How clunking banking tech systems drove two financiers to a fintech start-up

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The finance careers of Daniel Chia and Cynthia Siantar were chugging along nicely when in September 2014 they decided to quit the sector and co-found a fintech firm in Singapore.

Both had reached the middle ranks of their respective firms – Siantar was working in equity capital markets at HSBC, while quant Daniel Chia had been with Ortus Capital Management for almost four years after starting out at GIC, the Singapore sovereign wealth fund.

Now they run their own brainchild, Call Levels, a mobile app that alerts users when their investments reach a predetermined price. The recent entrants into Singapore’s burgeoning start-up scene explain what it was like to leave their stable finance jobs and take the plunge into fintech.

What made you leave your finance job?

Cynthia Siantar: I saw lots of inefficiencies in IT systems working in banking, layers that just didn’t need to be there – it can be a high-cost/low innovation culture. And there’s a lot of bureaucracy – before implementing a new IT idea you often have to get approval from head office overseas and from compliance. All this can make you feel jaded and you end up just working around problems instead of developing long-term solutions.

Why the move to fintech?

CS: Working in a bank means you eventually get to spot where the IT inefficiencies are in financial services, so it’s the perfect background to come up with a start-up idea for fixing one of these inefficiencies

So, what’s the main idea behind Call-Levels?

Daniel Chia: Working on the buy-side, the number-one request from clients was always ‘call me back when the stock price reaches this level’ – and it’s probably been like that for a hundred years. So I realised there was a massive gap in the market. There are a lot of apps geared towards stock news and passive watching of stocks, but these all make you wait around and you have to refresh your stock watch-list – there’s no alarm warning on your phone as soon as your stocks hit the level you want.

Couldn’t a financial institution have developed this in-house?

DC: There’s a big problem with legacy in financial services – even new IT systems are often built on older technology and most employees aren’t motivated enough to challenge this internally, they don’t want to rock the boat. For real-time platforms like ours, being based in the cloud rather than on a bank’s internal legacy system is a big advantage.

Do any particular finance jobs make someone more suited to a start-up?

DC: I’ve always worked on the buy-side, which makes me more willing to take risks like starting my own company. And my quant background means I’m interested in anything which can give people an extra edge when trading. But I’ve seen people from all over the finance sector move into start-ups.

CS: There’s no one role – I think all the sub sectors of financial services have their own inefficiencies. We’re targeting wealth management and trading but even something like risk management is open to being disrupted by new technology.

What business advice would you give someone looking to start their own fintech firm?

DC: Focus on doing just one thing very well – a specific solution to a specific problem. Because we had a clear and simple objective, we were able to create the base structure for Call Levels in just two months. And make it an idea with broad and international appeal. I wanted to design something that I, as a keen trader, would use every day and that would appeal to both professional investors and members of the public.

And when you’re talking about your idea, make sure you don’t only talk to people in fintech – have discussions with corporates, investors and potential end-users. Importantly, you should focus on designing the user interface as soon as you start the company – users will give up on you very quickly if they don’t like the design. The first person we hired was our head of design.

How much hiring have you done?

DC: We now have five other full-time people, plus two interns. But it’s not easy finding the right people – they need both financial sector experience and digital skills and just as importantly they must be willing to take the leap mentally to join a small start-up. On the plus side, there’s now a real sense of excitement in the fintech sector in Singapore, especially with Asia being the fastest growing region for wealth management globally. I go to a lot of fintech events and I think people in the banking sector here are getting more interested in the start-up scene. We’ve mainly found our staff from networking and referrals.

What advice would you give to someone about to be hired by a start-up?

CS: It’s a different sort of work pressure. In a big bank you often have too much work and it might not be the kind of work you particularly like doing. But in a start-up you worry the most when there’s not enough work coming in – so don’t get disheartened when people don’t immediately respond to you. You have to take more time to network with people than if you’re working for a big-brand bank. And you should also learn how to handle any social pressure – don’t try to keep up with friends who still work in banking and enjoy the large incomes and fancy lifestyles that you won’t immediately have at a start-up. These days my friends all know not to call me if they’re going out for a $200 dinner!

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