Projects include franchise offering over-the-counter accounting services and an online baby products mart
Accountants may have written the book on formal attire for work, but consultant Jace Koh is having none of that.
Her accounting firm - U Ventures - looks more like a start-up than an accounting outfit with T-shirt and jeans as the office "uniform".
But Ms Koh, 32, means business, having built up U Ventures from scratch after a failed partnership in mortgage broking in 2010. The company's main focus is on providing accounting services, but it has branched out to other services, including business consulting.
Sitting near a window in her 1,219 sq ft office with "a million-dollar view" overlooking the Kallang River, she recalls the early days after she started the firm in 2010 with around $15,000.
Those were hard days, especially as her father was ill and she had to help out with his medical bills.
Ms Koh, who left a stable job as an accountant to strike out on her own, says: "After I parted ways with my friend, who was a sales banker, I had an ex-colleague helping me out as she happened to have left her job. In the first three years, the firm did only accounting.
"We shared breakfast sometimes, and for the first time in our lives, McDonald's was a luxury. We'd buy a whole pandan cake or a loaf of bread and eat it for days."
Worst and best bets
Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?
A It is not about investments, but the biggest mistake I made financially was lending money to others. I was bitten twice.
One extreme instance was lending money to a young girl who is 27 this year. She owns other businesses and said she needed money to pay lawyers. She was overseas so she could not do it.
It was a five-digit bill, and when she came back, she could not return me the money. She dragged out the payment for eight months.
With investments, it was investing about $40,000 to $50,000 from 2014 to last year in a business which includes firms that do electrical work and plumbing.
The margins are supposed to be good, but it was losing money as the people I worked with were not genuine, and I was always stuck in resolving the fights with two other partners who were guys, who would argue in my office and "burn" my money.
But it was a good experience and a lesson learnt, which made me focus on my business.
Q And what has been your best investment move?
A My firm U Ventures, which has given me the best returns.
Not only do I earn money, but also I learn a lot from other business owners. I get to see them succeed and fail. When they succeed, I am very happy for them, and during their bad times, I try my best to help them.
But I have learnt that there are people who are worth helping, while others are dishonest.
The biggest lesson I have learnt recently is not to be too kind.
She cites figures about the challenge of succeeding in business off the top of her head, such as that five out of 10 firms go bust in the first year and how they don't get out of the woods until three years at least.
The spirited Ms Koh never gave up, saying: "I told myself, if I don't eat or go out and play for a year, I'm sure I can clear the debt. It wasn't a lot, and at 26, I decided it was worth a try."
Her persistence has paid off. In the first three years, revenue grew 100 per cent each year for the small firm and now she has eight employees and more than 300 clients from various industries that include construction, medical, IT and even an online tea business.
All this achieved by a polytechnic graduate who got into accountancy by a stroke of luck after several students dropped out, as her grades did not make the cut originally.
The beauty of working with several businesses is that it has deepened her network and knowledge, as she assists firms in various ways, such as when investors come knocking.
She has won the confidence of clients, who have so much faith in her services that they want to invest in her, and she is working on a new franchise business for such opportunities.
"The whole model is to have accounting clinics across Singapore. When your business has a wealth issue, the 'business doctor' will help you at the clinic. When the problem is too serious, they are referred to the 'specialist' at the headquarters.
"We can even collect documents over the counter, and perform accounting on cloud software."
The firm has just been approved for a grant from Spring Singapore, but she has found it an uphill task to convince government agencies as the idea of having a franchise offering over-the-counter accounting services was deemed too novel.
"There was scepticism about whether it'd work here, because nobody is doing it and they had no historical records. It's hard to explain to assessors who are not business owners, but we appealed and the grant was favourable."
Her entrepreneurial and gutsy ways seem far removed from the stereotypical image of accountants.
"New accountants may want to start their own practice, but they don't know how, and many don't like to talk, so I'm a 'rare one'. Most are introverts, and they don't meet clients, but I try to bring my employees along."
That's what Ms Koh knows she must do to stay ahead. "I can't be indispensable, where my business dies with me, like many accounting firms that close down if no one takes over. It's sad when they cease to exist."
Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?
