You can tell a lot about your opponent on the basketball court. Does he move better to his right or left? Is he a drive-to-the-hoop guy, or more likely to launch a pull-up jump shot? And for Andy Chan, it was, “will he make a good business partner?”
Chan’s calculus of Winston Wong, which began on the blacktop in Hong Kong, ended up with the two co-founding trade finance technology platform Qupital in 2016. To hear Chan tell it, the New Zealand native knew pretty much from the start that the two would be a good match.
“I feel like you can see a lot about a person’s personality through how they play a certain sport – whether they’re a team player or thinking of their own shot. I think we really clicked there,” said Chan. “He definitely thinks of his teammates first. He’s a distributor. That’s the same mentality I have when I play the game.”
Hong Kong native Wong, for his part, was impressed that his opponent understood what he did for a living and discovered that they shared a dream of using technology to make financing more readily available to small and medium-sized enterprises in Asia.”We just randomly had a chat…I was doing factoring for a company. He knew what factoring was,” said Wong. “So we just shared the knowledge, and we mentioned there’s lots of platforms in the U.S. and U.K. We basically clicked at that moment.”
While the two founders came from vastly different backgrounds, it’s their shared love of computers and coding that sets them apart from other companies in the same space.
“We both have an engineering background,” said Wong, who studied computer science and engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “We both know how to code. We don’t just have the financial knowledge, but we know how to build a product with the technology. This is different from others.”
Chan studied at Brown University in Rhode Island, majoring in computer science and economics before joining a startup in Denmark as a software engineer. While in Europe, he saw how successful short-term lending platforms were and dreamed of replicating the model in Asia’s rapidly growing markets.
The two got down to serious work at the start of 2016 and had a product ready to market and pitch by August. That product is a matchmaking platform that offers short-term liquidity to companies in need and a new class of short-term investment attractive to investors seeking high yield and a low correlation to the performance of other assets.
“It enables businesses that sell to other businesses to take their account receivables and put them onto our platform, and we link them up with institutional investors, high net-worth individuals,” said Chan. “And they will purchase their account receivables from them at a discount, so that…the businesses are able to get immediate cash flow, and on the other side, investors are able to get access to a new type of asset class.”
In the early days of 2016, Chan and Wong – Qupital employees number one and two – worked side-by-side, sharing a single desk phone, wearing multiple hats and doing anything needed to get the company off the ground, whether it was writing code or cold-calling potential customers.
Chan said the two would listen to each other’s calls and learn from mistakes made, adapting their scripts and trying to warm up receptionists long enough to get to their bosses. And Wong noted that when they managed to arrange face-to-face meetings, they would pick from among the series of business cards they had printed for themselves, each with a different title.
“I was the sales manager. He was the technical consultant,” Wong said. “We wanted for it to look like a bigger company than it was.”
Through it all, they never wavered in the conviction that they had the right business plan and product.
“At the beginning, we didn’t have a lot of resources. We tried cold-calling,” said Wong. “We just tried visiting the expos and get to know more people and try to pitch them with our products. We found a lot of SMEs are facing a shortage of funds to grow their business.”
Convincing SMEs to try out the Qupital platform was but half the battle. Chan noted that friction in the onboarding process, which involves collecting “lots of documents and doing due diligence” is where platforms can lose would-be customers.
“We streamline that and make it user-friendly and allow them to start trading as soon as possible,” Chan said, usually within five to seven working days.
The other part of running the business involved convincing investors of their platform’s viability and prospects, and they hit that one out of the park, too, raising close to $3 million in their seed round and convertible notes last year. That allowed the company to hire a dedicated sales force.
“Now we have very diversified channels to approach customers,” said Chan.
It was also early last year that Qupital intersected with the Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund. While an investment from the fund was welcomed and helpful, the relationship has borne other, much more-valuable fruit, allowing Qupital to tap into Alibaba’s deep ecosystem.
“Alibaba group has great synergy with us,” said Wong, noting the fund connected Qupital with Alibaba’s wholesale platform, Alibaba.com. The two signed a strategic partnership and cross-sell each other’s services.
The ties to Alibaba Group through the fund have also helped raise Qupital’s credibility with would-be customers and investors.
“It’s a better image. It gives them more confidence. We were not well-known at the beginning,” Wong said.
And the Qupital founders say they’ve benefited from connections to and mentoring from other, successful entrepreneurs.
“It helps us avoid mistakes others have gone through,” Chan said.
Looking ahead, the two basketball mates see a couple of slam-dunk opportunities for Qupital.
Qupital expects to raise another round of funding toward the end of this year or early next year, so that it can introduce new products and enter new markets, where burgeoning SMEs are hungry for short-term capital and investors are eager to embrace a new asset class.
“We’ve got a couple of new products in our pipeline, not just account receivable financing…also for small and medium businesses. Also, we’re looking to grow beyond Hong Kong. We’re looking at Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore and a lot of these Southeast Asian countries where access to bank financing for SMEs is harder than in Hong Kong, and they’re export-heavy as well,” Chan said. “There’s definitely liquidity issues for them, and we hope to help them solve them. That’s what Qupital is about. The name Qupital actually stands for ‘quick, quality capital.'”