"Everything in life compounds, and with technology, it’s at an even faster rate because it is more scalable than one-to-one conversations. If Endowus can achieve its goal of helping families secure their financial freedom, which allows them and their children to be exposed to more things and try more things, it gives them the courage to start the next generation of companies that will serve or produce the goods and services of our children. It is a fantastic compounding effect." - Gregory Van
Gregory Van is CEO of Endowus.com, Asia’s leading fee-only wealth management platform. Headquartered in Singapore and backed by Lightspeed Venture Partners and Softbank Ventures Asia, Endowus is the first digital advisor to span both private wealth and public pension savings (CPF & SRS). Endowus focuses on providing expert advice, institutional access to financial solutions, at low & fair fees to everyone, in a delightful digital-first experience.
As a young father of two, Greg realised the importance of personal financial planning but found that managing the finances of his young family was challenging as it was costly, frustrating, and limited in high-quality options.
Greg therefore saw an opportunity to combine his expertise in tech and finance to empower people to realise their financial goals. As part of Endowus Investment Committee, Greg is passionate about building holistic portfolios for every investor.
Greg’s passion for investments and helping others stems from his personal experiences and failures. At 17, Greg made his first investment in Amazon and profited 7% in 3 days. Emboldened, he began speculating which resulted in his portfolio fluctuating from a 30% profit to 95% loss. Through this journey, Greg fine-tuned his investment approach to be holistic, evidence-based with the lowest fees possible. Today, Greg and his family have invested all of their savings in Endowus’ 80% stocks, 20% bonds portfolio.
Jeremy Au (00:00):
Hi, Greg. Good to have you on the show.
Gregory Van (00:02):
Oh, thanks, Jeremy. It's great to be here.
Jeremy Au (00:04):
Well, really excited to have you here. Heard great things about you personally from Ee Chien, Jekyll & Hyde, and our former podcast guest, as well as Sam, who we've met over Clubhouse, and really excited to share both your personal and professional journey as a founder and CEO.
Gregory Van (00:23):
Oh, I'm excited to share it, and yeah, great people you talk about, people I work with every day.
Jeremy Au (00:30):
Yeah. Well, for those who don't know you yet, how do you describe yourself and your journey?
Gregory Van (00:36):
Yeah. So I'm Greg, CEO of Endowus, which is a wealth platform here in Singapore. We got started on our journey about four years ago.
But before that, I started off my career in investment banking, joined GrabTaxi when it was taxi only and cash only. Among many things, I think at that time a lot of people were wearing many hats, I started the payment business there. I was the first person in business development for payments, talking about the early rails of Grab, solving driver cash-in-cash-out problems, and then the passenger cash-in to pay for rides, and then as a wallet. So that was a fantastic learning experience, 2015 to 2017.
Left Grab to start Endowus with a friend. Today, Endowus is the first and only digital advisor for the Central Provident Fund here in Singapore. But we help people manage their money across all their wealth, so CPF, which is Central Provident Fund, SRS and cash savings.
And it's amazing. I mean, four years on, we're almost 60 people based here in Singapore, and I think really making a difference in the industry, which ultimately is the most important thing for us, and I think something important that every technology company should do, and making a positive impact, most importantly, not just change, but positive change.
Jeremy Au (02:17):
Yeah. Awesome. And rolling it back to the beginning, I'm just so curious, why did you leave investment banking? So we all know the archetypes, long hours, great pay, and then you decided to join something that was pretty crazy back then, so Grab, an entity and the team. So what was it that helped you say, "This is something I want to make the move on"?
Gregory Van (02:42):
I guess going back even further, I came from a family of entrepreneurs. I wouldn't say we were the most successful entrepreneurs, but everyone was rolling their sleeves up, doing what they had to to get by, and growing a business. So I'm originally from Hong Kong. We're talking about the early days of coming over from China with nothing, and the grandparents' generation. I think a lot of people share that story in Singapore, trying to get into any business possible to get by.
Luckily we did have some success, and I think when you see your parents and your grandparents working as entrepreneurs, that has an impact on the way that you see yourself in the future.
