LibraryblogWhat it takes to build a unicorn before you’re 30

What it takes to build a unicorn before you’re 30

At only 28, Veriff CEO Kaarel Kotkas leads a global company of over 500 people and has been named as one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Europe. Kaarel talks about his driving ambition to change verification from an experience ‘like the police stopping your car’ to ‘a warm hand guiding you through’. He also explains why building a business is like surfing a sine wave, and why his iPhone thinks he’s in a romantic relationship with co-founder Janer Gorohhov.

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Chris Hooper
Director of Content at
April 20, 2023
On this page
A business built on trust
A partnership built on trust
A team built on trust
Treating clients as partners
Guiding customers through the process
Building trust on a global scale

Listen to the full episode to hear Kaarel talk about partnerships, ownership, trust and more, click here.

Kaarel Kotkas made it his mission to ‘fix the health of the internet’ while still a teenager. Now, at the age of just 28, he leads a global business in the pursuit of making the online environment a better place for everyone. According to him, it’s all a matter of trust…

“I was on my way to becoming a doctor,” says Kaarel Kotkas, Veriff’s co-founder and CEO. “That was my plan, to study medicine after graduating secondary school.” 

However, having experienced issues with identification-based transactions while helping run the family farm, his life took an abrupt left turn.

“I was very intrigued about technology,” he explains. “Once I’d found out the obvious problems there are with the ‘health’ of the internet, I thought ‘this is the health I’m going to fix first’.” 

Very quickly, verification became his passion, and he set out with a team of like-minded individuals to create what he calls “a proper trust and safety layer, that we’ll feel proud to talk to our grandchildren about,” for the internet. 

Just eight years later, he runs a US$1.5bn company verifying people from more than 230 countries and territories around the world. So, what does it take to build a unicorn with a warmer, safer internet at the heart of its mission?

A business built on trust

To Kaarel, Trust from the first hello is much more than a slogan – it’s a mission statement. 

I’m a very trusting person,” says Kaarel. “I expect the same from everyone within Veriff, and I think it’s core to our business, because really we are in the business of trust.”

“You can leave a first impression only once in your life, and that’s why it’s so important.”

With this in mind, Veriff’s business model is built around building trust between companies and their potential customers. 

A partnership built on trust

Kaarel believes a true partner is someone you can talk to about everything it takes to build a company. He admits that for the first couple of years, building Veriff was quite a lonely process. But once Co-founder Janer Gorohhov joined as head of operations, the business never looked back.

“We truly share the same values,” says Kaarel. “We’ve grown together and I’m very close to him… It might be a cliché, but he truly is my brother from another mother.”

In fact, their lives became so intertwined that Kaarel jokes his iPhone began to misinterpret the bond between them. 

“My iPhone started to share memories of me and Janer together, like ‘this is your anniversary’,” he laughs. “It thinks we have a much more romantic relationship than just founding a start-up together.”

A team built on trust

Veriff’s core team includes people who have joined from the world’s top tech firms, including Amazon, Spotify and Google. What attracts them is the opportunity to work for a company whose mission is to make a difference, and whose culture is designed to empower them to pursue that mission.

“The core value is the ownership of the impact we can make, the ownership of decisions,” says Kaarel. “It starts with a great atmosphere and environment that takes friction away and enables our team to be successful in their roles. For me it’s the most important thing – our team takes individual ownership of our journey.”

Treating clients as partners

If trust is core to relationships within the business, it’s just as vital in Veriff’s relationships with its clients. Kaarel learned early on the importance of being transparent and working through challenges with clients.

“We treat our customers as partners,” says Kaarel. “The service we offer them is a business vertical for their company to succeed, and therefore it’s very important to have good discussions and figure out the best solutions.”

Guiding customers through the process

At the time of Veriff’s inception, the identity verification market was driven by compliance demand. 

“The user experience was like the police stopping your car and asking to see your driver’s licence,” comments Kaarel. 

Yet at the same time, identity verification was easy to outsmart and the cost to bad actors of committing fraud was low. Kaarel and the Veriff team set out to create an online verification process that would provide tighter security while offering a smoother user experience.

“Let’s make online verification more accurate even than face-to-face verification,” says Kaarel. “And at the same time let’s have a user experience that feels like a warm hand taking you and guiding you through.”

Building trust on a global scale

Veriff can already verify over 11,000 different types of ID, and the list is growing. Kaarel sees the firm’s job as being to bring services nearer to people wherever they come from, by delivering trust on a global scale.

“What drives me is the excitement that every person on this planet can become a user of Veriff, and this is where we can have a much bigger impact.”

Veriff Voices

Listen to the full episode to hear Kaarel talk about partnerships, ownership, trust and more.

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