Will signatures be needed in the long run? Probably not!
Caleb kow, founder of sign.net
In the 4 months since we were founded, Sign.net has grown rapidly, crossing many milestones such as being approved to be integrated with Singapore’s national identity database, being listed as one of IMDA’s e-signature solutions, as well as surpassing 400 active users.
Recently, we managed to sit down with our founder, Mr Caleb Kow, to discuss some things about Sign.net. We covered topics such as what motivated him to start Sign.net, the experience running Sign.net thus far, as well as what he sees in the future of digital signing. We also talked about what sets Sign.net apart from its competitors and the key features that define Sign.net.
Join us as we gain some invaluable insight from the mind that started it all!
What is Sign.net?
Sign.net is a platform which enables meaningful interactions to take place safely by offering a powerful suite of tools so that you can validate users, you can secure documents, and facilitate future problematic commercial transactions.
What motivated you to start Sign.net?
So, we were already very heavy users of solutions on the market, such as digital solutions, in the course of our daily work. We come from a range of industry backgrounds ranging from legal, finance, entrepreneurship to even cybersecurity. And we were increasingly frustrated by the relevancy as well as disconnect in existing solutions because you had to go to so many different places just to accomplish a single step of the whole process.
To make things worse, we soon found out that there were often very exorbitant hidden fees coupled with unnecessary feature upsells that, really, only the deep-pocketed organisations could afford without blinking an eye. But what about the vast majority of businesses out there? We, therefore, set out to build a base product which could empower users to accomplish the most common daily signing requirements in a digital contract, but, at the same time, very securely be compliant with what they need in their local jurisdictions.
Since the end of 2019, the team at Sign.net has spent well over thousands of cumulative man hours designing the vision of what a new economy would require from digital signatures as we know it right now. This involved tackling questions as diverse as basic humanistic questioning of “What’s a promise?” or “What’s a contract?” and “What binds people together in this contract?”, “How can you solve a deficiency of trust that exists when you need to sign a contract with someone you do not know?”. And all these were cumulative in forming what you see today on our website at Sign.net.
Sign.net started with a closed invite-only alpha release in early April 2020, just when Singapore officially entered its circuit-breaker period. How has the Covid-19 situation affected your launch?
Sign.net started with a closed invite-only alpha release in early 2020, somewhere along April, just when Singapore officially ended its circuit-breaker period. How has the Covid-19 situation affected us? I think we never expected to accelerate development roadmap by such an immense ramp-up period. We originally planned for somewhere along the lines of 6 to 10 months of development, but this was compacted into something as short as 2 or 3 months in order to make our service immediately relevant.
On one hand, we knew that we had to do something, not just as a company, but firstly providing a basic service which could help the people around us not expose themselves unnecessarily, but instead, continue operating their businesses in a remote working environment and helping them to transact safely online. This was at the top of our minds when we were thinking of whether or not to roll out the service, be it being premature, or do we want to help our users protect themselves, be safe and still be able to transact online.
It has been 4 months since the product has been rolled out.
How has your experience been so far?
It has been around 4 months since we rolled out this initial product, starting in April, and the experience has been very heartwarming, I would say. Digital signing itself might seem to be a very straight-forward service for many people to use, but we also learnt that there were even more users coming from all walks of life that use our service in very unique ways that were even beyond our wildest dreams. We have had such diverse use cases ranging from someone who runs music school who wants to move online to a 30-year veteran driving instructor who finally took the plunge to digitize his driving records, to a business owner who managed to protect himself from fraud just because he could get the counterparty to verify themselves before signing an agreement. We’ve even had university clubs joining us so that they can collate sign up forms from members.
The list goes on and we are definitely very heartened to see that the original dream of Sign.net was taken and was being used in such wide-ranging use cases with the very basic elements of trust, with the very basic elements of being able to verify who they sign agreements with, and at the end of the day just being safe and being able to conduct transactions in a safe manner and also being protected so that they do not need to be there in person.
Who would you consider to be your biggest competitors, and how do you differentiate yourself from them?
Indeed you’re right, we’re operating in a space whereby it is hyper competitive. Digital signatures, for better or for worse, due to the whole Covid situation, has kind of become the default standard that everyone is embracing whether they like it or not. Likewise, there is going to be a lot of competition. You’re right to say that we do have a lot of competitors, but I would offer to explain Sign.net in a different way.
