My year in review, and some thoughts for the year ahead.
As I enter the final two years of my 30s, I find myself in the midst of a new journey of self-discovery that has taken me towards new work- and life-arcs. I look forward to 2020 with equal parts of fear, hope and awe.
The last time I felt this way was a decade ago, at the end of the previous decade (Nov 2009), as I broke my scholarship bond with 2 years 8 months to go and left public service to launch and run Neoteny Labs with Joichi Ito. Looking back, I think this was a pivotal moment in my “life tree” where *in this deep husky Star Treky voice* multiverses formed around my reality and futures reflowed *echo, echo, echo*. I’m thankful for this twist.
I’ve been trained as an electrical & computer engineer, worked my first job in the public service developing the ICT industry in Singapore and catalysing the startup engineering core, before taking the red pill and switching hats to venture capital, tech incubation and entrepreneurship. There’s been all sorts of ups and downs, such is life, but I’ve generally had a good run, with exits on both investing and entrepreneurship fronts. If I had to reflect critically on how I could have done better, it was that I did not dare to risk more and swing for the fences. It’s about time to step it up a notch (or two).
This time round 10 years later, I find myself at the basecamp of the Mountain of New Beginnings putting together the pieces of a new business that’s firmly in between the world of atoms and bits. This is probably the worse of times (global politico-economic cycles and all) to take risk and start a new company, but it is also the best of times (thanks to my anchor Uzia Sng and our children’s love that motivates) for me to create a bigger impact while attempting to attain escape velocity, by harnessing all that I have internalised over the years; from investing in the confluence of design, software and hardware, to operating at the intersection of ideas, talent and capital.
While fundraising for my new venture recently, I was asked by an investor prospect whether I’m prepared to commit at least 10 years of my life into it. He later asked if I was prepared to sign a 10-year founder vesting schedule. It’s obvious that the age of the unicorns is over, and the rhinos will soon be upon us. The white rhinoceros lives for up to 40 – 50 years. I think any founder setting up a business today needs to be prepared to lead his company for at least 10 years, if not more. Profitability over exits, customer-centricity over unicorn-ability!
I am grateful for all that I have, at peace for that which I have not, while yearning for that something more. It’s an itch deep inside that I’m guessing I won’t be able to properly scratch until this new decade will be over, by which I hope I can claim that I’m sated. I don’t know where it will take me, but I think it’s going to be awesome.
There are only two constants in this world; change, and my family. My better half and our children will always be my best investment. They give me motivation and that inner strength to keep plodding on, no matter the outcome, knowing that I’ll always have them.
May we all find and scratch (all?) our itches in our next 10 years! (And hopefully be scratching them together 🤪). Belated Merry Christmas, happy new year, and a happy new decade to us all.
Ask ten thousand people when they think the Indonesian fintech industry was born, and you’re going to get as many birth date guesses as there are islands in Indonesia. Some would say it began with the release of OJK Regulation №.77/POJK.01/2016 by Otoritas Jasa Keuangan in January 2017, where Indonesia’s regulator unveiled its initial framework to regulate and facilitate the development of the fintech industry. Others would claim it began earlier, with the founding of the earliest fintech startups in the various fintech verticals of payment, remittances, crowdfunding, lending, asset management and marketplaces. And then there are others — banking and finance veterans — who try to remind us that fintech is merely the latest buzzword coming off the backs of earlier waves of digitization in banking and finance that gave us online banking over WAP before the age of smartphones.
Over the past few decades, the definition of fintech has expanded rapidly to match the relentless pace of technological progress; from the initial application of technology to the back-end of banking and finance, to its present-day portmanteau that applies innovation to the frontiers of information and communication technology, transforming financial activities for individuals and companies. With the likes of networking, computer science, computer vision, artificial intelligence, machine learning and even distributed ledger technology, we’re seeing the complete overhaul of the finance experience for individuals and companies across the realms of trade, banking, financial advisory, and in the origination, underwriting, pricing, promotion and operations of financial products.
History Repeats Itself, I-Win-You-Lose, but There Is Hope.
As the Luddites of the early 18th century (1811–1816) have shown us, technology-induced disruptions in any industry tend to incite significant feelings of helplessness and despair among the disenfranchised, while exacerbating gaps in efficiency and competitiveness between those who become adept in harnessing its innovation and those who can’t. I started my career in 2006 as a policy maker specializing in the ICT industry in Singapore, became an early-stage technology venture capitalist in 2010 investing in tech startups in Southeast Asia and North America and have been a tech entrepreneur in Southeast Asia since 2013. Across all three sides of the table — initially as policy maker, industry developer and regulator, later on as investor and fund manager and most recently as entrepreneur and business leader — I have developed keen appreciation for the levels of close cooperation and ‘constructive agility’ needed between regulators, innovators and consumers to ensure that there is a sufficiently robust regulatory sandbox to give innovation room to thrive, while minimizing those that are left behind by the growing digital divide.
