Conor and Ronan Burke, Inscribe — Founder Q&A

Threshold Ventures
Threshold Ventures

--

If we were trying to do this back in Ireland or even New York, it probably wouldn’t be possible. But here in Silicon Valley, there was this openness to entertain a conversation. I think that was also a turning point that changed the trajectory of the business.

A world in which lightning-fast, real-time immediate loan approvals have become the norm also means it’s open season for fraudsters to ply their trade.

But not if Conor and Ronan Burke have anything to say about it.

The Burkes, twin brothers from Ireland who co-founded Inscribe, have developed an artificial intelligence-based approach to assessing risk by parsing and analyzing billions of applicant data points in seconds — allowing customers to rapidly detect fraud attacks and identify emerging trends. For instance, a bank using Inscribe can deploy a system trained on hundreds of millions of data points to detect fraud on bank statements, tax forms, utility bills, and more while accurately vetting creditworthiness and remaining compliant with KYB and AML regulations.

That’s a boon on several counts. Besides building digital trust, Inscribe’s customers benefit from advanced fraud detection, credit analysis, and document automation without needing to first hire a big data science team or invest in building their own in-house risk intelligence solution.

But while the Burkes started by targeting their efforts in the fintech and finance industries, this is a technology with a myriad of potential in any industry where fraud rears its head. In other words, the sky’s the limit.

Like the Collison Brothers, another pair of Irish-born tech entrepreneurs who made their mark in the tech world with Stripe, the Burkes’ achievements have received recognition in Forbes’ coveted Forbes “30 Under 30” list. We spoke with Conor and Ronan Burke about the circumstances that led them to transplant to the other side of the “pond” as they added their names to the list of entrepreneurs from around the world, etching a name in the annals of Silicon Valley.

Q: What was it like for you growing up in Ireland just as the economy was shifting from agriculture to more of a knowledge economy?

Ronan: A very good place to be born into and grow up. Ireland has one of the best educational systems and some of the best infrastructure in the world. But a particularly unique part of the location where we grew up in the southwest of Ireland was that it was becoming the operational home for many of the big logos from the Bay Area. It was quite a big shift, and we were kind of the second generation who benefited from that.

Q: How did you get exposed to technology?

Ronan: Our dad worked in electronic engineering and computer manufacturing. Nowadays, you go into any household, and PCs are in abundance, but back in the nineties, that wasn’t pervasive. This was around the time of the Celtic Tiger.

Q: What was it about the idea of the Valley that stoked your imagination?

Ronan: Our dad had a poster of Silicon Valley with all the companies so you could see where all these innovations came from. We were fascinated as 10-year-olds. We were always curious about what these companies were working on, what they were building, and who was working on these things and advancing them. It was something we couldn’t get enough of.

Q: So, speaking about fascination with innovation, you both studied electrical engineering. Did you gravitate towards that subject independently of the other, or was it part of a bigger plan that you had for your futures?

Conor: We gave ourselves space to ask ourselves what we wanted to study and gravitated to electronic engineering. We had other interests — I was fascinated with architecture and finance. But when you’re at that age applying for university and trying to figure out the path you want to go down, you must make a decision. For us, it came back to our most intense interest, and that was engineering, especially around electronics. There was also a realization that having an engineering mindset or understanding of the technical workings of the world would give us a good grounding while we could learn the business stuff later.

Q: You two had been working on several side projects until you started Inscribe. What convinced you that this was the idea to follow?

Conor: The other things we worked on were more in the realm of passion projects, which didn’t have the same commercial viability. When we landed on what would become Inscribe, there was this massive commercial viability aspect that was very evident from the get-go as well as it being a passion project. That made the decision to double down and focus on Inscribe quite easy.

Q: At a certain point, you decide to uproot yourselves to make this happen. Why choose to come to California?

Ronan: After university, we both agreed not to apply for any graduate schools and began considering locations — even Bali; it didn’t matter where — just go somewhere cool to spend time building software. But as we built the software, we saw that our users were largely in the Bay Area, and that’s when we knew that we needed to be there.