We are more than a digital signing service. In fact, digital signing and digital signatures are just 1 of the 4 core components of our platform. We actually built Sign.net to be a digital platform for users to interact in a very safe manner. So for people ranging from end-users to merchants, the goal of Sign.net is to allow them to interact safely and securely. What that means is that we take care of the process that happens before the signing happens. Right now, the actual act of digital signing is going there (online), affixing your signature, making sure it’s there based on the document. But we go a step further and make sure that even before you get to that stage, you are able to verify who you are signing with. You are able to understand more about whether or not these people you enter into agreements with have the right authority to sign on behalf of their companies and whether or not they are verified users. These are all lessons we can learn from the finance world, the commerce world, that are standard operations. We are just blending in these features to help the signing process become more meaningful. And that’s the before process.
The after process is also being unlocked and unleashed in terms of productivity because signing is just the beginning. We’re actually allowing users to programmatically enter into transactions, enter into commitments that have certain follow-on process that can actually be automated. So, today, if I am going to sign an agreement with you, that is just the start. And that is the start of many things to come later on. How well we perform the agreement, how well we execute these agreements, is the essence of why contracts fail or succeed.
Sign.net is there through the process to help users not just get the signature but also enforce the signature and to make sure that the promises that all parties come together with are enforced. And if we look at it in a fully digital world, which is what we are rapidly moving towards now, it is this challenge of displaying the unique identity as more businesses and interactions move online. At Sign.net, we, in fact, look at digital signatures as something which does not need to have pen and paper anymore. Instead, it is a digital imprint. It is a promise that represents a digital future for businesses, people, transactions to happen, all the way through commerce, and even in a social setting. That’s the main difference between what Sign.net has which we believe will set us apart from competitors.
You mentioned a Trust Score system. How does Sign.net determine one’s Trust Score?
Sign.net has a Trust Score system that calculates based on a variety of factors. Information such as whether or not you have verified your government ID, whether or not you have verified your mobile phone, your credit card details, all of these things that we are all so used to right now when we need to do something like open a bank account, open (a)utilities (account) and stuff like that. It is nothing new, and it is something that users can equate to in their mind because that is where the future of commerce is moving.
And at the same time, we add on a social layer, which makes use of the frequency of your digital transactions, along with your digital journeys. We award trust badges to users based on their transactions, based on their transaction values, size, awards, and accolades as well. It is a live score that changes according to how you interact with our platform, but more importantly, it is a representation of how users are interacting with each other, so as to build up a very vibrant community that’s online that shows and is very proud of showcasing how they have interacted in this safe manner.
So if we were to accelerate it a few more years ahead, Sign.net is building a network of users who trust each other, and who are able to carry out commercial transactions because there is a certain backing, there is a certain social verification to it, and you are not missing out all your standard verification tools such as knowing who you are dealing with, whether or not they have the right representation from the company that they are representing to sign an agreement, and so on and so forth. So this Trust Score system actually follows users wherever they go. You might be working for a company today, and you might switch jobs tomorrow to another company. You can actually have you trust score move with you along, and at the same time verify your accomplishments that you had when you were working in the previous company.
These things all serve to form a very long-term, immutable record of a person’s trust, a person’s score. And they should be very proud of showcasing this. Whenever they want to enter into a transaction with someone, they can programmatically choose what they want to show, and how they can be proud of to validate that they have accomplished these things.
Does promoting a shift from transacting through centralised, established intermediaries to individual end-users mean a shift from placing one’s trust in institutions and the people running them, to just technology itself?
How would you explain and reassure the ordinary man that such technology can be trusted?
Along the lines of Trust Score means that we are promoting a shift from transacting through very centralised established intermediaries to individual end users interacting with each other directly. And you have to kind of place your trust in people instead of institutions. On one hand, there is a technology layer, on the other hand there is a social layer to it. My simple explanation to users it that, yes, there might be a lot of questions in your mind around “Can the technology be trusted?”, “Can it result in potential misuse?”, and things like that.
