Me & My Money

Investing time to grow a start-up

Ezline Lee came out of early retirement to join fintech firm as she saw potential of its chatbots

Business director Ezline Lee moved back to full-time work as she saw huge potential in the new artificial intelligence-driven world.

Early on in her career, Ms Lee, 40, had been based in China, working mostly in the booming real estate industry, handling multiple projects across various Chinese cities.

"A decent salary and higher purchasing power during those years spent overseas expedited my savings plans and kick-started my investing journey," she says.

"Add in real estate appreciation, good equity appreciation and no major financial setback, and I was fortunate to attain financial freedom pretty early in life and could even afford not to work at 30 years old to spend time with my young children."

Three years ago, Ms Lee was enticed to come out of early retirement after being asked to join Pand.ai, a local financial tech start-up, on a part-time basis.

Founded in 2016, the start-up builds artificial intelligence-powered chatbots for financial institutions. It employs 22 people in Singapore, Batam and Kuala Lumpur.

She was so impressed with the work the start-up was doing that she decided to go full time on a part-time salary for a year in exchange for equity in the firm.

"Choosing to invest my time, a precious commodity when my children are young, in a time-consuming start-up is an unorthodox investment, especially when most start-ups tend to fail," she says.

"However, just like how I embarked on my China journey, confident that it would give me good returns, I believe investing in the Pand.ai team and its product will also yield a good harvest."

Ms Lee graduated with an honours degree in civil engineering from the National University of Singapore in 2002 and completed a master's in applied finance from a joint programme between Tsinghua University and Macquarie University in 2013.

She is married to a 45-year-old executive in the consumer goods industry and they have three sons, aged five, seven and nine.

  • Worst and best bets

  • Q What has been your biggest investing mistake?

    A One of the blue-chip stocks I bought eight years ago is seeing a book loss of about $150,000.

    The stock was purchased when I was juggling many major life events, including moving to another country and having my first child.

    I soon forgot about that purchase and did not monitor the market.

    The next time I checked on my portfolio, it had already suffered a huge decline. The fundamentals of that industry are very different today compared with eight years ago and, due to my negligence, I probably missed the chance to cash out before having to pay the price.

    Q And your best investment?

    A My first property, an executive condominium.

    I persuaded my husband to purchase an executive condominium as our first property shortly after our marriage in 2005.

    I chose it because it was within walking distance of the nearest MRT station and the $30,000 grant from the Government was an added incentive.

    More importantly, the lower price of an executive condominium compared with a private condominium provided a margin of safety.

    When we sold it five years later, once the housing status turned from public to semi-private, the price appreciation was 80 per cent, with over 150 per cent cash-on-cash return (cash income earned based on the cash invested) for us.

Q What's in your portfolio?

A I have real estate in Singapore, equities (weighted towards tech companies), funds (weighted towards global bonds and the Bric - Brazil, Russia, India and China - region), investment-linked products (weighted towards Asia, China and Singapore), forex and structured products such as equity-linked notes.

Q What are your immediate investment plans?

A The growth of Pand.ai is making a huge demand on my time. With this in mind, I'm more prudent with my personal investment. I'm considering lower-risk products such as investment-grade and good-rating bonds that require minimal monitoring.

Q How did you get interested in investing?

A Growing up, investing has always fascinated me but seemed out of my reach. I felt that I had neither the money nor the knowledge to do it.

That changed when I had a casual conversation with a colleague who, like me, was a fresh graduate in 2002. We were talking about travel experiences when the conversation digressed and he started talking about the stocks he had purchased. When he asked, I said I did not trade. I recall him looking puzzled and telling me: "Why not? You can opt to just buy a little and it can earn you a couple of hundred bucks as 'travel money'!"

From that conversation, I learnt that it is a fallacy that one needs substantial wealth to invest one's money.

Based on the savings I have, I can choose something that suits my temperament, preferences and lifestyle. I remember diligently learning about CDP (Central Depository), Poems (Phillip Securities' online share trading platform), blue chips and coupons after that.

Q Describe your investing strategy.

A I adopted a "pay-it-myself" principle to build up my savings for investments in the beginning.

I rejected credit cards so as to be debt-free. I would withdraw cash at the beginning of each month to keep track of my spending and conscientiously spend less when the cash dwindled at the end of the month.

With the savings, I did equity trading below $10,000 to build up my funds and made it a point to sell as long as it achieved a pre-determined modest return. I was careful not to be greedy to prevent losing most of my capital.

Now, I check for two key criteria for my big-ticket investments.

First, a "margin of safety". The margin of safety for me could be a discount on the spot price of an equity-linked note structured product or the discount given at the launch of an already competitively priced property.

Second, holding power. I am careful to ensure that with each investment I choose, I have the holding power to ride it out should the investment turn sour in the short term.

Q What else is in your financial plan?

A Insurance for the family and an education fund for my three boys. I am also embarking on a portfolio with the objective of becoming mortgage-free as I am quite a debt-free fanatic.

Q How are you planning for retirement?

A To achieve my desired retirement fund for a family of five will require either investing with considerable risks or a huge capital outlay.

I chose instead to invest my time in Pand.ai. I believe in the rise of the fintech industry and see the potential of Pand.ai's product in this artificial intelligence world. I will be focusing on contributing to its success to make good my retirement investment.

Q What's the next stage of growth for your business?

A Ensuring our technology understands the local slang in each market amid other innovations is important.

After experiencing success in Singapore and Malaysia, we are now launching in selected parts of Asia. We have identified the main Chinese-speaking markets (China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) as our target this year.

In fact, we are launching a chatbot in Hong Kong next month.

We have also recently incorporated an office in Nanjing, China. This year, we have plans to put more resources into that office. Expansion into Greater China is a natural progression for us, given our extensive experience in that region and a team that is effectively bilingual in English and Mandarin.

We continue to explore other markets on an opportunistic basis. For example, we are currently working with a Thai bank to co-develop our artificial intelligence engine to understand Thai. Once the R&D (research and development) is successfully completed, we will embark on growing within the Thai market.

Q Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

A Money was always tight as I was growing up.

My dad started driving a taxi after his construction company collapsed. My mum chose to be a nanny so that she could stay home to take care of me and my three older siblings.

I remember my siblings taking on vacation jobs during tertiary school holidays to help out with expenses. My oldest sister would work from the first day till the last day of every school holiday.

My mum was always telling me the importance of saving. I hardly recall buying new clothes and was always wearing hand-me-downs.

I saw how, through hard work and a frugal lifestyle, the family was able to move out of my grandparent's shophouse to a two-bedroom Housing Board flat, followed by a three-bedroom HDB flat that was twice the size.

Q What does money mean to you?

A To me, money is a tool among the many other tools we may have, such as our intelligence, social network or health. We selectively combine these tools and use them carefully at each stage of life to achieve the next stage of life that we want to have.

Q Home is now...

A A 1,600 sq ft three-bedroom condominium unit in District 9 (Orchard and River Valley area).

Q I drive...

A A platinum silver BMW Gran Tourer.