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 Joe Falit. Joe is Co-founder and CEO of Yombu Inc. (www.yombu.com), a biometric authentication company based in McLean, VA. Yombu’s biometric platform is leveraged for in-person check-in, digital waivers, payments, and more. Joe previously worked in the strategy group at JPMorgan Chase and was an SVP at Citibank in New York. He also spent time in management consulting. Joe graduated from Princeton with an A.B. in Public and International Affairs, and he has a Masters in Public Policy (M.P.P.) from Harvard. He enjoys playing tennis, snowboarding, and spending time with his wife, daughter, and rescue dog, Macie.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
For my first year out of college, I worked in Mozambique for a non-profit logistics consultancy as part of a Princeton-in-Africafellowship (great program by the way). The job ended up being more akin to a business analysis role vs. a typical nonprofit role, and it spurred an interest in business.
That was over a decade ago. After my masters, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career. I just knew that I had a passion for continuous learning and solving difficult problems. This led me to a series of roles in consulting and financial services between Washington DC and New York, including working for Grant Thornton, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, and a boutique consulting firm. I’ve had the good fortune to work in organizations of all shapes and sizes and lead cross-functional teams.
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I never felt that the timing was right or that I had a good enough idea — until Yombu. This was almost four years ago. At that time, I had quite a bit of technology experience under my belt, and I ran into a frustrating problem — which I know we will discuss in detail later in the interview…
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
While working in public sector consulting in DC, I wanted to transition to a private-sector-focused job that provided me an opportunity to learn data analysis, analytics, and financial planning. I submitted my resume to an online drop box for a strategy and analytics role on the Consumer Banking side of JPMorgan Chase. I was happy when, after a screening call with a recruiter, I was invited to an in-person interview in New York.
The first interviewer looked at my resume and said, “I’m sorry, but we are only interviewing candidates from top-5 consulting firms”. To which I responded, “I’m sorry I’m not from a top-5 firm, but the recruiter invited me here from DC. Would you mind if I still interviewed?” That interview did not go well. But the second interviewer and I got on swimmingly, and she would go on to be my advocate to convince the 5 other interviewers that I was worth taking a chance on. The one catch here was that I would have to accept an “Analyst” title — the lowest of titles — despite my shiny graduate degree and former consulting experience. I accepted.
I’ll say that I learned a number of things from that experience and job, including the value of humility and grit, and that sometimes you need to go back to move forward. I also learned that there is a lot of randomness and luck on the road to “success”, and it helps to find mentors and pay it forward by being at least one other person’s mentor. That role gave me an opportunity to work hard and learn the fundamentals of management and business, and for this I am quite grateful.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Yombu is a company on a mission to provide secure biometric authentication solutions that improve and simplify everyday transactions and activities. Our biometric platform is leveraged for in-person check-in, digital waivers, access control, employee attendance, payments, loyalty, and more. Whether it’s gaining access to a health club, verifying an on-file waiver at an indoor trampoline park, or paying for a quick meal, Yombu users only need their fingerprint to authenticate.
How do you think this will change the world?
The company’s vision is to create an ecosystem of locations where people can transact and interact with just their fingerprint, eliminating the need for a credit card, cell phone, key fob, or other physical object. The point of Yombu is to create a world where transactional friction is a thing of the past, and along the way enhance security and minimize fraud. We also want to make happier customers in the real world, rather than relegating the benefits of biometrics to government agencies and customs processes at the airport.
Take the example of a fitness center. Rather than taking your barcode tag out of your gym bag to authenticate for entry or swiping a card to buy a water bottle, you could simply enter and pay by fingerprint. Want to grab a coffee on the way home from the gym? With Yombu, you could pay and earn rewards with the touch of a finger. Looking to quickly check into a doctor’s appointment? Scan your finger, and the receptionist at the front desk can even see an image of your insurance card on file.
Yombu is about improving customer convenience and the speed of transactions, but it is also about substantial security improvements and fraud reductions. Even the smart phone — which has become ubiquitous in developed countries — cannot offer this, as it can easily be passed between people. Think about accessing an employer facility or daycare — the business cares about ensuring that only the right people enter. Even at a gym, the owner does not want to see revenue leakage to barcode tags passed from members to friends.
