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Veriff – an online identity verification system, backed by actor Ashton Kutcher

You probably have never considered how identity verification on online platforms such as Airbnb, Uber and others works. There is a company out there thinking hard about it and in the process they managed to attract the attention of the world famous actor Ashton Kutcher, who invested in the company.

Veriff was founded in 2015 when CEO Kaarel Kotkas was 20 years old. He saw that the same problem he faced six years earlier was still there. At the age of only 14, Kotkas was looking for a way to buy biodegradable rope for hay bales to be used in the farm he grew up on.

Due to his age, eBay didn’t allow him to sign up for the service. He quickly photoshopped the picture of his ID to state that he was born 10 years earlier and could order the rope he needed.

Seeing the same systems at work later sparked a thought in his mind. Now Kotkas is running a multimillion euro company. Back in June the company announced a series A investment in the sum of 6.6 million euros. By the end of this year, Veriff will have around 50 employees.

In an interview with Life in Estonia, Kotkas described why and how he illegally used eBay, how his young age affected his work and how he attracted the attention of a Hollywood actor. 

How did Veriff get started?

I have been in the technology scene for quite a while. I lived in Hiiumaa (the second largest island in Estonia – ed.) for the first 15 years of my life. To be connected with the world I needed to know how computer processes worked. After moving to Tallinn I started to work on different IT projects. When TransferWise was in its fast growth phase in 2015, its recruiter contacted me while I was studying in the 12th grade. We decided we have an opportunity to work together. I was presented with a case study to test different identification solutions. After the test my work at TransferWise didn’t continue but I understood that the sector needs improvements and solutions. The problem was still unsolved back then. The most value can be given if you are independent.

I didn’t have a calling for the identification sector from a young age, but I have a story about it. When I was living on Hiiumaa we rolled hay bales, which meant that in the spring I needed to collect the rope that had held the bales together. It was non-biodegradable so I started to look for other options. There was no seller in Estonia but I found one from eBay. I was 14 and while trying to buy the product I needed to upload a picture of my ID and in two days I got an answer saying that I can’t use the service due to my age.

I took the same picture and opened Photoshop. I changed the birth date from 1994 to 1984 and uploaded the same image. Back then I didn’t realize I had done something illegal. I managed to buy the biodegradable rope for the hay bales. At one point I noticed the problem was still there. That’s why I decided to plunge into it.

It’s popular in Estonia for high school graduates to work abroad for a while, e.g. in Australian farms, why didn’t you do that?

I think life on Hiiumaa gave me a taste of work. Farm with 60 acres of land. I was an exchange student in Germany after the 10th grade. I didn’t feel I needed to go to Australia as many of my peers do after high-school.

Has your young age been a drawback?

I’m 23 at the moment. In retrospect I don’t think it has been a factor. Maybe in the old school marketplace, in the banks, it took a bit longer because when you don’t have a name you have to have actions to back you up.

What is the median age of Veriff workers? Can the employees respect you when you are about 20 years younger?

Interesting question, I have not thought about it. Our work is to look at users passports but for us age is not a factor. Many of our employees are over 40 but we have not made a statistic about it.

We haven’t had any problems due to my age. Looking at how the company has evolved I don’t want to be the only face of the company in the future. I think our work culture has not been a problem. If everybody is out for the same task and are fighting for the same things then everything should be ok.

Where will Veriff take you?

We still are in the early stages. I think of Veriff as Hyperloop. When the [Hyperloop] idea was presented it was said it will revolutionize the transportation sector. Looking at it, magnet levitation and vacuum chambers are not something new. By connecting the two, people in the field could make a revolution in the sector. Veriff is something similar. Face detection has been used for a while now. Internet and computers are also not new. Now we need to connect all of the parts and create know-how that brings innovation. If you knew the minute details how Veriff works you’d know that in three months’ time we will be even more sophisticated.

A lot of businesses are moving to online platforms. If you’ve got an exchange of virtues you need to know who is on the other side of the line. Our mission is to win the trust of the internet; to be the trustworthy tool in the identification sector. We want to give the end user the trust that when he or she sees the company using our product they know that their data is protected and ‘no one can steal my ID’.

Our clients, the companies, can be assured that they know who their customers are. Banks and Fintech were the first to embrace the internet but many more companies are striving towards it. Veriff can save banks 2000 euros per scam case.

I would like to give an example using care.com. It’s a marketplace where you can hire a babysitter. Verified identification is even more essential in that use case than in the banks.

We have shops without clerks, car rentals and many other fields that need to have a system to verify the identity of customers.

How many customers do you have?

We have lots of small customers but we are focusing on enterprises at the moment. Right now we’ve got 65 enterprise clients. Most of which are not from Estonia; mostly from London and California.

Why should they use Veriff, not develop their own solution?

A company that specializes in the field has more know-how of how scams work. We have an overview of how the bad guys work. If you’ve got the same system working at Uber, Airbnb, Coinbase and other services, you can stop a fraudulent account when you detect something suspicious.  We are always a few steps ahead of the bad guys and our competitors as well.

You photoshopped a document about 10 years ago. How do you ensure you don’t let someone with a photoshopped ID through? 

We have lots of things in the works. We don’t allow the customer to upload pictures of the ID’s. We see that the cameras on smartphones and computers are of high quality. When we see the ID in real time and can read the data we check it with different databases. For us, identification is not just comparing two pictures to one another. To ensure security, Veriff has built a complicated system. I can’t reveal all of the systems at work.

How did you end up getting Ashton Kutcher as an investor? 

We took part of Y Combinator (California based seed accelerator). While looking into potential investors we were contacted by Sound Ventures. They wanted to meet us and we had breakfast with Ashton. We presented our idea, explained our technology and our big idea – how the sector is growing. He said he would like to start a collaboration with us. Without Y Combinator I am not sure we would have had the opportunity to get the investors we got.

Have you had young entrepreneurs asking you to invest into their ideas?

Yes, I have been contacted by various people. I have yet to invest in any of the ideas. I give back in the form of advice, as I got it when I started out. Young entrepreneurs are mostly in the need of advice not money.

 

Veriff raised 6.6 million euros back in June, the lead investor being Mosaic Ventures. Taavet Hinrikus, Ashton Kutcher, Paul Buchheit, Elad Gil, Y-Combinator, SV Angel, ACE Ventures, LIFT99 and Superangel were the other investors. In total, Veriff has raised 7.2 million euros. Veriff customers include but are not limited to Uber, LHV, TFBank and InBank.

 

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