It's Veriff's Birthday week! So we spoke to our CEO and COO about how they met, their first five years in Veriff, and what they see in their future.
Patrick Johnson, October 23rd, 2020
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In recognition of Veriff’s 5th Birthday, we spoke with our founder Kaarel Kotkas and co-founder Janer Gorohhov, about their personal journeys across the last five years and what they see for themselves in the future. It was an entertaining, enlightening, and at times very humorous conversation.
KK: If you’re asking if I knew it would be big, then definitely yes.
The bigger plan to make Veriff a global brand didn’t really chime with our early investors though, because our initial product was focused on Estonian e-Residency and the potential of 10 million e-residents signing up with Estonia and needing bank accounts. (At the time of writing there are almost 73,000 e-residents, so it didn’t quite work out as expected.)
Ultimately, the Estonian banks themselves made things difficult for e-residents, but it helped drive us to build a product which we wanted to be trusted by anyone using it. This put us in the right direction.
KK: I don’t personally think I’m an established CEO - I think that’s a long journey and I have further to go! If you consider - is Veriff bigger than our initial goal, then no, not yet.
For me, I’m consistently looking for how we can get things done, and I do enjoy doing things alone, getting direct and instant feedback. But the reality demands that we grow our team, because we all only have 24 hours in a day, and to make something earth-shifting happen, it demands so much - you need a team.
CEO was actually never really the goal for me, but it’s the way I can get things done.
JG: It’s a necessary evil right?
KK: To some extent, yes! Janer and I always enjoyed working together and getting things done as a team, but as you start to put distance between yourself and the product, it becomes an itch you can’t scratch anymore. Ultimately though, I do enjoy my role now, and I appreciate its importance.
KK: To some extent the feeling is still fairly similar, because investors still don’t know what Veriff is, and they don’t know the market in the same way as we do. They know what’s in front of them, and you have to be there and make your messages clear.
And you’re always nervous - if that feeling goes away then that becomes a bigger problem. You should never feel that you know everything, there’s always something to learn. The nerves excite you.
KK: I remember Janer making contact with me after a social media marketing event, we knew each other previously, and we met up, had a chat, walked half of the way home and agreed to keep talking. And Janer was very curious - “What’s happening? How are things going?”. We went for coffee or lunch, and every time we worked together I could feel positive vibes. I started to consider how we could get Janer to join the team, and how we could start building Veriff together.
Later on, we were having lunch in Tallinn Old Town, and Janer had already accepted an offer from another company. And Janer is an incredibly honorable person, he felt terrible as he’d given his word, and he was considering how he could possibly break that promise. I’ll admit I did try and convince him a bit, telling him they’d understand that this was a good opportunity. How did you feel about it, Janer?
JG: I think you definitely got most of it right from your perspective - when we met, Veriff and Inbank had just released the initial product and I saw it on Facebook as we were already friends there. And I was curious about it, as I appreciated the innovation element. At the time I was also in Tartu finishing my Bachelor’s degree, but I’d already been to Garage48, I was already interested in working in a start-up or building a start-up, so it was an idea in my mind. There were then about 6 months between that marketing event you mentioned and us having coffee and talking about Veriff, and in that time I finished my degree, moved to Tallinn and signed a contract with another company.
It may have been down to Kaarel’s convincing, or maybe not, but I definitely did a SWOT analysis to understand whether I was making the right decision. It was tough, I had given my promise (digitally - Estonian style), and it was the hardest decision I’d made at the time. Ultimately it’s also worked out to be the best decision.
KK: And thinking back to before that moment - I really wanted Janer in our team, and he’d then said ‘No’ to the other company, but he was joining Veriff due to belief in the company, there wasn’t a financial incentive. I had huge respect for that, he gave up a lot in terms of the potential short-term gain, to take the longer ride with us.
JG: I think the main motivator for me in the short-term was a love of the vision, but also the opportunity to learn my role - which ultimately became Chief Operating Officer (COO). What is ‘operations’? It’s so vague, I still feel that I’m learning about the position now. I think even in the early days, before I had a contract, I got to work on so many things - legal, contracts, sales, product, a little bit of everything really. And I loved that self-education element of it.
KK: And when he joined the team he effectively said “This is the cost of my rent, this is how much I need to eat, and we can start from here.”
JG: And when he says ‘eat’, I meant ramen noodles specifically!
KK: It was a great beginning, there was so much going on, we were both doing so much. One week you’re working on the product, one week you’re a developer, etc. And you’re making sure that this will all work towards a properly structured approach later, that you do something once, and then figure out how the specific team can take this over and build on it. And it was genuinely fun. Janer had been with us for a week, and walked into a sales meeting with a local bank to sell Veriff to them! No onboarding, nothing like that.
JG: And I didn’t know the product at all, I’d made a presentation, rehearsed, tested the product, tried a demo - but there are always things you can’t predict. I was lucky that nothing really gave me away. Someone at the back of that room asked “How do you change the language in the product?” and as I took a pause, not knowing the answer at all, someone else shouted “It’s there in the top right corner” so I just said “Precisely, that’s where it is.”