So when I was in investment banking — and it was an awesome job, a great team, I was at UBS covering Asia-Pacific private equity and venture capital funds — we had a great thing going, talking to the most sophisticated investors in the world, solving big problems with very, very big money, but I looked forward at what that career would look like, and I think everyone should do this. You should always look up, see what the 10-year or the 20-year you would look like if you did not change your path. And being comfortable and handling and living in the status quo is not a bad thing. But if you look up and that is not the way you want to live your life, or if you look up and you say, "Okay, that 20-year- from-now me, looking back, would feel very fulfilled or would feel very successful," if that's not the case, then it's in your power to change that course.
And it was a couple of years into that job where I said, "Okay, well, there's something burning inside to get closer to real business and understanding how a real operating business works, being a part of that system." So actually, it was a very cordial process and just testament to the great people that I've been exposed to throughout my career.
And they said, "Look, Greg, you're very comfortable now. You're great at your investment banking job. Why don't you join a well-funded startup just to see the craziness, get a taste for what this entrepreneurial journey would feel like." And one of those VCs actually was an early investor in Grab. I had known a number of people at Grab at that time.
So yeah, I made the leap over to see the craziness. And actually, I mean, and you'll appreciate this, Jeremy, but what appears to be very polished from the outside is very, very different from the inside.
Actually, what appears to be moving at lightning pace from the outside, you're handling all the same manual human day-to-day problems in a tech company as you would in your family, so to speak. And I think it was seeing that and seeing that function and seeing that progress despite dysfunction... And I'm not saying Grab is more dysfunctional than others. I think every company is dysfunctional to a certain extent. But exposing yourself to that is very important, and then being able to reflect and say, "You know what? I could build one of these dysfunctional, crazy places, and also make a difference to the world and build something I really believe in."
And I think that is what gave me the courage to go out and start Endowus, which is still a very smallcompany in its infancy, but with tons of possibility in the future. Yeah.
Jeremy Au (07:17):
Yeah. That's amazing. Wow, there's a lot. That's I think going to be a piece we're going to talk about, the family, and it is a piece where we're going to talk about seeing the craziness.
Now, let's talk about the family a little bit, because I empathize with this. My grandfather left Guangdong on a boat and set up a business because he had to, similar for my father as well.
I'm so curious, what did you learn or take away from watching your parents be founders and businesspeople? What was it like hearing the stories about your grandfather and what he had to do? What did you take away, or did you hear of any stories to share?
Gregory Van (07:58):
Yes. Actually, two sets of grandparents both went on very different tracks. On my dad's side, they were from the intellectual upper class in Shanghai, and they were in the group that made it to Hong Kong. Not everyone made it to Hong Kong in that group. A lot of them stayed and lost everything. Luckily, they were of an age where they were well educated. My grandfather spoke very good English by the time he got to Hong Kong, so English, Shanghainese. When he got to Hong Kong, Cantonese.
And he was told to basically make a living and to try and bring as many family members as he could afterwards. And back in the day, and unfortunately, it's not a fair place, it's not a fair thing, but if you were educated and you could speak English, you could become a trader of some sort, just trading goods and making a margin on that.
I mean, that was a business back in the day, and it has been a business for a very long time, maybe slightly disrupted by things like Alibaba. So a lot of people in Hong Kong started off as traders. And then a lot of them, much later on when China finally opened up again, got into manufacturing.
So that was very much I think the journey of my dad's parents. And it wasn't just my grandfather working. My grandmother was basically his copilot. And they worked very hard for their family, to bring their family members over.
I mean, it's incredible, but you start off, everyone's living in one flat. You do a bit better, and your brother, his wife and children can move out of that flat and into their own flat. And then slowly you start, the family can establish themselves. And this is a 60-, 70-year journey of labor to make a better life for those after you. And I'm making it sound a bit romantic, but it's just a lot of hard work. It's a lot of grit.
As a trader, my grandfather would go to Europe, go to South America, trying to sell goods that were produced in the area to people in Europe and South America. He'd be on the road for months with just a briefcase, hoping to win business. This is obviously long before the internet or even long-distance calling was really normal, right?
So I think that that has always been some inspiration. It's not like they worked for big corporations and had a nice pension plan and all those other things. So doing it on your own I think is more ingrained than maybe other people would have been exposed to. And again, I'm not saying they were really successful entrepreneurs, but they were entrepreneurs, and they had that mindset. Yeah.
