Building a FinTech empire by leveraging on each other’s strengths
Joe Seunghyun Cho is set on building an empire in the world of FinTech. Not content with just focusing on one aspect, the founder and chairman of Marvelstone Group is involved in every part of the FinTech food chain, from being an accelerator, running a co-working space, providing venture funding and even digital asset management. Not bad for someone who has not yet touched 40.
Struggle to survive
Having a passion for his job may just be an understatement for Cho, who works 15-20 hour days, seven days a week.
“Being an entrepreneur, you may spend three to 10 years without a salary or guarantee of success – it’s quite a struggle to survive,” says Cho. ”Passion is the only reason that I can continue doing this.”
While Marvelstone was originally set up in Hong Kong, with operations in South Korea and Indonesia, the investment firm eventually moved its headquarters to Singapore in 2016 for its clean legal structure, geographical location and the pure ease of setting up a business.
“Singapore’s government understands business better than the others,” says Cho. “I’ve met 30, 40 regulators in many places, and Singapore has one of the friendliest regulators who are easy to access and actually listen to the community.”
And of course, there is the unmissable buzz around the city’s FinTech scene.
World’s biggest FinTech hub
One of Marvelstone’s more notable achievements is building LATTICE80, which is known as the world’s biggest FinTech hub. The not-for-profit space houses 85 FinTech start-ups in a space of over 30,000 square feet, and counts the Prime Minister of Holland and Finance Minister of Switzerland among their notable guests.
LATTICE80 was astutely launched the week before Singapore’s inaugural FinTech Festival in 2016 organised by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, deputy prime minister of Singapore, who attended the launch of LATTICE80 described it as “an important addition to the FinTech ecosystem” by reducing costs for start-ups and giving them convenient access to data.
At first, Cho thought it may take a year to reach 50% to 80% occupancy but it took only two months to fill completely and now there’s a long waiting list.
Outside of Singapore, LATTICE80 has also been gaining ground. Just six months after opening their doors in Singapore, they announced plans to build another in India and are in discussions with over 30 countries to replicate their success.
“It took less than a year to be the number one FinTech hub in the world,” says Cho. “So I think it’s the best example to show how Singapore can initiate and deliver things in a smart, efficient way.”
One of the greatest opportunities that Singapore has to offer is its physical location, he added.
“Just by sitting here, I get to see everyone coming from all the places in Asia to Middle East to Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia and India,” says Cho. “They usually have headquarters, families or investors who are based here, so without even travelling, I get to see key players in the region.”
Access to Asia
Notwithstanding Marvelstone’s aggressive expansion scheme to open FinTech hubs in 10 more cities in the next 12 to 18 months, Cho says he is committed to Singapore – “we want to stay to be the best company to provide access to Asia.”
Yet Cho’s penchant for Singapore may stray a little from work as Singapore is also where he fell in love. His accomplished wife Gina Heng is also a co-founder of Marvelstone and is just as committed to the cause.
This power couple rises above the common axiom of not mixing business with pleasure, as Cho says he is happiest in the office working with someone whom he loves and who shares his values.
“There are fun moments,” he jokes. “Like days when Gina finds the opportunity to poke fun at my personal issues in front of my colleagues. Keeping my ego in check is one of the things I appreciate most.”
Ironically, for such an ambitious company, Cho says that they do not believe in competition and are here to help.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Cho doesn’t have big plans for Marvelstone. Marvelstone Capital, its asset management side, plans to launch the first robo-adviser for family offices in Asia, while Marvelstone Tech, a FinTech venture building platform, aims to create a true Digital Bank to provide FinTech services such as remittances, payment, trade finance and crowdfunding.
Marvelstone Ventures, a VC fund, will invest in companies focused on the development of smart cities. And its accelerator-incubator programme wants to accelerate 10,000 start-ups in seven years.
The linchpin behind many of these goals is the network that Cho has managed to form by “putting our own ecosystem, players and stakeholders together” through their base in Singapore.
“If I put the same effort in other places, I couldn’t achieve as much,” said Cho. “Singapore hosts a lot of international events and with business partners visiting Singapore a couple of times a year, it’s quite easy to make connections.”
Akin to the physical attributes of its namesake, at LATTICE80, Cho envisions an open framework where companies build on each other’s strengths. And to encourage this, LATTICE80 hosts at least a few events every week. Despite being rather new to event-running, Cho doesn’t find it too difficult or too time-consuming and has an internal objective of reaching a thousand events annually in one or two years.
“If someone from abroad wanted to host an Asia-Pacific event, Singapore should definitely be one of their first choices,’’ says Cho. “There are so many global events here with lots of hotels and facilities – so it’s easy to get access to those events.’’
It is breathtaking to see how much Cho has achieved in the decade or so since he first arrived in Singapore armed with just a laptop, two spare shirts and $500 in his pocket.
The reach and breadth of Marvelstone’s business is extensive across the FinTech spectrum of activities, but that is its exact beauty.
“The definition of success is going to change. A lot,” says Cho. Guess one can only wait and see what other realms of FinTech he plans to conquer next.