As banking, finance and fintech industries experience rising entropy, we see those among us who have chosen the easier “I-win-you-lose” narrative and focus on negatives and how our differences divide us and potentially hurt one another. I stand opposed to this regressive view and adopt the other side of the same coin, arguing instead that it is much more sensible for upstart fintech and mainstream banking and finance to seek out common ground and mutually beneficial opportunities. I am heartened to note that I am not alone in holding this view, and am at least joined by banking veterans such as Jerry Ng, President Director of Bank BTPN, who discussed the differences in operating cadence between traditional banks and fintech companies, urging both parties to leverage on their core strengths in credit scoring using unconventional data by relying on the balance sheet of banks and the data science capabilities of fintech players.
TunaiKita as Part of Indonesia’s Fintech “Gotong Royong”
As one of Indonesian regulator OJK’s forty-odd registered peer-to-peer lending platforms, TunaiKita has actively promoted our unique institution-to-peer (i2p) lending platform — the first of its kind in Indonesia — to our banking and multifinance lending partners in Indonesia. Unlike traditional crowdsourcing peer-to-peer players in Indonesia, we do not accept consumer lenders on our platform and instead work exclusively with institutional lenders such as local banks and multi-finance companies.
Our mobile app is accessible across the 27 largest cities in Indonesia, across the islands of Java; Jabodetabek as 5 cities, Bandung, Surabaya, Semarang, Kudus, Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Magelang, Malang, Kediri, Jember, Gresik, Banyuwangi), Bali (Denpasar), Sumatra (Medan, Palembang, Padang, Pekanbaru, Batam), Kalimantan (Banjarmasin) and Sulawesi (Makassar, Manado, Pontianak).
Our fraud-resistant platform acquires new and repeat individual borrowers entirely via online channels through their smartphones and our mobile app, performs e-KYC to ensure their identity and provides borrowers with an accurate credit score powered by our proprietary ‘lending robot’. Individuals can then apply for loans that match their needs, backed by institutional lenders.
As a peer-to-peer loan arranger, we recommend and facilitate a loan between our institutional lenders and consumer borrowers, giving Indonesians anywhere-anytime access to unsecured consumer loans from the convenience of their smartphones, with loan amounts ranging from as low as Rp.500rb up to Rp.20mio with flexible tenures of between 10 days to 12 months. We approve and disburse loans to borrowers’ bank accounts 7 days a week within 24 to 36 hours via multiple redundant integrations with local Indonesian payment providers. We remind borrowers to repay on time and conduct respectful loan collection from overdue borrowers on behalf of our institutional lenders.
Despite being a startup in Indonesia with barely a year of operations under our belt, TunaiKita is actually a subsidiary of Wecash, a big data tech company founded in Beijing in 2013 that has since raised more than US$260 million over 4 rounds and more than 800 people across our offices in China, North America, Brazil, Singapore, India and Vietnam. TunaiKita also counts publicly-listed multi-finance company Danasupra Erapacific (IDX:DEFI) as its local minority shareholder. We have successfully commenced a lending collaboration with our first BUKU III bank earlier this year; all this while growing our Asia Pacific team to over 100 people across Singapore, Indonesia, Beijing, India and Vietnam, and climbing up the ladder to become the top free lending app in the Finance category of Indonesia’s Google Play Store since 22 May 2017.
It takes the Wecash village — comprising of our team, lending partners and tech partners — to raise the TunaiKita child. It would take everyone to embrace the gotong royong spirit (and each other) if we are to move the fintech-finance industry forward in the coming years.
Indonesia Fintech’s Four Horsemen: Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt and Greed
Yet, all our talk about collaboration in Indonesia fintech will go nowhere if we allow ourselves to be blinded by fintech-finance industry’s Four Horsemen.
Let me start with Fear.
There is a common misconception that fintech companies should have higher non-performing loan (NPL) ratios compared to traditional banks and consumer finance companies. Purporters of this fallacy fail to recognize the technological prowess of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to collect vastly more data and to dynamically train and tune credit models and cut-offs to achieve far better and responsive results than traditional underwriting typically conducted in mainstream financial institutions. By conflating NPL of consumer loans to that of corporate loans, or by relying on snapshot portfolio NPL instead of more indicative NPL figures via vintage analysis, we allow ourselves to be distracted by the shadows of fintech’s “high NPL” and fail to appreciate its benefits in providing greater financial access to the missing middle in the Indonesian society.
