Conversations with Chua Ee Chien

By Julian Rocero and Soong Hung Hao

No stranger to the world of fintech, investments, and start-ups, Mr Ee Chien Chua currently heads the Business Development & Partnerships arm of Endowus, a digital investment advisor and solutions provider in Singapore. Managing strategic cooperations between businesses, Ee Chien empowers employees and employers alike on financial planning and investments. With his prior experience spanning storied institutions like Goldman Sachs and unicorn start-ups such as Uber and a company, Ee Chien knows what it takes to succeed in a fast-paced and competitive environment. Apart from his career in finance, Ee Chien also runs Whimsical Inc., an F&B group that runs Jekyll and Hyde, graft and Operation Dagger.

Ee Chien joins us in this Conversations piece to shed light on work ethic, passion, and other qualities one needs to thrive career-wise. With his experience in the F&B industry, he also shares about the challenges he has encountered since taking over his bar in 2018.

I head Business Development & Partnerships at Endowus, a leading digital wealth advisor in Asia which allows clients to invest all sources of funds – from private savings to public pension monies – via a single platform. Personally, I focus more on the B2B (business to business) side of the firm, rather than the B2C (business to consumer) that my other colleagues oversee.

This entails working with other companies in a multitude of different ways, and I will use a company as an example. One of the services we provide is employee benefits and schemes. Endowus may aid a company in achieving their objective of encouraging its employees to invest their money by offering financial planning and literacy courses to educate their staff, and discounted rates when they invest through our platform. Another service is corporate cash management. a company may have surplus fundraised monies, and seek potential investment ventures. Endowus offers the option to invest this money and potentially reap returns that beat out inflation, which is rising quite quickly at the moment.

We also focus on strategic partnerships. As an example, we may engage a company that focuses on insurance. This forms a symbiotic relationship with Endowus’ focus on investments, and we are able to gain insights and consumers through cross-marketing and cooperation. Lastly, we also work with our chief financial officer on other strategic initiatives.

That is true; much of my career has been spent scaling up businesses. I believe that setting measurable goals is crucial when companies are looking at growing in size. Oftentimes, start-ups have their eyes set on growth, but lack an actual figure they hope to achieve. Is your target 1%, 5%, 50%, or 100%? Which is realistic for your business? Another key point is pushing yourself past your limits. My team recently had a meeting with our boss to discuss our goals, and he essentially raised them by 5x. As they say, you aim for the moon, and even if you miss, you may land among the stars.

The industry is certainly very competitive. The pool of digital wealth advisors continues to expand, not to digitalisation of investment services offered by traditional banks. Endowus stands out because of how we structure our company and products. For instance, we are the first to offer CPF and SRS investments online.

We model our services around three pillars; access, advice, and cost. From an access perspective, we offer investors access to the best-in-class investment products in the world, such as institutional share-class products. Normally, only large companies are able to invest in these products, but we have enabled access for even retail investors as well. On the advisory front, we provide good digital advice, which also ties in to cost. From a cost perspective, we are a fee-only advisory firm. This means that we only take a percentage of the assets that our customers own and return 100% of all trailer or retrocession fees we receive from fund managers. This is all we make money from, whereas other players will also peg on sales charges, management fees, and more.

We have more than 130 employees in Singapore and Hong Kong right now, and I would describe the culture as very open and collaborative.

To me, building a positive work culture hinges upon giving your employees the autonomy to make decisions and take charge of their work. Furthermore, I believe the people at Endowus are strongly passionate and goal-driven. We are greatly motivated by our mission of helping to grow our customers’ wealth in a proper way, not by gambling your money recklessly.

[Laughs] I believe I am somewhat successful at my role sometimes, not all the time. Aside from an outgoing personality, being able to talk to others and sell a product are essential. At its core, I am in a sales role, and you should be able to convince someone to work with you and use your product. Personally, I believe a relevant skill is being able to break things down into simple terms, distil your message to key points, and present it to others. This requires an understanding of your client needs, and the ability to fulfil this need is, of course, also crucial.

Just a year ago, Endowus was still relatively unknown in the market. Making connections and seeking out partnerships was challenging then (and still is now), and it was quite a departure from my experience at my past companies. It takes more effort and tenacity, which I appreciate, because it taps on your passion and hones the skills I mentioned previously.