On the base (technology) layer, what Sign.net does, is that we facilitate these secure transactions to happen, without necessarily needing to even know what it is you are transacting with. The contract you sign with someone is encrypted and stored in enterprise-grade structures with security measures in place. Even we, ourselves, do not have the permissions to view the documents. And in certain enterprise deployments, we can even load in private keys for users if they are really concerned about security, and these are being used through established technologies out there like HSM, SecureCloud and things like that. From a technology layer, we built Sign.net to be very privacy conscious.
From the social layer, that’s where the education comes in. We are trying to help users understand that you can interact with each other in a very safe manner, but you also are in control of your data and what data you want to show people as part of the trust score process is your control. We do not have a blanket list of everything that you have verified with us being displayed to users, But instead, we allow the users to pick and choose certain elements of their verification level, without personally identifiable information, to be displayed in the transactional process.
Yes, there is going to be a shift away from intermediaries to end users trusting each other, but we are placing the control in the hands of users so that they can make these informed decisions however they might want to. And that is with the assurance of a platform that is secure enough.
As a digital signing technology, there is a large amount of private data that goes through your system.
Where does Sign.net store its data and how do you ensure users that their data is private and secure?
At Sign.net, data security is of the utmost importance to us. At the very basic level, our cloud platform offers very cutting-edge cyber-security protection that beats storing documents loosely on your own computers, that’s for sure. We take a digital fingerprint of every document that is being generated upon the creation of a successful contract and it is hashed so that you are assured that it is what it is at the respective point of time. You will be able to track who accessed the document, (and) when and if copies were being downloaded. But at a higher level, these are all secured using private keys that are tagged to individual users. We do not have access to these keys. Likewise, we do not have permissions to view users’ content. And for enterprise deployments, you are able to bring in your own keys and use these as the base-level encryption tools to encrypt your documents.
On top of that, there are even more value-added features that we built in because of the privacy focus, such as the ability to set passwords for PDF documents, the ability to limit downloads, the ability to set a time limit for documents, so that you can sign with peace of mind. And at the end of the day, all documents are always encrypted at rest, and we even go to a higher extent to make sure that only a few of our staff have access to the rotation of keys, to view transaction logs and even audit logs if it is called upon.
What do you foresee as the future of signing?
At Sign.net we are reinventing the interpretation of a contract by really forcing a very hard look at the physical act of signing involving signatures. The laws that currently govern digital signatures state that there are many other ways to capture a person’s consent. It could take the form of just simply clicking on “I Accept” on a button, or signing off on an email, But what Sign.net sees as the future is that these are all going to be very standardized processes, the laws will change, different jurisdictions will start recognizing digital signatures with certain prerequisites. They will also set forth how industries are supposed to have a base-layer expectation of what is an acceptable digital contract. And in this case, will signatures still be required in the long run? Probably not, because these signatures are representative of a digital form.
Since they are going to be fully digital, they will be verifiable in transit, and they can also be independently accountable. That is the world we see Sign.net moving in, because at the end of the day, it is not going to be so much about just that signature you see on the document, but rather what leads up to the signature being there, what were the processes in place, what were the audit trails, and can we also verify that the person who was signing was the actual person who they claim to be with the respective permissions, as well as given the right ownership details to finally execute the document. We feel this is the future of signing and that is the reason why we have built Sign.net to be as flexible as possible to embrace all of these changes that are coming along the way.
Before we end off the session, would you share a little more about yourself?
What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?
To conclude, I believe that we are not just building Sign.net as a very interesting commercial endeavour. Many people have come to us to say that this is built at the right time, it solves a real need, it helps solve problems, especially in a rapidly changing world that is digitizing, that is going towards remote working.
But I just want to offer a flipside of why we even created Sign.net. There is a lot of fraud that goes on, there are a lot of empty promises that are being made. Coming from this background, we are really helping people to transact safely. And this transcends anything we can say about the business potential of this startup.
At the end of the day, what keeps us going is that if we can build a service that helps protect people, not just in big transactions, but even in something as simple as signing up for a course, or signing up for a program, or joining or paying for something. If we can just help that 1 person to be safer, to interact better, then it’s worth pulling ourselves up from the bed every morning, coming down, making sure that we build a good product. because you are really making an impact and you are helping people to transact so much more safely, so much more confidently, especially in a rapidly remote, digital-first world. That is what drives us at the end of the day and that is what motivates us – to not just build a better product, but to build a better product to be able to help people.
~Caleb Kow, Founder of Sign.net