Jeremy Au (11:17):
Yeah. And they were successful on their terms, which was bringing family over to a safer space and putting everyone together. I mean, that's amazing.
Gregory Van (11:25):
Yeah. So I think something my grandfather really missed out on was his own education, which got cut short, and that was something he always reflected on in his life. So the second he had enough money to start giving back to society, and I think he's given away more than half of his worth, and that was established long before he passed away, has been to educational causes.
I think money is a means to an end. And when you have what you consider to be enough, and sometimes the world is not enough for some people, but when you consider it to be enough, and my grandfather unfortunately had very bad glaucoma and became blind, you start to give to what you think is meaningful or can make a difference in people's lives. You've taken care of your family. You've given them the best education that they can get themselves into. And yeah, so he was very focused on giving back after he set the basics. Yeah.
Jeremy Au (11:58):
Wow. That's amazing. What a man. What was it like growing up as a kid hearing those stories. Did you hear it from him directly? Did you hear it from your parents? What was it like growing up hearing those stories? Were you proud? Were you scared? Were you apprehensive? I'm just so curious.
Gregory Van (12:54):
I mean, I think as a kid, you're very much in your own world and everything is relative to yourself, so you really don't appreciate a lot of things. I mean, if you have a lot, you don't appreciate a lot of things. If you don't have much, it doesn't really bother you too.
It's when you get older that you start to see this scale across society, and what is unjust or just, and what may be perceived as a right or perceived as a wrong. For a while, I'm like, "Why is my grandpa giving away so much money? It's not like we're that uber wealthy as well. It's like shouldn't he leave more for me?" No, I'm kidding.
So I mean, for me, when I was growing up, it's the only truth that you know, so I find myself appreciating it more and more with time, and really not thinking much of it at the time. And it's like these older Chinese people we all... If you're Chinese and you have grandparents, or if you remember these grandparents, they had to truckle. They lived a tough life, and it's not something they talk about too much.
Jeremy Au (14:14):
Gregory Van (14:15):
Even the most successful entrepreneurs in our society here in Singapore and Southeast Asia, they don't talk about their struggles. In fact, everything to them is very, like even their success seems hard. It's like a stone, right?
So interacting with some of these patriarchs, it's interesting. They all kind of come off with the same, "This is the way it is," kind of thing. So he would tell us stories very, very seldom. I think I heard them more from third parties. But again, I think everyone has their own stories that make up their perceptions of the world. So I think having these grandparents who were entrepreneurial and working until their last breath, there's no concept of retirement, so to speak, it becomes part of your DNA through osmosis and through culture or through family culture. So I always felt that way about it. We have a whole new breed of entrepreneurs now. I mean, it's a whole different game now, so you have to adapt with the times.
Jeremy Au (15:39):
We'll go across that bridge when we get to it. But yeah, you said something very true, which is that just the layers only become apparent as we get older, because we don't know what's it like to earn money until we have earned money, how hard it is. But we also don't know how hard it is to build a company, to build trust of the team, of the teammates or customers.
Jeremy Au (16:02):
And so I'm curious, you saw all of this from your parents, you saw that in action, you entered the team at Grab and you saw the craziness. And then somewhere along the line, you said, "I want to build something. I see something that I can build." How did that come about?
Gregory Van (16:21):
It's actually a Singaporean friend of mine who's one of Endowus's co-founders, Yi Ning. And his life perspective is very different. I mean, he was never working at a tech startup, so he was very, very much a finance person, and coming out of investment banking and dealing with the pension funds and the sovereign wealth funds and helping them asset allocate, particularly to private equity and venture capital, something didn't make sense to me. Like the individual investors' way of investing is so different from the institutional investors' way of investing. And it certainly cannot be true that the individual investors have a way of doing better without the same access to resources, access to products and calculated advice or calculated process.
And I'd always been very interested in markets, starting my own brokerage account... I think first trading on my dad's brokerage account with a small amount of money, and then when of age, getting my own brokerage account and trading that, and realizing how difficult it is to beat the market, or realizing how paying a small price, what felt like a very large cost at that time in losses, to understand the way markets work, and trying to get closer to that truth.
