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Singapore – Sending Fintech Startups to Infinity and Beyond

Mankind’s first spaceport, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, was founded by the Soviets in 1955. Its location in Kazakhstan was chosen for its low latitude, sparse population density, railroad access, and proximity to water supplies, all factors needed to launch an unwieldy rocket into space. Still in use today, Baikonur is a testament to how success often hinges on starting with the right place.

In many ways, aspiring fintech startups face a similar problem. Finding the right country to launch one’s brainchild can mean the difference between it becoming a star and a firework. This article aims to narrow down the options, and discuss the merits of Singapore as a launch pad for fintech startups.

Centers of gravity

For a budding fintech, one of the first considerations should be country of launch and base, such as global financial centers. Mature financial industries normally seek out cutting edge solutions to achieve productivity growth. Also, their larger flows provide more opportunities for value creation, fostering a rich fintech space.  In contrast, developing counterparts can rely on acquiring unbanked customers and climbing the visible value chain for growth, reducing the urgency for fintech adoption. Hence, financial hubs allow fintech startups to plug into a larger network of potential partners and customers. Coupled with robust infrastructure and business environments, they are prime locations for fintechs to get started.

There are two salient exceptions to this. First, fintech innovation may happen concurrently with development. Some developing countries, notably Thailand, are relatively advanced in their adoption of fintech, and have popular startups such as Piggipo that are gaining widespread traction. However, this is normally within the confines of a localized financial industry. These solutions tend to be developed by locals, who have a better grasp of customer preferences, and hence their success cannot be easily replicated across markets. A fintech startup with international ambitions might do better launching in a cosmopolis, building an edge driven by technology, business model, or concept.

In addition, fintechs focused on financial inclusion might do better launching directly in developing markets. This would provide closer access to unbanked customers, and strengthen partnerships with local banks and regulatory bodies. This is particularly relevant for countries like Indonesia, where their large markets are able to sustain a niche, culture specific solution. Still, even amongst this category, some might prefer to roll out their solution through partnerships with international banks to borrow brand legitimacy. The natural choice would then be to seek out large players at financial hubs.

Different pads, different planets

In selecting amongst financial centers, it is beneficial to consider one’s target market. Financial centers are generally best integrated with their own regions – US, UK, Hong Kong and Singapore with North America, Europe, China and South East Asia respectively. Preferably, one’s business model and value proposition should interact well with the region’s characteristics. For example, startups dealing in cross currency exchanges should be mindful of cross-border capital flows restrictions in North Asia. These could cripple a business with bureaucracy should they be managed inappropriately.

In addition, the merits of the country itself should be assessed. Notably, market forces can only reward good ideas if two factors are in place. First, political support is vital to enable fintechs to navigate a sea of financial regulations. Without a cooperative regulatory partner, startups are likely to be mired in rules that were designed for traditional banking. Second, capital availability grants fintechs more opportunities to raise funds, which allows businesses to expand operations and build credibility. Startups may also opt to fundraise with accelerator programmes, which can provide the added benefit of business mentorship and networks.

To expand on these points, we zoom into Singapore, which has become increasingly attractive to fintech startups as a launch pad.

 

Space bound from Singapore

Singapore is both a sensible and easy place to set up a fintech. Ranked as Asia’s top financial center by the Global Financial Centers Index 2016, Singapore boasts a highly developed financial system that is well integrated with the ASEAN region. It was touted as the world’s easiest place to do business by the World Bank in 2016 due to a host of factors, including rapid business incorporation and low startup costs. Compounded with a world-class infrastructure and highly skilled workforce, Singapore has many qualifiers as a base of operations for fintech startups.

Moreover, Singapore stands out for several reasons. First, Singapore is well connected to the ASEAN region, being a trusted provider of financial services. ASEAN enjoys high economic growth, with its 2015 bloc GDP growth of 5.9% outpacing most developed regions. Also, ASEAN, comprising separated markets at varying stages of development, has a great diversity of problems that require solutions. The unbanked, wealth managers, and migrant workers across the region all face different pain points that can potentially be solved by fintech.

