Discover the other winners of the inaugural Tech Laureates awards here.
As Daniel Chia sat across from his bank’s relationship manager at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic a few months ago, both with face masks and shields, he knew there and then that the banking industry’s digital transformation was imminent. And that he would be one of the entrepreneurs leading the way through uncharted waters.
Chia was at the bank to sign a form regarding his formal acceptance of additional financing for his company Call Levels. The irony of that moment was clear. With his signature and the bank’s rubber stamp, he was effectively kick-starting the transformation of the role of relationship managers.
A Cambridge and Harvard graduate, Chia has a calm, measured way of talking that belies his passion for statistical modelling, quantitative analyses and mathematics. He joined the Government of Singapore Investment Corp (GIC) as an investment manager in 2006, after throwing his mortarboard into the air, and soon found himself neck-deep in the manic world of foreign exchange, commodities and global economies. And he loved every second of it.
His keen interest in quantitative trading and working in GIC enabled him to nurture this passion. Quantitative analysts – or quants as they’re more commonly known in the finance world – essentially use various forms of mathematics to create models that can be applied in trading. “Traders get tired. Models don’t,” says Chia. “My trader friends were always on edge, even during weekends and especially during times of crisis, when new economic policies would be enacted. That’s when I realised that models were a lot more effective in this regard.”
To create them, not only do you need to do a lot of in-depth research, but also spot and understand correlations in the market that are incredibly hard to discern at first. For example, through his research, he realised that “the S&P 500 Index always led the Australian dollar by about five minutes”. If you saw a big upward shift in the S&P 500 and bought the Australian dollar, you could make a profitable trading model. This relationship lasted from 2009 to 2012 and, interestingly enough, has begun to occur again in the last few months, according to Chia. “A human trader might not necessarily catch relationships like these even if he ran through the data manually.”
A Yearning For More
His deep interest in research and quantitative strategies led him to join Ortus Capital Management in 2010. One of Asia’s largest macro hedge funds, it was co-founded by Wharton finance professor Dr Joe Zhou in 2003 and manages more than $3 billion in capital. Under his tutelage, Chia flourished. Later, however, he says, “It dawned on me that the hedge fund of the future may not actually be a hedge fund. Strategies were becoming increasingly commoditised and it became harder and harder for me, and probably everyone else, to find an edge.”
After more than five years of being a trader, he yearned for something more. “I’ve always been on the buy-side – where you only get to see things happen, but you’ll never be the driver. You can support innovation, but you’ll never be at the forefront of it.”
His vision was simple. He wanted to take the tools that hedge funds use and make them available to the man on the street. That was how the first iteration of Call Levels was formed in 2014. Together with his co-founders, they built a platform providing instantaneous price alerts on multiple stock exchanges to users. Within a year, Call Levels had more than 100,000 investors using its service. In June 2016, it inked a partnership with DBS Vickers Ventures to provide market monitoring service to the bank’s customers. Later in the same year, it won the Most Promising Fintech Startup Award at the annual Asian Private Banker Technology Awards.
The future seemed bright for Call Levels – and then it encountered the perennial problem every tech start-up faces: how do you translate user growth into revenue? “We realised people liked our service but weren’t willing to pay for them. When we started charging $5 monthly for certain features to be unlocked, only about 0.5 per cent of our userbase signed up,” reveals Chia. At the same time, Call Levels’ banking clients were paying them up to $100 for each customer referral. He started contemplating the idea of pivoting the company towards this direction instead to focus on institutional clients. This, unfortunately, did not come without casualties.
Chia’s co-founder decided to amicably vacate her position although she still remains as a shareholder today. At that juncture, Chia was immensely worried his technical team might choose to leave because of the pivot as well.
“It was a painful decision and one that we had to communicate properly to not only our investors but the rest of the team as well. While the pivot made sense, based on the hard numbers, we still had to spend a lot of time on the softer sides, so to speak. I came to realise that convincing people of your vision and getting them to move with you takes a lot more time.”
For better or for worse, there are moments in your life that will permanently alter your worldview and transform you into the person you need to be. For Chia, this momentous episode transformed him into the leader he had to be for Call Levels to take that next step.
Then he realised leadership was not about telling people what to do. To elaborate, he shares a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, that has become his leadership mantra: ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.’
He says, “You can tell people to do something. You can micromanage them. You can do many things. But your company will not succeed unless your team loves the same thing you do.”
So, Chia surveyed the remnants of his team, sat with them and shared his pure, unadulterated vision of Call Levels. The market monitoring app, while sufficient for the moment, had a natural ceiling. Instead, he wanted to build a conversational artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that financial institutions could use to serve its customers.
Unlike others, AI chatbots for financial institutions have to navigate numerous regulatory hurdles. It wasn’t as simple as implementing a one-size-fits-all, cloud-based solution that would automatically crunch data points and start learning from its interactions with humans.
Besides having to grapple with legacy systems, Chia and his team had to contend with security issues. “When it comes to any sort of financial trading matter, you need to be able to keep the conversations for up to seven years. Also, many are concerned about the security and privacy of data transactions. They would rather build an internal AI system than install AI that already had a large enough dataset that could hit the ground running.”
“You can tell people to do it. You can micromanage them. You can do many things. but your company won’t succeed unless your team loves the same thing you do.”
The Fruit of Labour
With each problem they faced, Chia and his team hunkered down to try to solve it. At the back of his mind, he knew Call Levels just had to survive. It was a lesson from his trading days. “If you survive, you can wait for the upside. Don’t blow up and there will be a time when you can come back when the market turns around.”
Finally, after a year of slogging and product development, the conversational AI chatbot was ready to be rolled out in 2018.
It was secure, encrypted and incredibly fast – capable of handling a million transactions per second.
Chia managed to broker deals with a few large financial institutions locally and in the region to implement the product in their systems. But he didn’t stop there. He knew that the next logical step was for these entities to reach out to customers not only digitally but through the most convenient platforms possible as well. As such, future plans include improving the chatbot to function on popular messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Telegram.
That took another two years of hard work, but Chia tells me that the upgraded conversational chatbot will be launched in the fourth quarter this year. “There has been tremendous interest from financial institutions here and in Indonesia, who want to reach out to their customers on the most convenient platform.”
It’s perfect timing. The Covid-19 pandemic not only accelerated digital transformation but highlighted the importance of incorporating resilience in business transactions. The show must keep going on, come Hell or high water.
The Next Step
Already, Chia has signed agreements with three local financial institutions and another eight in Indonesia that will be utilising the upgraded AI chatbot solution once it rolls out.
Having toiled non-stop for more than five years, he would be forgiven if he stopped to rest but that hasn’t happened yet, Instead, he’s already planning the next version of the chatbot that includes treasury hedging and facial recognition.
Financial transactions can arguably be some of the biggest decisions people make in their lives, which is why many still prefer meeting with a relationship manager from the bank and signing a physical document. Believing that by incorporating another fail-safe layer into his chatbot, more people would start using digital platforms for their financial needs, he’s partnered with a large technology company specialising in facial recognition technologies, to accomplish this objective.
Ultimately, his vision is this: to build an assistant that watches the markets while you sleep and helps you transact faster when you want to instead of you having to go through a relationship manager. “You can never replace the human touch, of course, but there are many boring administrative things that can be automated. And because it’s automated, it can be made secure instantaneously.”
The salt of the open seas has already warmed Chia’s tongue. His ship has survived the battering of the first major storm but there might be more storms. The difference is he now understands the roiling lay of the oceans. Hoist the sails.
Discover the other winners of the inaugural Tech Laureates awards here.