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Hiring to scaling: 3 fintech unicorn CEOs share what it takes to build a successful company

charles song jefferson chen Niraan De Silva

As part of Singapore Fintech Festival 2021, three CEOs of fintech unicorns in Asia — Linklogis, VNLIFE and Advance Intelligence Group — came together as panellists to discuss the key ingredients for success that help to shape and grow a unicorn.

Some topics that were discussed include scaling considerations and processes, as well as hiring and culture.

Established in February 2016, Hong Kong-listed Linklogis is a leading supply chain finance platform in China. It applies advanced technologies like AI, blockchain, cloud computing and big data, to help solve industry pain points.

The company’s mission is to redefine and transform the supply chain finance industry through technology and innovation. They have become the market leader in China and have big plans to become an international player as well.

On the other hand, VNLIFE is a Vietnamese company with strong roots in enterprise financial software and digital payments. The business has greatly evolved over the last 15 years, and is now focusing on four key verticals: digital banking solutions, QR and cashless interoperable network, domestic travel, and new retail.

Last but not least, Singapore-headquartered Advance Intelligence Group focuses on using AI technology to transform and disrupt financial services in the retail industry, with an aim to make transactions frictionless.

It currently has three business units: big data and AI company ADVANCE.AI, buy now, pay later company Atome Financial, and e-commerce merchant services tech platform Ginee.

The panel discussion is moderated by Paul Ng, managing partner of EDBI, which is a dedicated corporate investment arm of the EDB.

Why businesses should establish presence in Singapore

Charles Song, chairman and CEO of Linklogis
Charles Song, chairman and CEO of Linklogis / Screenshot by Vulcan Post

Charles Song, chairman and CEO of Linklogis, highlighted Singapore as the centre of its global strategy.

Linklogis has an international business unit, which focuses on Asia-related exporters and US or European-based branding buyers.

“We’re trying to help those Asian-based exporters to have funding challenges resolved, and we have established a subsidiary in Singapore last month,” said Charles.

“On top of that, we have obtained a digital banking license in Singapore. This wholesale digital banking will be up and running the first quarter of next year, and we’re very excited about that.”

Linklogis has also recently partnered with Standard Chartered to launch a new finance platform, which will be headquartered in Singapore.

Essentially, the company has big plans ahead and want to make sure that they stay ahead of the curve, and by establishing presence in Singapore, it will help them penetrate into the international markets as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, Niraan De Silva, CEO of VNLIFE, used to live in Singapore pre-Covid and regularly goes on business trips to Vietnam on weekdays.

Despite the frequent travels to Vietnam, Niraan stressed that Singapore is an important hub for the VNLIFE, citing three key reasons.

First is talent. One of the biggest and most important drivers of innovation in our business is attracting the right talent outside of Vietnam. Attracting that [global] talent and bringing it to Vietnam, where our engineering homes and R&D is located, it’s not easy.

So we’ve decided to scale our data AI teams in Singapore. And we’ve had a lot of success bringing global Vietnamese talent from some the larger tech companies in the world and relocating them back to Singapore versus back to Vietnam. Talent is critical, and Singapore’s a big enabler of that for us.

– Niraan De Silva, CEO of VNLIFE

The second reason is partnership. A lot of their business — be it on the payment or software side — relies a lot on global tech companies like Facebook, Google, Visa and Mastercard.

“Their regional headquarters and regional management are based in Singapore and establishing a presence here and having strong relationships with our strategic partners is very important to scaling our business. A lot of these companies don’t have local offices, so we have to have regular dialogue in Singapore,” explained Niraan.

Lastly, VNLIFE is now expanding outside of Vietnam. It is now in Cambodia and Myanmar as well, and have plans to potentially move to other Southeast Asian markets next year without enterprise banking software. With these expansion plans in mind, they’ve chosen Singapore as a “logical regional hub”.

Lessons learnt: Running a startup vs unicorn

Although the three companies have established themselves as unicorns now, they started out as early-stage startups. How exactly has that journey been like for them?

Advance Intelligence Group had started out with just 10 people, but they now occupy the entire floor of an office building. They have about 300 employees in Singapore, and about 2,000 employees globally.

Jefferson Chen, chairman and CEO of Advance Intelligence Group
Jefferson Chen, chairman and CEO of Advance Intelligence Group / Screenshot by Vulcan Post

“It’s been a tremendous growth the last few years. I would say we’re still chaotic [though] I think we probably have a little more structure in our organisation right now,” said Jefferson Chen, chairman and CEO of Advance Intelligence Group.

“Overall, I think it’s a fast-moving environment. The most important thing is that people will want to grow a new business. We have had people who move across different functions over time and be very successful, and the retention numbers in our company has been pretty high over time.”

“What I learnt is about striking a balance between centralised functions and decentralised decision-making process. We hire a lot of local people in different countries, so having that balance is critical for us.”

Linklogis has had similar humble beginnings as Advance Intelligence Group. It started out with 10 people, and for the past five to six years, it has grown very rapidly. Today, it has close to 1,100 people.