So for me on a personal wealth level, I very quickly, over five to eight years, transitioned to a very institutional way of managing my own money and the money of my family.
Yi Ning saw that, or tried to invest his CPF and really struggled with that process, and was pretty shocked by, first of all, the physical experience required, and then the end products that were offered, which were very expensive and very unsuitable, in our view, for retirement, long-term wealth generation. So he approached me with the idea and said, "Why don't you give it a shot? Try doing this with your wife." And I tried, and it was shockingly horrible. I mean, I just think I was pushed some sort of like a China growth fund to invest my CPF in, which is very sector and geography specific.
And I had been trained to have a very institutional, diversified process and way of asset allocating my wealth. And I thought, "Okay, there's no way people in Singapore with CPF..." And CPF is huge. It's 37% of your income every month. "There's no way people are getting the right advice and building their portfolios properly for this long-term money."
So then we were like, "Okay, well, let's try and solve the CPF problem." And that's when we got like- minded people like Sam, like Sin Ting, I mean, other colleagues in the early days to come together and really try and solve this problem.
I mean, today Endowus is the only way to access passive strategies with CPF. So we brought two Vanguard-managed funds into the system, the S&P 500 and the MSCI World, sort of tracker funds wrapped by OCBC Lion Global, another great partner of ours, to basically build holistic portfolios with CPF money.
So that was the initial use case we were trying to solve, and I think we've done a good job achieving that. But along the way we realized there were a lot of injustices in the financial services industry, things that are illegal in a lot of places that are allowed in Singapore.
And for me personally, I mean, my mission at Endowus is a derivative of many things, but it's if we can help people invest better, they can live easier today and be better prepared for tomorrow, and if they can live easier today, they can use their efforts to do things that make their lives better and make other people's lives better through their work and creativity and everything else, focus on things that they can control.
And if they can live better tomorrow, I mean, obviously that's good for them. They don't have to have a decrease in quality of life after retirement, which is the way a lot of people end up living, unfortunately. So invest better, live easier, and be better prepared for tomorrow.
And then in order to do that, we need to provide better access to products, more suitable, aligned advice at lower and fairer fees. And all of that together will create a virtuous cycle in the industry to create better incentive alignment, and hopefully make a positive impact on not only our customers but also the industry, even the regulators, even the way other players, or what people would call our competitors, treat their customers.
Because I think what people don't realize is that most of financial services today in Singapore, and basically all of Asia, runs on kickbacks, a kickback where, if I sell you this fund, you will pay 1.5% at the fund level and I will collect 0.9% from the fund manager as a sales commission. So I'm always incentivized to push you funds that I get a higher sales commission on, and that's a recurring sales commission.
Forget the sales charge and everything else, which is still very, very common. I mean, we have clients come in and say, "Oh, I just paid for this fund, the same fund, I paid three times the price, and I paid a 3% sales fee. It's like, how is that even possible?"
So we want to remove that virus in the industry and really use technology. And I think fintech is a way of creating positive change through efficiency, but really be a fintech that is for good. I don't necessarily think helping people trade is a good thing. So to me, as technology builders, we need to have an opinion for the future, and sometimes just creating a very, very open marketplace where it's really easy to trade won't necessarily lead to better outcomes for your end customer. Will it lead to more speculation and more volume and more people participating in markets? Yes, it will. But the average investor, from just the way markets work, will struggle in the long run.
So I think we have to be very careful. I think Endowus is an extremely opinionated tech company. We're extremely opinionated in the way we communicate to our clients, the way we build our product, the types of solutions we bring onto the platform, even the way we handle money, and not always taking the easiest route with any of those things.
Jeremy Au (23:57):
What's interesting as I hear you is I hear the old and new in you. I think the new is the approach, the tactics, the design, the instruments. And the old that I'm hearing from you is, at least for me, it's like your heart for families and people to build financial security. I feel there's a dotted line from what your grandfather did for his family all the way to your parents, to you and what you're doing at Endowus. I think you're helping many families build up financial security.
