As Co-Founder of Smartfolios – a Singapore-based company that provides digital wealth and investment solutions to financial institutions– Julien Le Noble shares his experience as an entrepreneur strong of over 20 years experience in financial services across the US, Europe and Asia.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
After 20 years in the financial services industry, I wanted to start my own businesses and make a real impact. Combining my experience of setting up and managing international corporate businesses with an innovative approach to financial technologies, Smartfolios was born in 2016 and so far the journey has been very rewarding.
Prior to Smartfolios, I held the Senior MD and Head of APAC position for CME Group, the largest global derivatives exchange, and sat on the Board of Directors of Bursa Malaysia Derivatives. Before that, I was CEO of Newedge in Singapore and Japan, a global prime brokerage.
Financial technologies have been part my career right from the start. My first job in 1995 was with the global technology arm of Newedge Group in Chicago; our role was to provide global network and back office solutions to our offices around the world. Following this, I had the opportunity in 2000 to build and launch an online securities broker in London which still exists today (under the brand Boursorama in Europe). This experience gave me an initial introduction to entrepreneurship, an experience I would eventually return to.
On a personal note: I’m French however my keen interest in exploring the world has lead to a wide range of overseas roles. Since 2002 all of these have been within Asia and Singapore is the place I now call home for me and my family.
What is your business venture about?
Smartfolios is a digital advisory and thematic investment platform with a simple mission: empowering investors to reach their investment goals. Our clients are financial institutions such as banks, wealth managers, IFAs and online brokers. We provide them with a platform that brings together our financial expertise with unbiased data science to offer innovative wealth management solutions to their clients.
Our value proposition is on the one hand a large universe of strategies including asset allocation, thematic, fundamentals and factor-based models. These strategies are delivered as pre-built portfolios of listed securities cutting across asset classes. Our portfolios are fully customizable and rebalanced regularly, therefore incorporating the best of active and passive investing.
In addition, we have developed a modular and highly flexible platform deployed as a B2B white label solution. The platform consists of several core modules ranging from client on-boarding (including a goal based and risk tolerance assessment), front to back capabilities (execution, settlement and custody), and rebalancing and risk management functionalities to manage and track investments.
What is your mission at the outset?
We have a simple mission: empowering financial institutions to turn disruption into avenues of opportunity, stay ahead of the digital curve and thereby accelerating their growth.
We give financial institutions the means to offer their clients digital wealth management services and automated investment solutions. The aim is to enable these financial institutions to reach underserved segments of clients, engage with them, and monetize these clients.
On the consumer side, they tend to view investing as inaccessible, expensive, intimidating and overly complex. Whether seasoned or new to investing, we believe that everyone should have access to the right opportunities that meets their goals. Smartfolios’ solution enables people to take control of their investment journey, guiding them every step of the way.
How did you get your idea or concept for the business?
Smartfolios developed from a simple observation: incumbents lack a simple, affordable and transparent digital wealth management solution that meets the investment needs of their clients. With the types of technologies available today this should not be the case.
After consulting with several financial institutions, Quentin Issele – my co-founder – and I realized they needed to engage clients digitally and offer them a meaningful and personalized investment experience. Combining the best features of passive and active investing and enabling financial institutions to empower their investors, Smartfolios was born.
Personal experience also played a part in the development of Smartfolios. Whether it is the limited or convoluted access to investment opportunities, the lack of value derived from advisors, or simply the little time I was able to dedicate putting together an investment portfolio, let alone managing it… proved the need for a better solution. In order to invest in a sector, a theme, or a strategy with assurance, with bearly no effort on my part, Smartfolios sounded like the right answer.
What is unique about your business?
- What clearly sets us apart is twofold:
First, we developed an engine and complex databases to host and manage the entire universe of customisable portfolios we develop. We follow rigorous, systematic and transparent approach to building and maintaining our portfolios using proprietary algorithms and our in-house financial expertise. The aim ultimately is to deliver an enhanced risk-return to our partners’ clients.
- Secondly, end-user can invest in a way that reflects who they are. Portfolios of investments are pre-built to align with their interests and objectives. They can select from a broad range of choices that are descriptive and adapted to their needs and goals. For example, a user can select portfolios such as
– “Oil and Gas Giants” (companies in the petroleum industry from upstream exploration to downstream refiners and retailers),
– “Globe Trotters” (airlines, hotel chains, booking portals, car rentals),
– “Low Volatility” or “High Dividend Yield” strategies
– Asset allocation across asset classes (equities, fixed income, etc.)
– Any many more!
Who do you sell to and how do you get customers?
We sell primarily to financial institutions such as banks (retail and mass affluent), wealth managers and private banks, online brokers, and independent financial advisors. They are our partners and clients. These firms face challenges that Smartfolios addresses, whether it is the digital access, the variety and diversity of products, or the better risk-return profiles expected by their clients.
Why will customers stay or do repeat business with you?
We enable our customers to acquire new clients and engage on an on-going basis with them, hence increasing the monetization of their client base. So while there is undoubtedly a relatively long period of time leading to the adoption and deployment of our solution, the long term value to our customers makes it all worthwhile.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
If you’re just starting out, whether you’re fresh out of school or coming from the corporate world to be an entrepreneur, look ahead with the belief that you can make a difference. That is the mindset that will get you to sign your first client, collaborate with the right partner, build the right culture with your team.
I’ll also add that Singapore is an amazing place to be an entrepreneur today, with an ecosystem that supports businesses to succeed and thrive. From the government to the associations to the start-ups themselves, so make the most of it to make a difference.
Who is your biggest inspiration or drive to do what you are doing?
That’s going to sound cliché but my kids have been the biggest driver behind my decision to turn full time entrepreneur and start Smartfolios. They’re very young so that gives me a chance to give it my best shot for the next 15-20 years! That aside, I want to make an impact and really play a part in shaping the world they will live in.
What’s next for you and for Smartfolios?
Today we’ve got a number of very promising partnerships in the works, a growing pipeline of customers we’re working on, and an ambitious roadmap of new solutions that we’re excited about; for instance we plan to incorporate AI in our portfolio construction engine, Natural Language Processing in our advisory model, as well as advanced RegTech in the onboarding process. All these will keep us busy for the foreseeable future.
As for me, I enjoyed the last 12 months since Quentin and I decided to start Smartfolios. We brought together very talented people and I very much look forward to growing our team and deliver on our promise to make a difference.
Hock Lai has 18 years of experience in the financial industry, having performed roles in both business and technology. He graduated from the National University of Singapore (Real Estate), Nanyang Technological University (Infocomm Technology) and Nanyang Polytechnic (Fund Management & Administration).
He is also a Fellow of the Singapore University of Social Science, advisor to FinTech Startups and mentor to student FinTech projects.
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