Young entrepreneur's passion for plugging cybercrime loopholes led to the creation of award-winning start-up
Entrepreneur Justin Lie Wee Chian was quick to spot the potential of the Internet at the young age of 16.
Those were the early days of online commerce and marketplaces like eBay were creating a big buzz.
"It was the first boom of the Internet, and we realised that anyone, anywhere could start a trade spanning the globe," says Mr Lie, 35.
This realisation triggered his business mindset and he quickly locked into the venture, buying products such as gaming consoles, controllers and games from North American suppliers and selling them to customers here.
The next six years were a lot of hard work, juggling school and long work hours, but it turned his business-to-consumer (B2C) model into a roaring success, and made him a pile of cash.
While working on websites created for the business, Mr Lie also became interested in finding ways to stop online fraudsters seeking to exploit loopholes in Internet programmes. He taught himself to write algorithms that would protect his sites, an endeavour that soon turned into a passion.
This passion was spotted by Professor Hum Sin Hoon of the National University of Singapore who encouraged Mr Lie to seek a transfer to NUS Business School. Mr Lie, at that time, was studying overseas at the University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business. Prof Hum's mentoring and encouragement later gave shape to Mr Lie's start-up called CashShield. The company has been in the business of countering online fraud and cybercrime for businesses around the world.
And for Mr Lie, the chief executive of this award-winning company, there has been no looking back.
Q Moneywise, how were your growing-up years?
A My father was a businessman, who traded in garments, textile and commodities. My mother was a homemaker. Money was not a huge worry for my family, although there were good times and bad times. But, even then, I remember my father trying to inculcate responsible and sensible management of money in me and my brothers, right from our childhood.
When we started earning a bit of money, he would make us share household expenses like paying for electricity or Internet connection bills. This taught me the value of money and helped me develop a more prudent attitude towards spending.
Q How did you get interested in investing?
A My father was my biggest inspiration. Seeing the businessman in him at work was a great motivating factor in my younger years. It got me interested in business ventures and investments. That could also probably be the main reason why I started my first e-commerce venture when I was just a teenager.
Q Describe your investing strategy?
A My strategy would be building a sustainable cash flow before making riskier investment decisions.
Worst and best bets
Q What is your best investment decision?
A To have invested in properties, companies and stocks during the peak period of the global financial crisis from 2007 to 2008, when the best deals were available at low cost. When markets improved, I made a profit. This provided me with financial freedom at an early stage to focus on CashShield.
I also invested in myself. I taught myself programming, and learnt new things while setting up CashShield - such as marketing. The learning curve taught me to be innovative and has helped me in my business.
Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?
A In hindsight, it was probably my failure to move on from my first e-commerce venture when competition from China peaked with market conditions.
My e-commerce business was making nearly $30,000 to $40,000 a month, which was enough to generate a profit after paying my employees and taking care of other expenses. But after new players from China entered the market, there were constant pricing wars, resulting in heavily slashed margins. I found it difficult to fold the business, especially because my colleagues were still working hard on it, but I should have read the writing on the wall and got out earlier.
I believe that creating multiple channels of cash flow for investment is like pumping blood to and from the heart. It keeps the portfolio healthy.
For personal investments, that would involve building cash flow by whatever means - such as having a steady job or earning money on the side by driving an Uber. But be alert to catch that one great investment opportunity that comes along, be it in property or equity.
For investments in equity markets, its best to follow the "buy low, sell high" policy. Having basic knowledge of the product you are investing in is necessary.
Investors should study the companies they choose to invest in, visit their websites and do their homework before putting in their money. It is best not to invest in things you don't understand.
For businesses, it is important to diversify, but not by splitting investments or using one business model to fund another.
For instance, in my case, I had a strong monetary foundation from running a profitable e-commerce venture. But, my start-up CashShield was developed from scratch. I had the discipline to not pump funds from my first business into my second. For CashShield to survive, I and co-founder Lee Junxian made ends meet, clinched our first client, and then grew from there.
It is also good to remember that luck plays a part too - in the form of opportunity. Investors have to be smart enough to grab it.
Q What's in your portfolio?
A A conservative value of my current portfolio would be equivalent to an eight-digit figure, which includes private equity investments, property, stocks and cash inputs.
My previous B2C business did well and provided me with a steady cash flow, which I invested wisely. I bought property, private equity and commodities.
Of these, a condominium I bought for $1.2 million was sold within four years at nearly double the price. It was also good timing, because I bought my assets around the time of the financial crisis, and sold (them) five years later during the commodity and property boom. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.
My biggest asset remains my company CashShield. We provide services to businesses in more than 20 countries in Europe and the Americas, and have also penetrated China. This gives me a steady cash flow as well as the power to make riskier investments.
All this, along with my executive HDB property, should add up to US$30 million (S$42 million) to US$40 million (S$56 million) in assets, with CashShield taking 75 per cent of the investment.
Q What are your immediate investment plans?
A Currently, I have minimised my exposure as I think the current markets are in unfamiliar waters - with zero or negative interest rates. The US Federal Reserve increasing rates is a positive sign, but it will probably take another three to five years for them to get rates up to a level comfortable for the markets.
Now, markets have seen eight years of boom which is two to three years more than the usual time period. To me, it means now is the time to be safe and to prepare for any market adjustments that may follow.
A crisis in such times would be hard-hitting, so I have confined my investments to liquid assets only. I am getting defensive, selling properties, keeping to safe investments and focusing on CashShield.
Q What does money mean to you?
A Money for me is opportunity, not just for the present but the future. This includes taking care of your work, the people who work for you and more importantly, your family. These are the things one must invest in, this is the real wealth of a person. Sustainable wealth will follow if one understands this perspective.
Q How are you planning for retirement?
A I have not really thought of retirement. My company is my lifelong investment and I will run it for as long as I can. My job is my passion and I am deeply rooted to its culture, its people - so it's very hard for me to get out.
That is why I think retirement is out of the question for now. My father is still working and I probably will end up like him.
Q Home is now...
A A five-room HDB executive apartment where I live with my wife and two sons. It comes with a balcony and has an awesome view of the Bukit Batok Nature Park.
Q I drive...
A A dark blue BMW 5 series.
Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline 'He spotted potential of Net as a teen'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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