Apart from being guests in this season of the On Call with Insignia podcast, a lot more than one might think. Here are a few:
(1) Both were drawn back to their roots.
Reconciliating payments for sending Kindles back home for Christmas while still working at Amazon led Tianwei into a rabbit hole of research around payment APIs. He returned to Singapore and started Xfers (now Fazz Business) and StraitsX.
“The APIs to automate your transfer and do all these transactions which is the basic foundation needed for any fintech to build were nonexistent. I think in 2015, then there wasn’t even a FAST transfer for folks in Singapore, like bank transfer isn’t instantaneous.”
Gui on the other hand had spent a significant part of his childhood in Thailand, and returned there following interest in the opportunities the market held for beauty ecommerce in particular, which was also nonexistent at the time in 2011.
“I saw a huge opportunity of the ecommerce potential in Southeast Asia. And this was back in 2011. Konvy was the first vertical ecommerce platform in Thailand…We were looking into multiple categories and we thought that beauty is a category that is suitable for Thailand.”
(2) Both moved fast (early) and built things.
Moving into stablecoins in particular was a decision that took a lot of discussion, looking into the market at the time, as well as listening to the needs of clientele in the space.
“…in 2017 itself there were a lot of high points, and we were looking at [solving] this problem [with] a fundamental product for people thinking about how to build infrastructure for the future, and stablecoins was definitely a topic that keeps coming back. And we, as a team, invested our time to look at how we can make this possible in a non-speculative way, really investing to feed the future of infrastructure around the space. And we saw a lot of merit and that’s why we started exploring this idea with our lawyers, our banking partners, and of course our regulators. And it only took us all the way to 2019 before the whole product finally matured.”
It was key for Tianwei and his team that it wasn’t going to be a “move fast and break things” approach but really setting this project up properly in a compliant way.
“You actually have to set the culture to do things right the first time and consider the impact on the customers and on people when things go wrong.”
Gui also went through the trenches of scouting beauty stores, building the initial website, and building relationships with brands to really position themselves as the go-to online platform for beauty products in Thailand.
“We had to do it on our own with our own savings, and with a few friends’ help. We just started the business that way without any venture investments… luckily I have a programming background so I have to put myself as a developer into developing our own website in that time.”
(3) Both went out of their comfort zone (many times, and continue to do so). Tianwei was an engineer from the Valley becoming the CEO of a regulated fintech company; Gui was a management and marketing professional who had worked primarily in fashion ecommerce.
For Tianwei, he’s had to learn over time how to manage the people aspect of business — “As the company grows bigger and bigger, 90 percent of the problems are not technology. People [tend] to really be the problem. And we need to make sure that you can align your people and deal with people. That is actually the number one reason most early stage startups fail. Making sure your guys are sticking together, making sure that everyone believes in the vision and can be aligned and working on a common goal.”
For Gui, going offline was totally new for him and his team, but they leveraged insights from their ecommerce business to build a differentiated retail experience.
“I made the bold decision that Konvy should not be just online. Yes, offline is somewhat challenging for us. We don’t have experience, but we’ve got to make the move to try it. Let’s try it first and see how it goes. That was the mentality behind the decisions. And it turned out to be quite better than my expectations…We created an assortment and alignment on the products on the shelf very differently from a traditional business. And all the products we open [samples] for people to try, which is also a very new concept.”
(4) Both stick to their guns. StraitsX faced a lot of uncertainty throughout its journey, not just externally, but even internally, especially being part of a larger fintech group. But the team stuck to their conviction in the product, its underlying technology, and their approach of ensuring its compliance from day one. This conviction has paid off over the years, from the 2019 launch, to securing an MPI license, and most recently in-principle approval from the MAS for the upcoming stablecoin framework.
“I would be the first one to tell you guys that there are multiple discussions over the last five to 10 years that we should abandon this project, right? There were moments multiple times in the company deciding whether this is something that we should be doing? Are we too early? Are we trying to do something that’s too innovative or too [cutting-edge] that potentially might kill us?
And every single time I think the team huddles back down and discusses, what do we believe in? Do we have conviction that this is going to be working out? And that’s where I went back to the first thing I was talking about earlier on about being persevering and being patient. If you believe in something and you want to do something, you must know that there’s going to be a lot of struggles along the way.”
Among many experiences, Gui recalls one where Konvy ventured into a yearlong branding campaign after years of focusing solely on performance marketing. In spite of the uncertainty, they believed in the need for Konvy’s positioning in the market to go beyond an ecommerce marketplace or platform to becoming a big beauty retailer in Thailand. And it also paid off.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve been very focused on performance marketing. Everything should be measured, the results should be measured. What is the ROI for this ad? Everything was by numbers…we never dared to put a big bet on something that is [relatively] unmeasurable. So in 2021, we invested in a one-year campaign, hiring top celebrities as presenters. I would say that it paid off. In terms of sales, we did have a spike in sales, even though it’s not a continuous spiking. But because of that, people view Konvy completely differently…
Because we made that move, our commercials, our TVCs, our ads are everywhere in Thailand, you can see Konvy everywhere.That just concurs in people’s mind that Konvy is a small business and now they have jumped to become one of the biggest beauty businesses in Thailand.”
(5) Both are in it for the long haul. Tianwei has regularly emphasized on our podcasts that this journey they have embarked on — with stablecoins, with payments, with financial inclusion — is not measured in overnight successes but patience and consistency.
“We’re not done yet. We’ve just opened the door and there’s more work there. The only easy day is supposed to be yesterday.”
Gui shares the importance of building stamina as an entrepreneur — and simply lasting long enough in the game already puts you a cut above the rest.
“Imagine, right, that the company is already 10 years old. And most people are already down after three to four years. And for ourselves, us having the stamina to be able to keep up last 10 years already wins 90% of the competitors. So that is extremely important to have.”
2024 is the year of the dragon — largely considered the most auspicious zodiac sign, and a symbol of strength, power, and wisdom — characteristics that come with the kind of unfailing resolve and conviction entrepreneurs like Tianwei and Gui have built over the years.
Wishing everyone a happy lunar new year!
Paulo Joquiño is a writer and content producer for tech companies, and co-author of the book Navigating ASEANnovation. He is currently Editor of Insignia Business Review, the official publication of Insignia Ventures Partners, and senior content strategist for the venture capital firm, where he started right after graduation. As a university student, he took up multiple work opportunities in content and marketing for startups in Asia. These included interning as an associate at G3 Partners, a Seoul-based marketing agency for tech startups, running tech community engagements at coworking space and business community, ASPACE Philippines, and interning at workspace marketplace FlySpaces. He graduated with a BS Management Engineering at Ateneo de Manila University in 2019.