Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018!
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 through my special-purpose vehicle Futurum Debitum Pte Ltd.
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.
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 Labs 5Gh/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 awy 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!
Sorry for the long read. Let me know what you think! I wish all of you a good end to 2017 and a most blessed 2018!