As a lifelong entrepreneur, being trapped in a company under multiple bosses never appealed to me.
I've always been passionate about entrepreneurship. As a child, I sold fake pirate coins and beads to my neighbors. As a college student, I connected buyers with auto dealer auctions over the internet. Like most entrepreneurs, I've failed more times than I care to admit, ending up at a job daydreaming about being my own boss someday.
During my last hiatus between ventures, I was lucky enough to work for Google, arguably one of the best places for folks with an entrepreneurial spirit. My role as the global head of identity verification offered me the opportunity to build amazing things, work with brilliant people and even break some stuff that had to be fixed later (oops!). But even with the freedom to work on projects that interested me, the itch to get out on my own was never stronger.
One day I came into the office and was presented with a new challenge. As the person in charge of identity verification and customer onboarding, it was my job to make sure users were who they said they were, allowing them to access things like Google Wallet and Android Pay. The challenge at hand was not to identify who the next billion users were but verify users in countries that lack the technical infrastructure and conventional identity processes (e.g. providing a birth certificate or issuing social security numbers) that we in the west take for granted.
I spoke to everyone I thought might know of ways to solve similar problems. We synthesized the problem down and soon realized we were trying to solve something that was important to every person and entity.
The problem relied on the following questions: What is identity? Who are we? How do we know who you really are?
These questions boiled into larger discussions, bigger audiences and broader topic areas until finally, I decided to break the conversation off into a new forum. This forum would be the beginning of One World Identity (OWI).
Since creating OWI in the spring of 2016, we've expanded from facilitating conversation and collaboration in the identity industry to providing strategy consulting services, research, analytics and education. Our team has grown from two to 20, including many who were colleagues at Google.
As I look forward to 2018, I can't help but be excited about where we will be in another year. Although the journey has been a series of peaks and valleys with hardly any time in the present to reflect, here are two of the biggest lessons I've learned along the way.
Your company is a saltwater fish tank
As a college student at the University of South Florida, I was obsessed with saltwater fish tanks. While my college roommates liked to exaggerate the number of tanks I had in my room (three, not "about 20"), they were unaware of the time and resources I poured into each tank. I spent hours checking the pH levels and adjusting the light settings, trying to create the perfect vision of aquatic paradise: beautiful anemones with clownfish living in them, hermit crabs trading shells and tangs swooping around a maze of coral.
The truth is, everything died.
In my haste to create perfection, I was always moving things around, changing the water and introducing more creatures without properly assimilating them first. Down to one fish tank, I became frustrated, stopped paying attention and went on a road trip with a few friends. When we came back over a week later, I was shocked to find the tank in great shape. It had everything it needed to succeed but kept failing because I wouldn't stop messing with it.
Like my first fish tanks, in the early days of OWI, I found myself getting involved too often, disrupting the entire organization. I had forgotten my college lesson. Both as a CEO and a saltwater fish tank owner, success is predicated on having the foresight to assemble the right team, placing them in the right conditions to thrive and then getting out of the way.
Know your role
As the CEO of a fast-growing startup, I've gone from being responsible for everything to just ensuring management is capable of doing the best job possible.
Earlier this year, I received great advice from the CEO of ID.me, Blake Hall, as he watched me struggle transitioning from doer to manager to leader. He said, "As the CEO, you are responsible for two things: making sure there is enough money in the bank and buying the pizza when the team is hungry."
No one will tell you when you need to stop being a doer and start being a manager, or when to stop being a manager and start being a leader. Figuring out what role you need to play and at what time to give your company the best chance of success is the biggest task for any entrepreneur.
The role of the CEO is quite simple: to make sure your company has the resources it needs to survive (e.g. money in the bank) and the emotional intelligence to realize what your team needs (e.g. pizza).
About the author: Travis Jarae is the CEO and founder of OWI. OWI made a splash back in May when OWI hosted the K(NO)W Identity Conference featuring 150+ speakers including keynote Edward Snowden. Most recently, Travis was Global Head of Identity Verification at Google, and prior to that, he worked at Deloitte and Citibank respectively. Travis’ deep expertise in identity/cybersecurity sector, and particularly how it coincides with the fintech space, allows him to provide detailed insight into topics such as underbanking, unbanking, authentication/verification, blockchain and more. Twitter: @travisjarae