Second, the Singapore government has a clear direction to attract fintech startups in its bid to transform the nation into a smart financial centre. Statutory boards offer grants and industry support, whilst regulators work closely with fintech startups to enable their business development. The government puts its money where its mouth is; in 2015 the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) committed S$225 million to growing the fintech startup ecosystem in Singapore. Known for its political stability, Singapore is a place where fintech startups are given every opportunity that is possible to succeed.

Finally, Singapore offers fintech startups diverse opportunities for funding. Numerous venture capitalists, government grants and financial institutions in the country are on the lookout for strong solutions to harness. There are also many accelerator programmes that seek to boost startups, often providing entrepreneurship workshops, business networks and all-rounded mentorship. With a range of business enablers, fintech startups in Singapore are likely to be constrained only be the size of their ideas.

Rocketeers                                  

A rocket’s takeoff is an incredible feat. It must overcome the earth’s gravity, withstanding the immense heat and pressure of its liftoff. Fintech startups, in planning to do the same, should pick a place that maximizes its probability of success. And, whilst there are several strong options to consider, it is not difficult to see why fintech startups worldwide come to Singapore to shoot for the stars.

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5 expert tips to be the best fintech startup in Asia

Image by ZUU online Singapore

The startup scene is undeniably flourishing in Singapore, especially in the fintech (financial technology) sector. The ecosystem for fintech is incredibly conducive in Singapore since it is a developed nation and the financial hub for ASEAN. In fact, fintech is so well-received here that there is even a fintech festival happening this November. That is why many of the best fintech startups in Asia like to make Singapore their base.

Fintech startups have the necessary resources in Singapore to achieve success. There are plenty of incubators, accelerator programmes and funding available. There is no better time to bring your startup into Singapore than now.

Image by ZUU online Singapore

 Source: ZUU online Singapore

One of the accelerator programmes in Singapore that is fairly new but has already garnered a lot of interest in the fintech startup landscape is The FinLab. The FinLab is a leading corporate accelerator programme started by UOB and Infocomm Investments. Led by Felix Tan, managing director of The FinLab, the programme is the highest calibre of its kind.

Source: The FinLab

Source: The FinLab

Felix comes with an illustrious career in finance, bringing only the best to The FinLab. He has worked for two banks (one international, one local), established his own startup (which then went on to be valued at US$100 million in October 1999), raised and managed a private equity fund of US$20 million, been an angel investor, mentored startups through NTU Ventures (now known as NTUitive) and the list goes on. He’s run the full gamut, which makes him the prime candidate to head The FinLab.

The FinLab was established in November last year and Felix joined them in December.

How to make your fintech startup stand out

There is a lot of hype surrounding fintech startups in the world. There are many startups with plenty to offer but whether or not these ideas can be adopted and adapted by banks, is another question.

It is competitive to get accepted into an accelerator programme in the first place, especially one like The FinLab.

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Source: ZUU online Singapore

“There are a lot of people jumping on to the fintech bandwagon, but after a while, market forces will separate the men from the boys,” Felix says. “The stronger players will get funding and smaller players may get bought out if their technology is good or just die out.”

“Once the dust has settled, the remaining players will grow really big mainly because the banks will be working with them,” he adds.

These are some things Felix says you need to know if you want to be the best fintech startup in Asia:

1. The new ROIs

Surce: Thinkstock/Getty Images

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Images

ROI, or Return on Investment, should no longer be the standard companies (including startups) look at nowadays as a measure of success.

“ROI is a backward looking indicator. There are 3 things you should be paying attention to first – information, ideas and innovation – because these are forward looking indicators,” he advises.

With so much information out there, the challenge now is the ability to filter out things that are non-essential and see what patterns emerge.

“The ability to identify future trends from this information will help you to formulate what needs to be done to capture and ride these trends – and these will be the ideas you generate. So, the 1st ROI is the return on information – and that will be where ideas are generated.

Ideas remain ideas until they are pulled out from your head and made real, and when they become real, that’s innovation. So, innovation is the return on ideas – the 2nd ROI. When we innovate and succeed (or not), that is when we see the return on investment,” Felix adds.

2. Have an Ideas Bank

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Images

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Images

Nobody may understand your idea at first and the technology required may not exist just yet. But Felix says to live by this quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

“Sometimes, your ideas may not work now because the technology isn’t ready, or the market isn’t ready, or both. So you just keep them away in what I call an Ideas Bank. And when the time is right, you can pull them out and have them implemented, and this can quickly propel you ahead and make you a market and thought leader.”

