$394M raised, $1.75B valuation, and most importantly, 5 billion consumers’ identities verified later, founder Stephen Ufford of Trulioo opens his heart and shares the “million cuts and scars” that come with success, his unconventional answer to what it takes to become a Good Unicorn.
Imagine not having an identity. You wouldn’t be able to build your online brand, network for work, travel across borders, apply for jobs, use health insurance to pay for medical bills, build credit, get loans, start a business, buy a house.
You’d be invisible.
That’s the reality for 1 billion people around the world today because they don’t have an identity record. Without an identity record, they are deemed untrustworthy for the most basic and critical transactions required for success in our digital world.
And that is exactly the problem Trulioo is solving. Equal access to identity verification for all. In today’s digital-first world, where identity equals trust, without equal access to identity verification, we risk leaving 1 billion people without access to our digital economy.
This was one of the most heartfelt conversations I had, thanks to Stephen’s courageous vulnerability. Let’s dive into the deep end.
Diana Tsai: How did trust at scale become so important to you?
Stephen Ufford: There’s a personal story and a systemic one here. Early in my life, I traveled a lot and was able to see the benefits of living in North America. And I learned that many of the opportunities we have, really come back to trust. I met a woman in Peru that was weaving scarves, and it took her about a day and a half to weave the scarf. And she was selling them for $1.50. And I found the same scarves online, being sold by an American that she mentioned would come down and buy from her in bulk. And they were, you know, I think $40 or $50. And so why, why is he able to do that on her back? The only ingredient missing there is that she’s not trusted. She can’t go onto these platforms. Nobody wants to buy anything directly from her online, but if you’re an American with a California business address, people are willing to pay you 50x. Imagine what the difference between $1.50 and $40 or $50 would do in her hands versus someone in California! There’s so many stories like that.
Why did I choose to focus on trust-building? It’s because it seemed to be the ingredient that was missing from the Internet that could make such a positive impact if it was improved.
Tsai: How does the world look different in 100 years? Because you founded this company?
Ufford: 100 years…well in 10 years, I was hoping that all 7 billion plus of us could be trusted online. We just celebrated our 10th anniversary. So maybe we’re slightly behind by a couple years, but we’re at 5 billion (identity verified by Trulioo). So we’re getting there.
Once we reach that goal of establishing trust for all 7 billion of us, I think the world will look very different, because the Internet will not just be a replica of the real world, but an upgraded version, because online, we can all be trusted. Whereas in the real world, I believe that that’s still far off. It’s very hard for someone from Ethiopia to build trust with someone from Canada in the real world. How do you overcome that? Online, that is possible. So I guess in 100 years, and I’d like to see the Internet surpass the real world in all areas of our life. And I can’t even dream of the impact that happens when we surpass identity verification for the purposes of just financial inclusion to touch on all areas of life. So between the 10 year plan and the 100 year plan, I think, when those things start happening on top of the impact that we’ve made.
Tsai: Wow. So I love the purpose driven, underlying obvious nature of everything that you’re doing. Has there ever been a time where you felt purpose and profit were at odds? And how? And if so, like, how did you decide between the two?
Ufford: I think that only comes up when you’ve brought in the wrong people. I take responsibility for that, because I choose our investors, our employees, our customers. And I’ve made mistakes. Not necessarily a mistake of choosing the wrong person, the mistake is not communicating what we’re about enough. And so then, there’s a misalignment in expectations.
If they think they came to blow up revenue as their first priority, but yours is to reach another billion people and the profit will follow the impact, then there’s a misalignment from the jump. I realize now it comes down to just being as authentic as you can be. Authenticity builds trust, and authenticity is in short supply these days.
So if you focus on authenticity, as a founder, when you’re building your company, everything you do builds trust. And when you have trust within your own company, your ecosystem, then it’s easy to prioritize the mission over the revenue and profit, because everyone’s aligned.
Tsai: You’re a living embodiment of trust-building. It’s so natural to you. I can see how you’re literally the DNA of Trulioo. Do you think it’s easier to build a Good Unicorn or a Bad Unicorn?
