I spoke to Husayn Kassai, CEO and co-founder of Onfido, which uses machine learning to validate a user’s identity document and compares it with their facial biometrics.
Kassai spoke about the challenges that come with operating a machine learning platform, the difficulties of finding and retaining talent and much more.
Q: What made you set up Onfido?
We founded Onfido in July 2012. My two co-founders and I had experience working in the City during and after university, and it soon became evident through our own first-hand experience that there was a problem.
Though the world was moving online, the identity verification processes required for opening a bank account or starting employment still resided in an offline, manual world. With turnaround times, cost and human error proving frequent pain points, it was clear that a technological solution was required. We set out to solve this problem with machine learning-based identity verification, offered alongside various sanctions and compliance checks.
Q: Who are your competitors and what sets you apart?
Our main competitors in the identity verification space is Jumio.
The key difference in our approach to identity verification is that we used a hybrid machine learning and human approach. The majority of documents can be automatically processed by our machine learning technology, which becomes more robust as more volumes are passed through it. This means the technology becomes stronger over time – but we also have an expert manual team that can review the small number of cases the machine doesn’t recognise. We find that this is the best approach, as it drives fast turnaround times and fraud detection, without sacrificing completion rates. By comparison, Jumio uses entirely human verification, which can be slower and less accurate (some types of fraud can’t easily be detected by the human eye).
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Q: What are the main entry barriers for companies wanting to operate in the same market as you do?
The strength of our machine learning technology is what really differentiates us, and it would be difficult for newcomers to catch up with us in that respect.
Our technology learns and improves with volumes, and we’ve now fed it with enough data that it can process 600 different document types from 192 countries. That global coverage enables to scale very quickly into new territories too, which is a big selling point with our clients. We also have a very high-quality team behind the technology – almost half of the company (we’re now a team of 150) is on the tech side, with 12 expert machine learning engineers. That’s a lot for a company of our size. Without access to those data sets and that expertise, it’s difficult for other companies to compete.
Q: What has been the most challenging part about setting up your firm?
The most difficult and the most important part of setting up any business is building a quality team – without that, there is no way to succeed. It’s something we’ve placed a lot of emphasis on from the beginning; we’ve always been passionate about building the most talented, diverse team we can, and making sure that they’re all bought into our mission and vision. As we’ve grown, communicating that effectively has become more challenging – we’re not a small team in one office anymore, but 150 people across 3 international offices! That’s why we’re constantly iterating to make sure the employee experience we deliver is the best it can be – we recently signed The Mental Health Pledge to demonstrate our commitment to mental wellness at work, for instance.
Q: What has been your business highlight to date and why?
There have been a lot! Over the past five years, we’ve seen our team grow to 150 people, opened new offices in San Francisco and India, and raised $60m in funding. We’ve also won a whole host of prestigious awards, not to mention over 1,500 fantastic clients. But the biggest highlight was our 5th birthday in August of this year. Coming together to reflect on how far we’ve come as a business, celebrate how we’ve grown as a team and look forward to where we’re going next was wonderful. It’s far beyond what we imagined we’d achieve when we set up the business fresh out of uni in 2012.
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Q: You’ve raised more than $60m to date. From your experience, what do investors look for in an entrepreneur and business?
There are three things we find investors look for; intelligent technology, an expert team and a strong long-term vision. We’re lucky to be able to tick all of those boxes, and that’s given us the opportunity to work with some really fantastic investors.
Q: Where do you see your company in a year’s time?
What sets us apart is our long-term vision for bringing identity verification to the masses –it’s our goal to help everyone in the world be able to easily prove their legal identity online in order to access the online world.
We believe that voting in an election is a right, and shouldn’t have to involve queuing for hours. We believe new migrants to a country should be an active part of the economy from day one, and not have to wait for six months to be validated by credit reference agencies in order to get a job or rent an apartment. We believe that as a generous and open country, we shouldn’t be fearful of accepting more refugees when technology now allows us to verify an individual in their country of origin and then re-verify them when they arrive. We believe 2 billion fellow humans across the world shouldn’t be excluded from the world economy because they’re unbanked. We know there’s no longer any reason for the identity exclusion which leads to financial exclusion, as the technology now exists to robustly and remotely verify anyone in the world.
With our latest round of funding we’ll be investing even more in research and development and moving into new markets. In a year’s time, we hope to be well on the way to achieving our vision of building the trust engine to power human interactions worldwide.