Putting his money into what Grabz him most

Entrepreneur's love for investing and the people skills he picked up drive his business

Entrepreneur Darren Neubronner wants to spend the next five to 10 years on his mobile app, Grabz, which gives its users exclusive lifestyle rewards.The former bistro bar owner hopes to expand the app all over Asia.
Entrepreneur Darren Neubronner wants to spend the next five to 10 years on his mobile app, Grabz, which gives its users exclusive lifestyle rewards.The former bistro bar owner hopes to expand the app all over Asia.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Entrepreneur Darren Neubronner was not an average university student with his nose in his books around the clock.

"I was behaving very differently from my friends. For four years, I was playing poker and partying every night. Everyone was like, 'what is this guy trying to do? Everyone's here to study but he's going out every day'," says the political science graduate from National University of Singapore.

Although that came across as frivolous to others, Mr Neubronner, 31, was able later to benefit from the connections he made through those extra-curricular activities, and the people skills he honed helped him to become the entrepreneur he is today.

"The only reason I could run a bistro, buy over a cafe and my first property in 2012, was because I was mixing with wealthy people who spent a lot of time investing," he admits. He even managed to secure a major contract for his father, who is in the food and beverage (F&B) business, catering to a major nightclub.

"It brings in about 60 per cent of his current revenue," he adds.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A When I finally had enough savings when I was 21, I didn't understand reading about technicals and fundamental analysis, so I just read a little bit of news about certain companies, and listened to stockbrokers and took a plunge.

    It led me to my first loss of about 20 per cent to 30 per cent of my capital. I realised you cannot just listen to one or two sources.

    One stock was shipping firm Cosco Corp, and the rest were penny stocks that I can't recall.

    Q And what has been your best investment move?

    A Grabz. Over the last two years, it has grown about 500 per cent to 600 per cent in value. Last December, we had a valuation of almost $1 million, and in the next few months, we are looking at another 500 per cent in value.

    That's what we're looking at, but it's not justified by any investment yet, and that's the next step.

    Rachael Boon

Mr Neubronner's approach to his studies was far from textbook and would hardly be endorsed by career experts. But he managed to graduate with decent results.

He started out selling insurance after university and also helped his father who ran a few canteen-like cafes in institutions.

After two years, he set up a cafe at the Bloodbank at the Health Sciences Authority that he ran for a year, before opening his own bistro bar.

He realised that attracting people to a commercial outlet in a highly competitive industry required a lot of marketing, but that wasn't his strength.

But he was inspired to create the Grabz app in 2013, which gives its users exclusive lifestyle rewards.

He was fortunate enough to sell the bistro bar for a 400 per cent profit, which he poured into Grabz. It has about 45,000 users and sees 5,000 new users every week, and has 300 merchants on the app.

Mr Neubronner says: "My family has a lot of investors, my uncle was in property. When I was in F&B, he told me nicely that if he were in my shoes, he wouldn't follow my dad's route.

"He would do any business in Singapore that didn't require high labour or rental because he believes these are the only things here that will cause difficulty."

He hopes the app can help solve labour shortage and poor customer service standards for F&B establishments, as it rolls out new features by the end of this year.

These include a mobile waiter service that can be used to sell to customers, instead of a restaurant having to buy a device for each table just to implement an expensive integrated point-of-sale system.

Mr Neubronner says: "Even though we aren't the first mover, everyone else just builds a mobile waiter app but no one uses it as people would rather stand at the counter to order one thing, than download the app at the restaurant. Moreover, not many use the same app.

"I realised that Grabz, which will feature the mobile waiter service, was the missing link, because we already have a high number of users."

Q Moneywise, what were your growing up years like?

A Money was tight. My dad was working in F&B, which wasn't that lucrative. My grandmother, who took on the role of being a mother to me, wasn't working.

We live in a landed property but it was only because of my grandparents' wise decision 30 or 40 years ago. It wasn't like we could sell one room.

My dad remarried when I was 15. My first half-sibling was born when I was 17 or 18, and now I've three half-siblings.

We had to carefully consider everything we wanted to do or consume. I wanted to be richer than average to get out of that situation.