Ufford: Well, it’s probably much, much harder if you’re pretending to be a Good Unicorn. Because the message doesn’t transmit, you’re saying the words, but people look in your eyes, and they don’t see that you believe it. But when you’re authentic, then that trust starts building between everybody, and your momentum increases, right? So customers saw it in my eyes in the early days. And that’s why we have so many customers, when I brought them in, they’re still our customers ten years later. They believed in me, and then they believed in the brand. And now they believe in the product.
When you’re building your companies, you get lots of people telling you how to lead. That advice is sage sometimes, but no one ever really tells you just to be yourself. And I think when you do that, your company’s momentum changes. If you’re truly in it for a purpose, you will attract other like-minded people if you’re authentic. And so it’s much easier to be a Good Unicorn if that’s how you’re wired. Much easier. It comes so naturally, like you said, I’m not trying to build trust here. I’m just being myself.
Tsai: You’re just being yourself. What did it take for you to start finding your own leadership style as you were turning inward? And how would you define that?
Ufford: Well, wow, what a question. I would say more failure than success. This is my fourth startup. I’ve had the journey since I was very young, myself and my cofounder have known each other since we were 12 years old. We’ve built our lives next to each other. Having a mirror in somebody that’s known you for so long to say, you know, you’re kind of a terrible person right now, is very helpful. It’s super important for self-growth.
I really became my true self in my 30s at Trulioo. I mean, our mission was creating global inclusion, and I really came into myself at that point and embraced that I’m gay. I had come out in my early 20s, but I didn’t really embrace it because I come from a very religious Catholic family. So while we were building Trulioo, I got married, we adopted a boy from a different country, and then Trulioo exploded, and all these things happened at once.
As it relates to building a Good Unicorn, your own life’s journey is reflected in your startups. It’s your DNA through the company, you share the same beating heart. So you can’t pretend to be something in your personal life and then expect that your company is going to be fully authentic, it’s just not going to happen. Your employees will think it’s fake, your product won’t do what it says it can do.
And it was when all those things came together in my life personally, that the company really came together too. I became my true self, and as a result, the company became more true to its mission. It’s all very symbiotic, whatever’s going on in your life is often reflected in the company. So that journey for me over the last decade of knowing myself and becoming more of myself and being open with people about who I am, take it or leave it, has totally impacted Trulioo.
If you look at Trulioo’s 10 year timeline, you can see that the product early on was something that I thought other people wanted. As a CEO, I projected what I thought Unicorn founders did – I moved to Silicon Valley even though I’d never lived there before. I was projecting what I thought people wanted me to be to be successful. But the company really didn’t grow. We had a lot of false starts, and we muddled through, but it really only took off in the last five years when I when my own life took off, because I was being more of myself.
Tsai: Wow, what changed for you to catalyze this inner transformation that then led to Trulioo taking off?
Ufford: I was exhausted trying to be something I was not. So I said, forget that, I’m just going to be myself and see what happens. And I think every founder will have a better success rate if they’re just true to themselves and being authentic. Trulioo’s journey mirrors my own. The product early on was trying to be what investors wanted to be, versus what I believed in, which no one’s done before, which creates a new category. Well, you probably know, in your own ventures, it’s like, even with this stuff, no one’s done this before. Right? And no one’s collected Good Unicorn stories like this, and no one’s even thought to ask the question, is it easier to build a Good Unicorn or a bad one, I mean who asks that? Right? Maybe that becomes a question that everyone should ask themselves, what am I building? Am I building a good company or a bad one here? And why am I building it?
I’m rambling, I think, it’s a deeply personal question that is best answered with a deeply personal response. Also, I’m off caffeine and I had a coffee for you today so this is just coming out of me like verbal diarrhea.
Tsai: Your response is so powerful, and such beautiful imagery you end with there. I’d like to circle back to one thing you said that’s very interesting. I mean, lots of things. But one thing in particular, you said that during the first five years the product was what investors wanted versus what you believe in. And now the product is what you believe in. So can you give a snapshot of before and after, what the product was when it was what investors wanted it to be versus what the product vision is now when it’s what you envision it to be as a category creator?
