Me & My Money

Achieving goals with passion and smarts

Edtech start-up CEO believes in investing wisely, and in making a positive impact on society even after retirement

Ms Lim Ee Ling, 31, chief executive of edtech platform Smarter Me, and her husband Liaw Yit Ming, 36, who is the start-up's chief strategy officer, with their children Katrina, 11, and Charlotte, eight.
Ms Lim Ee Ling, 31, chief executive of edtech platform Smarter Me, and her husband Liaw Yit Ming, 36, who is the start-up's chief strategy officer, with their children Katrina, 11, and Charlotte, eight. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Busy mum Lim Ee Ling took matters into her own hands after becoming frustrated at the hurdles she had to jump when searching for suitable enrichment classes for her children.

She recalls having to ask friends, post questions on forums and Facebook groups and glean information from social media just to find out what classes were available and which instructors were good.

"Even after shortlisting, due to the limited online information, I had to call and ask for the schedule and then make a trip there to check out the space before signing up. The whole process took days," Ms Lim, 31, says.

She felt that the process need not be so daunting and time-consuming. So, Ms Lim quit her investment banking job at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and started working on her education online platform Smarter Me in October 2016.

The site, which was launched in April last year, lists more than 150 education providers, offering over 1,000 different courses.

Users can search for classes - by category, location and age - check out the available time slots, book and pay online. The classes range from swimming, dance and art, to self-enrichment programmes that teach computer coding and so on.

Her husband, Mr Liaw Yit Ming, 36, and two other non-executive investors, invested a six-figure sum into the business, which is revenue generating.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A The biggest mistake was in unit trusts made when I was fresh out of university. I was restricted by my job from investing in stocks directly, but I could invest in unit trusts and invested a low five-figure sum. I made losses on an emerging markets fund and gained on the Australian equity fund and ended up flat.

    I didn't like the fact that I did not have control over my investments in the first place and all the management fees were eating into whatever gains that the unit trust manager was generating for investors. That was the last time I invested my money in unit trusts or hedge funds.

    The second mistake - I wouldn't call it an investment but more an expenditure - was the amount we spent on our wedding. It came out of our pockets and however much I thought each item was critical at that point in time, we really could have cut out the fancy invitation cards, cake and more.

    While this isn't something I can personally learn from (and not repeat), I still want to pass on that advice to other young adults out there.

    Q And your best investment?

    A In terms of actual gain, it has to be the property I invested in in Malaysia, which doubled my money in a short period of time. I bought it for RM220,000 in 2011 and sold it in 2016 for RM400,000. It was 90 per cent leveraged and rented out for three years from the time it was built.

    However, in terms of unrealised gain, I strongly believe in Smarter Me and the value it brings to parents and instructors. It will one day be a formidable education platform in the region.

Last year, Mr Liaw quit his job as head of strategic planning and business development at IHH Healthcare and joined Smarter Me as chief strategy officer. The couple are Malaysians with two daughters - Charlotte, eight, and Katrina, 11, from Mr Liaw's previous marriage.

Ms Lim graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in finance, from Queensland University in Brisbane in 2007.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A I learnt about investing at an early age from my father. He was a very active investor in stocks. However, his strategy was mostly speculative and did not turn out well. This is where I learnt that careful research about the company is important.

Studying the company's past financial trends, current valuation, management strength, balance sheet strength (leverage levels), and future plans is important before investing.

To me, investing is both an art and a science, but homework has to be done.

I also started investing in properties three years after I started working, under the mentorship of my then boss. While some of my colleagues spent their bonuses on luxury goods, I invested mine in real estate.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I apply value investing - investing based on the business fundamentals. It is very important to do your research before investing, be it stocks or real estate. Even if a company has a strong management team and product line and can demonstrate convincing growth projections, you will still need to time your investment. It may be fully priced or worse still, over-priced.

Hence, research and the timing of investments need to be taken into consideration for successful investments.

For real estate, I identify up-and-coming areas by studying the surrounding planned developments. You can do this by studying what property developers own or have recently purchased near plots for development. Road infrastructure is also very important as connectivity is a key determinant in the valuation of a property.

Apart from just investing in lower-risk assets such as property and real estate investment trusts (Reits), I also look out for opportunities for private equity investments, which have higher potential returns, particularly start-ups that I believe have potential.

Q What is in your portfolio?

A As an investment banker in a global bank, pretty much every stock (globally) was on the grey list (these are stocks that are ineligible for trade as stated by my bank), and there were many restrictions on investing in public equities. Hence, my only investments were in real estate.

After selling a property in Malaysia in 2016, I have two left, one each in Singapore and Malaysia. My Malaysian property was bought for RM550,000 in 2011. It is rented out and generates a yield of 5 per cent. In terms of valuation upside based on the last transacted price, the market value has increased by more than 50 per cent.

Last year, I purchased a newly built property on the east coast for $2.1 million, and my family moved into it. The valuation of this property has gone up by more than 11 per cent, which has more than covered my renovation. However, I must add a caveat that, in Singapore, purchasing a private residential property as an investment is hardly considered a low-risk investment and may not yield the best returns. This investment is for our own stay.

After leaving banking, I have also invested a small amount in Reits to generate a steady yield income. And of course, beyond public equities, my private equity investment is in my edtech start-up Smarter Me.

Right now, my portfolio comprises mainly investments in properties (65 per cent), cash (25 per cent), and equities (10 per cent). Conservatively, my portfolio's annualised return has been averaging north of 15 per cent.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A My main focus right now is Smarter Me. I have earmarked further investments into the business, as I see huge potential in its growth in the region. I have also earmarked a five-figure sum to invest in Reits when the time is right. Right now, I feel that most Reits are already fully valued. Once it starts to ease, I will invest.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A My investments in properties and other yield-generating assets such as Reits are part of my retirement plan. I intend to allocate more capital to Reit assets to generate a steady income stream post-retirement.

My husband and I live conservatively and do not spend much daily or on any luxury goods. The only thing that I do not stinge on is travelling. I love to travel and broaden my view, and hope to continue to do so during retirement. I have earmarked a monthly expenditure of $10,000 per month, after taking inflation into consideration, to live comfortably during retirement.

However at this stage, I have not actively thought about retirement, and I do not intend to fully retire early.

In fact, in my 20s, my retirement goal was to set up a pre-school and teach art. There is just so much to do and so many lives that I can potentially impact. When I was younger, I founded the Green Society in college, and one of the first things we campaigned for was to eradicate shark's fins from our food table.

I co-founded Smarter Me to improve the lives of parents - to help them save time, be able to inspire young children and help them discover their passion from the many different learning opportunities that Smarter Me provides. My husband and I hope to be able to continue making positive impacts on humanity and society far into our retirement.

Q Home is now...

A Home is a freehold, 1,300 sq ft, three-bedroom apartment on the east coast.

Q I drive...

A I drive a silver Audi A3 sedan. I also use Grab a lot when the promotional codes are too good to pass up.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 07, 2018, with the headline Achieving goals with passion and smarts. Subscribe