I started caring about money during the 1997 financial crisis. Most people were selling but my dad was the only one who was very excited to buy.

Later on, I realised he was teaching me about stock market cycles. That led me to think about how I needed to have capital when the next opportunity came, so I started to save up.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A When I was younger, I would find my grandmother watching Teletext all the time. That was how I got introduced to it.

But I got really interested in investing in my early junior college days, just before the early 2000s crash. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett was already quite famous then, and he said when people panic, you buy, and when they are confident, you sell. It was my first financial crisis, and I started to realise what he meant.

I had $5,000 and I told my dad to help me put it in blue-chip stocks. I doubled my investment in a month when I was 18.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I read more about how Mr Buffett invested but I realised I had no time to study a company and its fundamentals, and look for value in the market.

I used to love being in the loop for the latest news and stayed on top of the latest happenings in the companies that I invest in. But I've moved away from stocks because I found I had no control. Even if you find a stock with good value, external events or public perception could cause the stock market to crash.

My last big investment was in private cord blood bank Cordlife. Value-wise, I knew it was going to go up, but the Syria crisis and United States interference suddenly happened. I decided to sell everything, and it was a good move because sentiments affected the market and Cordlife went down by about 30 per cent. From then on, I concentrated on my business because I knew that I didn't have the time to keep following the news.

Now I invest in things that I've a large control over, and I'm quite an aggressive investor as I like faster and high returns, and am able to absorb quite a high level of risk as I'm young and not married with children.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A Grabz and a residential property with two master bedrooms and a small kitchen and cleaning area in the Guillemard area.

I like the place because couples always like to have their own privacy, and it would be ideal for two couples to live in. I bought it in 2012.

Looking at the labour market in Singapore, there are people coming in who would be able to afford about $1,400 per room.

I thought it would be easier to rent out in the future, compared with a three-bedroom condominium.

I also bought key man insurance - cover for the death or disability of the key executive in a company - for about $200 a month.

Q What does money mean to you?

A You're the general in a war, and money represents your troops. How much money you have is how many troops you have.

Every dollar you spend is placing your soldiers in a war. Each investment opportunity is a battle.

Every time you do something, you need to know the reason behind it and the eventual goal is to double your troops.

You can send all your soldiers to die, or spend all your money with no goal, or you can send a few to die and get 10 times the returns.

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

A I bought a Mercedes CLK in 2012, but I sold it to get funds to renovate my first bistro bar.

I thought having the car would be a success-breeds-success kind of thing, as I was doing insurance. I was told that if I turned up in a car of a certain value, customers might think that they could buy from me because I was successful.

I think it did work but it was extravagant. There was no return on investment (laughs) as the amount of money spent on the car didn't make that much sense.

Q What has been one of your biggest regrets when it comes to investing?

A The first investments I made on my own, in stocks and shares, when I was 21, were based on little knowledge and hearsay from stockbrokers. I read one small piece of news in The Straits Times and put in almost 50 per cent of my funds and lost 20 per cent of it.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A I'll be spending the next five to 10 years on my baby, Grabz. I don't think I'll be selling it or anything. I really want to build it all over Asia, which will take time. It'll be a long-term project.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A I was in insurance so we were always taught how to plan for retirement.

But the figures were scary, like how much you need every month, times how many years you're likely to live. It usually adds up to a crazy sum like $5 million to $6 million.

I realised that I don't want to think about that figure at this age right now, even though it goes against all the philosophies of insurance.

The philosophy of saving for the future, although good, can only do so much because if you have a very small salary now, there's only so much you can save. Whatever you want in future, you may not even be able to achieve it.

But what you can do today, which is what I can do for Grabz, is totally within my power.

I'd rather spend all my time now building my army, then I can talk about having an ease of mind for the future.

Q Home is now...

A My grandmother's terraced house in the central-east area. When my grandfather was young, he was forced by my grandmother, who's now almost 91, to buy it and it was very cheap at that time. She was quite savvy back then.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Me&MyMoney Putting his money into what Grabz him most'. Subscribe