We talked to Diego Martins of Unico about digital identity and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Diego Martins: Well, I’m at home with my wife and child since March. We’re fine and spending more time together. Sometimes I go to the office, where we partially returned with the activities to those who prefer to work. We’re following all WHO protection protocols, testing all employees before work, and let it all free to decide to return or not.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Unico?
Diego Martins: I’m a graduate in marketing, and since my 20s, I have had the dream of being a CEO. I started my career working as a salesman in a big company, and one day, at 22, I decided to make a presentation to my bosses pointing what was wrong with that organization that I’d like to be their CEO to fix it. They didn’t take that seriously, and I realized that I had two options: having a career and wait until my 40s for an opportunity to be a CEO or start my own company. So, I quit that job and began Acesso Digital in 2007. After 13 years, we started another chapter, changing our brand/name to Unico following our growth and focusing on business scalability in 2021.
How does Unico innovate?
Diego Martins: Since the beginning, our purpose is to simplify relations between companies and people. Unico is an IDTech, a startup that uses technology to create digital identities and protect people’s data.
I used to work with document storage, and I noticed that people and companies had a big problem to deal with: bureaucracy. In Brazil, opening a company is more straightforward than being hired. For example, all the documents you need to send to the HR department, besides all the bureaucracy in management and process to send this information. It also happens in payroll loans because of the massive quantity of frauds we have. So, we developed a solution of digitalization that was a pioneer in SaaS in Brazil.
After years of success and reaching 40% of the whole market alone, the business stagnated. In 2015, I decided to stop selling that product and traveled to Silicon Valley to find a new way. It was the beginning of companies such as Uber and Airbnb. When I came back, we pivoted and developed three products: facial recognition to authenticate identities, digital hiring, and electronic signature. Those products are in the market since 2017, with more than 400 companies, mainly banks, retailers, fintech, and industries as clients. We also acquired a technology company in Londrina (a city in Paraná, South of Brazil) and concentrated all the facial biometrics work there.
We keep fighting bureaucracy, using technology to make relations as frictionless as possible to someone who doesn’t have to prove who they are all the time through dozens of documents. With facial recognition technology, we get results in seconds that shows if someone is who they are saying or not. We also do not share any data with clients, only a score made by analyzing facial points. We give people all the control about data, deciding if they want to share their information with some company or not, and being able to edit or delete information when they want. We work under national and international laws, being the guardians for relations to be safe and straightforward.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Diego Martins: Internally: As a startup, we’ve already had part of our operations ready to work in a home office, like sales and other corporate areas. At the beginning of the pandemic, the challenge was to set up the security and analysis team that works with sensible data and in protected rooms. It took a few days to prepare, but it worked very well and with all the security. Before the pandemic, most of our employees in São Paulo, for example, weren’t from the city. They just came to live here to work and were living by themselves. With the pandemic, they went back to their towns, spread from all over Brazil, and got closer to their families. Our cultural team is also promoting webinars of well-being, talks with inspiring people, and meetings to let everybody on the same page. We regularly send lots of gifts to our team when we get a new client or want to celebrate something important.
Externally: We’ve been helping companies in digital transformation for a long time, but, suddenly, our business became essential to them and to companies that had never used technology in their processes. With the electronic signature, we’ve helped HRs all over the country to sign more than five hundred thousand documents while the same platform was used to sign about five thousand before the pandemic. To HRs, it was awesome: can you imagine sending a form one by one when people are working from home and asking them to return it to the office? We offer all this management without using one single piece of paper. Talking about business, we started using facial recognition in an area that we’d never thought of before: telemedicine. With the technology, we validate doctors and patients and use liveness technology to prove that both are alive all the time, and that’s the same one that started the appointment, banning frauds.
These facts drew the attention of two international investment funds: General Atlantic and SoftBank Latin America Fund. We’d received our first investment in history in January (of US$ 9,5 million, from Igah Ventures), and in September, we reached a Series B with both funds and raised US$ 110 million. Like us, they saw how consuming, and business relations changed with the pandemic and how our products will contribute to creating all Brazilians’ digital identity. Today, Unico has the most extensive facial biometrics base globally, identifying more than 60% of economically active Brazilians.
Another important fact in 2020: with the first investment, we created an M&A area and made our first acquisition in August in an acquihire model. The chosen company was Meerkat, a startup from Porto Alegre city that already offered technology for us and has a skilled team in computer vision. Now, we have three offices: São Paulo, Londrina and Porto Alegre. We’d also donate our technologies to important causes. First of all, we saw an urgent need to hire health professionals to field hospitals and offered our digital hiring product to speed up admissions worldwide. New employees scan all paperwork and are employed in a few hours without going to HR.
And we helped with facial recognition technology, too. With the financial crisis, we joined a fintech that uses a digital wallet to support two social programs: one to help an NGO (CUFA) register twenty thousand women in socially vulnerable situations to receive financial aid and prevent fraud, and another to register beneficiaries of an emergency program to students of São Paulo’s public system. You can find more about the CUFA project here.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Diego Martins: The beginning of the pandemic was uncertain to every company. We took some actions to keep on the line.
Direction – The company, no matter how uncertain the moment is, needs direction. Soon as the pandemic started, we reviewed objectives and goals. It’s essential for the day-to-day and stay connected and aligned with the reality the company is going through.
Communication – Our communication is constant and objective. We created a routine with all the employees once in the week to reduce anxiety and keep everyone informed and aligned.
Transparency – Lots of openness! As difficult as the scenario is, our team has the right to understand where the company is going.
Until now, these attitudes are helping a lot to maintain control of our routine, even far from the office. We didn’t have any problems at all.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Diego Martins: Running is the best exercise for me. It’s my time to concentrate and get energy for the day. I also love fishing and all the tranquility I can have at that moment.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Diego Martins: As an IDTech, we don’t have a specific competitor, but some startups that offer similar services separately. In our favor, we have the consolidation of our products and the best technologies available in the market. We’re also present as the leading players since we started in 2007. To keep us at the forefront, we’ll continue developing new solutions and helping our clients offer their customers the best experience.
Your final thoughts?
Diego Martins: We’re glad to be at startup.info in a critical moment for us, that is the change of our brand. With Unico, we’re writing a new chapter focused on being Brazil’s largest technology company. At Unico, people are unique, and that is enough for them to open up many possibilities.
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