Next comes Uncertainty.
Another common misconception is that higher NPL by fintech companies relative to banks and multifinance companies’ NPL ratios equals higher risk and implies poorer credit quality and portfolio performance. Propagators of these falsehoods fail to recognize that thin-file, new-to-credit customers are inherently higher-risk and harder to acquire compared to more digitally aware, bankable consumers. Interest rates for shorter-term loans will always be higher for riskier borrowers than installment loans for borrowers with better credit scores, to account for higher loan delinquencies in those borrower segments. The NPL of any new loan portfolio with new borrower segments will always take time to stabilize as credit models get trained and underwriting improves.
And then there’s Doubt.
How could fintech companies ever identify and approve borrowers without requiring a wet (ink) signature? Indonesian banks need to comply with face-to-face Customer Due Diligence (CDD) KYC processes or fallback to biometric (face, fingerprint and/or iris scanning) protocols. How can Indonesian regulators so cavalierly permit fintech companies without greater levels of equity capitalization to perform seemingly weaker versions of e-KYC act as peer-to-peer arrangers of loans? Can Indonesian banks act as institutional lenders via fintech P2P regulatory frameworks? How would banks’ CDD KYC requirements work under P.OJK77/2016? Should peer-to-peer fintech companies be subjected to greater equity capitalization requirements than just the minimum IDR 2.5 billion OJK mandated?
There are so many questions lingering on our minds, yet so few ready answers to blow away the clouds of Doubt. Yet, if there is a will, there will be a way. You can be a doubter by the sidelines, or you can be a do-er and build this industry up, felling one doubt at a time alongside the rest of us in the fintech-finance industry.
Last but not least, we are left with Greed.
As the old saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Yet, even amongst fintech players, there are some who view other peers as competitors out to starve each other of oxygen in the room. I think the fintech industry is currently far too nascent in development to focus on competing with our peers. The market is large and early enough such that we aren’t yet bumping into each others’ elbows (yet!). The finance industry is also unique in the sense that no one winner can ever take all. It behaves more like a network of centralized trust nodes. Banks lend to each other and also to multi-finance companies, while consumers borrow from different banks and multi-finance at different times for different purposes. We have also seen how a bank’s popular loan product often quickly inspires countless other me-toos by other banks.
And in other news, money is green.
This same network effect between capital, corporations and consumers is set to repeat itself in the fintech-finance industry where sharing, collaboration and frenemies should always trump outright disdain, antagonistic relationships and petty squabbles between competitors.
I’m pretty sure fintech naysayers are gleefully clapping when we fight among ourselves and jostle for favour with regulators. I have come to learn about interest groups that lobby regulators for an interest rate cap to create greater distinction between lintah darat-like payday loans and peer-to-peer platform loans. This goes against the spirit of “gotong royong”. First up, payday loans are short-term loans alongside installment loans for consumers and corporate loans for businesses, with each serving entirely different borrower segments and risk profiles. Peer-to-peer is a mechanism of loan arrangement and co-underwriting, and can be used to facilitate loans to consumers or companies. It does not make sense to compare the two. Secondly, I do not believe it is pareto-efficient to prematurely introduce lending interest rate controls in the name of “consumer protection” from “predatory interest rates” this early in our growth curve when Indonesia will be better served in letting the market undergo several years of price discovery (just like China did) and permitting fintechs to bring thin-file, new-to-credit customers onto the SLIK system and our newly formed credit bureau databases.
Profit (or Loss) = Principal x (1 — NPL) x (1+loan interest) less Operating Expenses less User Acquisition Cost less Cost of Funds
No matter whether you are a fintech peer-to-peer arranger, a bank or multi-finance, we all operate upon the same universal formula (above). With or without enforced interest rate caps, the inherent NPL of subprime new-to-credit customers will stay the same; capping loan interest can only result in an increase in the Cost of Funds to maintain overall profitability. A clearer distinction needs to be made on consumer protection as applied to consumers as lenders and consumers as borrowers. In deliberating on consumer protection where consumers are borrowers, regulators should avoid the heavy hand of interest rate caps and focus more on consumers’ financial literacy, standardized interest calculation and fee representation by peer-to-peer platforms.
Gotong royong is the only way for Indonesia fintech. What do you think?
It’s been an exciting past year and a half in the Indonesian fintech industry, and I thank my team and institutional lending partners for their support. I’ve learnt a ton from my friends and partners in the industry and look forward to speaking to more like-minded folks on how we can harness the kampung “gotong royong” spirit to transform the consumer finance experience for individuals across Indonesia. You can write to me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
My year in review, and some thoughts for the year ahead.
