“Actually, we were just about to call you.”
Those are not the words you want to hear from your bank when you phone up with a suspicion that criminals might have acquired your bank account details.
It happened to Vicky Brock, an entrepreneur from the north of England, after a business trip to London a few years ago in which she encountered a problem.
“I’m a complete opportunistic problem solver,” explains Vicky — who was recently named Scotland’s Most Inspiring Business Person of the Year. “I spot problems everywhere and have quite a structured process for validating whether problems can be solved through a startup.”
The particular problem that started her banking problems was her sore feet, although a colleague helpfully showed her that this problem had already been solved by Converse. Vicky wore her high heels for her London trip, but quickly realised this was a mistake as her feet started aching while rushing across town between meetings. A colleague lent her a pair of Converse shoes and they were so comfortable that Vicky immediately opened her laptop to order a pair for herself.
That’s where the real problem began.
The shoes were out of stock almost everywhere, but Vicky eventually found one website that still had them.
“I just thought, ‘I must have those shoes!’ so my filters were off,” explains Vicky. “I gave the website a cursory look and it didn’t look too dodgy. There was a returns policy, for example. I should have wondered, however, why this site has them while all the others don’t.”
Vicky entered her bank card details and clicked ‘submit’, but then nothing happened. She tried again with a different bank card, which seemed to go through, yet there was no order confirmation.
Something just didn’t seem right. So she called her bank and they confirmed her fears. She hadn’t bought any Converse shoes. She had just given her bank account details to criminals who immediately attempted to siphon money from her accounts.
Looking back at the website, Vicky realised there were lots of red flags that she ignored in her haste to buy the shoes. The website originally appeared to be British, but was actually based outside the EU in a jurisdiction where scams like this more commonly operate.
“My brain was already set on the idea of buying those shoes so I think nothing could have stopped me except if a big red button had popped up and said ‘this website is dodgy’!”
The big red button
Fast forward a few years and Vicky is now creating that big red button (except it’s a bit more sophisticated).
Her new startup, VistalWorks, is developing tools to protect consumers online from criminals attempting to rob them or sell them fake and dangerous goods.
Her company now offers a free service for checking products on eBay and they are also preparing to launch a free browser plug-in that will protect consumers as they shop around the web. This will automatically alert consumers if there is a potential threat, using data algorithms and a blacklist of any website that is known to have already ripped off consumers.
It’s like an anti-virus, explains Vicky, except it detects threats to the consumer rather than the computer.
Vicky teamed up with her husband, Stephen Budd, and one more entrepreneur, Alan Murray, to launch VistalWorks, which is mainly based in Scotland.
The three founders are all experts in harnessing the power of big data, although from three different areas respectively — retail technology, cyber security, and financial technology — which makes them the perfect team for taking on this monumental task of protecting consumers from organised crime online. In fact, Vistal is combination of their first names.
The company owes its birth to a Civic Innovation Challenge (similar to a hackathon) in Scotland at the start of this year. The public bodies responsible for battling the trade in illicit goods — Police Scotland, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and Trading Standards Scotland — invited entrepreneurs to submit new ideas to protect consumers using technology.
Vicky’s experience with the shoes was inconvenient but, as the team explored this topic more deeply, they realised that there were much bigger threats to consumers online.
“We don’t want to police anyone,” she explains. “We want to empower people with information that can help them make wiser choices and protect what they care about most.”
For Vicky, developing a genuinely useful tool means respecting what is important to consumers and finding the right balance of risks.
“If it goes in you, on you, near your children, or inside your home then fake products can be extremely dangerous. A fake handbag will just fall apart, but fake medicine or children’s toys are much worse. We’re realistic and want to focus on where we can influence behaviour in the most helpful way.”
Converse shoes provided a useful first test for VistalWorks’ algorithms. In some online marketplaces, only 20% of listings were found to be genuine. After that though, the software was trained to recognise far more dangerous products. While launching their company, Vicky gave the example of the rising supply of illicit vaping products as a cause of concern. Her words, sadly, would prove prophetic as illicit vaping products have now been linked to an outbreak of illness in the US over recent weeks.
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VistalWorks won the Civic Innovation Challenge and was awarded a prize that money can’t buy — a commitment from those prestigious public bodies to be the first customers. Vicky and her fellow founders were now on the frontline with them in the battle against organised crime online.