In-person biometric payments offers a pointed example of the powerful potential convenience, security, and other benefits. If debit and credit cards were tied to customer biometrics, customers could easily pay for a sandwich with only one hand, freeing up the other hand to hold a child or shopping bag. Customer rewards programs could easily be tied to fingerprints as well. Spoofing a fingerprint reader is exceptionally difficult, so the multi-billion-dollar point-of-sale fraud problem would shrink substantially. And banks could even reduce their cost-to-serve customers — no more issuing plastic, and call centers wouldn’t need to handle frustrated customers asking to send replacement cards due to fraud.
For Yombu, like other biometric and cyber companies, banks, healthcare institutions, and any company needing to protect sensitive information, data protection is extremely important. In today’s digital age, this arguably applies to most businesses. Biometric data, similar to other personally identifiable information (PII), could potentially be misused if it fell into the wrong hands.
This is why we remain deeply committed to the security and integrity of all data on our platform and hold expertise in state-level data protection requirements and GDPR compliance. We deploy cutting-edge techniques to protect biometric information. This include storing fingerprint images in mathematical format rather than as “raw” images, and we further one-way encrypt the mathematical formulae so that each one is irreversible back into a raw print.
All of our fingerprint readers also include “liveness” detection, sensing for blood flow or a pulse, so it would be impossible to spoof a scanner with the image of a fingerprint. Thinking about TV shows like “Black Mirror”, you would not see criminals chopping off fingers to make purchases — a finger without blood flow couldn’t spoof one of our scanners.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
They say that most entrepreneurs find their idea in one of two ways — either through deep expertise or experiencing a problem in their life. The idea for Yombu came mostly from the latter, although I also had plenty of experience working in financial services and business strategy to begin building a team and company.
It was a sweltering hot summer day, and I ran to the gym with nothing but my iPod Nano on me. By the time I arrived, I was thirsty, but I didn’t have any way to pay. So I asked the front desk person if I could buy a protein shake and pay later, and he was accustomed to this problem. He asked me to head over to the gym entry point and scan my fingerprint — my gym used a biometric reader for entry authentication but not payment. By scanning at entry, he was able to go into my account and find my PDF membership application form, which included my payment card details. He then punched those into the payment terminal.
At that point, the proverbial light bulb went off. I wondered, why do people need credit or debit cards to pay at point of sale? Why can’t I access my employer facility by fingerprint? Why aren’t my medical records tied to my biometrics? I had discovered a way I believed the world should work but currently didn’t, and I had a million questions to set out to answer. On that day, Yombu was born.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
For us, our biggest hurdle to scaling is establishing the software integrations that we need in order to function in each market. To give you an example, to create a biometric system for gyms and boutique fitness studios, we need to integrate our software with club and studio management systems such as Motionsoftand Mindbody. Or to create a biometric payment system, we need to integrate with point of sale (POS) systems like Cloverand payment processors such as Worldpay.
Once we establish the right relationships and integrations in each market, we have opened a set of distribution channels. In this way, gyms and other businesses that depend on those core management systems can then easily add biometric access, payment, and other features that seamlessly operate with their existing software systems. For example, we recently integrated with Motionsoft to deploy a biometric personal training session check-in feature within their platform; once integrated, this feature was first deployed to a 60-location fitness franchise within the span of a few weeks, whereupon thousands of customers enrolled.
We have pursued and continue to pursue these integrations methodically, focusing on a few core markets at any one time. Right now, we have a number of integrations serving the fitness, POS payments, and family entertainment center (FEC) markets, including those integrations mentioned above.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Be prepared to work hard for years.Building a business or a career or anything of value generally takes blood, sweat, tears, and a long time. As Steve Jobs said, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
2. Be self-aware.If you aren’t self-aware, no one will respect you. Being able to identify, admit, and improve upon your skill deficits is a sign of strength. Work on your weaknesses until you can at least ask the right questions. Then focus your career around your strengths and seek out teammates to fill the gaps.
3. Don’t hesitate to ask for what you need. Be practical and direct. I often end networking coffee chats with, “Is there a way that we can work together?” I ask during investor calls and meetings, “What do you need to see in order to invest?”
