Wong Joo Seng is the Founder & CEO of Spark Systems, which builds the next generation of foreign exchange trading platforms. A veteren and serial entrepreneur in the finance industry, Joo Seng aspires to disrupt the high fees and pricing inefficiencies that are inherent in the current FX platforms today with Spark Systems.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am the co-founder & CEO of Spark Systems Private Ltd and also a venture partner of Vickers Venture Partners (2015) and an investment partner of True Global Ventures (2016).
I am also co-founder of M-DAQ and was the company’s founding Chairman (Non-Executive) from inception on Jan 2010 to Jan 2014. Thereafter post Jan 2014, I assumed the role of Executive Chairman, where I led the company to a successful completion of the Company’s Series C funding round (at a valuation of $250 million) in Nov 2015.
Prior to joining M-DAQ, I was the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of G K Goh Financial Services (S) Private Ltd., then a member firm of the Singapore Exchange – Derivatives Trading (“SGX- DT”). G K Goh Financial Services (S) Private Ltd. is the wholly owned securities & derivative brokerage and foreign exchange trading subsidiary of G K Goh Holdings Ltd; a listed company based in Singapore.
I was instrumental in the start-up of the unit as founding CEO in 1998 until my departure in Jan 2014. In my time there, I grew GKGFS into one of the largest institutional Foreign Exchange trading houses in Asia.
I am also a member of MENSA Singapore, the local chapter of MENSA International where I am the Vice President of the society.
What is your business venture about?
Spark Systems is building a new generation of FX trading platforms which are ultra low latency, resilient and cost efficient.
What is your mission at the outset?
I wanted to completely rethink trading platforms in particular those deployed for high volume users. Not only in terms of technology but also in terms of infrastructure set up and design.
How did you get your idea or concept for the business?
I first encountered the problem whilst I was CEO of GK Goh Financial Services (S) Pte Ltd. (GKGFS) back in 2011/2012. Back then I had grown GKGFS’ FX business into one of the highest volume FX trading operations in Asia. GKGFs trades US$1.5 trillion p.a. The transaction costs incurred by such high volume users of the FX market is disproportionately high. These costs can routinely rise to 40-50% of total revenue earned. This is not appropriate with respect to the role they play in the trading ecosystem.
The marketplace operator isn’t responsible for acquiring end clients, nor do they manage margins nor handle funds. They aren’t responsible for managing trading limits or for trading ‘alpha’ or trading profits. Yet they take a lot money off the table. This problem is a persistent one amongst FX (and other) financial marketplace operators. Other persistent problems is the ability of such users to access pricing especially when markets are nervous and under duress. When trading is thin and volatile. FX markets are also often fragmented especially in the emerging market currencies space and these are plagued by wide spreads combined with a lack of transparency and low levels of liquidity.
The problem resurfaced again to me in 2016 when Dymon Asia Capital, one of the largest and most successful FX macro hedge funds based in Singapore, indicated that they had been experiencing the same set of issues in this space.
This helped spur me on and I decided to focus on a real and long term solution to this problem. This is a bold undertaking because it is as much a commercial solution as it is technical one. An in-depth knowledge of the various participants in the trading ecosystem is also imperative. The ‘buy-in’ from a major participant like Dymon Asia Capital and the support of the regulator, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, by way of a grant and combined with funding from eminent Venture Capitalists like Vickers Venture Partners and Jubilee Capital are all invaluable. In all, they help answer the question every start-up faces – Why do this? and Why now?
What is unique about your business?
We are building enterprise-grade software, which is always a costly undertaking even in the best of times; the product will need to be faster, more resilient and yet less expensive than what is commercially available in the marketplace today. Yet this alone will not ensure success. It is in fact the insight into the roles and requirements of the various participants in the ecosystem, the right commercial model and the ‘go to market’ strategy that will be key to determine the success or failure of the venture.
Who do you sell to and how do you get customers?
