July 15, 2017
Since leaving investment banking six years ago, I set up and invested in a number of businesses, and was always frustrated by the lack of fundraising options available to SMEs. Banks would say they have SME lending schemes but usually wouldn’t even bother talking to you. There was no flexible and inexpensive alternative for good companies with revenues and clients to obtain short term funding.
At the same time, we noticed that larger businesses were holding record cash but getting low returns from banks in the short-term. Together with my co-founder, Joe, we looked at ways to solve these problems and optimize the supply and demand balance for short-term funds. Most of them didn’t fundamentally change the credit/risk-based model that banks and others had been using for a long time. We came across the concept of dynamic discounting and really liked the dynamics so decided to launch Paycelerate.
Hong Kong was a natural first market. It has a high concentration of large China-focused businesses and we have strong existing networks here. Hong Kong is also a great hub to launch into other markets across Asia-Pacific as we expand the business further.
In terms of starting a business, the fundamental challenge of finding and hiring a core team and getting to market quickly is key. We invested a lot of effort in getting the first key hires right to build the right culture and it was worth it – all our senior hires are still part of the team.
Another key aspect is balancing a plan with flexibility – you have to constantly test, iterate and refine, but stick to a broader strategy without veering off on tangents too easily. This is a common challenge for all entrepreneurs I think.
Regulation is one component specific to FinTech that is a common challenge and we knew that FinTech startups in Hong Kong tend to spend a lot of time (and money) getting licensed, so we actively chose a business model that didn't require us to be regulated early on.
The admin aspect of registering a business in Hong Kong is straightforward and easy. But getting a bank account set up and finding affordable office space can be a challenge. It took us over three months to get a bank account set up despite both co-founders having personal bank accounts with the relevant bank for over 10 years!
As mentioned earlier, the regulatory environment for FinTech in Hong Kong can provide challenges, although the regulators are now catching up and being more proactive in engaging with FinTech businesses.
Hong Kong is a finance hub and home to some of the region’s leading businesses. Whilst they tend to be a bit slower in the adoption of new technology, having access to senior management in a densely populated city makes early business development work a little bit more manageable.
Lastly, on talent – I would say Hong Kong has great finance talent, but is still catching up on engineering talent. There is a strong flow of junior tech talent from good universities, although there is still an old school parental perception of risk with startups and even though the big banks have fired a lot more people in the last 10 years than startups. As Hong Kong is still in its infancy as a potential tech hub, senior engineering talent is harder to find.
Over the last few years, FinTech businesses have come to recognize the importance of banks and vice versa. The narrative has changed from disrupting banks to partnering with them. Many banks now have innovation teams, focused on exploring partnerships with FinTechs, both in Hong Kong and globally. However, one major issue is that banks have been slow at providing FinTech partners with access to their systems, unlike banks in the UK and US where banks have invested in opening up APIs. As a result, getting started can be difficult.
The Hong Kong government has positioned itself as a staunch supporter of FinTech and has invested significant resources in recent years, promoting Hong Kong as a hub of FinTech but we need to keep focusing on tangible partnerships rather than just PR talk.
How Hong Kong’s startup ecosystem and environment changed throughout the years of my experience of living and working there
When I left banking and started my first FinTech business, there was no HK startup ecosystem to speak of. There was nobody to ask, no accelerators, no events, and no real peers. That has all changed now and Hong Kong has a vibrant and growing ecosystem, although my personal frustration is it has gone too far the other way. There are a lot of parties and events, PR conferences, and clubs, but still not that many real companies and success stories. Most of the ecosystem is privately supported, and whilst the Government (through InvestHK) has been very active in promoting international companies to come to HK, I think there could be a lot more done to support homegrown HK startups.
I have learned a lot, both professionally and personally. In terms of learnings from building Paycelerate that I think can help others, I will focus on four:
There is no substitute for hiring the right people early on. Luckily, I had seen plenty of hiring mistakes in previous roles I had and knew we had to be patient to make it work. Don't compromise – one bad hire can doom your company. And make sure you do the hiring yourself – do not outsource what is your most important early task.
Find early adopters
Take the time at the beginning to test and explore your idea with intended users. Don’t rely solely on your own views, but do realize that many people will be dismissive early on. So focus on the people that give you an opportunity and make sure you deliver.
Don’t scale too early, but build to scale
The benefit of technology is scalability so make sure you make the right decisions early on to support that. Hong Kong itself is a small market so you need to be ready and have a plan to expand and grow offshore.
Finally, you need to put in the work. At the beginning, no one knows who you are. Put in the time to build relationships and be prepared to hustle every day. You won’t get many breaks, you have to earn it.
We are super excited for the road ahead for Paycelerate. We are continuing to grow our client base in Hong Kong and will be expanding to Singapore later this year. Next year we are looking to expand into Australia and Taiwan as well. We are adding new features and enhancements to our product offering which are being well received by pilot clients.
Partnerships will also be key to expand the value we can provide our clients. We are currently having conversations with a number of partners, looking at strategic options to work together and broaden our offering.