YONG HUI YOW: How did you put the initial team together?
DINESH BHATIA: I pitched the idea to my good friend, Dominic Morris, who is my CTO [Chief Technology Officer]. He had worked in technology divisions at large banks, and he really liked the idea, so he came onboard as a co-founder. After that, we raised a round of funding, and built up the team.
YONG HUI: How big is your team right now?
DINESH: We have about 45 people, 25 of whom are in China; 15 in Singapore, where we focus on the rest of the world. 70 per cent of our user base comes from China. Maybe after Series B, we will go to the US.
YONG HUI: How much marketing did you do initially?
DINESH: Not very much, because we successfully employ viral marketing tactics in China, where 70 per cent of our user base comes from. The average cost per user acquisition is lower than the average cost of acquisition for an average mobile user. Right now, we are picking up about 350,000 new users every month. It's fantastic.
YONG HUI Gamification has been quite a buzzword. Why do you think it lends itself so well to TradeHero?
DINESH: The drier a subject, the less fun it is, and the more potential it has to be gamified. I was on CNBC Asia Squawk Box, and they asked me if I think the stock market is all fun and games. Of course not, but that’s precisely why this needs to be taught through fun and games. When people think of stock trading, they immediately think it's very dry, like math homework. But when you bring it alive through gamification, it becomes a challenge, and a contest, and people like that.
YONG HUI: Usually, when people say something needs to be democratised, it means something is broken. What’s broken here?
DINESH: The financial system is totally broken. You think you’re getting a good deal? I think banks have forgotten their roots, as most people do when they become incumbents. The banks' business models were very simple in the past. They allowed you to deposit money for safe-keeping, and they pay you an interest. Now, that has completely changed. It has moved to high-value customers and commissions from the money they transact for clients. The more they transact, the more they make. Every step of the way, they are out to make money from you. If you lose, it's with your money. If you gain, they take a little bit of it as a commission. It's not right. What I want to do is to create a system where you could bypass banks and brokerages, licensing and regulations. Our vision is to democratise financial advice.
YONG HUI: What is the big opportunity here?
DINESH: Today, banks focus on what they call the core affluent. At a brokerage, only 10 per cent of their clients actively trade, and that’s where most of the revenue for brokerages come from. These are self-initiated trades. These are people who really know what they are doing. The bottom 50 per cent is essentially ‘useless’ to the brokerages, because they have opened an account but they are not trading. The middle 40 per cent are people with money, but don’t know how and what to trade. We want to help brokerages unlock this 40 per cent. This is a huge potential to unlock large trading commissions for brokerages.
YONG HUI: Do you let people trade with real money?
DINESH: Not at the moment, but very soon. We are working with the brokerages as they are the ones who are licensed for cash management, settlements and executions of trades. We work with them so that in the future, you can trade through our app with your favourite brokerage.
YONG HUI: Do you allow brokerages to push out recommendations?
DINESH: Absolutely. You can do that on our network. We’ve got trade heros with more than 150,000 followers on our network. In total, we have more than 30 million follows out of our user base of 4.5 million, which means a very active community. If a brokerage wants to build a user base and push out research, they can do that. Individuals can do that too – we make no distinction.
YONG HUI: Might TradeHero be the brokerage one day?
DINESH: We cannot get licences in every single jurisdiction, so we work very closely with brokerages. Brokerages have become what ISPs have become. The ISP used to control your homepage and where you went. Now, ISPs are just data traffic carriers. In the past, Telcos were very powerful. Now, communications and data go to Google. We come in with an internet background to try and add value to the end user.
YONG HUI: What's your typical demographic?
DINESH: 80 per cent of our users are millennials: people coming out of universities and tertiary institutions. We have a series of short videos on our app with more than 150,000 views, educating people about trading. We built this together with SGX, who vetted the information, and we produced it. SGX is very happy to run campaigns and contests on our platform because it helps open them up to a wider audience in Asia. This way, people can gain more understanding of the counters on SGX in a fun way. Everyone knows SGX in Singapore, but a lot more exposure can be made in the Asian region. In one of the campaigns we ran with SGX, if you had followed the top trade hero in the contest, you would have made over a 100 per cent gain in 3 months.