For VistalWorks, that relationship has developed beyond expectations. It’s provided them not just with their first revenue, but also very supportive ongoing feedback that has been valuable for improving the service.
Vicky says that the tools provided by VistalWorks should always be free to consumers, which enables them to continuously become more effective as they acquire data and use it for the benefit of all users. The business model is instead based on three main sources of revenue from organisations that are on the frontline in the battle against illicit trade — public bodies (like VistalWorks’ first customers), online marketplaces, and financial services. These three groups all require more data in order to tackle the problem, which VistalWorks can helpfully provide without offering personal consumer data from their users.
“We don’t collect any personal information about consumers, but we understand broader shopping patterns and can see where the criminals are lurking.”
In addition to harming the consumer, fake goods are a major source of funding for global organised crime, as well as a method for money laundering. It also fuels more harmful crimes around the world, such as child labour and trafficking.
Illicit trade can also be accidental though. Entrepreneurs have to deal with a myriad of rules for selling online globally across different jurisdictions. This is a headache for the platforms that help entrepreneurs sell online too, which is why they value having more support and more data from solutions like VistalWorks.
Expanding globally through e-Residency
VistalWorks was initially established in Scotland as a UK company and now has 10 employees working in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Vicky and Stephen both happen to be e-residents of Estonia though so have now used the programme to open VistalWorks as an EU company too.
E-Residency is a secure digital identity provided by the Republic of Estonia, which enables people around the world to establish, manage and grow a trusted EU company entirely online.
The EU company for VistalWorks will operate in parallel to the UK company. It will focus on international business development and localise the tools for additional markets beyond the UK.
This wouldn’t have happened, Vicky says, were it not for Brexit.
“I was feeling down because of Brexit when my husband found a news article about e-Residency and sent it over to me. I looked at the site and realised its aimed at people like me who have grown up feeling integrated with Europe and not seeing these borders. I can now maintain that, at least in a digital sense. I looked at everything I could find about e-Residency in great detail then validated it by looking at what people were saying across social media.
“I then went to the Estonian Embassy to collect my card and they said ‘thank you for choosing Estonia’. I felt very proud.”
Vicky has now just returned from Tallinn where she set up the EU company’s bank account at the Estonian bank LHV.
“Visiting the bank was the final emotional piece of it all,” says Vicky. “I actually had a little doubt about whether this is all real, but I walked into the bank and the staff understood e-Residency and knew why I was there. They simply told me to come back in 20 minutes and my card would be ready. I was blown away.”
“The only good thing I can say about Brexit is that I wouldn’t have done this so quickly otherwise. Every step has been an adventure and I’ve loved it.”
Vicky initially thought e-Residency would just be useful for administrative purposes, but her trip to Estonia also opened her eyes to further opportunities to expand the business with a presence in Tallinn offline too. Estonia has strengths in cyber security and also localising services for multi-lingual audiences, both of which Vicky wants to harness to help VistalWorks grow globally.
“In the UK, we don’t yet have that mindset of building services for multiple languages, but localisation is important for our business.”
Vicky was also impressed with Tallinn as a place to live and work.
“Tallinn is a walkable city as compact as Inverness, but with magical history like Edinburgh and with energy and industry like Glasgow. To me, it was like I was still in Scotland, especially as everything was presented to me in English, although I did still get some cultural surprises — like business networking events that involve saunas.”
Vicky is already planning another visit to Estonia, although this time she is bringing her founders with her.
You can learn more about VistalWorks and see Vicky speaking at the launch of the company at VistalWorks.com/learn-more.
If you’d like to use e-Residency to grow your own global business then visit e-resident.gov.ee.
Just a quick note about banking: Vicky chose to use LHV, which requires a visit to Estonia so we recommend speaking to an e-Residency business services provider for advice before booking a trip. Other banking options are also available, including payment institutions that enable accounts to be opened entirely online.
The best solution depends on your preferences and circumstances, but e-residents own 100% of their own companies and there is no obligation to use any particular business service so they are free to choose the services that are right for them. LHV, for example, is popular with e-residents who are selling services online or are developing a deeper connection with Estonia, but other types of companies may not qualify for an account there.
More information about business services for e-residents is available in the e-Residency Marketplace.