Cover Story: MyStartr sets the bar high

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 24, 2020 - January 30, 2020.

We need to communicate with investors efficiently and continue to educate them on ECF. They need to feel comfortable investing with us online and in start-ups just as they are buying shares or unit trust funds. - Goh

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MyStartr Sdn Bhd had a momentous year in 2012, when it launched its rewards-based crowdfunding platform. The company and pitchIN (operated by Pitch Platforms Sdn Bhd) were the first of their kind in the country.

MyStartr differentiated itself by targeting projects and investors from the Chinese-speaking community. It has been able to impact the community by raising awareness of this form of fundaraising. It has also managed to break a couple of fundraising records over the years.

Armed with its existing customer base and start-up network, which it had cultivated as a rewards-based platform, the company decided to diversify into equity crowdfunding (ECF) two years ago. So, when the Securities Commission Malaysia (SC) announced in 2018 that it was accepting another round of applications for a licence to operate an ECF platform, MyStartr applied for one.

Having obtained a licence, the company’s ECF platform went live on Jan 9. “We wanted to move quickly. That is why we were the first [of the three ECF platforms that applied to the SC in 2018] to launch our online portal and start raising funds,” says founder and CEO Goh Boon Peng.

MyStartr has a lot of catching up to do in the ECF segment, he adds. The existing players include pitchIN, Ata Plus Sdn Bhd, Crowdo Malaysia Sdn Bhd, Crowdplus Sdn Bhd and Fundnel Technologies Sdn Bhd. Ethis Ventures Sdn Bhd and 1337 Ventures (operated by Leet Capital Sdn Bhd) have received approval to operate their ECF platforms, but they have yet to go live.

Goh aims to complete 20 fundraising projects this year and slowly increase the number by gradually automating its internal processes. In fact, he has set an ambitious goal for the company — to raise funds for 5,000 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) by 2030. This translates into an average of 42 rounds of successful fundraising each month.

As lofty as it sounds, Goh believes it is an achievable target. “I would say it is possible if we have significant business volume and we manage to keep our costs low by adopting technology,” he says.

“More importantly, we need to communicate with investors efficiently and continue to educate them on ECF. They need to feel comfortable investing with us online and in start-ups just as they are buying shares or unit trust funds.

“If our investors can get all the information they want online and invest online, our business volume will increase steadily over time. However, if we need to convince them to invest with us via offline channels, the growth will be much less significant and there will always be a limitation.”

So far, five businesses have raised or are in the midst of raising funds via MyStartr’s platform. They are Ying Ker Lou, a restaurant chain that serves authentic Hakka cuisine; Rtist, an online platform that sources creative talents; VentureGrab, an SME business matching portal; Biztory, which provides cloud accounting software for SMEs and start-ups; and Havan Clothing, a social enterprise that sells clothes printed with art illustrated by children from shelter homes.

At press time, the fundraising activities of four companies are still ongoing.

 

Promoting less known businesses

MyStartr specialises in providing investors with the opportunity to fund the growth of businesses founded by Chinese-speaking entrepreneurs. These businesses are less known among the general public, says Goh.

Many of these businesses may not be up to date in terms of the latest start-up trends or even aware of what ECF fundraising, start-up accelerator programmes and investor pitching sessions entail. However, this does not mean they are bad entrepreneurs, without a strong business acumen or execution skills. On the contrary, most of them are business-minded and very hardworking, he says.

“Chinese entrepreneurs tend to be very aggressive in wanting to grow their businesses quickly. For instance, we have two more issuers [on top of the existing five] in our pipeline targeting to list their companies within five years. It is a challenging process, but we like their vision,” says Goh.

He aims to assist these entrepreneurs not only by educating them on the landscape but also helping them grow their businesses via MyStartr.

Meanwhile, some entrepreneurs feel more comfortable raising funds on a Chinese community-focused ECF platform due to the nature of their business. For instance, Ying Ker Lou serves non-halal food. So, its fundraising naturally excludes Muslim investors.

“MyStartr is a good platform to invest in genuine but non-halal businesses,” says Goh.

Nevertheless, he welcomes non-Chinese-speaking entrepreneurs to engage the platform to raise funds from investors. These investors, in general, are relatively new to the ECF scene.

“They are curious about the opportunities in such a space and are willing to learn more about it. We see an opportunity within the Chinese-speaking community, not only from the issuers’ but also the investors’ side,” says Goh.