YONG HUI: Have you seen fund managers or recruiters approach your top players?
DINESH: They could be doing that as we speak. It could very well be that a fund manager has private messaged our top trade heros to express interest. If our users benefit, we are very happy. If you have no money to live trade, but are making 200 per cent gains on our app, and a fund manager wants to recruit you, perfect!
YONG HUI: For the right price, will you sell TradeHero?
DINESH: For the right price, you'd sell anything [laughs], but not yet, we are still in the company-building phase. There are still a lot of things we want to do. I'm very happy with our progress in China, but we want TradeHero to be the number 1 social finance platform in the world.
I'm very happy with our progress in China, but we want TradeHero to be the number 1 social finance platform in the world.
YONG HUI: The first time you entered China, it didn’t work out. What were some of the lessons?
DINESH: You know, I happen to speak mandarin. Now, everyone thinks that’s all you need to do – a language translation. Countries such as China, Korea, and Japan are not like this. Just because you speak the language does not mean you can crack the market. After a month, we took the app down. We then re-built and re-launched the app. This time round, we got to number 14 on the Chinese app store. Now, we are doing very well there. Today, it is the number one finance app in 91 app stores, and top 10 in 127. In China, red is up, and green is down. People like a cluttered interface. They feel they haven’t gotten their money's worth of information if the interface is too clean. People also like to talk and discuss a lot more before making decisions. As a result, we brought discussion groups to the fore. The rest of the world typically don’t discuss so much before making decisions. These are the main differences. By the way, they call it A-P-P there, not app.
YONG HUI: How do you deal with copycat apps in China?
DINESH: As they say in China, if you don’t have a copycat app, it means you're doing something wrong. You just have to move quickly. Yes, sometimes they will take some of your market share, but they mostly focus on the Chinese market with a domestic product. For example, our closest copycat only focuses on A-shares. We are international. We have the Chinese app, which is called quan min gu shen, and our Chinese users can also benefit from our international intellectual capital from other markets.
YONG HUI: Looking back, what were some of the things which were really crucial?
DINESH: For us, funding was crucial. The other thing is just learning from your mistakes quickly and moving forward. One of the benefits of a start-up is its ability to move fast; we are not constrained under committees. If you think it is right, do it. We are very driven by intuition and data analyses. Look at the data, and if it's not going to work, do something else.
I need a fellow adventurer in life. I want to gamify life. Maybe in doing what I believe in, some people may feel I haven’t prioritised them, but to my kids, I'd like to be an inspiration.
YONG HUI: How's your management style like?
DINESH: Very chill. I'm not a micro-manager; I'm a macro-manager. I see things from a much larger perspective. I believe in entrusting the people that work with me, and they manage their relationships themselves. It’s very silicon valley-like.
YONG HUI: What did you do before this?
DINESH: I founded EdgeMatrix, way back in 1996 to 2001 when I was in my early twenties. I grew that company from three people to nearly 450 people, with 7 offices. We raised a lot of money from investors including Softbank. That company crashed in 2001 when the bubble burst. We were so close to making an exit. That was a very painful lesson for me. After that, I did a bunch of small start-ups, launched a television station in Indonesia, a B2C play, and an augmented reality venture. Then I decided I was done with start-ups and joined Vickers Venture Partners as an EIR [Entrepreneur-in-Residence] and partner. Ultimately, I couldn’t resist it and needed to get back into a start-up. I’m like a cowboy; I just need to be on a ranch.
YONG HUI: What ranch was it this time?
DINESH: I started a small studio called edenpod, and we produced 2 games. The first was a word game called Better Letter on iOS; the other is a game where you destroy apples that are falling on Issac Newton while he is sleeping and thinking about the three laws of motion. That game got more than a million downloads. I thought I could lend myself to gamification.