Gregory Van (24:37):
Yeah. I mean, I think that does run in us, and I will say that it is because my grandfather and families... Well, my grandfather, for example, let's say he was not successful and he could not provide for his family. Then I certainly I don't think would have the privilege, the privileges that I didn't work for. I was birthed into a family that was very comfortable and could provide an education and nurturing that, I mean, unfortunately it's not fair, a lot of families could not afford.
And I see that. That's very clear in my mind. You want to build upon something and hopefully not go backwards. But I think having the privileges that I did have, I'm also not saying I was the most privileged person, but having certain privileges has allowed us to build this platform the way we want to build it.
Jeremy Au (23:25):
Right. Exactly. Yeah, that's so true.
Gregory Van (25:47):
And if we did not, then yeah, I would build a platform where I would make a lot more money off clients, and maybe they wouldn't know about it, and I would take the kickbacks because they're there for the taking.
But we have the opportunity, because of all these circumstances and because we're building on something, to actually take a stand, because if we don't do it, I mean, someone else might. But we can do it. We're in the position to do it. And that is our purpose, where 10 years from now, hopefully the whole concept of kickbacks, the whole concept of trailer fees, was absurd, the whole concept of not investing your CPF and certainly not doing it online was absurd, where it would just be commonplace to handle your core wealth in a very responsible way.
That is certainly not the case right now. A lot of people don't invest or they speculate. And there's a distinction between investing and speculating that people find very hard to differentiate because everyone has a very different experience of investing or speculating. And I see the fruits of our labor.
And actually, one more thing I want to say is when you pick a career or when you pick a company or when you decide on a problem to solve, you want to make sure that that problem is big enough and that you are putting your labor to good use, because it's only this labor, and it could be a labor of love or pain, or probably a combination of both, that produces something.
And it is a labor. There's no way around it. It is hard work. It is going against the odds for sure.
Jeremy Au (27:33):
Well, for what it's worth, I think your grandfather would be very proud of what you're doing, because you're helping provide financial security for not just your family but also for so many other families. The beneficiaries of the families that make a decision now to go with Endowus or a similar category would be to the benefit of their children, to have the financial security-
Gregory Van (27:57):
Jeremy Au (27:57):
To dream big and go after big dreams, because that's where the compounding of that financial stewardship really snowballs.
Gregory Van (28:08):
Everything in life compounds, and with technology, it seems to compound at an even faster rate because technology is much more scalable than one-to-one conversations. And yeah, you're exactly right. I mean, if Endowus can achieve its goal of let's say helping 20,000 families secure their financial freedom, which allows them and their children to do more things, be exposed to more things, try more things, it gives them the courage to start the next generation of companies that will serve or produce the goods and services of our children. It is a fantastic compounding effect.
We always say this in our meetings and our webinars and things, but money is just a means to an end. Money should not control your life. Money helps you live the life you want. So at Endowus we're very focused on not trying to time the market, or we're not even taking a view on the market. We're trying to set your money up for your life goals so that your money is actually serving your life. Yeah, and I think if we can do that for people, they will be able to unlock a lot of potential in their lives.
Jeremy Au (29:36):
Wow. That's deep.
Gregory Van (29:40):
Money is just an enabler, right?
Jeremy Au (29:42):
Gregory Van (29:42):
Just like food, food and water are enablers, and in this world, we trade money for food and water, and then we trade money for education, and then what we can contribute to society is ultimately our creativity and ideas and our action. So that's, I think, more than anyone can hope for.
Jeremy Au (30:05):
Wow. I mean, that's purpose, man. That's a mission, that's a legacy. Does it help, during tough times, to have that sense of legacy or purpose? Or does it weigh you down? Or does it make things clearer when things are tough?
Gregory Van (30:23):
I think when things are tough, you need to take a step back and have a perspective on what you're doing. Endowus recently had our first external fundraise, and it's the first time anyone had spoken to us about exits, because actually for me, I don't ever plan on necessarily exiting. Endowus may go through different stakeholders through time, but I don't really plan on exiting because I see this as a lifelong journey and an evolution.
I mean, it can really evolve. The product can evolve its capabilities, the customers it serves, all of that is going to change a lot over the course of the next five decades.