Ufford: Yes, so when I started the company, I mentioned earlier I moved to the Bay Area for the first time, started making the rounds and getting feedback on my idea. What I was hearing at the time was two things. First, the internet is supposed to be anonymous. So it’s not broken. So don’t fix something that isn’t broken. 10 years ago, that was the more common response. And then for those people that thought, well, maybe it is a bit broken, people thought that it was more about solving very specific use cases, it wasn’t about solving trust. The trust issue for me was about inclusion and about everybody, but investors wanted to focus on a very specific application, like, can you lower fraud rate on a credit card application in the US market? And I just thought, to hell with that, why does the rest of the world not matter? That’s just one of many examples.
So at the time, I listened, and we built a product that solved very specific use cases, dating websites, social media profile fraud. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. But it wasn’t focused on including everybody in the world. So I was building products that were not aligned with my core value of bringing 7 billion people into the digital economy. And as a result, the product was very fragmented. It had one edge use case, then you find out the market’s too small, or, you know, so many little little hairs on the product, in the beginning it was a very hairy product. We used to say the product has more hair on it than I have on my head, and I have increasingly less on my head, and I wanted it to go the other way, more hair on the head less on the product.
So that was something that I had to overcome and start listening to my own intuition. Based on my own interactions with customers in the market, my own authentic view, not one that was so highly influenced by others.
I don’t know if it was at the five year mark, I think it may have been three to four years in, we started thinking, no, this is not what we want to build, THIS is what we actually want to build. We want to build something bigger, and we want to build something that from the jump that considers everybody. And so our product roadmap really changed. And it took way longer and was way harder. This product took five years to really get to product market fit. It was so hard right to build and is still hard.
And you know, another thing too, entrepreneurs get pressure, right? You raise money in the Bay, and people want quick fails, quick success, and huge goals. And sometimes knowing whether you’re failing or succeeding at a huge goal – that just can’t be done in 18 months. Quick failure or quick success is not always possible when solving major world problems, by the way!
Tsai: That’s something that I keep finding with the Good Unicorns, that product-market fit takes a while, I’ve heard five to six years a couple of times now. I’m starting to see a thread. You’re all telling me when you’re solving massive global problems, it doesn’t happen in 18 months. So I think I want to talk a little bit about preparation versus luck and the role of luck in terms of your journey. How important is luck in your story?
Ufford: I am simultaneously the most lucky and unlucky SOB I’ve ever met.
I do believe that luck equals when opportunity meets preparation. But ultimately, a lot of bad luck can be transformed into google luck through resilience. If you are resilient, it’s funny how something bad turns into something good, something wonderful down the line. And so if you view luck through that lens, then you, you harness it, I don’t know if you take control of it, but you harness it.
And so for me, I’ve had to make my own luck a little bit. And so the ingredients for me are resilience and preparation. Here’s an Oprah line for you. I believe she copied it from somewhere, but I think I heard it from her. “The difference between a dream and a goal is a plan.” For me, those are words to live by. And so having a plan for yourself, knowing that it probably won’t be followed, but at least trying to drive directionally, is when opportunity looks like luck.
People sometimes say, “Wow, he’s so lucky.” Actually, you don’t know how many failures and how much preparation it took for me to seize this opportunity. So I look lucky. Oh, this is like how we’ve been talking about becoming a Unicorn. People say, “Oh, my God, where’d you come from? How did you become this company overnight, you’re so lucky.” And we’re very fortunate. But it’s not luck. There’s blood, sweat, and tears, people who have given their souls and their hearts to the company for 10 years to make it happen. So that’s not luck, it’s a lot of planning, and dreaming, and then planning and then having a goal and then preparing for the goal, to come to fruition. And then all of a sudden, you look super lucky.
So do I believe in luck? No. But I believe in fortune, because I think there are people today who are born into circumstances and can’t change their lives just by pure preparation. But if you are fortunate enough to have opportunity around you, then you can look really lucky if you’re prepared. So there’s a big difference between luck and fortune. And I think people it’s they’re almost interchangeable.
