As the CEO and founder of PhoenixICT, a leading crowdfunding hub, HongSin Kwek is among the organizers of Crowdfunding Asia, the first conference of its type focused on the Asian markets. Crowdfunding Asia held its first event in Singapore in 2014, and this year’s upcoming events include conferences in Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. At its February event in Bangkok, Thailand, this year, Thai SEC Secretary General Dr. Vorapol Socatiyanurak opened the sold-out conference and lauded the importance of this new funding option.
But the word “crowdfunding” wasn’t even in HongSin’s vocabulary just a few years ago. Like many a now-crowdfunding-expert, she learned about the benefits of this form of alternative finance when she sought out a loan as an entrepreneur and single mother with no collateral to offer, HongSin told Crowdfund Insider. Since then, she’s worked with Asian governments, such as those of Malaysia and Thailand, to advise them on their approach to crowdfunding.
Recently, Crowdfund Insider caught up with HongSin after she returned from Carbon Expo Barcelona 2015, and she shared her thoughts on crowdfunding in Asia, her experiences as a female entrepreneur and more. The interview below has been slightly edited for clarity.
Midori Yoshimura: How did you get into the crowdfunding space in Asia?
HongSin Kwek: My business did not start off with the intent to focus on crowdfunding in 2013; in fact, crowdfunding did not exist in my wordbook. As an entrepreneur and single mother with no collateral, seeking bank support for a loan to start my consulting business was a no-go. When a friend introduced a venture capitalist to hear my proposal, they liked it, but were unsure if it would give them a return; they suggested that I should only see them again three years later.
I was not deterred by all the rejections; rather, the adversity I faced pushed me to search for an alternative, and that was how the crowdfunding conversation started. I thought I would be developing a crowdfunding platform, but I realized the power of crowdfunding can change the world’s views on funding to support situations like mine or those of innovators who became stuck due to funding, researchers, etc. I learned that if someone’s idea is genuine and compelling, they can get funded. I decided to return to Asia to drive crowdfunding, simply put, because I believe this is going to be the next new wave of disruption in the capital market space as well as have a social angle.
Midori: What were you doing prior to becoming a crowdfunding advocate?
HongSin: Two-plus decades of passion were spent in ICT, specifically cyber-security. I identified the best of breed technology globally and introduced them to local/Asia government agencies and large enterprises. I believe in the work I do to serve all critical agencies.
Midori: Your first Crowdfunding Asia event in 2014 was a huge success with broad engagement from across Asia. What did you learn from the experience?
HongSin: It is an expensive investment but I have no regrets as I sponsored the full show; special thanks to Douglas Ellenoff who took the leap of faith in me. The biggest lesson – Crowdfunding is a CROWD game; my individual beliefs do not serve. The stress to enroll people to come to be a part of the summit was truly an uphill battle. I surely learned that the US market is an entirely different breed than that of Asia. Asia has tended to watch and observed; they need a lot of facts and assurance. But I guess the regional leaders heard me and my efforts and they came to learn from the experts and practitioners who came in good faith to support my work. The local media of Chinese newspapers, TV, radio heard about the work I am doing and have graciously supported me.
Midori: What would have done differently?
HongSin: Starting a new field in all of Asia is crazy; I am not sure if I would do anything differently as there were no short cuts. Breaking traditions takes lots of courage and determination even when wet blankets continue to lay one on top of the other. I have done it when I first started the cyber-security business and I believe I can do it even better for crowdfunding. I have foresight in what I do and I make it happen, come what may.
Midori: Different Asian countries are moving forward with crowdfunding at different paces. Which countries are the most progressive?
HongSin: At this point, Malaysia launched their equity crowdfunding regulations from the Securities Commission of Malaysia on the 11th of June; it just heightens the competition in Asia. Thailand and Singapore are working hard toward the launch of their regulations, while other countries are still figuring out what they need to do. Japan recently amended the act and planned to have a total offering of less than ¥100 million by which per investor would be allowed ¥500,000 or less. China was simply bullish in crowdfunding driven by netizens especially in debt-based crowdfunding.
Midori: What are some ways that the less progressive countries could learn from, or catch up to, the more progressive ones?
HongSin: The key is openness and willingness to explore new turfs; of course country leaders support the exploration of what/where crowdfunding can serve areas where traditional funding is just unable to do so, due to RISK appetite. If business as usual does not work, then a country needs to take the disruptive approach and start to recognize talents and offerings avail within that country.
Midori: You have worked with several different governments including Malaysia and Thailand. Not all Asian countries have seen such public engagement. Do you think public sector engagement is helping the industry grow?
HongSin: I believe the public sector plays a vital role in supporting the growth for all industries. This support means regulating high-risk crowdfunding options like equity and debt-based crowdfunding. At some level of maturity of a crowdfunding market, it could be the crowd regulating it. Quoting from the Securities Commission of Malaysia’s favorite phrase – Wall Streets to web streets, and we added to physical real streets where a man on the street can have such an option that they can turn to as long as they have a compelling, brilliant and executable idea. That has always been my key priority to engage government agencies across Asia.
Midori: What other factors are helping the industry grow? Are they more country-specific, or true for much of Asia?
HongSin: Crowd education on various crowdfunding methods is key.