We are precise and clear about who our clients are. They will all be high volume users of the FX market, ranging from hedge funds to central banks. From sovereign wealth funds to local retail banks and corporate treasuries. All of whom use the market in their own way. Spark Systems’s goal is to better serve what we see as underserved groups within the trading ecosystem.
Why will customers stay or do repeat business with you?
Adopting a new trading platform is a significant undertaking to all users. It is a costly exercise not only in monetary terms but also in terms of manpower resources, and is undertaken only when it is absolutely necessary. Once on-boarded there is a certain ‘stickiness’ which I feel remains unless our focus is lost and we let our clients down. Spark Systems intends to entrench ourselves to our clients by being seen as their partner in the growth of their business. By staying focused on our intended role we are likely to remain as the platform of choice for them.
What have been the biggest obstacles?
In a space that is dominated by very large players in the likes of Reuters, Bloomberg, BATS and Deutsche Bourse, it is relatively hard for a new incumbent like Spark Systems to be seen as a competent and viable alternative.
When we broadcast that we are better and they can depend on us , it begs the question ‘Says who?’.
We intend to do by establishing our ‘Pedigree’ to those we deal with. To have the best of the breed amongst our staff in our ranks and we understand regardless of whatever product and service we think we sell, what we actually sell is ‘user experience’. In a nutshell, we intend to be easier to deal with, more productive to work with, more pleasant to engage and of course, less costly.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
This quote made a difference to me though it isn’t mine to claim:
Whatever you can do or think you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic!”
Do you have any final thoughts?
Apple sold music on the iPhone via AppStore and the result is that we have seen a markedly reduced footprint made by Tower Records, Virgin Records and HMV etc. Being right has become at least as important as being big. That’s what the internet has done.
Who is your biggest inspiration or drive to do what you are doing?
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve under several giants in the industry. All of whom have mentored me, in one way or another, and whom I have had the privilege to work with in my career.
First, my first ‘boss’ when I started out in the banking and finance industry: Dr GAN Tjoen Hok, a Chemist by training, PhD from Imperial College. He was the first Chairman of the Gold Exchange of Singapore (which subsequently became SIMEX and thereafter became the SGX-DT of today). He challenged me to understand derivatives in the late 1980s when it was nascent in the financial industry, few professionals understood the product then, let alone how to price it and manage the risks.
Second is Mr GK Goh, whose insight and skill into how to nurture and grow companies is truly a marvel to watch. His ability to decipher the signal clearly from the noise is as much an art as it is science and I have had the opportunity to see many cases of how this was elegantly done.
Last and by no means least, is venture capitalist Dr Finian Tan, Chairman of Vickers Venture Partners, PhD in Electrical & Electronics Engineering from Cambridge University and his entire talented team; whose relentless thinking and foresight have been a constant source of admiration. From his backing for a young Robin and Eric in their previously unknown start-up called Baidu (whilst he was at DFJ) he took them to a US$700 million IPO in NASDAQ. Baidu’s IPO remains till today the best performing IPO stock with prices rising from $700 million market capitalisation to US$4 billion on the first day of trading. Finian also backed giants in Vickers Venture Partners like Cambridge Industrial Trust, Asian Food Channel, TWG Tea etc and still groom giants to be by way of Samumed, M-DAQ, Matchmove, GuavaPass, KPISoft and of course (hopefully) Spark Systems.
What’s next for you and for Sparks Systems?
My thoughts aren’t cast that far away. My focus is on the here and now. I am the Founder and CEO of Spark Systems. We are building the next generation of trading platforms. Platforms that are ultra low latency, resilient and cost efficient. That’s a lot on one plate as it is and I am determined to see the company succeed in a big way.
I will also continue with venture capital activities and will look for promising young companies helmed by bright, determined founders. The world is changing faster today than at any other times in history; this much many people already know. What is often lost is that these changes are in fact accelerating and that they aren’t slowing down! The human mind often thinks in ‘linear’ terms only, but what is happening around us is occurring at an exponential rate. It is a privilege to play a part in this. I am passionate and enthusiastic in continuing to do so
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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