This is the last week of 2017, and as the year draws to a close, I stay in Singapore and try to slow down a little, breath and think. It’s my annual ritual to reflect upon the past year and plan for the next, a habit I started since last year’s transition from 2016 to 2017. I subscribe to the belief that privacy is a modern invention that has since become obsolete; our hyper-connected world has changed the playing field from physical rivers and coastal areas into digital rivers and waterways in which our physical constraints no longer hold sway. The better we get at managing a cohesive self in our networked world, the better we develop our abilities to surf the disruptive waves of data and technology that lies ahead of us.
Last month, I took a long trip with the family to Queensland, starting with Gold Coast and Mount Tamborine and ending at Brisbane. The trip helped me break from my usual daily mad-rush routine and reflect upon the past year. If 2016 was a year of consolidation, 2017 was a year of endings and beginnings for me on all fronts. I’d like to share my thoughts here in adherence to my adoption of radical transparency in my life.
The Silicon Straits Group, in Transition
This year, I was sad to preside over the end of my Silicon Straits Foundry partnership with Kent Nguyen and Andy Bui after a solid run of 3+ years. We started our Vietnam office in 2013 as a subsidiary of Silicon Straits, growing to a team of 30 in Saigon in 6 months and reaching a peak of more than 90-strong in end-2016. Earlier this year, we spun out one-third of the team to become the IT arm of 7-Eleven Vietnam, sold another one-third of the team to a regional tech unicorn for cash and stock and spun out the remaining team into an independent design studio playfully named Naughty Vision. It was a good financial outcome for all of us, but I couldn’t ignore the bittersweetness of it all.
I had started experiencing increasing friction on management matters with Kent Nguyen and Andy Bui throughout the second half of 2016 till its end — ironic given how 2016 was Silicon Straits Foundry’s biggest year ever in terms of revenue, profits or team size in our brief 3-odd years of existence —with the straw that broke the camel back being the manner in which the 7-Eleven Vietnam tech spin-out was structured without Silicon Straits Foundry’s involvement or my opinion. That led me to put an end to our partnership, starting with the sale of our 20-odd strong Bluebird project team in February, our ex-CEO Jonas Eichhorst’s departure also at or about February, the paring-down of surplus headcount in Vietnam throughout the year by Andy and finally ending with the spinning out of Naughty Vision in November. With the massive changes in direction and partner dynamics, Jonas and I both felt there wasn’t much point for him to stick around so he left shortly after the acquisition. We’re now in the final throes of a clean cut between Vietnam and Singapore, and I’m glad to be in a position to put everything behind us going into 2018.
I guess things could have ended on a better note given how our trio had gone out with a (good) bang — clocking our successful first and profitable entrepreneurial exit — but you make lemonade when life serves you lemons. I’m glad we’re all now in a position to put things behind us and move on. I’d also prefer we counted our blessings and shared memories rather than focus on any of the lows along the way. I’ve had a profitable venture fund with Neoteny Labs and can now add the next feather to my cap in the profitable exit with Silicon Straits Foundry. I’ve learnt a ton from my Vietnam experiment and wish Kent and Andy all the best in their future endeavours.
From the ashes of Silicon Straits Foundry rose a new subsidiary Silicon Jungles that I cofounded with old buddy Sam Hon in March, where we built a boutique Singapore-based agile product foundry team building interesting stuff that will launch in early 2018. It’s always refreshing to start anew and rebuild while applying the learnings from my Vietnam experiment. One of our first collaboration is with AsiaBoxOffice to build the “Stubhub of Asia Pacific” through a joint venture named ABO Labs. I’m really honoured to be working with Sam who I greatly respect as a serial tech entrepreneur and CTO virtuoso, and we’ve been cooking up a storm thus far with some interesting loafs of opportunities in our proverbial oven. Hit us up if you’re looking for a new challenge and want to know more.
Our tribe at Silicon Straits is all about the perfect balance between venture capital and venture building; investing in the convergence of design, hardware and software and operating at the intersection of ideas, capital and talent. After investing in Carro in 2016, I then co-invested with Aaron Tan into PolicyPal. I also invested into Udu (a Neoteny 3 fund portfolio), Razmig’s new startup Pixel Labs and SurePark. I also made a significant investment into TunaiKita, the Indonesian subsidiary of Wecash, as part of our group’s venture builder strategy.
Thanks to Sam, Ken and Celine at Silicon Jungles and also Sandra, Helena and the rest of the amazing team at SmoothOps, I’ve been able to spend ~10%-15% of my energy on team building, strategy and business development without any detrimental impact to our growth, while throwing myself into the next challenge of my life, Wecash Southeast Asia.
