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MEMBER PROFILE

FROM ACCOUNTANT TO INVENTOR

RICHARD KOH, FCA (SINGAPORE), GROUP CEO AND FOUNDER, M-DAQ GROUP OF COMPANIES

Every time a consumer makes an online purchase from an overseas website, he pays more than the prevailing market rate – typically up to 4% more. At the same time, the seller receives less. This 4% constitutes foreign exchange (forex) conversion costs, but through ingenuity and technology, a Singaporean startup has brought this rate down to a fraction, making cross-border transactions cheaper and less risky. To date, the point-of-sale home currency pricing solution, aptly named “Aladdin”, has processed nearly S$20 billion in transactions, saving shoppers over $160 million while creating additional risk-free revenue of over $130 million since its launch on the AliExpress platform.

Aladdin is the flagship product of Singaporean financial technology (fintech) company, M-DAQ Pte Ltd, which may just be the most promising startup you’ve never heard of. But that’s how CEO and Founder Richard Koh, 48, likes it. An accountant by training but a technologist at heart, Mr Koh is not a fan of splashy headlines and even flashier lifestyles. Instead, it is his brand of level-headedness and conservatism that has led M-DAQ to become one of ASEAN’s biggest fintech firms, currently valued at between $0.5 billion to $1 billion. How did an accountancy professional find himself at the helm of what has been pegged as Singapore’s next billion-dollar company?

COMING FULL CIRCLE

Born into a working-class family, Mr Koh, an only child, recalls spending his teenage years tinkering with technology and at age 14, built his own gaming software. The budding inventor, however, failed to secure a spot at the junior college of his choice to study computer science by one point, and found himself studying accountancy at another school instead. It was a mentor he met at the Singapore Computer Society, an accountancy veteran, who advised the 17-year-old Koh to stick to accountancy and pursue his passion on the side; IT wasn’t yet a “mainstream” profession at the time. Little did he know that this stumbling block was actually a stepping stone in disguise.

After his “A” levels, the young Koh won a scholarship from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to study for his Bachelor of Accountancy at Nanyang Technological University, and subsequently worked as an auditor at PwC for a couple of years, before opportunity came knocking. A client, JPMorgan Chase, was setting up its e-forex business in Asia, and needed someone with business savvy and technological proficiency – someone exactly like Mr Koh. With the blessings of his former employer, he joined the bank and dived into the “opaque” world of investment banking, which opened his eyes to what seemed to be glaring market gaps in the forex industry. Surely there must be a solution to help make cross-border transactions less costly, more transparent and less risky?

After an intense decade in forex in an investment bank, in 2010, Mr Koh struck out on his own with his former colleagues and clients at JPMorgan. To say that the next 10 years were some of the most exciting times of his life is probably an understatement. In 2012, the company ran out of cash for about 11 months due to a fallout between two potential blue-chip investors; Mr Koh himself went without a salary for a year. On top of that, the Koh family expanded – by one headcount each year – for four consecutive years.

In 2013, M-DAQ launched its first over-the-top (OTT) application, Trading the Right Chart™, powered by proprietary data technology. “Imagine you want to buy some Apple shares, but they’re in US dollars. You are planning your retirement income, time horizon and such, based on Singapore dollars (SGD). Wouldn’t it be nice if you could buy Apple shares in SGD, track them in SGD and sell them in SGD?” he asks rhetorically. In 2015, the company launched Aladdin, an e-commerce pricing solution which enables customers to do their online shopping in their home currency, while allowing merchants to receive payments in their desired currency; the product won in the Open category at the inaugural Singapore MAS FinTech awards in 2016. “Who says you can’t start your dream business, jump into a new life, and have a big family – all at the same time?” the doting father says with a chuckle.

