Me & My Money

Making good with cashback formula

ShopBack chief Henry Chan says his start-up dream is his riskiest and safest investment

When it comes to stocks, Mr Chan prefers to invest in companies with sound fundamentals that are going through tough times so that he can reap the gains once they see a turnaround.
When it comes to stocks, Mr Chan prefers to invest in companies with sound fundamentals that are going through tough times so that he can reap the gains once they see a turnaround.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Sometimes, a million dollar idea can be born out of a conversation in a car.

Mr Henry Chan was giving his friend Joel Leong a late-night lift back home in 2014 when the idea to start a business related to e-commerce struck the pair of them.

Mr Chan, 31, who was at SingPost then, and Mr Leong, 29, who was with online fashion store Zalora, were catching up after work.

"We were talking and we knew we understood a fair bit about e-commerce in Singapore and South-east Asia and how to grow an e-commerce business," said Mr Chan.

The three-hour talk turned into an initial plan to start a consultancy with their industry knowledge, but they soon realised that it should be turned into a product instead.

So e-commerce platform ShopBack was born, with $30,000 in capital. Started with six founders, the platform offers consumers cash back for their online shopping while directing shoppers to merchants through its site.


Investing in people has had the best return on investment so far. For instance, at the end of the year, we are sending developers to San Francisco for exposure. It makes sense because, the more they learn, the better they can contribute to the company.

HENRY CHAN, on driving business growth by investing in his team

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A I was day trading a United States tech stock in 2011 or 2012 - the company had just had its initial public offering.

    Right after I bought the stock, the price fell. I was up the whole night waiting for it to recover, but it didn't. When I got up the next morning, I found the price had ended way lower than when I had bought the stock. But when the market reopened, the price recovered and I sold straight away. I made a loss of 2 to 3 per cent.

    That might not seem like a lot, but I realised that I was buying something only on hype and that I knew nothing about the firm's business.

    I'd rather invest in things I know, and there's no business you know better than your own. Why invest in other companies when you know your own is doing well? Logically, you should invest more.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A ShopBack for sure. We've raised over US$1 million (S$1.4 million).

    To have invested $15,000 two years ago and be serving more than 15,000 customers a day now while supporting 85 people - that's impactful for me.

ShopBack is in five countries around Asia, employs 85 staff and has tied up with more than 500 merchants in Singapore and more than 1,000 in the region, directing $180 million in sales a year to them.

It gave out more than $5 million in cashbacks to consumers in the period from January last year to last month.

It has channelled more than $15 million in monthly regional sales to partner merchants, and received more than US$1 million in funding. Investors in the firm include Accel-X and East Ventures.

It released its mobile app this month. Less than 24 hours later, the iOS app had topped the charts in the shopping category.

Mr Chan went through two failed start-ups before ShopBack, his third venture, took off.

One was an online tailor service in 2011 that he invested $10,000 in, going in with other friends, but it attracted zero customers as it was the wrong "product-market fit".

Another was a mobile app that searched for buffets in Singapore, in which he invested another $10,000. Differing views among business partners led to the app being shut down.

Mr Chan was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug after a stint as an intern at a United States hardware technology firm in 2009, under the National University of Singapore Overseas Colleges programme.

The mechanical engineer went on to work full-time with the firm until 2012.

"I came back to Singapore after an eye-opening experience in tech start-ups. Technology is scalable.

" The other thing was the mentality. My colleagues were from top names such as Cornell, and my peer was a 22-year-old intern whose thesis was No.1 in Europe. I felt like the lucky dumb guy who had made it through.

"Start-ups are painful - long hours, low pay and high risk. The standard Singaporean with a good degree would join a bank, a consultancy or the Government. Joining a grungy start-up with no salary would be out of the question."

He tossed pragmatism aside to chase his start-up dream, and did the same with his investments.

"Through my early experience in trading and financial planning, I learnt one thing. At the end of the day, you can trade but the increment is 10 to 20 per cent a year at best, even for top investors.

"What you really need is lots of capital as a base to start with."

Without that, the ShopBack chief knew he had to find another way.