Charles noted that running a startup and a more established company requires a lot of different skillsets as you will be faced with different challenges.

There are three things we always keep in mind. One, you need to have a very clear, strategic direction. You do not want to change your strategy too often otherwise people will lose their focus. Since day one, we make sure that we focus on supply chain finance area and make an impact in the marketplace.

Our strategy has always been clear. Anything that has to do with supply chain finance, we’ll try; anything else — no matter how sexy or attractive it is — we will not touch.

– Charles Song, chairman and CEO of Linklogis

The second thing is about building a team and hiring the right people.

“It’s not about the profile, experience, title, so on and so forth. You really want to make sure the key members you have at different stages are suitable to execute your strategy and can work well with the management team,” advised Charles.

The final thing is to have a set of management tools to help monitor performance and cultivate a culture of success. At Linklogis, they rely on a STAR model (strategy, team, action, and reveal), which has been helpful since “everybody understand [it] … and can speak the same language”.

Company culture matters

Company culture can be defined as a set of shared values, goals, attitudes and practices that characterise an organisation. It’s the way people feel about the work they do, the values they believe in, where they see the company going and what they’re doing to get it there.

Niraan De Silva, CEO of VNLIFE
Niraan De Silva, CEO of VNLIFE / Screenshot by Vulcan Post

While company culture differs depending on the region or type of company, VNLIFE’s Niraan said that he adopts a “leadership by example” approach.

“It sounds very simple, but when I want something instilled within the organisation, if I am not doing it myself — be it transparency, or creative thinking, or discipline — then it doesn’t get passed down, no matter what policy I implement. So I would say the biggest kind of value I’ve instilled is actually action, or to lead by example.”

Concurring on this, Charles said that he makes it a point to create an open kind of corporate culture and create a flat hierarchy. Leading by example is definitely one of the facets to this type of company culture.

For instance, there are no private offices at Linklogis. Every staff, including Charles (the CEO), are seated in the same space to encourage collaboration and communication.

He also makes it a point to write a weekly letter to his staff every Monday. This way, everybody can understand what the CEO is thinking and worrying about, and what are the focus points for the organisation.

Beyond constant communication, Linklogis also encourage people to voice out their ideas, no matter how small it is or how big the new initiative could be. This is one step the company is making to help employees feel empowered and involved.

Jefferson also strongly believes in the empowerment of employees. In fact, Advance Intelligence Group adopts three core principles: customer-centric, data-centric, and people-centric.

“I think what would differentiate ourselves is probably on the data-centric. We measure organisations just like we measure products. We look at the company from the outside, track the progress within the team and within the organisation and produce a number of reports to help us understand what is actually going on within the company.”

Jefferson also shared that a personal anecdote to display the importance of culture, in which he made an effort to learn Bahasa Indonesia when the company had a business dealing in Indonesia.

“My iPhone’s system language [was even changed to] Bahasa [for about six months]. I think it’s important to really understand customers and build connection with colleagues and partners in [a particular] country. Hopefully, over time, I can learn more countries in the region.”

What new CEOs should take note of

linklogis advance intelligence group vnlife
Paul Ng, managing partner of EDBI as moderator (top left) and other panellists / Screenshot by Vulcan Post

Reflecting on their business journey so far, Paul got the three CEOs to think about the kind of advice they would give themselves as a new CEO.

While Niraan is not a founder and joined the company as a CEO, he has two pieces of advice to share to people who are starting out with their own businesses.

The first is [to] invest in relationships. At that early point in time, when you’re trying to scale your product and raise capital, relationships matter. Spend the time to know, understand, and meet people even though you may not be able to draw benefit from them immediately.

The second point is an obvious one, but I see it being overlooked all the time: the customer. At the end of the day, we sell product, we sell payment, we sell software. And if you don’t really understand your customer at that early point in time, you will waste a lot of time.

– Niraan De Silva, CEO of VNLIFE

Adding on to this, Charles said that as a startup company, it’s important to understand what your customer wants.

“When you start doing up product innovation and providing your services, most of the times you forget what your customer really wants. You start doing product innovation from internal perspective, based on your understanding of the nature of the products instead of an inside-out understanding of what the customer wants.”

He also asserted that as a new CEO, it’s important to pay close attention to the liquidity to your working capital.

“Cashflow is very important for any startup. A lot of companies have great ideas, great business models, and have strong market demands, but [when they] expand their business too quickly, they stretch themselves too thin and they cannot survive [long]. That will be a shame, so pay attention to your cashflow.”

For Jefferson, he has one advice to share, which is to “always think about the end game”.

“Think about what’s the outcome you want to achieve and then work backwards to figure out what are the steps that would take to get there. A lot of the strategies actually come from the details [so you need to have a] very detailed understanding of your customers and company.”

“A lot of these data are very important when it comes to strategic thinking. At the end of the day, crazy vision and crazy execution are what it takes to build a successful company.”


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Featured Image Credit: Ascential / Advance Intelligence Group / TechinAsia Conference

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