SME Financing Made Different – Charis Liau

Charis Liau is the Co-founder and CEO of Minterest, a peer-to-business lending platform that connects SME borrowers with investors around the region. Besides helping SMEs to on their financing needs and investors on their investment needs, Charis enjoys Korean drams and online shopping.

 

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I’m Charis Liau, co-founder and CEO of Minterest. I spent the last 15 years of my professional life in the banking and finance sector. Having worked with corporates, small and large, I noticed that there are underwhelming resources dedicated to helping small enterprises fuel their business growth through proper analysis and structuring of their financing needs. After taking time out to have my younger child, I decided to do something about it. Apart from that, I enjoy Korean dramas and online shopping!

 

What is your business venture about?

Minterest is a peer-to-business lending platform that connects SME borrowers with investors around the region. Our business is about assisting borrowers to raise capital efficiently to turbocharge their businesses while offering investors the opportunity to invest in quality loans to enhance their investment portfolio.

 

At Minterest, we offer both loans and convertible loans on our platform. We are about bringing big company fund raising experience to SMEs where they can access our structuring and credit analysis expertise and experience. We understand that no two business are alike and that is why we look at each business on its own merits. Our bespoke process aims to deliver well-structured, risk-mitigated financing solutions to clients and in turn, offer investment opportunities to investors that have been rigorously analysed.

 

Minterest holds a Capital Markets Services licence issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore to deal with securities under the Securities and Futures Act.

 

What is your mission at the outset?

Our mission is to empower investors and businesses and deliver on their financial goals via customized solutions and FinTech. At Minterest, we believe in bringing financial inclusion to the unbanked and underserved businesses. From where I was previously, businesses have constantly been constrained by various requirements of conventional finance providers. My team and I would like to change that so that we can help businesses bring their future to the present. We also want to enable investors with the necessary financial knowledge and access to quality investments in Singapore enterprises allowing them to play a part, no matter how small, in making a difference to the growth trajectory of these businesses.

 

How did you get your idea or concept for the business?

This is an interesting question. There wasn’t a “big bang” thought or I waking up believing that I need to do this business. Nothing like that. I think it is just ideas and thoughts rolling into one another on how I can use my experience to make a difference to the small guys out there that struggle to finance their businesses or visions, no matter how good they are. What was amazing for me (and still amazes me today) was that I was able to join forces with people I have worked closely with previously who share the same vision, mission and purpose as I do.

 

Small and medium size companies contribute close to 47% of Singapore’s economy and employ 70% of the working population. However, 40% of those SMEs have no access to bank financing. By helping these businesses raise capital to fuel their business growth, I would like to think that we are making a meaningful contribution to our society. And that makes me feel proud and satisfied.

 

What is unique about your business?

Our key differentiating factor is our experienced and dedicated founding and management team. We are a team of former bankers with more than 100 years of combined experience in corporate and structured finance, as well as financial governance. My team includes people who have led global and regional businesses in large international banks. We approach transactions in an unbiased way, without any pre-conceived ideas of what a loan tenor, interest rate, etc. will look like before we speak to the borrowers. No two borrowers are alike and as such, we approach every deal on its own merits. We understand both sides of the financial equation – the tension between borrowers (low costs) and investors (high returns), so we strive to achieve a balanced risk/reward profile for both sides so that risks taken are properly remunerated.

 

At Minterest, we want to be a true alternative source of financing for borrowers large and small. Borrower can raise funds via a loan or a bespoke convertible loan through the platform. Our documentation is transacted online, and each investor has his/her own e-wallet which they can view, transact and invest directly into loans that are listed on the platform.

 

Minterest is built on a foundation of integrity and good governance. Duty of care to our stakeholders is at the centre of what we do. We want to build tomorrow’s financial eco-system, one that serves rather than rules.

 

Why will customers stay or do repeat business with you?

The key to have repeat business is to ensure that you have a good product or service and continue to deliver to your stakeholders at the highest standards. It is a very slippery slope if you don’t. I guess this is true for every business and it is no different for us at Minterest. We want our borrowers to experience the Minterest Difference where we sit down with them to understand their requirements, advising them on financial management and how best they can structure their loans to suit their cash flows. For example, we ended up helping a borrower to look at how their tax matters were managed, how they could be a bit more efficient and assisting them in discussing such matters with their tax agents. Needless to say, the borrower was very appreciative. We like to say that when a borrower comes to us, the need for funding is given. What we need to do is to see how we can assist them in doing a deal that makes sense for them in light of their business situation. We complement this with our understanding of investors’ requirements and appetite to come up with a solution that works for all.

 

We also spend a great deal of time ensuring a quality user interface and great experience for both investors and borrowers when they sign up, transact and use our platform. At Minterest, we want to build long term relationships that last.

 

If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?

It may be a cliché, but I would say that it’s grit! Starting out is not easy, one needs a plentiful amount of perseverance and passion to make the dream come to fruition. It is extremely important to find co-founders who share the same vision, mission and purpose as you. Do not be afraid to evolve, and evolve quickly. We live in a world where innovations are hitting us at a speed of a hundred miles an hour and macro-economic factors do impact the littlest of things we do. We need to be nimble and continuously be prepared for changes. As one of my co-founders said to me the other day – “Are you ready? Are you ready for the caravan of excitement (of starting a new venture)? We may have a bumpy ride, we may fall down but what is important is to pick ourselves up and continue with the journey.”

 

Do you have any final thoughts?

Singapore, being a major financial centre, is a great place to launch a FinTech startup. I hope that what we are building can serve the SMEs efficiently and truly make a difference to their business and lives, whilst empowering the investors in building a greater diversified portfolio as they invest in quality loans.

 

Who is your biggest inspiration or drive to do what you are doing?

I truly believe that we are on the cusp of a major shift in how banking and financial services are going to be delivered. As technology advances and society’s attitudes changes, the providers of banking services need to change and adapt quickly.

 

On a more personal note, as my young kids grow up, I’m certain their requirements of banking services will be very different as compared to myself or my parents. I’m excited to be building a financial eco-system that will be able to effectively serve their generation in time to come.

 

What’s next for you and for Minterest?

We have just launched our platform and have seen keen interest and demand from both borrowers and lenders on our platform. Our first loan was fully participated in just over 3 days! The immediate thing for my team and I is to deliver on a great product and ensuring that we stay true to our mission and vision on why we started this in the first place. Medium term, we will be looking to introduce other capabilities to help our investors better manage their portfolios and be even more focused on how we can better analyse the creditworthiness of borrowers and how we can deliver on our advisory capabilities to them.

Chia Hock Lai

Chia Hock Lai

Chia Hock Lai is passionate about how technology is disrupting the way financial services are being delivered to consumers and businesses, and in the process making the financial system more efficient and inclusive.

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.
Chia Hock Lai
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