Former economist starts portal to export quality educational content from Singapore to developing countries at low prices
He used to be a highly paid economist and equity analyst, but Mr Daniel Soh gave that up to do something he felt was more important: helping the less fortunate.
Mr Soh was an economist and foreign exchange strategist at market intelligence firm 4Cast, and later an economist at policy advisory group Centennial Group. He left it all behind to chase his dreams of becoming a social entrepreneur.
The 37-year-old recalls a simple act of kindness that still inspires him today.
"I was driving out for lunch one day and I was having a bad day.
"Someone in the car opposite me opened the door and started walking towards me.
"I was tired, and assumed he had forgotten his car coupons.
"Before I could reach for one, he told me he had an extra coupon that he wasn't going to use.
"It was only 50 cents, but that act of kindness brightened my week."
Even though his life was comfortable and his six-figure annual income placed him among the top 5 per cent of Singapore earners in 2009, he felt like "a blank piece of paper".
"I had asked myself then, I could continue to help rich businessmen become richer or choose to make a difference. If I chose the latter, even if I failed, at least I showed that someone cared."
That led him to leave the finance industry in 2010.
He took on a job as an associate lecturer at SIM University until he set up content production firm SD Group Asia in 2013, which generates revenue of about $250,000 a year. At the same time, he also founded a company called eCapsules Online, with the aim of turning it into a social enterprise dealing with online education.
Early last year, he decided to concentrate on eCapsules and invested $400,000 to create "an intuitive interface technology for optimal online learning".
The goal, he says, is for the portal to export Singapore's educational expertise to developing countries in the region.It is slated to launch in Singapore next month, and will offer economics-related content for a start, with a subscription fee of $7.70 a month.
The lessons will not be structured like regular video lectures, he says, but will be more like movie productions to capture the interest of students.
Mr Soh, who is married with no children, says: "When I first left my old job, I took a 90 per cent pay cut. It took me a while to figure out what direction I wanted to move in after I left the corporate world.
"It wasn't an easy decision."
He adds: "But I want to allocate my prime years to doing something different."
Worst and best bets
QWhat has been your biggest investing mistake?
A When I first started out in my career as an economist at the Washington-based consultancy firm, I paid a hefty "school fee" for my first few trades in Singapore equities.
There was an Asian equity boom then. But I did not have much real-world experience about the financial markets and made bets without well-defined strategies.
In the first half of 2007, I suffered realised losses of more than $100,000.
QAnd what has been your best investment move?
A The social enterprise. My "measure" of return on investment is not solely about dollars and cents, but about the satisfaction - or utility in an economics context - that can be derived from the investment. For me, it is about making a difference in people's lives, while the dollars and cents are for sustainability.
During the onset of the global financial crisis, particularly in the fourth quarter of 2008 until the first quarter of 2009, when I was a foreign exchange strategist, I made a few successful calls on the forex market, with returns touching as high as 40-fold.
Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?
A I started to juggle part-time work and school when I was 15 by giving tuition and doing odd jobs.
My university fees and expenses were partly covered by study loans and scholarships.
I come from a broken family. My parents had divorced and we had financial problems. I would volunteer at family service centres in university to help youth at risk because I was a problematic youth myself, but I managed to do well in school and my career.
Q How did you get interested in investing?
A I was inspired by my mentor Manu Bhaskaran to better understand the markets, as I was a market economist.
After my bad experience in the stock market, I learnt about defensive stocks instead.
I would buy them during corrections and park them there.
I traded a lot in foreign exchange, but not so much anymore because you have to watch the charts every day as it moves so fast.
There's no such thing as investing with forex - it's trading.
I got interested in forex when I was at Centennial Group. I found it the most difficult thing to learn, and it was because of that that I decided to try and be a forex strategist. I became known for making the right calls in the forex market.
Q Describe your investing strategy.
A I'm slowing down the pace of business at SD Group Asia because I want to invest my time, talent and financial resources on my vision that is eCapsules.
I provide private economics tuition and am blessed to be paid well by Asian business tycoons in Singapore. One Chinese tycoon paid $250,000 for me to coach his son for a year. I am reinvesting both my earnings and returns from assets into eCapsules, at least over the next three years. Once it reaches 5,000 subscribers worldwide, the social enterprise will be self-sustaining, allowing it to focus more on being impact-making, rather than dollar-making.
The majority of earnings will be reinvested to create more and better quality content, without an increase in the subscription price.
Q What's in your portfolio?
A For recurring income, I prefer dividend stocks.
The stocks I invested in were mainly defensive dividend stocks.
For instance, I bought shares in StarHub at an average price of $1.80 in late 2009, with a dividend yield of about 8 to 10 per cent annually.
So far, most of my returns from assets are reinvested into the social enterprise. I still trade in the forex markets to derive some quick returns, with calculated risk.
I also bought four shophouses in Iskandar Malaysia for about RM1.35 million (S$445,000) each in October 2012. They are prime units facing the road and each is about 5,600 sq ft with three floors.
When I first left my old job, I took a 90 per cent pay cut. It took me a while to figure out what direction I wanted to move in after I left the corporate world.
It was not an easy decision. But I want to allocate my prime years to doing something different.
MR DANIEL SOH
I sold two in the middle of last year for RM1.6 million each, and got a profit of about S$200,000 in total.
The other two are currently valued at RM2 million.
Taking into account the ringgit depreciation, it's a 35 to 50 per cent capital gain.
If I rent them out, I could get an indicative yield of 6 to 8 per cent.
I bought a Housing Board flat, a corner unit in Bukit Batok at $260,000 and sold it at $325,000 early last year. I managed to sell it before the property market worsened.
Excluding capital gains, my indicative annual returns on assets - rental and dividend yields included - range between 8 and 10 per cent over the past three years.
Q What does money mean to you?
A A lot of people think it's just a tool, and they don't love money but the satisfaction money can buy.
But money is my friend which I use to make a difference.
When I wanted to leave the industry, a lot of my mentors told me I could always make a lot of money first and when I am older and have financial freedom, I can redistribute the money back to society. But I don't believe in that.
I believe in giving my best years, and my money, to a cause.
Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?
A Buying the investment properties in Iskandar Malaysia in 2012 when I started doing business.
It was not a rational move.
When you are doing business, cash flow is most important.
Some even downgrade their houses. I did the inverse.
Investing in commercial properties in Nusajaya, where a lot of factories have shifted to, was a good investment.
The residential market is suffering but not the shophouses.
Q What are your immediate investment plans?
A I want to make access to quality educational content dirt cheap. Online learning should work most effectively for mature learners.
I plan for an effective export of Singapore's education services to the international market. This will in turn translate into good cash flow to meet the costly production costs of quality and comprehensive education content online.
Q How are you planning for retirement?
A I don't ever plan to retire.
When I chose to embark on the path of being a social entrepreneur, I made a choice to continue to allocate my time, talent and financial resources, if needed, to make a difference across the world, as long as I still have the capacity to do so.
Making a difference is not a one-time event.
QHome is now...
A A 1,119 sq ft condominium in Loyang, which my wife and I bought for $995,000, and is currently valued at about $1.15 million.
Q I drive...
A A Lexus IS250.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'He gives up finance job with big bucks to make a difference'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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