Me & My Money

Making money to build businesses

Mr Phua focused on business early in life. At age 17, he started trading things such as mobile phones, and was also teaching magic tricks and selling pet plants while studying for a degree. He now offers consultancy services and invests in other busi
Mr Phua focused on business early in life. At age 17, he started trading things such as mobile phones, and was also teaching magic tricks and selling pet plants while studying for a degree. He now offers consultancy services and invests in other businesses.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Serial entrepreneur invests in property and is going big on mining and trading Bitcoin

A roller-coaster ride does not seem adequate enough to describe entrepreneur Charles Phua's past life, what with being knee-deep in debt and fighting his way out of it, only to turn to the wild life of partying every night before realising it was time to return to humbler ways.

But the conventional approach was never his game plan: Instead of taking the conventional educational route like his peers did, he chose to study in private schools after secondary school and focused on business early in life.

As a greenhorn in the business scene in his early 20s, Mr Phua, 34, borrowed from family and friends to start a firm providing toy claw machines to establishments. His partner convinced him to put more money into another business related to fengshui. Both businesses went bust.

But that eventually led him to the world of start-ups.

"I was in debt to the tune of about $100,000 and owed 10 per cent (in) interest to those I'd borrowed from. I had joined a restaurant as a marketing manager but was looking for new opportunities to earn more to clear my debt," says Mr Phua.

BANKING ON AUTOMATION

I automate processes in my business. My IT team creates bots that source for leads or interact with people who land on the Facebook page or Instagram of my businesses.

MR CHARLES PHUA, on his strategy for seeking out businesses that are evergreen

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What's your worst investing mistake?

    A Investing in a company without knowing the person behind it, and without understanding the business fully, all its aspects.

    It was too easy to fall in love with the ideas, but I learnt you need to understand how the idea or business operates.

    That was how I lost the $100,000 from the toy claw machine and fengshui businesses.

    Q What's your best investment move?

    A To invest in myself by learning from my experiences and reading more every day.

    Every month I spend $300 to $500 on books from Amazon. I started doing this three years ago. I've books on business, self-realisation and that sort of thing. I stopped reading books on business philosophies because everyone has his own take.

    My business philosophy is that my company and work have to be useful to society. Don't be a company that does nothing, like multi-level marketing firms.

    When I was younger, I had no money to buy books. I visited the library a lot and owed so much in fees that it cancelled my card twice.

    Money-wise, (my best investment) would be my electronic goods business, when I was in my 20s. We redesigned portable power banks and sold them across Asia. It sold well because I marketed it as an American brand.

    It was even imported into Singapore and exported back to China and sold for triple the price. We would earn $40,000 every month as the cost price was low.

    I later sold (the business) for a low six-figure sum, two months before Xiaomi came onto the scene with its powerful and cheaper power banks.

    Rachael Boon

"I didn't even know about the word 'start-up' when I came to know of e-commerce (site) Deal.com.sg which I joined as a sales adviser.

"There were 10 sales people, one marketing (person), one copywriter and one accountant. We ran a tight ship but loved it. I worked hard for my debt, clearing $100,000 in six months. The first few months were hell as I was not used to meeting people and trying to close deals all the time."

The firm that owned Deal.com.sg eventually was acquired in November 2013. Mr Phua left shortly after that to start his own firm, Night & Day, which started out organising events such as parties during the Singapore Grand Prix.

But it also sucked him into the lifestyle of drinking all night long.

"I realised I was hurting my family with all the late nights and spending so much on friends instead of them. It's fine to party once in a while but not every night. I should be taking care of them more than anyone else.

"I used to think I was good at everything, but realised how arrogant I was and that I should be taking any opportunity to learn from others."

He started honing his skills in marketing and business, and began consulting for clients, of which he has five now, under Night & Day. The firm has two other consultants and charges monthly business consultancy fees ranging from $4,500 to $10,000 per company.

What excites Mr Phua now is working full-time as a "growth hacker" - a person who focuses on building a user base - in a start-up called BonAppetour.

"My job is to beat the costs down to get the most number of users. I try to help them build a solid foundation in marketing so they don't waste money. Start-ups have to understand how much they're spending every day."