The minimum amount to invest on the MyStartr platform is about RM500. Of this amount, the operator takes an 8% cut from investors if a fundraising campaign is successful. This makes it the most expensive platform in terms of fees among the existing players.

The fee covers the cost MyStartr incurs when conducting its fundraising campaign for the issuer, says Goh. For instance, the platform produced three promotional videos to help Ying Ker Lou raise funds. “I don’t believe any other platform puts in as much effort to produce that many videos for their issuers,” he adds.

MyStartr will also establish an investors’ club and organise monthly, quarterly and annual events to educate investors on ECF, venture capital and start-up trends, among others. These events will also allow investors to meet and engage with the start-up founders who raise funds via the platform.

“We will be the first ECF platform to have an investors’ club. The fee could be lowered when the business volume picks up and the ecosystem is more mature,” says Goh.

 

Funded by Purple Cane Group

Why the focus on the Chinese-speaking community? The answer lies in Goh’s background and MyStartr’s history.

Goh was born into a low-income family that lived in Simpang Renggam, a small town in the southern half of the Kluang district in Johor. Both of his Mandarin-speaking parents were rubber tappers.

Goh attended a Chinese-medium primary school, SJKC Tuan Poon, before going to Kluang Chong Hwa High School, a Chinese independent school, for his secondary education.

Then, he did a degree in software engineering at the National Taiwan University. He worked for an e-commerce company in Taiwan for a year before returning to Malaysia.

“I came back after the dotcom bubble had burst in the US. It was bad timing in terms of starting anew in Malaysia’s IT industry,” says Goh.

He worked as a software engineer for two internet companies that failed to survive in the aftermath of the dotcom bust. So, he and a colleague (at the second company he joined) decided to venture out on their own later on and set up Vivasoft Sdn Bhd.

“We took over three unfinished projects from our previous companies and helped our clients develop their websites selling flowers, binoculars and other stuff online. We also helped some associations, such as the Federation of Alumni Associations of Taiwan Universities, Malaysia, to design their websites,” says Goh.

However, the venture was not successful as Goh did not know the market well. He also failed to penetrate the non-Chinese-speaking market as he was not fluent in English or Malay back then. “It is not a problem for me today, but it was a challenge back then,” he says.

The company eventually folded. After that, Goh worked as a photocopier salesman before joining internet start-up Best Food Juncture in 2007. The start-up provided restaurants with food delivery services.

“It was providing food delivery services online way back in 2007. Can you imagine that? It was very innovative but unfortunately, way ahead of its time. The business could have been successful had it been launched a few years later,” he says.

The failure of Best Food Juncture a year later meant that Goh had to look for a new job again. That was when Lim Hock Lam, founder and chairman of the Purple Cane Group, hired him to develop its online business. The group is involved in retailing Chinese tea and operates the Purple Cane Tea Restaurant.

Lim, an alumnus of the National Taiwan University himself, believed in the e-commerce acumen of Goh, who grew Purple Cane’s online business from an annual revenue of a few thousand ringgit to more than RM400,000 in four years.

Goh’s turning point came in 2011 when he read news articles on the success of Groupon, which generated revenue through online coupon sales, and Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform for passion projects. “They had exciting business models and I thought, ‘Why don’t I try to start a similar platform in Malaysia?” he says.

Goh preferred Groupon’s model, but more than 30 similar platforms sprang up in the two years since he had that thought. These included Groupsmore, a start-up founded by Joel Neoh and Khailee Ng that was quickly acquired by Groupon.

So, Goh decided to use Kickstarter’s model to launch his second business venture. No one had introduced such a platform in Malaysia back then. So, he did some research on the business model and found that Kickstarter earned the bulk of its income by doing fundraising for music, art, dance and movie projects, rather than tech gadgets.

“Fundraising activities for tech gadgets grabbed the most media attention due to their cutting-edge features and large fundraising amounts. But these were not the platform’s main income generator. I was surprised,” says Goh.

This fuelled his passion for launching a crowdfunding platform locally. People who are close to Goh would know that he enjoys various forms of the arts despite being a tech guy.

“During the 1980s, most of my friends were crazy about Hong Kong and Taiwan mainstream music and they loved artists like Wakin Chau and Wang Chieh. But I was listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Suzanne Vega,” says Goh.

