In the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can” Leonardo DiCaprio plays real life con-man; Frank Abagnale, and in one scene we see him clinching a job as a hospital doctor by forging a diploma from Harvard Medical School and lying about his work experience with the Southern California Children’s Hospital.
The character that Leo played was an incredible con-man but it is not difficult to see how he could pull off the impersonation. HR departments can only do so much to detect fraud; asking for original certificates and calling up past employers, but these steps can easily be intercepted. This process is also cumbersome with different levels of third party organisations having to communicate with each other and is why degree fraud is a prominent issue. Even without fraud, keeping and handing physical certificates around carries a risk that one of the hands that the certificates have been passed to misplaces it.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Justin, former lawyer and founder of Sekhel, to learn about his vision to securely place credentials on a public ledger to replace physical verification.
Utilising IOTA’s Tangle; a next generation blockchain, CVs can include a hyperlink to the Sekhel verification page which will give access to a database of tamper-proof certificates that employers or other institutions can rely on as being actually issued to the person presenting it.
Trends in the region
Justin sees that certification fraud is rampant. A survey done in the USA by HireRight (2016), revealed that 88% of candidates lied on their CVs. Closer to home, a lawyer with a second class honours (lower division) from NUS was recently fined for changing the (lower division) to (upper division) in her certificate (Channel NewsAsia, 2018). Furthermore, from 2015-2017, 73 foreigners were convicted of forging academic certificates and barred from working in Singapore (TODAYonline, 2018). There are even sites like FakeResume and CareerExcuse that openly provide falsification services.
Additionally Justin feels that the current hype around blockchain has been hampering his efforts to convince potential stakeholders of the viability of Sekhel. While utilising blockchain technology, the core business of Sekhel is not blockchain but verification of credentials. However, due to the hype and corresponding lack of complete information around blockchain, cryptocurrency has almost become synonymous with the term blockchain, despite blockchain having much more to offer. Therefore Justin finds it hard to dissociate his business from cryptocurrency news; especially the cases of frauds and hackings of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency exchanges. Agreeing with Justin, industry experts on CoinTelegraph (2017) cite the lack of public understanding on blockchain as a major challenge for companies who seek to incorporate blockchain technology into daily mainstream operations.
Differentiating Sekhel from the deluge of other companies rushing into the blockchain space is also a challenge for Justin. Given the hype, many companies have started to add “blockchain” into their name even without much utilisation of the technology just to drive up their value. For example, an American beverage maker “Long Island Iced Tea” saw its share price increase 200% just by changing their name to “Long Blockchain Corp” even though the company was still only evaluating potential business opportunities in blockchain (CNBC, 2017). Bloomberg (2017), noted that adding “blockchain” to company names has become a trend even with companies that previously had little to do with blockchain; sports bras, e-cigarettes and juice companies to name a few. As more companies try their luck pivoting on blockchain, fighting for attention as a start-up using blockchain becomes an even steeper uphill battle.
Riding on the trends
To meet the need for a convenient and secure method of credential verification, Justin started Sekhel to harness blockchain in creating a public ledger of credentials that can accurately represent professional reputations and be trusted by institutions that require the information. Blockchain’s decentralised nature makes it tamper-proof as it is interconnected amongst users as explained in this article by Technology (2018). Being decentralised, it is near impossible for malicious acts to occur and to edit every single ‘block’ of data stored in its network of users, on top of bypassing the encryption. This also makes it impossible for applicants to fake their credentials if companies draw on Sekhel’s blockchain-database of CVs.
To achieve success for Sekhel, Justin feels that the key is in combating the misinformation surrounding blockchain technology. In particular, blockchain needs to be dissociated from the speculative investment aspect of cryptocurrencies which tend to dominate the news. If the public can see blockchain for its use as a secure public ledger instead of a financial instrument, using blockchain as a database of verified credentials can then be culturally acceptable to employers and other institutions. It is certainly an uphill battle, with experts from Medium (2018) speaking of the same challenges of “public perception” Justin voices here.