Another challenging aspect is reaching your targets, which then brings in the importance of creativity and innovation. In this context, having a strong creative side when working in a start-up is important. At Endowus, you have the freedom to build things out, and your accomplishments are scrutinised for the purpose of improvement rather than criticism.

There are definitely many misconceptions, such as pertaining to working in a start-up as opposed to a traditional firm. Many potential candidates tell us they want to get into fintech “because it is an up-and-coming industry” when we ask them why they want to join Endowus. Personally, I think there should be more to why you would want to join a company or industry – not just because it is ‘trendy’.

Avoid jumping into an industry just because it seems ‘cool’ at the moment; you will lose passion very quickly. This is not to say that you need to know exactly what you want to do, but you should at least have an interest in the job you are pursuing.

We work a lot with various companies to educate their employees with the aim of encouraging them to invest their money, hopefully with Endowus.

We believe in empowering all investors with financial knowledge so they can have a peace of mind when investing with their future in mind. Even if they choose not to use Endowus eventually, at least they have learned more about financial freedom and are well on their own journey towards it. For example, setting cash aside, CPF Is the backbone of retirement for many in Singapore. Your CPF accrues 2.5% interest, while inflation is rising at about 8% annually. I believe CPF is an amazing tool, and certainly one of the best pension programs that any country has created. However, based on current market standards, you definitely need to invest your CPF money just to keep up with inflation, not even to beat it.

Outside of CPF, many today still insist on saving their money in banks rather than investing. I am completely opposed to this, because the devaluation of your money will quickly drain you out. This is why we believe in the importance of financial literacy. We aim to educate more on how to grow their wealth, simply because you truly need money for everything.

Generally, I look for people who have energy and vigour, but this also depends on the role you have in mind. If you are in the investment office, you do still need to have energy, but strong numeracy skills are also a priority. On the other hand, for someone in business development like myself, the latter is less relevant, but the job demands more sociability and stronger communication.

From a broader perspective, Endowus seeks out hard workers who are willing to get down into the nitty-gritty. When you are in a start-up, you need to be able to do everything. For the longest time, I was in charge of ordering our corporate swag and maintaining the fingerprint entry system. Drawing comparisons to larger traditional companies again, your job scope is likely to be much more finite.

Working smart is important, but working hard is still central to that. You should be willing to put time and effort into your work, and that is a foundation to a strong work ethic. The second thing is that I try to be kind; this ties in to running a bar, which we will discuss later, but you never truly know each person’s struggles that they are dealing with.

Avoid burning yourself out; you should expect to be communicating with many people at once, and it can be exhausting. I sometimes find myself being so extroverted during the work week that I become a complete introvert on the weekends to recharge. As much as you want to be sociable to close deals and do business, you still need to make sure you are protecting the limited time you have for yourself.

To be honest, my time at Uber was probably more demanding; that was back when a fierce rivalry with a company existed, and the intensity of work during that period is testament to it.

For some context, I was in Goldman’s Sales & Trading middle office, where I focused on trading equity derivatives. My major is in Public Relations, but I realised it was not what I wanted to pursue in a career. I joined Goldman for an internship, and was offered a place full-time subsequently. What I found interesting about Goldman is that they hire a large spectrum of graduates; apart from accounting and finance majors, my team also included an English major! This is because Goldman wants the diversity of thought generated by employing people from different backgrounds, all of whom are equipped with strong critical thinking skills. Hiring outside of the pool of finance majors enables them to curate a better team, and a better experience for the company as well.

It goes without saying, my time there was definitely intense. My first nine months were crazy; I had never traded equities before then, so there was certainly a learning curve.

I was always keen on entering the F&B industry in general, though the bar business was not necessarily what I had envisioned. I used to think that it would be a good side venture that would earn me some residual income, but that did not turn out to be true. Candidly, I tell people that it was with stupidity and idiocy that I started the business. Running Jekyll and Hyde has taken a lot of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears. Having switched from employee to business owner, I now deal with the overall P&L (profit and loss) of my business. This comes with its own struggles. The bar has about 16 full-time employees whose rice bowls depend on it. To me, it is very important that I can take care of these employees. My dream one day is to run my own hawker stall.

To be frank, I have a hard time recommending anyone to start an F&B business. But if you are looking to grow your business, innovation is truly key. People are fickle creatures; while everyone has comfort foods they enjoy, we are often also chasing the latest fad. The implications are two-fold. First, you should create a base of great food and drinks that can become your signature go-tos. On the other hand, pivoting to fresh new products is also essential to stay relevant while trying not to dilute your existing brand.

