When it comes to scaling fintech companies across ASEAN region, where do you start? What are the challenges and opportunities out there? Everyone knows that scaling is essential to growth – and that if a fintech startup wants any hope at crossing the $100 million mark or becoming the region’s next unicorn, potential to scale & scaling must be top-of-mind for the founders and investors. So while fintech is among the fastest-growing technology sectors, and the ASEAN region holds immense potential for the fintech sector, in order to grow local startups absolutely must be able to scale, first to neighboring countries and then globally.

The Techsauce Global Summit 2017 panel dedicated to scaling fintech across ASEAN was moderated by Andy Disyadej, managing director of the Thai Fintech Association, who is well-versed in the interests of all stakeholders involved in the fintech startup ecosystem. The speakers who took part were:

  • Roy Teo, director FinTech & Innovation Group The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the organization that is directly responsible for Singapore’s fintech innovation and policies. Having been a regulator himself, Roy has close to 20 years of extensive experience in technology risk management, technology audits and IT implementations in multiple regions/countries.
  • Felix Tan, managing director at the FinLab which is Singapore’s first corporate fintech acceleratoras a joint venture between United Overseas Bank (UOB) and SGInnovate. Felix has been working hands-on with startups trying to accelerate their expansion across the ASEAN and global markets.
  • Elena Ionenko, co-founder of cloud lending platform Turnkey Lender, a loan management software platform for small to mid-sized online lenders. Elena has herself experienced and driven international startup expansion within the fintech sector.
  • James Rama Phataminviphas, Head of Channels & Digitalisation and Executive Director, United Overseas Bank (Thai) Public Company Limited.

Elena, you headed the global expansion of Turnkey Lender; therefore, I’d like to address the question to you: What made you expand and relocate here to Asia?

Elena: We started our company in Eastern Europe, and as we were building up sales we’d quickly realized that we are able to do sales remotely in Western Europe and Americas – but not in Asia. The ASEAN market presented a large market opportunity for us – and yet it turned out that a significant number of personal connections needed to be built in order for it to work. Therefore we decided to move a part of the team here and joined the FinLab accelerator. I’ll let Felix explain what they do at FinLab first.

Felix, can you share with us how the FinLab accelerator is helping startups like Turnkey Lender?

Felix: FinLab is helping out startups both hands-on and through our vast network. First of all, we talk to the founders and help them set clear business plan expectations. Secondly, we help the startup companies by opening doors for them to the largest corporations out there and making sure they get connected quickly so that they are working on common projects.

Fintech in the ASEAN region is on the rise – and the opportunities are immense. The policies and regulators are actually being very supportive to startups. That incentivizes not only the local projects but also attracts foreign projects and teams. And very importantly for the sector as a whole, now is the golden period when most of the banking institutions have realized that the old system ought to change and are wholeheartedly embracing the collaboration with startups.

Now is the golden period when most of the banking institutions have realized that the old system ought to change and are embracing collaboration with startups.

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Three primary challenges of scaling fintech startups in the ASEAN region

  1. 'Fintech-friendly' regulations may open opportunities, but also present new obstacles.

Felix says that the regulations indeed not only open the opportunities for startups in the region – but also possess certain obstacles which need to be overcome. The fintech sector is way too dynamic for the regulators to just loosen the policies sharply – instead, that’s a gradual and careful process. Therefore, startup companies need to be very network-savvy and legally savvy, finding the right loopholes and perfecting their timing and strategies.

  1. More education & collaboration is required to overcome cultural and language barriers.

Roy said that surprisingly the common problem is the language – founders from different countries still struggle sometimes with working and running their companies in English. That’s also an issue for the entrepreneurs from abroad who are afraid of working and operating in the ASEAN region because of the cultural and language diversity. Those are the areas that still require more education and collaboration across the global ecosystems.

  1. Usage of data in the fintech sector is a double-edged sword that holds much potential, but also must be wielded with discretion.

A good piece of the discussion was also dedicated to the usage of data in the fintech sector. Fintech companies are generating a lot of data which needs to be managed wisely – but also shared among the ecosystem players for the common good. James mentioned that Chinese companies like Alibaba and Tencent are sharing tons of data with startups, which immensely helps to accelerate the development of the sector as a whole.

The speakers came to the conclusion that now is the best time for fintech companies to go after their market niches. ASEAN founders are in the unique position to leverage the common infrastructure across the region – and yet they have to keep themselves aware of the regulatory pitfalls and tune up with the latest market developments.

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