: I wish I could share more, but we hate to count our chickens before they hatch. : I invested and started with Sandra and Helena in 2014 as a subsidiary of Silicon Straits but have since sold part of our stake back to them, turning the company into just an affiliate of our Group.
Project Wecash in Southeast Asia
The bulk of my time this year was spent on jumpstarting Wecash in Southeast Asia as CEO for the region. I tied up the joint venture agreement between all parties for our go-to-market in Indonesia just before Chinese New Year. Frontend product design and development started right after, led by my able lieutenant Zeng Feng Ping and her then-small team in Beijing as we made good progress. On 22 May, we launched our online lending platform on Indonesia’s Google Play Store and submitted our registration application to OJK after a mere 14 weeks. We made our app public and held our press conference on 26 July. We then completed our registration with OJK on 24 August and started the 1-year countdown to full compliance with OJK’s P.OJK77/2016 regulatory framework for peer-to-peer fintech players. We had initially launched with only cash instalment loans with tenures of 3 to 6 months but added short-term loans with tenures of 10 to 30 days towards the end of September. I would spend most if not all of my weekdays in Jakarta, with the occasional trip to Beijing. From a humble beginning of just 5-strong in Beijing and myself in mid-December 2016, the Wecash Southeast Asia team grew to today’s team of 7 in Singapore, 50-odd in Jakarta and 29 in Beijing. In 2018, I expect our family to grow across the region and look forward to welcoming new team members and entering new markets in the coming weeks and months.
On 22 May, we launched our online lending platform on Indonesia’s Google Play Store and submitted our registration application to OJK after a mere 14 weeks. We made our app public and held our press conference on 26 July. We then completed our registration with OJK on 24 August and started the 1-year countdown to full compliance with OJK’s P.OJK77/2016 regulatory framework for peer-to-peer fintech players. We had initially launched with only cash instalment loans with tenures of 3 to 6 months but added short-term loans with tenures of 10 to 30 days towards the end of September. I would spend most if not all of my weekdays in Jakarta, with the occasional trip to Beijing. From a humble beginning of just 5-strong in Beijing and myself in mid-December 2016, the Wecash Southeast Asia team grew to today’s team of 7 in Singapore, 50-odd in Jakarta and 29 in Beijing. In 2018, I expect our family to grow across the region and look forward to welcoming new team members and entering new markets in the coming weeks and months.
Peer-to-peer lending in Indonesia is truly at an inflection point as we head into 2018. I’m excited that we’re getting a chance to apply first principles of mobile, technology and finance to build the best institution-to-peer lending platform in Indonesia and provide sustainable, responsible credit to improve the lives of our customers. I’m a lot less bearish than fellow fintech entrepreneur Aidil Zulkifli who recently published an op-ed on TechinAsia titled “Indonesian online lending is a tragedy waiting to unfold”. I acknowledge there is a fair amount of hype especially from the seemingly never-ending pipeline of Chinese lenders looking to enter Indonesia. I also concur that some form of reality check will kick in at some point across the sector. Having said that, I do not agree with many of Aidil’s other points and believe his strawman and logical fallacies deserve a post of its own; stay tuned!
I’m particularly pleased with what the team has accomplished in 2017; we set out to avoid reusing any design or code from China to avoid inheriting any technical debt or China-specific design that won’t work in Indonesia. George and I swapped plenty of notes and I studied our China apps as well as our competitors’ in both China and Indonesia to ensure we had a product that could delight our users. It was the first time I played product owner, product manager and programme manager all at once while building out our Indonesian team and its operations with my TunaiKita cofounder Andry Huzain. It was a lot more intensive and at-scale than building up Silicon Straits Foundry in Ho Chi Minh, and I felt truly challenged for the first time in a long while.
I’m really proud of our team in Jakarta and Beijing that accompanied us through our 22 May launch; we burnt long hours and consecutive weekends with nary a complain to ensure that we could launch on time. I remember the personal sacrifices made by folks such as Andry, Feng Ping (and many others in our Southeast Asia team in Beijing), Mega, Gerry, Ben, Ardi, Bambang, Nadia and Princess, when we operated out of Setiabudi Rework and later when we partially moved into our partially renovated office in Setiabudi Atrium; those days will always serve to remind us of what’s possible when we’re fully aligned and motivated.
As our product organisation grew over this past year, I started stepping back from the product management role and handed more of the product’s ropes over to Joe Lee who joined us as Head of Product. We added to our team across all departments and deployed our first real-time loan underwriting engine in November after having collected enough training data and backtesting our initial model against our historic portfolio. Our Android app is now live in 18 cities across Indonesia, with the count slated to rise to 26 cities by the end of next month. We’re set to welcome our first institutional peer lender next month alongside our own affiliated peer lender, with many more institutional lenders in our pipeline. Our product and technology roadmap is looking strong. I expect rapid growth in the coming year, with a good shot at profitability if we achieve or exceed my forecast for 2018.
