Set to soar with business acumen and the right partner

CEO of crowdfunding firm says man who lasted desert race with him was his choice

Mr Goh (above) started CoAssets with Dr Seh in 2013. The company has more than 50 employees now. It has full offices in Singapore, China and Australia, and representative offices in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it is awaiting approval of its peer-to
Mr Goh (above) started CoAssets with Dr Seh in 2013. The company has more than 50 employees now. It has full offices in Singapore, China and Australia, and representative offices in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it is awaiting approval of its peer-to-peer lending licence.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Selling flowers on Valentine's Day is probably not the way to celebrate the occasion, but a young entrepreneurial Getty Goh took his then girlfriend's words to heart.

Recalled Mr Goh, 38, chief executive of crowdfunding platform CoAssets: "In university, she told me she didn't want to celebrate Valentine's Day in a conventional way. So I said, 'Okay, instead of spending money, let's make some money.'

"We gave out fliers at MRT stations, took orders, packaged the flowers and delivered them, and made $200 to $300.

"Suffice to say, she didn't stay my girlfriend shortly after that."

Mr Goh, who also had a nose for real estate, bought his first property at 24 - a one-bedroom apartment for $676,000 - borrowing from friends and family for the 20 per cent down payment in 2002.

He bought another unit in the same building in Robertson Quay in 2007, which he later sold for a profit of about $500,000.

The same business acumen led him to set up CoAssets with Dr Seh Huan Kiat in 2013.

They had met during a 250km, seven-day run across the Gobi Desert in 2008. In a way, that ultimate test of endurance brought Mr Goh to where he is today.

He said of Dr Seh: "We were racing across the plains of Gobi. Back then, he was based in the United States, and had just come to China for the race when my wife and I bumped into him.

"We were introduced by a mutual friend - Quantedge Capital's co-founder Leow Kah Shin."

Then, Mr Goh had left his job as a Singapore Armed Forces officer, after serving his scholarship bond of six years, and founded consultancy Ascendant Assets.

He kept in touch with Dr Seh intermittently, and reconnected with him when the latter returned to Singapore in early 2010, looking for a venture.

Mr Goh had an idea to help Singapore developers who wanted to develop property in the region, for instance, but were denied bank loans.

He said: "Huan Kiat's from a comfortable background, and both of us were able to commit to CoAssets.

"We started with about $50,000.

"Things really started taking off in 2012, and we registered the company in 2013."

He sold his Ascendant Assets shares a few months ago to concentrate on CoAssets.

Mr Goh knew that his co-founder, who has a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the right person to work with, especially after the gruelling race.

He said: "When you go through such tough conditions, you have a sense of a person's character...

"There were people from all over the world, even extreme athletes."

The results they have produced together are a testament to that partnership.

The firm, which started with the duo, has grown to more than 50 staff now. It has full offices in Singapore, China and Australia, and representative offices in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it is awaiting approval of its peer-to-peer (P2P) lending licence.

Mr Goh, who has a four-year-old daughter and a son who is 18 months old, added: "When we first started, we went to venture capital firm Expara and our valuation was about $1 million." Last year, it listed on Australia's National Stock Exchange - which specialises in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - for corporate credibility, and had a market value of A$13 million (S$13.5 million).

A month ago, it moved on to list on the Australian Securities Exchange, raising A$6.55 million through its initial public offering at an issue price of 40 Australian cents apiece. CoAssets is estimated to have a market value of A$66 million, based on the offer price.

The firm first started out specialising in debt crowdfunding for SME real estate developers looking to borrow between $100,000 and $5 million - a niche it had identified.

It realised it could help firms in other industries and, in the last six months, entered the SME P2P lending space - engaging a Big Four auditor to help develop a risk assessment model. The businesses that seek funds place some form of security, usually property, with CoAssets.

A whole new market has opened up, from helping firms in solar panelling, branding and food and beverage, and even a performing arts school. The annualised yield that investors can get start from 6 per cent, to as high as 16 per cent.

But it was not always smooth sailing, Mr Goh said.

"Before listing, we went to many investors, institutions and venture capitalists, asking them to consider investing in CoAssets, and a lot of them politely declined," he recalled. He also had bad experiences with partners and staff, like a former employee who tried to poach his staff and clients, while another had debt problems which put the firm in a difficult position.

But the challenges helped Mr Goh stay grounded.

"My co-founder and I are still drawing a regular salary, about $7,500. As a newly listed company, there are still milestones and KPIs (key performance indicators) we have to meet," he said.

"What's important for us is equity, transparency and investor protection, and when it's hard-earned money investing in you, you think twice about how you spend."

Even as economic conditions get tougher, Mr Goh is optimistic, based on its growing number of users.

"When we started, we had only 200 registered lenders, and (have grown to) 55,000 today, which translates to a penetration rate of about 1 per cent of the Singapore population.

"The five areas that we operate in, like parts of China, give us a population of 100 million. If we can continue what we're doing right, it's plausible for us to reach 1 per cent or about one million registered lenders."

And if 2.5 per cent of them become active users - a conversion rate that Mr Goh says is similar to platforms such as Kickstarter - investing an average of $10,000 each year, "this gives you a sense of the scale we hope to grow to".

"The total amount of deals that could be funded may eventually be as much as $250 million. These are goals we are working towards.

"They are not fixed, but are figures that give a context of how big the sector is," he said.

Big dreams and big responsibilities are all part of the entrepreneurial life. Mr Goh said: "There are periods when I don't sleep well, worrying about a lot of things.

"The makings of good management and a team are that everyone must be like swans: Above the water they are graceful, below the water they are paddling like mad."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline 'Set to soar with business acumen and the right partner'. Subscribe