Challenges in running a Start-up
Justin feels that as a start-up, the lack of scale can make even basic operations like finding talent a challenge. For example, start-ups do not have the glamour and glitz which big corporations offer and this is not only in terms of reputation, but little things, such as office locations. Justin mentioned how “Venture for America”, an organisation that connects American college graduates to startups, would send aspiring entrepreneurs to areas with cheaper rent such as Detroit (Business Insider, 2014), which do not offer the same allure as WallStreet.
Justin also feels that start-ups face difficulty due to Asian cultural attitudes. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Connecting Commerce report, Singapore was ranked 21st in innovation and entrepreneurship. Commenting on the relatively dismal performance, Telstra’s group managing director of international and global services; Mr David Burns, said that “In corporate society in Singapore, failure is not in the dictionary, whereas that innovative environment works on trying things and seeing what works” (The Straits Times, 2017)
Obtaining funding for product development is also a key challenge that Justin feels start-ups face. Echoing this view is NUS Enterprise director Dr Wong Poh Kam who said that “while there’s funding for research and for growing businesses, there’s nothing in between… If a research team has achieved a breakthrough, it needs to build a product out of it and present a compelling business case for investors to be interested. But where does the team find the funding to build that product in the first place?” (Techinasia, 2017).
Justin also faces a personal challenge of adjusting to life as an entrepreneur. While he was a lawyer, Justin had a clear idea on what needed to be done; which judge he was going to present his cases to, how elaborate his affidavits needed to be, what his time-cost was and how much time should be committed to each case. However as an entrepreneur, he can no longer find solace in structured schedules. On any particular day, a new investor could be attracted or a staff member could leave. What he chooses to do with his time is now up to him to decide. This shift is jarring and requires a huge mind set change. The success of a start-up will depend on the founder’s ability to cope with uncertainty, which the writers over at Capital Innovation (2017) have written a beautiful piece on.
Justin shares that he was fortunate enough to meet some industry veterans who worked with him to build up Sekhel. Without such connections, Justin acknowledges that the journey would have been much tougher as one cannot just google for the contacts of venture capitalists and expect them to entertain a brand new idea. Therefore Justin feels that to promote start-up growth in Singapore, more programs and events can be organised to connect first-time or aspiring entrepreneurs to industry veterans who can guide them through the process. In this regard, the Startup SG Founder by SPRING Singapore can be tapped on as it pairs startups with suitable mentors of the industry to provide fledgling companies with essential advice and networking contacts. Besides Startup SG Founder, Startup SG boast of other “pillars of support”– Startup SG Tech, Startup Equity, Startup SG Accelerator, Startup SG Loan and Startup SG Talent, in which each pillar targets a specific problem that Startups may face (StartupSg, 2014).
Additionally start-ups in Singapore need not go to less developed areas to look for low-rent office locations as they can obtain a low-rent office space at The JTC Launch Pad @ One-North which is a relatively “hip” place with easy access to Timbre+, basketball courts and the One-North MRT.
Justin also welcomes SUSS’ efforts to provide education on blockchain. In addition to organising events and conferences, SUSS also offers workshops on blockchain (SUSS, 2018). Hopefully through this sort of engagements, the public will be more receptive of the use of blockchain in daily life.
Call to Singaporean entrepreneurs
Treading on an asphalt path traversed by many before is a road that is definitely safe and secure. A road less travelled is one filled with ambiguity and uncertainty: of bumps and unknown terrains. But also of pleasant surprises exclusive to it: of flowers and the wildlife nature has to offer.
The same can be said for embarking on a career path with a startup. Justin’s bold venture with Sekhel has little guarantees, but we do know that his ambition today is something that would follow him and serve him well in the future. Bold individuals such as Justin, who step out of their comfort zones, may very well be the key in ensuring our nation’s survival in today’s age of innovation.
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