I’ve been an extremely demanding leader in 2017, and my expectations are only set to go higher as the peaks ahead of us that we need to scale grow taller. I expect a lot from myself and expect the same high standards from those around me. I apologise in advance to my team and partners if I come across as being too blunt and direct, unrelentless and unforgiving, but I do not suffer fools gladly, yearn to meet people who can point out my mistakes, and hope you’ll understand where I’m coming from if you ever cross my line of fire. Only then can we have a solid chance at building a world-class product and company that serves tens of millions across Southeast Asia well.
On Friends and Family
I’ve been a terrible friend, husband and father in 2017. I don’t make enough time for myself, and by extension, to my friends and my wife and children. Over the past few years, my friends and work contacts have overlapped to the point that I’ve got a small circle of work-related friends who I resonate with and at different points in time, spend more time with. I can count on one hand the number of non-work friends I’m still weakly in touch with. I had to turn down a year-end party invite by Wei Qing yesterday evening as our helper had gone home for the holiday period and I was neck deep in housework and caring for the kids. I flew almost every week and am only home on weekends. Even when I’m home, my mind is racing so fast as I subconsciously juggle the various moving parts on my work and personal fronts that my wonderful wife has had to tolerate me being “physically present but mentally absent” at times.
A work friend of mine asked me 2 weeks ago over breakfast whether being this much “on the edge” was worthwhile. I paused for a bit, commenting that she had asked a darn good question, before replying that I no longer know how to stand going any slower, but am striving for lagom in everything that I set out to be or do. After all, we only live once and time travel is not possible (yet).
2017 also marked the year where I got back into cryptocurrencies. I bought a secondhand Butterfly Labs5Gh/s Bitcoin Miner that ran at 9+Gh/s (probably overclocked) back in 2014 and mined a grand total of 0.18 BTC before it went kaput (suspected quality control problem on the PCB, likely due to the overclocking). I lost my USD bank accounts from my college days due to inactivity and gave up too easily trying to figure out ways to buy in (big mistake). I ended up buying some BTC, ETH and XRP and trading some and believe I’ll be getting back into cryptocurrencies in 2018 in a much bigger way than I was in 2017 or 2014.
The Birthday Book 2017: What Should We Never Forget?
Last but not least, there’s The Birthday Collective that I helped jumpstart in 2016 with a S$25,000 donation. This year saw the release of our second edition, with 52 essays responding to the prompt, “What Should We Never Forget?” I also oversaw a website refresh, and worked with Cherie Lim and Malminderjit Singh to incorporate The Birthday Collective Limited as a Public Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG) and (finally) open our bank account. Wei Leong was so kind as to whip our accounting books into shape via Google Sheets. Malminderjit got us some publicity via a series of 5-minute phone interviews during 938FM’s Monday lunch slots. Still, I felt that we had lost a bit of momentum after the launch of the book as everyone got busy with their own work and lives. I hope we’ll rally and execute better in 2018 as we head into our third edition with 53 new contributors sharing with us their thoughts on “The Roads We Take”. Volunteers are always welcomed!
This post was originally posted on my Medium account and mirrored here on 12 Jan 2020.
My year in review, and some thoughts for the year ahead.
Today marks the 3rd day of the new year. I write this aboard my flight back from Cambodia, where I’ve spent the past few days exploring everything in between Khmer ruins and Cambodian beaches and urbanity of Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong and Phnom Penh. It’s an annual ritual most of us conduct to reflect upon the past 366 days, so as to guide myself better in the next 365. I’m doing this publicly because I consider it an important exercise in transparency and accountability to my family, friends, partners and investors — in an era where our very notions of privacy in a hyper-connected world are being challenged, and where the nature of work is evolving with the research and development of faster, better and cheaper technologies across the colliding wave fronts of self, society, religion, politics and technology. It also forces me to stop and think about the stuff I’m working on and its impact on the world around me.
Before I get started, I also wanted to share my recent reading list for added context. I recently completed 2 books; former technocrat hustler virtuoso Phillip Yeo’s biographical book “Neither Civil Nor Servant”, and Joshua Cooper Ramo’s “The Seventh Sense”. I’m still trying to finish “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” after making slow progress over the past few months. I also came across 2 links shared by my friend Jeff Jonas; former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho’s speech at a recent conference titled “Disrupted Balance — Society at Risk”, and a forward-looking trends deck by Centre for Strategic Futures. I also clipped Professor Tommy Koh’s recent op-ed on Straits Times on his three great expectations for 2017. Their content serves as my latest brainfood in reflecting upon 2016 while keeping an eye on the rest of 2017.