4. There are often multiple right answers to a single problem.We at Yombu face a ton of questions every day. Should we focus on market A or market B? Should we raise $1M or $5M? Should we build product features X, Y, or Z? There are no “right” answers to these questions. To be sure, some answers are better than others. But you’ll run into a lot of folks that believe that they have the one and only right answer. Take half of the advice you’re given and throw it out. Take the other half and stir it in a pot with your knowledge and other good advice; then take a step back and decide for yourself.
5. Be ethical to a fault. There will be times in life where you’ll be tempted to take shortcuts. I implore you not to do so. For certain, no one is perfect, and there is plenty of gray area. But you can always endeavor to do the right thing and apologize when you take a mis-step. You’ll find that you sleep better and will end up happier. As John W. Gardner once said, “The world loves talent but pays off on character.”
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Do things that scare you, risking failure in the process, and pick up new skills along the way. There is no such thing as a job or role or skill set that is “future-proof”. Over time and as certain tasks become mechanized, the demand for various skills shifts based upon what people want to buy and how those products and services are created.
Be open and willing to learn new things and follow what the market demands. Continuously fail and pick yourself up afterward — every person has difficult times throughout their professional lives. We’re all really just kids playing in a sandbox, trying to figure life out. If you’re ready and able to adapt to new roles, you’ll always find a valuable place in the job market.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
In the world of biometrics, I would be looking at software companies that are developing novel approaches to multi-factor authentication across markets. I would be particularly interested in companies building up a wealth of integrations with everything from access control software to payment systems to property management systems and more.
Multi-factor algorithms will offer the key to identifying customers for everything from payment acceptance to fighting increasing fraud. And with core integrations in one or more markets (e.g., payments), that company will be an ideal candidate for major strategic partnerships and/or acquisition by a large incumbent player in the space (e.g., a large payment processor).
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
As a semi philosophy buff, I love this question. I fall short of living up to all of the philosophies I advocate, but I could probably talk for 12 hours on the topic. I’ll mention three thoughts that come to mind.
Regarding my life, I often like to reflect on a quote attributed to Samuel Johnson: “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” It often causes me to think about how much privilege I enjoy and how, in many ways, I have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate. In truth, I regularly take my privilege for granted, but occasionally I think of this quote and do something small, whether donate a bit of money or email someone I might be able to help.
Secondly, working as a consultant taught me a question that often comes in handy: “What are we trying to solve for?” I’m surprised by how frequently throughout my career meetings or conversations are really digressions of no import. When I find myself in that place, I ask the question. I’ll also regularly create agendas ahead of discussions and immediately write next steps at the end. You’d be surprised how much more productive you can be.
Thirdly, I like to think about how each person’s definition of “success” may be radically different from everyone else but is no more or less valuable. Success is about pursuing a satisfying journey rather than achieving a goal. If it is the goal that you pursue, you’ll end up woefully unhappy when you reach it and have nothing left to do. I struggle the most with this concept.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
My advice is not to invest too much stock in what other people say are their “success habits”. One year you need to wake up at 4AM to become successful. The next year you’ll have to stay awake working until 2AM.
I think each person needs to find what works for them. To me, “success” is about finding what makes you happy or pursuing what you find meaningful. This is different for everyone and can be as simple as spending time with loved ones or building an exceptional software product. It may also change over time.
Actively discover and re-discover what you love, and once you find it, do more of it. And don’t apologize if people find your pursuit of happiness stupid or silly — what you find valuable only matters to you.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
The biometric market is set to increase in size roughly 3X to 4X by 2025 to about $60 billion in value. This does not take into account many of the novel, everyday biometric applications Yombu is creating in markets such as fitness and family entertainment centers. We are developing a multi-factor authentication algorithm predicated on the fingerprint biometric — the most tested, cheapest, and most desired biometric modality.
Yombu is also continuously integrating into more and more management and POS systems, as well as payment processors. Each integration enhances our value. And along the way, we are developing a wide array of software products for in-person check-in, digital liability waivers, access control, employee attendance, payments, loyalty, and more. We have an expanding set of businesses and end users on our platform, and we license our software as well.
We are a team that loves fresh perspective, and we have raised almost $2 million to date. We love investors that want to roll up their sleeves and work side-by-side through every peak and valley.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow Yombu @Yombu360. You can also follow me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joe-falit-b7b1994/. Also, I wanted to give a shout out to Sarah Hostyk, who made the introduction to make this interview possible. You can follow her on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarahhostyk/. Thank you, Sarah!
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.