The FinLab, alongside UOB, believe that having an Ideas Bank is very important. “We have no doubt that we are dealing with professionals (from the startups who applied for the programme) and they have the ability to execute their ideas. The only issue is that sometimes, these ideas are ahead of their time,” Felix opines.

“Keep growing this Ideas Bank as it will become the source of innovation for your business to not just stay relevant, but to thrive and prosper as you grow and scale.”

3. Know what you want, and what you have to offer

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Iages

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Iages

Accelerator programmes are a dime a dozen. Obviously, as a startup, you would want an accelerator programme that meets most, if not all, of your needs. But don’t forget that the courtship between an accelerator and your startup is a two-way street.

“Don’t just look at how much stake you’re giving up as a startup. That is a very short-term view. The best deal that you get at the start may not be best for you in the medium to long run.

Look at what kind of relationship you want with of the accelerator of your choice. In The FinLab’s case, having shareholders in UOB and Infocomm Investments provide a very unique and strong value proposition for startups looking to accelerate their growth.

“Startups who are looking at us should see how they can leverage on the bank’s and IIPL’s networks to grow and scale their business. Don’t just look at the equity you’re giving up.  Instead, look at the networks you stand to gain and build upon, all within a relatively short period of time,” he says.

From the accelerator’s point of view, they evaluate whether the startup is looking to solve a pressing problem that has a large addressable market, and the composition of the team – whether it has the necessary domain knowledge and expertise to do so. “What is most important for me is this: when I look at the founder, I want to see that he is willing to die to make his startup work and that is how I know he is fully committed and he is not just in it for the money,” Felix shares.

A further advantage of being a startup with The FinLab is that they have UOB’s panel of mentors made up of the different heads of departments. These mentors also possess the power to get things moving within the bank should the startup have a product or solution that can be implemented within the institution. It is key for the best fintech startups in Asia to have a support system like this.

4. Be willing to share

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Images

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Images

The FinLab has just completed the first run of their accelerator programme and according to Felix, they have chosen the best startups from different sectors within fintech. And the reasoning for this?

“We want to engage as many of the bank’s mentors as possible, not just a small group of them.  Given that these are all top level management folks, we don’t want to tax just a few of them and leave the rest with very little to do as they can all contribute significantly given the depth and breadth of their experience.”

Furthermore, investors coming to meet with these startups will also have a wider selection to choose from, depending on the areas they are more focused on. This way, a wider spectrum of investors can be engaged at any one time.

And the final benefit of having startups focused on different sectors of fintech in the same cohort is this:

“When the startups are not competing against each other, they are more willing to explore and work together. This is a formula we will look to continue moving ahead.”

“In the biology of life, the gene pool gets stronger with cross-pollination. We believe the same can happen with startups in fintech. They must be willing to share ideas in order to get feedback from each other. Sometimes when we are so immersed in something, we cannot see it from other angles that our peers do. And these may just give us the breakthroughs that we’ve been searching for.”

5. Understand the Asian market

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Images

Source: Thinkstock/Getty Images

For startups who wish to join an accelerator like The FinLab, they should have a plan for regional dominance in mind. “Singapore can be your springboard for ASEAN and it affords a great test bed since there is a lot of funding for startups. If you can tap into that, and have strong and scalable product pipeline, you can use Singapore to propel you into the region,” says Felix.

The FinLab’s strength in this lies in their tie-in with UOB. UOB is present in 19 countries, has 500 offices, of which a large number is in ASEAN.

“The regional fintech interest is starting to grow. Thailand and Indonesia need fintech to change their landscape more than we do in Singapore. Geographically, they may be a lot larger, but much of the population remains unbanked or underbanked. The use of fintech in these markets then becomes very pivotal in getting more people to be engaged in financial services.

Hence, the value proposition that B2B startups bring, especially those that can help serve the banks’ customers better, or help the banks open up new markets or market segments, is a lot stronger,” he adds.

Remember this though: In Asia, relationships are something that we value and when you are able to grow and deepen that relationship through continuous value creation, you can rest assured that it will continue to serve your business well as well.

With all of these tips in mind, there should be no reason why you cannot achieve the title of best fintech startup in Asia.

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