BonAppetour, an online platform that lets travellers visit the homes of locals for a home-cooked meal, raised $500,000 in seed funding early this year.

Mr Phua, who joined the firm last month, says: "I learnt about the firm as I'm keen on food-related companies and thought the idea was amazing as it's all about a sharing economy where you maximise your skills these days. It's an Airbnb for dining at home."

Q Money-wise, what were your growing-up years like?

A There were a lot of things I couldn't afford. I didn't have a computer until after secondary school, but my parents still gave me everything they had and could provide.

My dad works for the Housing Board and is retiring this year, and my mum's a housewife. She had to take up sewing jobs to earn money when I was younger.

Even though we're comfortable now, I'm working on automating my businesses so I can spend more time with my family.

Q How did you get interested in investing and business?

A I'm interested in making money. I invest in different aspects of my life; I invest time and effort in start-ups, more so than money. I use my life to earn that dollar.

After secondary school, I immediately went into a private school to do a diploma in business and I was a bad student. I started trading things at 17. After I was drafted into the Singapore Civil Defence Force as a fireman, I had more income and traded things such as mobile phones, which had good margins back then.

I was also teaching magic tricks and selling pet plants when I was studying for a degree at the Management Development Institute of Singapore.

I started the business providing toy claw machines and later fengshui advice but didn't know how to market them and would sit in the office doing nothing while my partner siphoned the money.

It was really after that experience and while I was desperately trying to clear my debt, that I learnt to make sure I understood fully what I was putting my money into.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I'll first ask if the business is disruptive. If it's not, then I want to know if it's sustainable with a steady income - such as evergreen businesses that will never die, for example, business consulting.

I automate processes in my business. My IT team creates bots that source for leads or interact with people who land on the Facebook page or Instagram of my businesses.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A I've invested $10,000 in cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and every month, I get about 10 per cent in returns on average. Mining for cryptocurrency requires trying out billions of calculations per second, it's about luck too, so it's hard to say. I started investing only at the end of last year as I was curious.

I invest in individual businesses that deal in cryptocurrency, like people who sell Bitcoin to those who have no access to it in other countries, and the mark-up can be 10 to 15 per cent.

I bought two landed properties for $80,000 each in my mum's home town in Johor Baru. They were fully paid last year. My relatives are living in them now.

Another investment is a glamping (a combination of glamour and camping) resort in Perth, which will be ready by December. My partner and I raised $500,000 in total, and my own capital is about $125,000.

The site at a vineyard in the Swan Valley has 10 glamping tents with outdoor dining and barbecue areas.

Q What does money mean to you?

A I used to have a BMW Z4 in my early 20s but, after an accident, I sold it. I've been tempted to buy a Nissan "Godzilla" (Skyline GT-R) recently. I can't bring myself to buy a new car now. I should be using my money to invest, setting up businesses, or adding to a monthly allowance for my mum.

Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?

A One week of eating at five-star restaurants in China some three years ago. I had a girlfriend in China and every time we went out, she'd look for those restaurants.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A Mining, trading and investing in cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.

I don't have a lot of cryptocurrency miners (computers that mine cryptocurrency) now, but I'm planning to rent a warehouse space in China. We need about 100 to 200 of such miners, and the investment required is about $500,000. We're looking at it to be ready by April next year.

I'm creating a transaction platform. Bitcoin transactions can be somewhat invisible. The problem today is that if someone wants to sell me a Bitcoin, I'd ask him to transfer the Bitcoin before transferring the money, or the other way round.

But what if someone doesn't transfer the money after getting the Bitcoin? There's no proof of transaction. The middleman platform will allow people to put cash and the Bitcoin in before they transact. I'll be able to provide a form of security. Even if someone doesn't buy the Bitcoin in the end, I'm fine with it as I can sell it to other people.

We are also planning to invest $30,000 for a start to get the beta version up with simple functions, and then we'll go into developing apps that could allow retail places to use it. The platform should be up by December and fully operational by April.

Q Home is now...

A A four-room HDB flat in Whampoa.

Enjoyed reading Me & My Money? Send views to lornatan@sph.com.sg on how this column can continue to be relevant to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'Making money to build businesses'. Print Edition | Subscribe