Transparency offers assurance, success offers trust, therefore all platform providers play a vital role in minimizing fraud.
The investors are to be educated on how to best work with a crowdfunding option; not to view crowdfunding as a competitor, but rather as a validation platform to provide them assurance to invest further.
Identify the crucial industry that crowdfunding offers a strong value proposition. Water, Science, BioLifeSciences, Renewable Energy, Healthcare, Research!
Midori: Have you encountered any different challenges in being a female entrepreneur?
HongSin: In today’s developed market, female entrepreneurs are quite welcome, but if it is a male-dominated market, the conversation may change; woman have a lot to do to prove a point in business or to secure funding! In Asia, you certainly see a lot more woman getting into the workforce. Difficult challenges can never be that difficult if the women are in for real entrepreneurship reasons. Woman just need to be decisive and willing to take failure as a lesson for success–not as an opportunity to beat themselves up when they fail. Woman must learned to detach themselves and learn to say NO. Being a woman entrepreneur can be an advantage, as we have the soft touch for business and care for our clients a lot more…I am able to describe the above as I have gone through it all.
Midori: What suggestions would you give to other aspiring women who want to start their own business?
HongSin: Learn to acknowledge yourself, seek support, for you are not alone.
Business is not “as usual” if you want to be an entrepreneur.
YOU need to put your guts to work at all time.
Fear management is key!
Willingness to LISTEN and learn to accept rejections gracefully.
Midori: Will investment crowdfunding be a catalyst for gender equality amongst entrepreneurs in the Asia region?
HongSin: YES! It is not about gender; it is who have the capability to deliver their commitment. It is a fair game! No excuses!
Midori: On Facebook, Crowdfunding Asia recently noted that climate finance has had similar challenges for SMEs, woman and farmers. What are some of the ways that crowdfunding might be able to help?
HongSin: Crowdfunding is beyond funding; it is a powerful tool to those who are compelled to succeed. It is a fair ground for all. Crowdfunding opens up a new spectrum on outreach beyond local, branding and marketing enrollment of communities and investors, as well a strong validation platform to the industry. All if not most finance products available are one-way, while crowdfunding is about multi-way engagement and transparency.
Midori: You were recently at the Carbon Expo Barcelona 2015, where you spoke on crowdfunding-enabled climate business for SMEs. How does crowdfunding offer SMEs involved in green innovation a unique opportunity to leverage and scale up finance?
HongSin: SMEs are a hot subject in all parts of Asia and the world. Innovation is key to development and growth of the startup scene and SMEs. The traditional approach in all green innovation or climate-related subjects is directed to government funding or the world bank or a climate investment fund. Typically SMEs and startups have big challenges in submitting paperwork and find it tedious to walk through the process. With crowdfunding, they are generally naked to the crowd, they are open to be judged and they are brave to take feedback and criticism. The processes starts from ideation to research (donation-based) to prototyping (reward-based) to commercialization (equity-based or PE or VC or hybrid) and finally to their exit strategy of either IPOs or being acquired. Such process helps SMEs and startups garner confidence as they progress through different process chains. At different steps in the process chains, branding and PR messaging differs to draw different pools of investors.
Midori: You are launching a new association: the Crowdfunding Asia Association. What do you hope to accomplish with this new entity?
HongSin: Crowds of experts, newbies, platform providers, investors, startups, generally even mom-and-pop shops, and the man on the street can be members of this association. It is a platform to serve the conversation of not just funding, but mentorship, media exposure, crowd drawn activities to support new product launches, new initiatives, new movement for a greater world. It has numerous goals and it is not reinventing, but rather seeks to work with all of Asia and form alliances globally to strengthen the CROWD by exercising blue ocean strategy and crowd wisdom. Obviously the key mission to CFAA Crowdfunding Asia Association is to develop a platform to bridge, educate, advocate, promote crowdfunding in use by all possible industries. A portal will be developed by mid-2016 to serve investors with all data analytics to size investment; serve campaigners/issuers with all data results on what else they need to do to draw traction from investors, as well as to serve KYC and beyond.
HongSin: It can be seen via Internet TV in English language and Internet Radio in Chinese language. It is a consolidation of a pitch perfect PITCHER who matures and meets the criteria to be on the programme. We would open to non-PITCHERs or alliances too.
Tigers are investors (PE, VC, angels, bankers); tigers are to be competitive too. Aspiring entrepreneurs of at least two years seek out and present their business to get support funding. We have yet to finalize the mechanism to incorporate crowdfunding equity as part of the “cubs.” I hope to launch by the end of this year.
Midori: What else do you have on your list of projects? Anything else you would like to share?
HongSin: 2016 will be a year in which crowdfunding conversation focuses on the changing demand of the countries and industries:
– CFA, Woman Summit
– CFA, Youth Entrepreneurship Summit
– CFA, Silver Summit
– CFA, Science & Technology Summit
– CFA, Sustainability (Water/Energy/Waste/Green) & Smart Cities
– CFA, Social-Digital Community Summit
And 2016 is also the year where I am looking to have CFA crowd-owned.
This is part of a series of articles where Crowdfund Insider will be interviewing the many women changing the profession of finance today. In FinTech, crowdfunding and peer to peer lending, there are many female entrepreneurs leading or assisting innovative firms that are altering the process of capital formation around the globe.