Q: You were also uprooting your lives and moving halfway across the world. I’m sure it was exciting, but it couldn’t have been easy.

Conor: Going back to the poster, Silicon Valley always had this very strong calling for us. So, it was surprisingly easy. Also, there’s a key difference between our generation and previous generations; when they immigrated from Ireland to the US, they weren’t coming home. International travel nowadays is so accessible. It’s $400 for a return ticket, and you can go back and forth. Similarly, things like Zoom and the internet make it easy to make digital calls. So, we never had to say goodbyes or anything of that nature. We’d always say, “Oh, we’re going over for a short trip. We’ll be back soon.”

Q: In other words, you didn’t have to sell your families on the idea.

Conor: Exactly. It might not have been the most compelling story, but it worked.

Q: When you came here, you went through the Y Combinator program. What’d you learn? How did it help prepare for what came next?

Ronan: It was through Y Combinator that we pivoted to Inscribe. Going back to the origin story of the company, Conor was working at a consulting firm in Ireland during one of the summers when we were still in university. He was interning for a tech consulting firm and deployed at a project for the Bank of Ireland, where they were digitizing onboarding flows, account openings, and mortgages. Our first idea wasn’t really gaining traction — the Y Combinator pressure cooker environment basically determined that for us very quickly. And then, during one of the dinners that they hosted, we had a chance to speak with fintech founders and employees of former fintechs as well. And they reignited our experience at the bank. And when they also confirmed the existence of a similar problem set, that’s when we landed on the idea.

Q: How did that help focus your thinking?

Conor: YC was crucial to helping us find something that people want. And it all comes down to the pressure. You meet with YC partners every week. You meet with your other peers every week; you talk about your progress, what you’ve learned, how much you’ve grown, what customers you have, and what you’ve built. And when our initial version wasn’t growing, the pressure kept mounting to find something which people did want and would grow.

Q: What did you see in financial fraud prevention that convinced you there’s a big opportunity here?

Ronan: We were working on the idea of detecting anomalies, detecting manipulations, and determining authenticity for the media when the folks at YC asked whether we could apply it to documents because fintechs have a huge fraud problem. Then we started reaching out to fintech companies here in the Bay Area, and everybody began inviting us to meet at their headquarters to see if our technology worked. From that point on, our obsession with fraud detection and financial services just grew to become our specialization.

Q: Another example of a small company moving more nimbly than the incumbents. Happens all the time. Still, it’s surprising, no?

Ronan: Yeah, it is surprising. And that’s what catalyzed us into doing something about it. When Conor was working at this old-school bank, it’s understandable that they were struggling to build the solution themselves. The fintechs were supposed to be tech-forward and very capable engineering-wise. But they also struggled with it. That’s when we knew something was wrong. Fraud detection is like a cat-and-mouse game in nature. It’s also one of those product areas that benefits from having multiple sources of data. Any one individual customer will only see the data that they see. Whereas at Inscribe, we see data from all our customers and can transfer learnings and benefit from the network beyond it. It’s like cybersecurity, which also benefits from networks quite a lot.

Q: That also speaks to the advantage of specialization.

Conor: If you’re a fintech or a bank, you need to figure out what you’re good at and focus on that instead of trying to rebuild everything. You could have hundreds of engineers working on this full-time, but even then, you’d just be maintaining the status quo.

Q: I’ve read that Inscribe catches more than $80 million in fraud each month.

Ronan: Yes. I’m not sure where that number is now, but fraud rates have been increasing over the past few months, especially in times when things get tighter.

Q: How does a small startup gain the trust of huge established companies? You don’t just show up one day, knocking on the door, do you?

Ronan: Actually, we did walk up to the doors of companies like BlueVine and SoFi and OnDeck and Kabbage and said, “We believe we can detect document fraud.” Some companies would say, “Awesome, let’s see if it works.” And other folks said, “Well, we don’t have any document fraud.” In those cases, we said let’s check. And it turned out that they did. We had no reason for folks to trust us or believe that our solution worked. The best thing we could do was just show them that it worked. Thankfully we didn’t have to do much of that. Once we got access to the data, we didn’t need to do much convincing.