"I realised the key thing I should do was to build my capital, and not through trading, and I found entrepreneurship to be an exceptionally meaningful way.

"A business is about providing value to stakeholders, whether they are a business or a consumer. If you provide value, your customers are willing to pay you, and the more value you provide to the economy, the more willing they are to pay."

Mr Chan believes that building capital is meaningful, and that is how he got hooked on investing in a company he could call his own.

"If you're unsure about what the future looks like, you tend to diversify your assets, investing a bit in this or that. I'm sure we have this one chance to make ShopBack a successful platform that will have an impact on millions and help them make smarter shopping decisions.

"If I can do that, that is not only meaningful but also financially impactful. Given that this is our one shot, shouldn't I focus everything I have - time and money - on it? And that's what Joel, another co-founder, and I have been doing for the past two years.

"If it fails at the end of the day, we can just go back to work somewhere else."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A I am from a middle-class family, with two younger siblings - my brother is 29 and my sister is 26 - and was lucky that I never had to worry about the family finances.

My retired parents are frugal, and taught me the importance of financial discipline.

My dad was an accountant in a marine company, and he and I are polar opposites. He is risk-averse and takes sure steps. I'm aggressive and willing to try new things.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A I first got to know about investments after national service and before university. I had six months in between, so I spent two months travelling and four months as a full-time insurance agent.

That opened my eyes to financial planning in some ways, and I also learnt skills for sales, business development and marketing - you learn how to convince people.

It was also then that I learnt about stocks and the Singapore Exchange.

I started trading using my mum's account, and did that until the past one or two years.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A "Sentiment-driven" might be a better description for me.

I chose to invest in companies with a solid foundation during their so-called tumultuous periods, such as SingPost, at the time of the leadership change.

The firms could be going through temporary turmoil, like Citibank and Bank of America in the US.

The company could have a bad earnings report for that period, but fundamentally it is sound, and people are just reacting to bad news.

That's when the stock prices don't reflect the actual worth, and I buy the shares when the firm is going through a shock. In the following one to two months, you might be able to sell them off for a 10 to 20 per cent gain.

I lean towards the fundamental method. I rely quite a lot on research pieced together from various news sources and FaceBook as well.

I've learnt to trust my own judgment, coupled with a bit of luck. It's usually pretty accurate.

The strategy for ShopBack is less about money and more about investing in people because your team members are the ones who drive growth in the business.

Investing in people has had the best return on investment so far.

For instance, at the end of the year, we are sending developers to San Francisco for exposure. It makes sense because, the more they learn, the better they can contribute to the company.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A I've always liked the tech industry and used to do "growth investing" for tech stocks like Apple and Groupon.

I've invested about $20,000 in stocks, and I've earned $30,000 to $40,000 in returns, but I've liquidated everything and poured it into ShopBack.

Q What does money mean to you?

A How you choose to spend it is what differentiates people. You shouldn't spend it with disregard, but the converse is true too. My friend always says that, if you die with a lot of money in the bank, then you have not optimised your life.I don't spend much - everything goes back into the company, and what's more important is time. Money can be earned back, but not time.

Q What's the riskiest thing you have done?

A The riskiest but also safest investment that I've made is in ShopBack. It's the riskiest as I've invested everything to make the business work - money and time. But it's the safest as the rise and fall are contingent on our own actions.

Before ShopBack, I forked out about $30,000 for two failed start-ups in return for valuable lessons, and it was totally worth it.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A Everything goes back into ShopBack, and we want to be the smarter way to shop not just in Singapore, but also across Asia.

Today, for the online cashback scene, we are No.1 in four markets, but there's still so much more that we can do. In short, we hope that, if you want to buy something, you will go to us first.

We are going to Taiwan next year and, in one year, we hope to be No.1 in Asia for the cashback scene.

We are also moving into comparing products and aggregation over the next two to three years.

Q Home is now...

A A condo in the west.

Q I drive...

A A hand-me-down Mitsubishi Colt. I extended the certificate of entitlement, so it's in its 11th year. The car is most useful for taking Joel to work. I drive him to work and take him home every day. I joke that I should charge him and sign up as an Uber driver.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Making good with cashback formula'. Print Edition | Subscribe