We were very close to doing so, and there was one point where we actually announced that Jekyll & Hyde would be closing. However, when we announced our closure, many customers were very disappointed and the feedback we received was very encouraging. We heard stories of couples who had their first date there, and we realised the business had truly evolved into an institution with strong brand equity. After the announcement, people also went out of their way to support us, by buying more of our bottled cocktails, for instance. It was this kindness that allowed us to survive, because people had endeared themselves to the brand and wanted to see it live on.

I would recommend your readers to check out the post on @thewokesalaryman where I shared some of my insights.

Apart from that, of course we deal with difficult customers, as every other F&B establishment does. Typically, we only face this with 10% of our customers, but it does dampen the spirit slightly. You just have to bite your tongue and focus on the positives of the night instead.

Another challenging aspect is having to see the business through. Being a business owner means weeks, months, even years of hard work, sometimes without breaks. That is probably the hardest thing. You are constantly tired, and I sometimes struggle to dig myself out of the mire.

I learned great skill sets in university, but most of them are not relevant to my current career. To me, university is important for learning about social interaction, and I believe it is not entirely necessary. Of course, it is still important for doctors, lawyers, and the like, but especially in this day and age, do we really need a university education to do business development?

Another aspect of higher education I disagree with is the stipulation of mandatory courses. Perhaps a chemistry course is necessary to fulfil your general education requirements. I have never used chemistry in any of my roles! Why am I not using that time instead to learn about managing my money and financial literacy? From a tertiary perspective, I believe you should make use of your time in university to learn more about how to interact with others in a personal and effective manner.

I do not have a great work-life balance. While I do try, I usually end up running between meetings and having days packed with work. This is because I want to be independently successful and create a reputation for myself, which comes with having to work hard. I also have an innate drive to do things all the time, because I get bored very easily. In that respect, my work-life balance is not the best. Although my day is packed, I still do try my best to get enough sleep.

I did not have any career ambitions until very recently; most of my life decisions make sense to me only because hindsight is 20/20. Steve Jobs spoke at Stanford many years ago, and one of the key points that stuck with me was that life is all about joining the dots, oftentimes backwards. He said that while none of us can predict the future, reflecting on the past instead can be equally valuable, and I completely agree with him.

When I majored in Public Relations, I had no idea where my career would take me. I was introduced to an internship at Bloomberg by my professor, and learned that perhaps financial communications would interest me more. I looked into investor relations for a while, and was then offered an internship and full-time role at Goldman Sachs. Of course, these offers did not fall into my lap, but I also did not explicitly hunt them down. When I joined Uber at a more formative stage of my career trajectory, I was simply looking to be part of a technology company back in Singapore. I never anticipated my time there having such an impact on my career, including acting as a launchpad for me to move to Grab, where I then worked in financial services. This allowed me to combine my interests in technology and finance through learning more about consumer finance, which is also related to my current role here at Endowus.

My advice is to be cautious with how you are investing your money. I have lost some money investing in the stock market, as have many people today. With how hot crypto is today, I would recommend building up your ‘safe’ money, your emergency funds. Whatever you have remaining, take it as your ‘fun’ money and experiment with that, cautiously, of course.

That aside, I still do think it is important to be kind. I am a sucker for commencement speeches, and a particularly memorable one was by Jeff Bezos at Harvard, where he spoke passionately about kindness. We all know the world is a crazy place, and I also get grumpy very easily. There are always going to be some bad people in the world, but most of us are good, and taking the time to think about how we react can make someone’s day just a little bit better. To be upfront, as someone in business, I do need to be a bit more ruthless going forward with certain things. Overall, however, I still greatly value just being nice to others.

One of the questions I get a lot from university students is, “should I go to Goldman or straight to a start-up?” To me, there is no wrong answer. When you look at a person’s thirty-year career through a macro lens, your first few years are but a blip in those three decades. If you want to go into consulting or investment banking which remain very popular career paths, I still see value in it. Having a big name on your resume is never a bad thing, and can often land you the first interview when you apply to your next role. As much as it is a pain working in a big company because you are only doing a finite number of things, learning the inner workings of that company can come in handy in the future, perhaps when building your own company in the future. That is my advice for those who may be torn on whether to join a large or small company as their first job. On the other hand, if you are set on your passion and have a start-up in mind that is in line with this interest, I would still encourage you to pursue that.