YONG HUI: Has this nomadic start-up life affected your personal life?
DINESH: Very much so – I'm divorced. I have an appetite for constant risk. It doesn’t sit well as you grow older and have a family. But I have a wonderful relationship with my ex-wife, who lives in Sweden with my two lovely daughters. It does affect the family because I’m always travelling.
YONG HUI: What is it that you want?
DINESH: I want to re-invent myself every five years. I’m not keen to do the same thing for 30 years. I have one life, and I have to live many lives in this life. That’s the way I want to live. I highly recommend it. It keeps your brain young. That's why different start-ups are fun because each one is in a different vertical, so each one is like having a new life. Everything is perfect when you start again. You end up having knowledge in 7 or 8 cross-disciplines, and your brain is just fantastic.
YONG HUI: What's your advice for people who want to follow your recommendation?
DINESH: The question to ask is: what is your level of comfort? If you have a family, and if your wife is working, and you have built for yourself a little bit of a financial base, do have an understanding from him or her that this is the path you want to be on? It's easier if you're single of course. If your family does not support it, it's going to tear. Sometimes the risk is too high. The upside is of course that you'll be smiling everyday, instead of being unhappy, and wanting to shoot yourself in the head because you’ve been doing the same thing every day for 15 years.
YONG HUI: Would you say you have chosen the life you want over family?
DINESH: Now you've put me in a spot. Yes, I've been a little strong-headed. I want to enjoy myself as much as possible, and create things for other people. I want to make a huge B2C impact. My mistake might have been not clarifying this. I need a fellow adventurer in life. I want to gamify life. Maybe in doing what I believe in, some people may feel I haven’t prioritised them, but to my kids, I'd like to be an inspiration.
There's no such thing as no regrets if you're honest with yourself. Life is not always good. One has to realise that.
YONG HUI: At the end of your life, you want to have no regrets?
DINESH: Oh you'll have many regrets. There will be people you have hurt, mistakes you have made in the past. There's no such thing as no regrets if you're honest with yourself. Life is not always good. One has to realise that. There is good and evil in us. But one must not intentionally hurt people, such as racial slurs or personal attacks. That is super bad.
YONG HUI: Do you shout?
DINESH: Sometimes, at people I'm close to. I do lose my temper, but not to people in general. With co-founders I do shout out of passion, and that's normal. The shouting and animation come with passion. If you're articulate, and you feel strongly, voices will be raised. The most important thing is to not take it [arguments] personally. Stick to the subject, no matter what – no personal attacks. That should be the way.
YONG HUI: What is FootballHero all about?
DINESH: With FootballHero, you can predict the outcomes of future matches. If you are right, your score goes up. If you are a sports punter, you can follow the top guys, and see what their predictions are, and leverage on the information. But we are not a sports betting platform. We are a tip network. We call this social prediction. There are 2 verticals which people like to monetise – sports and finance. I cannot think of anything else right now. These two are the two compendiums of knowledge which human beings would pay for.
YONG HUI: What about Toto or 4D?
DINESH: Toto and 4D are the sorts of lotteries based on hope. I'm not a huge supporter of those. I think you’d agree with me, that the probability of winning is almost zero. People also get superstitious about it, and keep buying more and more. If you miss by one number, you blame yourself and go crazy. Sometimes I do buy it, but I give them to my daughters.
YONG HUI: How old are they?
DINESH: They just turned 7 and 11 this year. They live and study in Sweden, but travel to Singapore twice a year, for about a month each time. I visit them in Sweden for about 2 weeks, 4 times a year.
YONG HUI: You said every 5 years, you want to do something different. What's the next thing you want to do?
DINESH: I'm so excited about what I’m doing now, but what I have next in mind, is incredibly mind-blowing. I’m very excited. Sometimes, I think about it in my spare time, and I smile... it's going to add a lot of economic value to human beings.