“Such a preference was not something common, especially for someone who grew up in a small town in Johor. Somehow, that made me a little lonely during my secondary school years. But that was how I developed a passion for the arts, not just Chinese forms but also those from the West.”

Goh took a leap of faith and set up MyStartr in 2012 after receiving a RM100,000 investment from Purple Cane’s Lim.

 

Tough beginning

“I was very excited when the platform was launched. I thought I had seized a potential business opportunity. Nobody was doing it back then. But I soon realised that people were not doing it because there was no market,” says Goh.

From 2012 to 2015, the platform raised about RM500,000 and generated a profit of only RM50,000. The initial investment of RM100,000 was burnt in the first year. So, he raised RM290,000 in the second year from 29 friends who contributed RM10,000 each.

“It was a challenging time. Crowdfunding was still something new to Malaysia and people were not used to transacting or donating online. We could not even persuade project owners to raise funds through our platform, let alone attract donors,” says Goh.

However, his connections with Lim and other Taiwanese entrepreneurs made a difference in such times. Jan Hung-Tze, founder and chairman of PChome Online Inc (one of the largest e-commerce players in Taiwan), was one of them.

In 2014, Jan wanted to organise an e-commerce conference in Malaysia for local and Taiwanese entrepreneurs. MyStartr was given the task to organise the event and it turned out to be a successful one. That was the first time the platform had made a meaningful profit in three years, says Goh.

In the same year, he teamed up with Yong Kai Ping, former CEO of KiniTV.com, who also founded the Malaysiakini Chinese desk, to help the then Selangor government organise e-commerce education programmes through the Selangor Information Technology and E-commerce Council. The mission of the council (established by the Selangor government under the Invest Selangor secretariat) is to develop Selangor as a regional e-commerce trading hub and uplift the state’s start-up ecosystem.

Goh says the response those classes received from the business community was encouraging and the e-commerce education business slowly became MyStartr’s main income generator.

 

Crowdfunding gaining traction

It was not until 2016 that MyStartr’s rewards-based crowdfunding business started to pick up significantly from a low base. That year alone, it raised RM500,000, or the total amount it had raised from 2012 to 2015.

MyStartr broke that record the following year by raising RM1.2 million, of which RM300,000 had been raised for an ultramarathon event proposed and organised by Cheng Zhee Long, an ultra-marathoner who suffers from cerebral palsy. Cheng was an inspirational figure in the Chinese community. Goh says the RM300,000 was the largest amount raised in the rewards-based crowdfunding industry.

In 2018, the platform raised another RM1.2 million for several smaller projects, including the Free Transport Project for UndiRabu, which encouraged voters to return to their respective constituencies to cast their vote in the 14th general election.

Meanwhile, the start-up trend in the Chinese-speaking community has been growing in tandem with the crowdfunding trend since 2016. Goh only realised this when he organised the 2017 Dream Factory Start-up Contest, for which he drew inspiration from the accelerator programmes organised by the English-speaking start-up community.

“I was just testing the market. But to my surprise, 130 teams registered for the event. Many of the participants were excited about the one-on-one mentoring and pitching session that we incorporated into the contest. There were very few such events organised for the Chinese-speaking community,” says Goh.

Building on the success of the event, he organised the contest in 2018 and 2019, which drew about 180 and 160 teams respectively.

In addition to the mentoring and pitching sessions, the contest created an ecosystem consisting of start-up entrepreneurs and mentors that regularly engage with and support each other. This, along with the donors on MyStartr’s rewards-based crowdfunding platform, formed the important elements needed for the company to become an ECF platform, says Goh. “So, we decided to apply to become a licensed ECF platform when the SC made the call for  applications in 2018,” he adds.

Going forward, Goh wants to continue leveraging his connections with businessmen and investors in the Chinese-speaking world. For instance, he wants to engage with venture capitalists in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to let them know about the local start-ups with good potential.

“They could invest in these start-ups by buying shares from local investors, thereby enabling them to exit from their investments. We are currently in talks with a Taiwan-based venture capital firm [to discuss this possibility]. We definitely need to see more exits happening in this space to grow the industry further,” says Goh.

Finally, he wants to ensure that the start-ups that raise funds through MyStartr have reasonable valuations. “We will keep an eye on this. It will be hard for investors to exit deals if start-up valuations are unreasonably high,” he says.