The award-winning innovation helped propel an explosive 1,000-fold growth over the next four financial years. M-DAQ reported its first-ever profitable quarter in 2018 and has maintained nine successive profitable quarters to date – an especially notable achievement considering that some of the biggest tech giants around are still in the red despite having burned through hundreds of millions of investor money. M-DAQ’s cash burn – the amount a startup spends before starting to make a profit – is “one of the lowest in the world” at $25 million, shares Mr Koh. While original plans for an initial public offering this year or the first half of next year have been shelved due to Covid-19, the company has continued its growth streak, reporting a “miraculous” first-quarter profit this year. “I think my accountancy experience has been a key reason why we have not failed. It gave the grounding we needed as a startup to build a solid foundation before scaling up,” says Mr Koh. He credits his ISCA membership since 1997 as a source of professional recognition and technical expertise that has buoyed his career pivot from accountancy back to his first love, technology.

Mr Koh hopes that the path he has charted as an accountant-turned-technopreneur will inspire others to dream big. “Our last tech success story was Creative Technology and Sim Wong Hoo, which inspired my generation, but that was about 30 years ago.” While firms like Razer and Grab have associations with Singapore, Mr Koh’s hope is that truly Singapore-based, locally-listed firms, founded by homegrown talent, will rise to fill the gap in tech innovation. (Razer, although established by Singaporean Tan Min-Liang, is based in the US, and Grab was initially established in Malaysia by Malaysian founders.) “Singapore, with all its limitations and lack, is a country that could not have survived, much less succeed; yet we have. In the world of business, only technology innovation has the ability to create a 10- to 100- to 1000-fold impact. It’s critical that we embrace the idea of Singapore-born-and-bred innovation and enable a world-class startup ecosystem to flourish here.”

He continues, “Our education system has brought us up as a nation of engineers and professional managers, but not entrepreneurs. We at M-DAQ hope to show that Singapore has what it takes to nurture the next wave of innovators and entrepreneurs.” He credits his family and faith as his bedrock of support through the early days. “It wasn’t just about me and my job and my own effort. It was the conviction of a calling to enrich communities, to build wonderful companies and create jobs, and to inspire others to do the same. Conviction is a powerful thing.”

SHATTER THE GLASS CEILING

For all the momentum it’s enjoying now, Mr Koh, who has three patents to his name, believes that the company’s best product is the fifth – the one that has yet to be created. “Who says an accountant cannot be an inventor?” he quips. “We are constantly creating new things that meet a real need in the industry. We don’t want to just go into a crowded space and be just a bit better, faster or cheaper.” Underpinning this spirit of innovation is the people culture at M-DAQ. “Most of a tech company’s assets are tied up in its talent – not in physical inventory, distribution systems, manufacturing and such. Our true strength lies in our people; we treat them as family,” he says.

The man walks the talk. At the time of this interview, Singapore – along with pretty much the rest of the world – was grappling with the economic ravages of Covid-19. Bucking the trend of enforced leave, pay cuts or layoffs, M-DAQ did the opposite, paying its 60-strong staff three weeks in advance of normal payroll cycle. “In a climate of uncertainty, we wanted to put cash in the hands of the employees to assure them, providing psychological defence,” Mr Koh explains. This people-first approach has earned M-DAQ the accolade of Best Technology Company to work for by Singapore Computer Society in July 2019.

His advice for young accountants facing a world marked by both challenges and opportunities is to dream big. While the traditional bookkeeping function (of an accountant) is being increasingly automated, the other function – being a strategic business partner – is becoming more important. “The earlier you realise that becoming a Chief Financial Officer or partner (at an accountancy firm) is not the glass ceiling, the earlier you can learn to add value and strategically co-pilot a business.” The one caveat Mr Koh sounds is that one must be prepared for failure. “We hope that by being as successful as we can, at the same time being transparent about our failures, we can give a glimmer of hope to others who are afraid, or have failed, to be even more successful than us.”

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

1986 to 2000
Various tech startups and stints with Credit Suisse, KPMG and PwC

2000 to 2010
Regional Head of eChannels (Asia Pacific), Global Markets, JPMorgan Chase Bank, and a short stint at Standard Chartered Bank in a Regional Head and Global Co-head role

2010 to Present
Group CEO and Founder, M-DAQ Group of Companies