  • Work with people who inspire you, who have integrity and who want the whole team to succeed.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

  1. Know when to give an individual or team the freedom to solve problems or work out how to meet a challenge, and when to give them some help and direction.
  2. Think whether you’re solving a significant problem for a significant amount of people. Ask people about your idea and listen to their feedback. You may think it’s a fantastic idea but you need to know whether there is an appetite for it! Also don’t give up the day job until you’re relatively sure there is an addressable market willing to pay a sensible price.
  3. Additionally, don’t be afraid to take on new challenges. It’s better to tackle new challenges for yourself, make some mistakes and learn from these, rather than shy away from new challenges.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Over the next 5–10 years, the majority of the world’s 3–4 billion smartphone users will have chosen and created their own consumer digital identity. With more of our lives going digital and our personal data at risk from hackers, it’s inevitable that we need a simpler and safer way to prove our identity and protect our personal information.

Yoti aims to be the world’s trusted identity platform, and make life simpler and safer for millions of people.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow the main Yoti social channels on TwitterInstagramFacebookLinkedIn and YouTube. And you can keep up to date with our latest blogs on Medium.

And you can follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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