KK: We were both all in from day one - we spent days and nights in each other’s company and I could sense that this was a lifelong partnership, a brotherhood.
JG: I really believe that great relationships are built in adversity. When we first launched with LHV (a local Estonian bank), we were doing development until 5am, and we were mostly there to support our lead developer Ilia and his team. You have to go through the tough things, but equally find the enjoyment in them.
KK: There’s probably a book full of stuff we’ve been through!
JG: I think there’s a general theory in start-ups of the roles of CEO and COO, that they have to be the yin and yang - what Kaarel does well, I should do badly, and vice versa. I think it’s not strictly true with us, I think being COO means you need to be a jack-of-all-trades and that includes publicising the company as well. So if Kaarel isn’t around then I have to go out and promote Veriff - at the beginning it was uncomfortable for me, which shows that it’s a real skill, but I’ve definitely gained confidence doing it. I think the whole marketing team pushing me to put myself out there has actually helped me develop as well - it’s a task that you do again and again and you keep getting better.
KK: There’s one thing I’ve noticed actually, over time, that the amplification of wins and losses gets bigger and bigger. So, the big wins, welcoming new clients, closing investment, feel amazing, but equally the big losses feel that much worse in contrast. This makes it hard to have perspective in a sense as what you’re looking to achieve is a moving target.
When Blockchain was close to coming on board, I was coming back to Estonia from the UK, and I appreciated how massive a step it was for us. Just that a deal that was so big for us at the time was suddenly a real possibility. The team put in so much effort to make it happen - so it was definitely a highlight for the significance.
We also welcomed another big client a little while ago, who we can’t name for now, but we were so exhausted at the time that we could barely celebrate! Despite the fact that they were a client I didn’t foresee signing up before something like 2027. It definitely gave us a level of validation that you really hope for in this field.
JG: Yes, I never imagined that that piece of news would just feel ‘ok’ - it was a big deal for us! Thinking of my own highlights, I agree with a lot of what Kaarel said, and I feel like there are highlights almost weekly - getting better and better. Perhaps that diminishes highlights of the past, so it’s important to maintain that momentum and keep having great moments, and make it a habit.
To highlight something else awesome, how fast we grew from our starting point when we signed a contract and said “Ok, how do we do this?”. 6 months of hiring, then developing automation, then actually doing verifications, then supplying the verification team with Red Bull! It definitely stands out.
KK: This reminded me of something - that you need to do what you like, and have big dreams, but even if they don’t come off as you planned initially, you can still achieve amazing things. I think Veriff’s team has shown that - they can make the impossible possible. It’s the attitude of the team - no matter what the challenge, we’ll make it happen.
KK: I think when I became an entrepreneur, there wasn’t a financial motivation, as that doesn’t take you very far. You need to see a problem that won’t solve itself and want to solve it. And then put everything into achieving that.
Two years ago, we had an offer on the table for Veriff - “Guys, well done, you can go and do something else now, your financial future is totally safe” - but there was no way we could take it. We didn’t feel we were even halfway towards what Veriff could be. That was the first time we saw that the problem was something massive.
The only metric behind ‘value’ in the current world is revenue, and that offer helped show us the potential value of Veriff. It meant we could push for more investment, and try and do things bigger and faster.
The main thing for me is to have this overall impact - to solve the crisis of identity online. You shouldn’t be able to pretend to be someone else and create chaos. If we solve that, it would be huge.
JG: I would perhaps challenge the idea of personal ambition - I think our personal ambitions will always reflect the overall team ambitions.
For myself, I have my own targets for self-development, but they will also pay back the team. I think something wonderful that has happened in the midst of the madness of 2020, was that we got direct feedback from end-users who’ve been able to do things thanks to Veriff. To get more of this feedback over the next five years would be fantastic.
KK: This feedback was really so cool - to hear that people had genuinely got things done using Veriff. People were so genuine, and that can get lost in our B2B2C world. It gives us a lot of strength.
KK: I know mine, I want to start a little car wash. Kaarel’s Kaar Wash!
JG: I’m not surprised! On your birthday, your present to yourself was going to get your car washed!
I definitely see everyday things I feel I could improve, and I think I’ve proven to myself that no matter what sector I go into, I just need commitment to do things. Early on at University I actually helped create a table brand with some friends, but I had to exit from it as I didn’t have time to be committed to two businesses. I think there are options but I’ve never given it much thought as I’m already growing one business and don’t have time for something else for now.
I think I’d enjoy going back into software engineering, and challenging myself to start from scratch with this again.
KK: If you go into that I could go into medicine. Not as a doctor. Although you never know.
JG: Maybe you’ll find the solution for being a doctor without needing a degree.
KK: Yes - imagine that - “I have 10 years’ experience running a business, and I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos about how to do heart transplants, here I am!”
JG: Kaarel Kotkas presents - Operation Simulator!