I continue to juggle my many hats and expect this to continue for the rest of my life; on the professional front as an investor, entrepreneur and all-round startup hustler in the technology realm across China and Southeast Asia, and on the personal front, as a husband and new father of our third child. It’s physically exhausting and mentally invigorating, but my wife and family’s support keeps me highly motivated.
On the Professional Front
I continue to oversee the US$5 million “Neoteny 2” Neoteny Labs fund that I started with Joichi Ito in May 2010, but it no longer takes up much of my time. We returned US$6.76 million at the end of our fourth year (Q4 2014), and continue to have an unrealised portfolio valued at ~US$17.8 million as we approach the end of our sixth year (Apr 2017). Noteworthy investments from our remaining portfolio include Formlabs, littleBits, BlackStorm Labs, Animoca, HelloSign and Burpple. I don’t foresee any exits from the portfolio in 2017, but also don’t expect any write-offs.
I remain the Executive Chairman of the Silicon Straits Group and oversee its continued growth with the rest of our management, Jonas Eichhorst, Kent Nguyen and Andy Bui. Over the past 3 years, the Silicon Straits Group has evolved into an innovation tribe in Southeast Asia that makes early-stage investments and works with entrepreneurs and enterprises to build products and companies. We achieved this across 4 entities; Silicon Straits Pte. Ltd. (Singapore parent group holding), Silicon Straits Foundry Pte. Ltd. (Singapore revenue centre subsidiary for Vietnam team), Silicon Straits Sai Gon, Ltd. (Vietnam revenue/cost centre subsidiary for Ho Chi Minh team) and SmoothOps (Asia) Pte. Ltd. (50% subsidiary providing finance, admin and ops services).
We reached a record revenue year for Silicon Straits Foundry — more than doubling from FY2015 — ending the year with more than 90 people in Ho Chi Minh, with delivered products, teams and incubated startups across Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Noteworthy projects include 7-Eleven Vietnam (from scratch, all of the tech!), Bluebird Indonesia (uberization of a traditional taxi fleet), Tankfind and ParcelPerform.
We scaled back on our physical presence in Singapore, ending our lease at Block 71 due to my disinterest in playing the incubation ‘numbers game’ with JTC. It was a great home base while it lasted, but much of our opportunities and growth is outside of Singapore anyway. Having said that, we made a couple of new investments into startups in Singapore (Carro, ParcelPerform, PolicyPal and SurePark), India (One Eight Technologies) and USA (Udu, Pixel Labsbeing Razmig’s post-Viki startup).
Our other operating affiliate SmoothOps continues to operate out of the same Block 71 office now inherited by TNB. I also made the decision to sell back 20% of our stake in the business to my partners Sandra and Helena, leaving Silicon Straits with 30% in SmoothOps. Their team has been a great help to our group on the finance, admin and ops front as we scaled across Southeast Asia, and I’m really grateful for their support.
We’re planning to do a better job on the Silicon Straits website in Q1 2017; you know the drill…not enough time for our own stuff as we drown in client and partner product design and development.
We continue to explore opportunities to expand our direct presence and partners in Indonesia and Myanmar in 2017, with an eye on growing a second product engineering team out of Singapore.
I remain as one of the board members in Burpple, having seen it through its Series A fundraising in late-2015/early-2016. It’s been a long and productive relationship between Dixon, Daniel and myself from their earliest of days. I still recall the pen-on-tissue discussion we had in 2011 that resulted in me leading their seed investment in 2012. We interact frequently on strategy, product and growth management. It has also been great to see the Series A investors —Tembusu, Singapore Press Holdings and Triumph Capital — jump in, challenge assumptions and actively add value; the team certainly appreciates the added perpectives to help them scale greater heights in the coming year.
I remain as one of the board members of E14 Fund, a pro-bono role that Alexander Lourie, Mark Masselink, John Underkoffler and I undertook back in 2014, after I had consulted for Joi and MIT Media Lab to help set it up. Dave Strand retired and the team/strategy is currently undergoing reframing and alignment with the rest of the MIT.