Tsai: What I find so interesting about your answers is how you anchor into your personal life. And I’ve always believed this, that you can’t cordon off parts of yourself and be like, “This is me as CEO, this is me as a parent, this is me as a friend.” And it’s the same person and all your demons come out in the exact same shape across different environments. So what I want to task is – what’s your personal work right now? What are you trying to unlearn or learn?
Ufford: Well, one of the things I’ve struggled with is really listening to people. So I consider myself a good listener. But I think what I’m trying to do is be an effective listener, not just a good listener. You have to be yourself, but you also have to grow and change. Sometimes as a leader, people’s opinions and advice affect you too much, you can lose your way. And so you get into this mode, where you listen to people and you consider it but it rarely changes your direction. And you do this because you’ve had to cauterize your core to lead. Now I’ve realized, I don’t need to have this molten core, all the time, I can have something that, you know, is a little bit less hot, burning a little less hot, really listen, really let people’s ideas change me.
And so the way that I’ve been doing my personal work is to listen more, but also to let it get in, let it get in, not just absorb it, but let it settle inside me. And I think that it will also prepare me to be a better leader.
I’ve taken this year off so I’m coming up to 18 months out of the CEO role. That transition for me was really hard. It’s like giving up a child right? But you have to do it. And my son is 17 now, so soon I’ll have to give him up to the world too. The work of transitioning out of Trulioo, is preparing me now for the work of giving up my son, letting him do his own thing. For me, I don’t want to repeat what I did poorly transitioning out of Trulio on my 17 year old transitioning to his new life, and I don’t want to repeat it on my next startup.
Tsai: What really strikes me about you are your authenticity, and your perseverance. Can you speak a bit more to the advice you give to entrepreneurs on these subjects?
Ufford: I really care about helping fellow founders recognize that it’s okay to be themselves. That’s a journey that’s very hard. There’s not a lot of people helping with that. That’s why I think it’s important for me to share how hard it was for me. Look at the millions of little cuts I have, and I’m still breathing! I want to let other founders know that, there’s more unicorns now than ever, but it’s still very rare. I know so many people that have not had the fortune to get to this point and how you get here in a word is perseverance. And really, if I look back, you know, authenticity is very important characteristic, but more than anything in the last 10 years of building Trulioo, it was perseverance.
That’s why I love when people can look at me and say, “This has been the worst.” I love founders that just take the gloves off, especially when you first meet them, and treat you like a long lost friend, put their head on your shoulder and say, “Oh, I’ve had the worst day.” Because it allows you to do the same. Right? And then when they’re having a great day, you believe it and you celebrate with them. And I think that authenticity will spread to your employees, your customers.
On perseverance…you read LinkedIn and everybody’s a Unicorn and everybody’s winning. When they take their proverbial shirts off you’ll see they have millions of little stab wounds. And they’re there because they persevered. This is the truth, not the fail fast, succeed fast stuff – that’s not true. I have found that perseverance wins and very, very rarely are Good Unicorns born overnight. And if they are, they’re usually not not truly impactful businesses.
Going back to what you said about six or seven years for product-market fit, and then building the company on top of that… I just want everyone to know that this was not an overnight success for us. There is a lot of failure underneath the hood to get to this point and suffering. But we do it because we are passionate about what we’re building. And you can do it too. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
I saw one of your questions was what’s the contrarian view to the Bay? This is the contrarian view: persevere, you will win, or you will die trying and that’s the journey that we’re all on with this stuff. So take the shot and persevere because it’s only over when you say it’s over.
Tsai: Wow. That was literally incredible. Okay, I have a follow up question. How did you develop this perseverance mentality? How did you cultivate this muscle of perseverance?
Ufford: How you do that is by building on the little pieces of success. If you’re measuring yourself by the totality of your end goals constantly, there’s no success to build on. So you can’t persevere, there’s foundation. But if you build on the little wins, and you stay motivated, you keep persevering. You talked about that muscle, perseverance comes from having something to stand on, even if it’s just a little tile, you know, and amongst all the broken tiles, you find the one little tile that you can stand on to step up to the next little tile.
…and yes that’s a Squid Game reference.
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