A Although my dad liked to gamble, a lot of it had to do with his upbringing. My mum told me loansharks would come to the house when I was younger, but as I grew up, things improved. The most he would do was visit the pawnshop.
But they were still working and still took care of my elder brother and me. My dad was 44 when I was born. When he fell ill, he was already getting old and had to be taken care of. We didn't have the luxury of going to university.
Q How did you get interested in investing?
A I developed a lot of interest in business, especially after U Ventures took off. That's why I'm able to advise business owners on closing the gaps.
I tend to look at businesses as a whole, ask why they don't have certain things, probe and have a lot of questions.
I also kept looking at the future of my industry, which gives me ideas to invest in. For instance, two years back, I started introducing cloud accounting to my clients. I flew overseas to see how firms were using it, and it was moving so fast.
U Ventures has done well with double-digit profit margins, and as we grow bigger, the profits will rise, but I may not want that kind of stress.
And for my daughter's sake, I think I should start new businesses. That was when I wanted to start a franchise business. I still believe in training the staff myself, which is why I'm an Acta-certified trainer. (Acta stands for Advanced Certificate in Training and Assessment).
I applied to be a chartered accountant too when I got pregnant last year. It was then I started planning very hard for my baby, who gives me a lot of drive to do more.
Q Describe your investing strategy.
A All businesses I look at should not only be "low capital, high returns", but they must be able to run on autopilot, and make me dispensable.
Such businesses tend to be those in the service line, because you cater the service, and you've got only your own salary to lose.
Selling products means you need capital to stock up, and sometimes you can't clear all the stocks.
I've learnt that the IT and pharmaceutical industries are good to invest in through work, but I don't buy stocks in those as I'm a hands-on person.
Q What's in your portfolio?
A Besides U Ventures, I have the upcoming bookkeeping business, which will cost a six-figure sum to start, and will probably start in the middle of next year.
I had the idea for that since 2011. I went to an exhibition by the Franchising and Licensing Association and someone asked me if accounting could be franchised, and I came up with the model.
I'm also starting an online baby products mart, an idea I thought of when I was looking for items online for my 11-month-old daughter.
I've a friend who is selling tea online and sales are $2 million a month. I decided e-commerce is the way to go. I'm doing this with an IT partner, and he said he'd minimise the costs. I'll invite sellers and buyers, and we'll go international. It should be ready soon.
I'm also starting Bizsuites, an integrated solutions provider that puts cloud software together for business owners. The website is ready and we're looking into grants.
Q What does money mean to you?
A When I have excess cash, I'll spend it, but it helps that I have the ability to generate income, especially when I see something I want.
Money is also the root of all evil that causes a lot of conflict. Many clients come to the firm because of monetary conflicts, regardless of how well their business is doing.
Q What's the most extravagant thing you have done?
A Recently, it's only buying cars, but my spending is a lot higher than my peers'. I don't think about petrol prices and the petrol type. I can spend at least $1,000 on facials, including products, each month.
My dad died two years ago, and my mentality changed after that as I had more disposable cash. When he was going through dialysis, his monthly bill after subsidies was more than $1,000, excluding usual check-up costs and his allowance.
Q What are your immediate investment plans?
A Such plans for my firm include growing a new department which consults for small and medium-sized firms on loans and grants, to help them find the best deal. This doesn't require new investment funds.
We're also looking to take over the properties of cash-strapped owners, or even take over the businesses that come along with them.
I'm also writing a course to get it accredited by the Workforce Development Authority, so those who attend can become professional bookkeepers. It could be for housewives or students working from home and accounting can be an income source.
Q How are you planning for retirement?
A When I started the business in 2010, my aim was to have it run on autopilot, with minimal input from me. Today it's stable and I can afford to take short breaks and have more family time.
If all my businesses can be automated, then I can take a step back.
For instance, to do a franchise, you need standard operating procedures.
I will have trainee and trainer guides, so trainers can take over. On the IT side, it's just about putting things in place and a few apps together.
Q Home is now...
A A Housing Board flat in the north-east.
Q I drive...
A A BMW 630 convertible, which I bought this year. •Enjoyed reading Me & My Money? Send views to firstname.lastname@example.org 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 23, 2016, with the headline 'Jace of many trades'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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