I ended my role with GreyOrange after 3 years of association; initially as an advisor from Oct 2013 till May 2013, and later on with an operating role from Jun 2015 till Oct 2016. I devised and executed upon their Japan entry, grew the sales pipeline in Asia Pacific/Japan (APACJ) and built the APACJ team out of Singapore. I deepened personal connections with new and old friends; Wolfgang Höltgen who is GreyOrange’s earliest angel investor, Sriram Sridhar who was a trusty right-hand sales lieutenant that hustled with me, my old Carnegie Mellon and Stanford school mate Xianyi Wu who has fit right in driving the company’s product and interface design across Singapore and India, and Nalin Advani who I first got to know from TiE Singapore and joined as CEO (APACJ). Looking back, I underestimated the complexities and dynamics of an Indian-headquartered logistics robotics startup trying to attract and keep talent, maintain product cohesion and quality while entering ex-India markets with different norms, realities and competitors in Japan and China. GreyOrange co-founders Samay, Akash (and myself) were bummed as I had expected to continue contributing for longer, but I ultimately felt I had checked enough boxes, our family was welcoming our third child and that it was time for me to rebalance my overall commitments.
I had a brief interlude with Formlabs for 3 months to serve as the bridge for the expansion of their China efforts — market strategy, business development and talent acquisition — disengaging after having gotten them off to a running start. As an investor in Formlabs through Neoteny Labs’ seed investment in late-2011, I was glad to have had the chance to interact with the team on a more personal and professional level; Maxim Lobovsky, David Lakatos, Luke Winston, Scott Papenfuss and Gideon Balloch. The company has an awesome product in Form 2 and is well-poised for continued growth in North America, Europe and Japan. China is an entirely different beast though, one that will require a seasoned and local team to take it on by its horns. I look forward to more good news from Team Formlabs!
Towards the end of 2016, I added the fintech feather to my cap, assuming the role of Chief Strategy Officer of Beijing-headquartered fintech company Wecash, and serving as their regional partner for our Southeast Asia expansion, starting with Indonesia. Founded in 2014, Wecash develops big data and machine learning technologies for unsecured institution-to-peer loans underwriting between funding sources (banks and multi-finance companies) and consumers. The company has raised over US$40 million and has a team of over 400 across China, USA, Brazil, Singapore and Indonesia. Wecash checked 2 key boxes for me; Indonesia and fintech. I also developed a strong rapport with and respect for Wecash founder George Zhi. Over the past 3 months, I’ve been learning from and collaborating with the Wecash Beijing team while assembling our initial Indonesian team. Our battle plans are crystallising and I’m confident 2017 is going to be a busy but exciting year for the Wecash Southeast Asia team.
On the Personal Front
On the family front, we welcomed our third child, Keidi Chan (second daughter) to our burgeoning young family of 5. I continue to be indebted to my wife who remains my biggest pillar of support as I jet between Singapore and Ho Chi Minh, Jakarta, New Delhi, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, San Francisco and Boston. Despite my crazy travel, I’ve only missed 4 or 5 weekends with the family in 2016; it’s a personal commitment I made to our family. She has inspired, motivated, cajoled and harangued me to be a much better man and person, and I am really thankful for her persistence and patience at my nonsense.
On the personal front, I have borrowed heavily from my personal time in 2016 for work and family. In that sense, my “personal account” is completely bankrupt and it’s been an extremely tiring (albeit fulfilling) year. I don’t have time to exercise, and don’t feel like I’m spending enough time with my wife and the family. Ultimately, we can’t have it all; I made my choices and shouldn’t really complain. For 2017, I strive to strike a better balance between myself, family and work.
On the Non-Profit Front
Last but not least, I’d like to give special mention to a non-profit project I contributed to in 2017. Apart from authoring an article to the inaugural edition of The Birthday Book titled “Pulling the (virtual) world to Singapore” as my response to the 2016 edition’s prompt, “What is Singapore’s Next Big Thing?”, I (through Silicon Straits) also donated S$25,000 to The Birthday Collective to fund the print runs of the first 3,000 copies of the book, and participated in its planning and organisation alongside Malminderjit Singh, Aaron Maniam, Kah Gay Ng and Daniel Ong. I see this as a natural projection of my aspirations for a more mature and participatory civil society in Singapore; one that is less self-entitled, complains less and takes on a greater onus to own our country’s issues and act on them, rather than expect for all our solutions to be provided by our government. Governments can’t run like tech startups do in Silicon Valley. A more dynamic and participatory civil society can strengthen our nation’s responses to a less-certain future. We’re going to incorporate The Birthday Collective as a CLG legal entity to hold the proceeds from book sales. We’re not quite ready to be a charity or IPC just yet, but want to operate legitimately and be in a better position to accept future contributions. We’ve completely sold out our initial 1,000 copies and are well into our next 2,000 copies. I think we might even be at break-even by now. We’ve also commencing work on the 2017 edition, having finalised this year’s prompt and an initial list of possible contributors. One thing we’ve done better in the new year is to get started earlier; the 2016 edition took us a harried 3 months from start to end, but we should have a good 8 months for the 2017 edition. Look out for our launch sometime in August 2017!