In an era where cryptocurrencies and trading stocks online is the norm, try imagining this scenario: you want to buy stocks, but nothing on the internet could support such a service. The only way you can access stocks and currency trading is via the phone next to you. Picking up the phone, you make a call with a broker, only to find out that you have to wait two days for a confirmation letter through mail delivery.
Hard to imagine, but this was exactly how trading in Singapore was just nearly two decades ago in 2005. The manual process was a hassle and inefficient, yet there was no other service out there that could do things differently.
It was the experience that I’ve gone through with buying stocks that eventually led me to venture into my first fintech startup, Broctagon, in 2009. I wanted to be able to address the market needs of easing processes in the industry, and thus focused on building electronic trading solutions for brokerages and financial institutions. It felt like the financial world was still stuck in some time warp, while the rest of the world was already moving quickly onto the Internet.
As with all startups and businesses, the initial journey was far from smooth. It was initially difficult to get business, as we needed to get the brokerages to trust in us, a young and scrappy startup. We didn’t get any business for a while, until we decided to simply launch a full end-to-end dummy brokerage on our platform, complete with live prices and trades that can pump through to the markets, just for a demo to show our prospective clients that the platform was more efficient, could provide a great user experience and yet could remain stable and secure. Though not an easy journey, we’ve managed to taste success in the next few years.
By 2017, there had been a whole new shift in technology, where people are comfortable with trading on online platforms. This was a huge change as compared to a decade ago, and the process was definitely faster than it was in 2005. However, despite the efficiency, I realized that there are still remnants of the outdated legacy infrastructure hidden below the surface of ease that the advancement of technology has brought on.
In the financial markets, I saw an emerging need around trade clearance and settlement and wanted to hop on the opportunity to address this need. That brought on my second, and most current venture, STACS in February 2019, where I decided to bridge the gap in the market with new distributed ledger technology (DLT).
One interesting shift that we’re currently seeing in banking is towards Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG). However, it is an ongoing transition that will take years, and as such, there are growing pains.
Whether it’s on the data side, blockchain, or IoT that measures and verifies said data, fintech is figuring out how to apply it to commercial green use cases. Given this, we are now leveraging our same core patent-pending blockchain technology to launch GreenSTACS, an industry-wide ESG financing technology infrastructure that supports effective green and sustainability-linked loans and bonds.
Remembering the purpose and passion
Very early on in life, I decided that I didn’t want to work for anyone else. Instead, an entrepreneurial path was something that I desired. That decision meant that I had to sell almost all my possessions just to survive in order to fund the business, including all my stocks and two guitars.
In my very early entrepreneurial days, I had to live on an allowance of just SGD 2 food budget daily so as to stay within costs. I had bread for breakfast and lunch, and dinner with a banana and walnut flavored bread as a treat from time to time. While times like this have passed, this part of life has served as a daily reminder to appreciate everything I have. Looking back, this was a memorable and formative time in my career and taught me a lot about myself – that I was willing to go the distance and make serious sacrifices to become an entrepreneur.
One advice that I’ve received and kept close to my heart is to “be passionate by always remembering why you got started.” My entrepreneurial ventures have led me to think of the importance for entrepreneurs to remember why they get started, and hopefully, translate this into a leadership style that brings about teamwork.
Team building: trust and synergy is most important
When building an early stage team, one of the most frequently asked questions is: Is trust or talent more important? While both are equally important, I’d choose trust over talent if I had to pick one. This is because, in an early stage team, there are no tangible results to show, and therefore, the team needs to be prepared to stick to the mission for an extended period of time with no guarantee of success.
In this aspect, it is very important for the team to be able to trust each other, because this will be something that pushes the startup forward. As the team and company grows, talent would soon come after.
In my two entrepreneurial ventures, the biggest lesson around team building always comes back to synergy. I’ve seen, from my own experience, how success can belong to normal people who are willing, and able to work together to achieve things. It always gives me a great sense of accomplishment whenever everyone in our team plays their part to achieve something that might not have been possible individually.
Maintaining team unity and talents can be a tough feat, especially during times where remote work is now the norm. There is an increasing need for constant internal communication, and one of the things I frequently do is to organize frequent check-ins and quick huddles. This allows the team members to frequently check on each other and improve their teamwork and spirits.
As leaders, I believe that we have to take the initiative in empowering our team members to lead projects. Giving them the space to grow, and even pushing them to take the stage at times during global conferences is crucial in their personal development growth.
Throughout my years in building up two ventures, I’ve been heartened and grateful looking back at the journey we’ve come thus far. In just two years, we have been able to achieve what we set out to do when STACS started. At the same time, we’re also humbled to be working with many partners such as Deutsche Bank, PwC, UnionBank and more in order to address these challenges and bring forth new solutions to benefit the ecosystem. All these couldn’t have been possible without trust and synergy within our team.
The journey will be full of twists and turns, and may seem challenging or even daunting at times. However, if one were to take a step back and take a long-term perspective, these challenges are only a slight bump or a detour in the journey. Hence, if you have a dream or passion, stick to it while recognizing that the way you get there may look different from how it started.
Ultimately, how you get there isn’t the most important thing, but the reasons for starting out must be clear and remain the key driver of your passion. Then, even if you have to take detours or encounter bumps in the road, you will still be able to end up at your destination.
Benjamin Soh is the founder and managing director at STACS. A serial fintech entrepreneur, he has previously founded a multinational, regulated B2B FinTech firm with more than 500 employees in 6 countries, serving the needs of more than 100 financial services firms worldwide, with a focus on FinTech, Blockchain, and Information Security sectors. He became an investor and founded an investment firm serving multi-family offices and focused on technology and real estate investments. He is now back in full-time entrepreneurial action with a calling to again enable the financial industry on the B2B level, with STACS. Benjamin was awarded FinTech Leader in the Singapore FinTech Awards 2020 organised by the Singapore FinTech Association.