Yousign: Putting a Stop to the Outdated Hand-Written Signature

The electronic signature has long been recognised as legal, but it is still rarely used. Yousign, a startup supported by OVH's Digital Launch Pad programme, aims to change this through a SaaS solution that is as easy to use as it is to integrate into third-party applications.

Democratising the electronic signature

The story of Yousign started in 2011 when Antoine Louiset and his buddy Luc Pallavidino were still students at the École nationale supérieure d’ingénieurs (engineering school). “Since 2000, signing a document electronically has had the same legal value as signing it manually, according to a bill passed on the 13th of March of that same year. At that time, France was one of the first European countries to recognise the electronic signature!” But more than a decade after its introduction, the adoption rate of the electronic signature was still ridiculously low. “The existing solutions were very complicated to use,” explains Antoine. “They required an understanding of the principle of electronic certificates, knowing how to install them and – as crazy as it may seem – it was best to have a little time on your hands. So in order to reply to a call to tender electronically, you had to go to a notary to get a USB key containing your digital certificate.” Result: “The only people using electronic signatures were those with an obligation to do so and they found it terribly frustrating.” Antoine and his friend Luc made it their mission (and graduation project) to eliminate that frustration by simplifying the electronic signature, making it accessible from any connected device and without requiring any technical skills. It is from here that Yousign was born.

The electronic signature: much more than a simple digitised signature

In order to understand the complex mechanism of the electronic signature and assess its true value, it is important to be able to tell the difference between an electronic and a digitised signature. Only since 2010 has the latter been defined according to French law as “digitally preserving a handwritten signature produced through a touch screen.” So when you use an electronic terminal to sign and acknowledge the reception of a package, for example, it is not considered as an electronic signature.
Back in 2000, when lawmakers looked into the topic of ‘real’ electronic signatures, they wanted to go further than what the written signature could traditionally allow people to do. “The electronic signature must allow the recipient of a document to identify the signatory without any doubt, and must guarantee that the document wasn’t altered between the moment it was signed and the moment it was read. This implies that the signature is authentic, irrevocable, impossible to forge and not reusable on any other document.”
The use of cryptographic methods is necessary in order to meet these requirements. “This is where it gets a little complicated,” admits Antoine. “We chose to become our own certification authority instead of dealing with a third-party. In order to achieve this, we deployed our own HSM–hardware security modules similar to large smart cards and tasked with generating our own cryptographic keys. Then we had our entire infrastructure audited by a private organisation recognised by the ANSSI (French national agency for information system security) in order to get a certification valid across Europe at the start of 2016.” Obtaining this certification was made easier by choosing the OVH Private Cloud solution - which is ISO 27001 certified – to host Yousign’s core business.

Multiple and innovative uses

Antoine and Luc have managed to completely hide the underlying complexity of the electronic signature. “In practice, with the Yousign web or mobile application, all you need to do is to upload a document, write the email address and phone number of the people who have to sign it, and we take care of the rest. The signatories receive email notification and proceed to sign the document, using a code we send them via text message on their cell phone.” In just a few clicks and in less time than it takes to go to the post office, a three-party internship agreement between a student, a school and a company has been signed electronically.

In practice, with the Yousign web or mobile application, all you need to do is to upload a document, write the email address and phone number of the people who have to sign it, and we take care of the rest.

“But the most interesting part is probably our API, which allows integration of our service, in a transparent manner with existing applications.” Banks, insurance brokers, car rental companies and real-estate agencies quickly showed interest. “There’s the obvious practical aspect—the reduction of time spent by their customers in agencies, signing several copies of the same document. But the real revolution is the simplification of document management ensuing from the electronic signature: no more manipulation, transport, or archiving and unarchiving of paper documents. The cherry on top of the cake is that our users notice that the signature increases the conversion rate by 30% for services that can be subscribed to online.”
Among Yousign’s 1,500 customers, we find major accounts—like the giant retailer Auchan—as well as crowdfunding platforms that use the electronic signature to form contractual relations between companies creating projects and online investors. Even business associates, in just a few clicks, have the opportunity to sign a deal while being miles away from each other. “Other than reducing distances and eliminating the need for mailings which can be expensive depending on the number of recipients and/or the obligation of using registered mail, the benefit also lies in the ability to keep documents online indefinitely. This means getting rid of paper altogether, notably thanks to our partnership with CDC Arkhinéo, a fully-owned subsidiary of Caisse des Dépôts (a public financial institution) which guarantees that this digital archiving will be permanent.” But Yousign doesn’t stop at simplifying the process, the startup is adding complementary services to the electronic signature such as a one-click reminder to alert any parties that have missed the call and it has plans to take things even further. “We’re in the midst of designing the next version of our application and we would like to offer a genuine electronic signature book that will centralise all your document exchanges, with the possibility to implement workflows to define the order in which a document must be signed, for example.” That being said, not only will Yousign democratise the electronic signature but it will also increase the possibilities in which it is used. Who knows if tomorrow, when purchasing real-estate, it won’t be possible to seal the deal via telepresence and by officially signing using your smartphone?

Banks, insurance brokers, car rental companies and real-estate agencies quickly showed interest.

Yousign, well on its way for a European expansion

Supported by an initial fundraising effort of €500k at the end of 2015, Yousign has been benefiting from very favorable changes in electronic signature regulations. “Since July 1, 2016, a European regulation has been aligning all national legislations on the subject. The electronic signature now benefits from the same legal framework all across Europe. This means you can now sign an agreement with a German or an Italian partner directly online. This is an incredible time saver!” And Yousign is already compatible with these new regulations since, for all intent and purposes, they are a copy of the French regulatory framework. In order for this development to become sustainable internationally, Yousign will double its workforce by the end of the year to reach 30 employees.
“An illegible signature is the height of inelegance,” wrote French poet Jean Cocteau in his 1930 work Opium. Yousign’s growing business could eventually put a few graphologists out of work because soon there may not be many signatures left to study. But the success of Yousign shows that the electronic signature isn’t simply “a legal manipulation aimed at making money from of a mundane act that had been practically free until now”, as it was described back in 2001 in the French daily newspaper Libération.

Why Yousign chose the Private Cloud

Except for the two HSMs (Hardware Security Module) used to generate cryptographic keys, all of Yousign’s infrastructure is based on Private Cloud.
“We chose this solution for its guaranteed high availability which relies on the redundancy of servers, data stores and incoming network feeds of Private Cloud, as well as the VMware automatic failover mechanisms that moves virtual machines from one host to another in the event of a failure. What also appealed to us was the scalability of the solution. We’ve just added a 3rd host to support our increasing load, and this can be done in a few clicks.” Yousign also wanted to offload managing physical servers. “Our added value clearly doesn’t reside in server administration. That being said, we wanted to work in a dedicated environment, and Public Cloud solutions were not feasible for this.”
And finally, aside from data being hosted in France, Private Cloud guarantees a high level of security for Yousign’s data, which is ISO 27001 certified. “The European certification we seek is largely based on this standard for IT infrastructures. Therefore, there is an enormous advantage for us to work with a solution that is already certified.”
And what about Yousign’s project in terms of infrastructure? “We will keep moving towards a micro-service architecture, by using Docker technology and the Rancher orchestrator. This will improve the resilience of the infrastructure, as well as its scalability and our capacity to innovate.”