It was two weeks before Blake Hall’s unit would deploy for combat in Iraq, and suddenly he and his 32 men were being told they weren’t going into direct combat after all; they would instead be running a kill-and-capture mission, something none of them had trained for.
They were given new intelligence equipment and instructions to “figure it out.” Alarms blared in the dead of night, signaling 20 minutes to action; that’s all the time the soldiers had to get from deep sleep to action-ready, rolling out in pursuit of high-value targets, including members of Al-Qaeda.
Twelve years later, Hall has brought this military experience to bear in the business world as Founder and CEO of identity verification firm ID.me.
Military action and entrepreneurship may not seem to have much in common, but according to Hall, the lessons he learned in Iraq have served him well since then. Good leadership, he said, is good leadership, both on the battlefield and in the boardroom.
In a recent interview with Karen Webster, Hall shared the story of his military service and what it taught him about success, as well as how it contributed to his idea to found ID.me.
When his brigade first deployed in July 2006, Hall said its success rate was less than half the average (and the theater average was only 44 percent). But within three months, the unit had learned and had grown enough to attain that benchmark and then some — earning it additional challenging assignments, each of which required the soldiers to learn new techniques and technologies.
Hall took those challenges in stride and his men followed his lead, leading them to great success during their 15 months in Iraq. Once, at the end of their tour, they took out nine out of 10 top targets in a vehicle bomb network that was killing more than a thousand civilians a month. Their actions were so swift the network was never able to regroup. Countless civilian deaths were prevented.
Fast forward to Hall’s years at Harvard Business School, where intellectual intensity replaced the physical demands of war. It was a different kind of challenge, but Hall said he approached it with the same attitude, and it was this same steady confidence that he brought to the table when he began to notice how much people were struggling to prove their identities online and control their data. He realized that the same skills he learned from targeting terrorists could be brought to bear in this new context.
“The military was an incredible laboratory for leadership,” Hall said. “It gave me confidence that, if my team could survive in a combat scenario they weren’t trained for, I could do this too.”
Foundations of Leadership
“You care about your men, and you’re halfway competent,” Hall remembers being told by a range instructor. “They’ll follow you.”
It may not sound like high praise, but it contained a lot of wisdom, said Hall. Humans are social creatures, and having a leader that cares about them is important — more important, in some ways, than having one who is fully competent as opposed to just halfway.
That was one of the first leadership lessons Hall learned in the Army.
Competence, he said, boils down to expertise. This is domain-specific — as opposed to intelligence, which he said is “universal.” In other words, leaders must what they’re contributing to the group. Moreover, as the person in charge, they must ask what each member of the team is contributing that they are better at doing than anybody else.
Hall said a tech company needs to excel at four key skill sets: Product and design, back-end engineering, operations and sales and marketing. Ensuring that all four pillars are in place begins with the CEO looking in the mirror and realizing what type of leader he is. Once he’s honest about that, it just becomes a matter of filling the gaps with other team members whose skill sets complement his.
Consider some of the greats, said Hall.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a great engineer, but he needs COO Sheryl Sandberg to take ideas to market and run the business. Apple had the opposite dynamic under Steve Jobs: Jobs was CEO, but it was company Co-Founder and veteran Steve Wozniak who had the technical genius that made Apple a legend. As for Airbnb, said Hall, CEO Brian Chesky excels at product and design but has had to build a team around himself to compensate for areas where he lacks the needed domain-specific expertise.
In short, said Hall, all types of CEO can be successful; all it takes is caring, competence and an understanding of the skill sets needed to execute a vision.
The Problem with Identity Verification
Identity verification (IDV) was, and remains, a complex problem to solve. Hall feels the most challenging part is portability, or achieving interoperability with a single strong identity that is valid anywhere.
“You should never make the same person do the same thing twice,” Hall said. “If they’ve uploaded a driver’s license, verified their phone and taken a selfie, why are they treated like a refugee as soon as they go to a different website? They should be able to take that identity with them.”
He added that organizations trust bureaus such as Experian and Equifax for everything surrounding identity, but that model is no longer working as it once did. However, replacing it with something new, even if the new solution is better, will be no easy feat for a few reasons.
First, there is the network effect. No organization wants to be an early adopter of new tech because of the friction it creates; they would rather jump on the bandwagon once consumers are already using the tech. So, said Hall, a different incentive is needed for early partners to compensate them for taking on that friction. He said ID.me’s answer has been a mix of pricing and the ability for end users to take the identity created with early partners to use at other sites.
Then, there are trust issues. Organizations, like individuals, are wary of things that “weren’t built here.” Hall noted that 70 percent of drivers believe they’re “above average,” but statistically, at least 20 percent of them must be wrong. With identity, the idea of outsourcing is going to create some pushback from organizations, he said, no matter how good the product is.
The Gold Standard for Identity
Every company must start somewhere. Uber started with affluent riders looking for an upscale ride and connected them with black car drivers. Now, of course, it’s grown must larger and more diverse, connecting riders and drivers of all types.
Hall said any smart CEO must be able to adapt and grow in this way. It pays to focus on an initial core set of customers and the frictions in their lives because this creates a strong foundation, yet leaders must also be able to grow and adapt. There is a time to continue along the same track and a time to pivot.
Similarly, said Hall, ID.me started out connecting military veterans who were trying to get access to benefits they didn’t know how to get or didn’t even know they were eligible for. The company is now growing its product across the healthcare vertical and wants to take it even further in the future.
Things are changing in healthcare, making it a ripe and exciting place to grow, said Hall. The opioid crisis has resulted in stricter regulations around narcotic prescriptions, including stipulations by some pharmacies and states that narcotic prescriptions can only be submitted electronically.
ID.me, Hall said, is one of the only services in the U.S. that meets the DEA’s exacting criteria for doing so. It collects identifying numbers from prescribers, requires authenticators for narcotic prescriptions and validates provider identity before sending prescriptions along to the platforms that will fill them.
On the patient side, Hall said, users gain the ability to move their own data from one place to another, eliminating the need to collect and fax paperwork. Going forward, he said the same credentials and verified devices accepted in that use case could also be used to modernize payments, enabling patients to pay for services with Touch ID.
Someday, Hall said, those credentials could be established as a lifelong identifier, as patients’ healthcare identity begins at birth. Imagine being able to credential a patient at age 14, while he’s visiting the doctor with his parents, then four years later using those same credentials to verify his identity when he goes to Wells Fargo to open an account.
Hall envisions the same legal identity being used to access healthcare, facilitate payments, open accounts and access federal websites, conveniently and free of risk. Getting there won’t be easy — but then, that’s his favorite type of problem to solve.