Q: How many companies did you cold call?

Conor: In the early days, we emailed 10 of the largest fintechs, and four or five responded immediately to set up a meeting. The beauty of Silicon Valley is that there is an inherent belief that people without any social proof can change an industry. If we were trying to do this back in Ireland or even New York, it probably wouldn’t be possible. But here in Silicon Valley, there was this openness to entertain a conversation. I think that was also a turning point that changed the trajectory of the business.

Q: Your business model is focused on financial services verticals. But couldn’t Inscribe also potentially play a role when it comes to any kind of online application?

Ronan: Exactly. So, across insurance, healthcare, government, and Fortune 2000 reimbursements — there’s just a huge number of applications. With this shift from offline to online, a lot of these transactions used to take place in person where you knew the person, where they lived, their job, or their family. But when you move everything online, you lose a lot of that. The move to online basically necessitates a rebuilding of how trust is established. And that’s a large part of our long-term mission — to reestablish how trust is built online. And that, in turn, will unlock even more use cases. There are a ton of offline applications that could be moved online if there were a better way to establish trust.

Q: Let’s chat about your backstory. It’s a bit different from most entrepreneurs in that you’re tied together not just by vocational interest but as twins.

Ronan: It’s funny because our business is all about trust and enabling trust online. And the biggest thing between myself and Conor is the immense trust we have in each other. That’s so far ahead of everything else in terms of benefits. It’s almost telepathic in a way in terms of running a business.

Q: What’s the best thing about being in business with a sibling?

Conor: Our ability to resolve conflict is very effective and efficient. If there is a disagreement, we can quickly get to the bottom of the core issue and resolve it in a productive manner. And we’ve had 20-plus years of experience arguing about just about everything in life, so if a new issue comes up, we know what to do. Many entrepreneurs haven’t really spent that much time with their co-founders. But we have known each other for our entire lives, literally. So, it’s a lot of time and a lot of experience knowing how the other person’s going to react in a situation, which really helps when conflicts come up.

Q: What’s been the biggest change you’ve had to navigate since moving to the States?

Ronan: The sugar in the food? Just joking.

Q: And I thought you might say lousy beer.

Conor: The inequality here is very stark. That can be quite jarring when you arrive. It was a culture shock, and it still is. But for us in the technology business, Silicon Valley and San Francisco feel like home. So many folks here speak our language of wanting to use technology to help a large group of people. And everybody here is ambitiously working towards goals that relate to that. It’s a big cultural change to see just how focused everybody is. It’s like all these folks internationally self-selecting themselves into Silicon Valley who are obsessed with technology and what it can do for the world. But that’s why immigration is such a big part of Silicon Valley’s story.

Q: Thinking about how the entrepreneurial experience has impacted you, what have you learned about being business leaders?

Ronan: After university, I didn’t think I’d be able to find an environment where I could be pushed and could learn so much. I thought, well, you find a job and just be kind of happy or something (laughing). But every day, you wake up, and the company’s pulling you forward in terms of the demands it puts on you and the expectations everybody has. That pushes you forward and forces you to learn faster than you would otherwise. It’s like a classroom where you have peer pressure to do well in the exam. The things I’ve been happiest with are №1: learning from people — not just the technical implementation of detecting fraud for banks and fintechs, but also around achieving things with people. And №2, the impact I’ve been able to have. It’s been a lot of fun.

Conor: For me, it’s realizing the fact that our experiences do define who we are as people, and this experience has been quite unique in terms of the highs and lows. I think what we’ve learned over the years is the importance of understanding people’s own desires and how you want to work and lead a group. My understanding of people and being able to work with them has brought me the most joy.

Q: Time for the getaway questions. What’s your favorite book?

Ronan: Mine is Ray Dalio’s “Principles.”

Conor: “Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age” by Michael Hiltzik. It’s about the early days of Xerox PARC.

Q: A saying or motto that sums up or reflects your approach to the job?

Ronan: Kind, curious, and ambitious. It’s not a motto, but that’s how folks would describe how we do things and who we are.

--

--