I think the entrepreneurial journey, being a CEO, is one of pain. And in order to get through that pain, that purpose is important. So it is important to keep on reminding yourself of the bigger picture and the positive effect that this company can have on people's lives.
Our views of companies is very biased and our view of entrepreneurs is also very biased, because we tend to hear about the outliers or these extreme successes. But I think for every entrepreneur, for every CEO, for every founder out there, it is a journey. It's a real, constant labor. It's a real lifestyle choice that you're making. But I think once you've made that choice, you can get through it.
But it feels like we're running sprints, like we're in a sprint here. But to me, it's really a marathon, an ultramarathon, because I don't really have an exit plan. I don't really care for an exit.
Jeremy Au (32:25):
I mean, in the spirit of unskewing the popular perception of founders and startups, are there any moments that you're open to share about where pain of founding and building has intersected with purpose in your personal journey with Endowus?
Gregory Van (32:48):
I think you're always dealing with a lot of uncertainty as a founder. You start this company, you need to find a CTO. It's likely you never worked with a CTO before. And ultimately, I think what you come to realize is that especially a technology company is really just a combination of people. And every person has their own life circumstances and their own purpose and their own goals and their own ambitions. And they may want to buy a house or they may want to take care of their mother or whatever it is, or someone in their family might be ill.
Early on in this journey, we actually lost our CTO, or our first tech lead, to a family crisis that he had to deal with. And it is a struggle. It's a real struggle to try and... I mean, I think someone said it, a startup is like building an airplane while it's taking off. But it's like you're taking off and then suddenly three engines black out, and you need to build new engines while taking off.
I think as a CEO, managing people is very important, and making sure that they're aligned to that purpose or aligned in a way that they feel incentivized to build the best thing with their life. And a lot of those pains I think have come from people having their own life situations, we can't control that anyhow, but many times detrimental to the company in the short term, but remaining strategically on track to what we're trying to build.
And I think remaining strategically on track is what has allowed us to be focused, I mean, not even on our competitors. What people perceive to be our competitors is not something that we're focused on, because we have such a grander purpose than chasing after competitors. And if we do it properly and we do it right and we serve our customers well, we know that it's a long-term win, and we have that conviction ultimately.
Interestingly, one reason why Endowus did not raise external capital for four years is, and actually, a lot of the equity of the company is owned by the employees of the firm. Many of the employees, including young engineers, have put up cash to buy equity in the firm, so not just stock options, but actually paying for equity in the firm. And it's to really align people to that mission so that they come into work every day and they're on a mission to make their own lives better and to build something that will make people's lives better.
So yeah, very important. I think alignment, alignment of interests, is an absolutely critical thing. And it doesn't matter if you're a VC and you're investing in a business, you have a lot of terms to ensure alignment of interests. If you're an employee, yes, you get paid, but you want to advance your career, you want to make money, you want to have upside too. That's what's going to give you the power to give that 110% every day, so you need alignment of interest. If you're a founder, you need that vision, that purpose, and to not get knocked off the road, and that is your alignment of interests. Yeah.
Jeremy Au (36:40):
Wow, thank you. Well, we're coming on time here, so I want to ask you one last question here, which is, when I was a founder-CEO, I always find the toughest moments was my own psychology, because like you said, the engines are going out, you got to jump in and fix it while... And then there's passengers on board, and everyone's looking at you. And that's the order of the day, right, I mean, going through the night.
I'm just curious, how do you, at night out of work or whatever it is, what is it that gives you strength to be brave the next day? How do you recharge or recenter yourself or touch bases? Is it someone, is it something, is it routine? How do you pull together the energy to be brave for the next day, whatever it is?
Gregory Van (37:36):
I mean, again, I think it goes back to family. I feel a lot of safety from family. And going back to this whole conversation, a lot of that's driven by financial security, and having that financial security provides safety, and it's a bit unfair because not everyone will have that advantage. So I know that it is an advantage to me, and I'm not afraid to use it because it is an advantage. But again, I don't think it's particularly fair in society, but yeah.
The family does provide, and a very supportive family, and not only my own family but my wife's family are very supportive of what we're trying to create at Endowus, and they just give me the courage to soldier on.
Jeremy Au (38:39):
Wow. Thank you. And for what it's worth, I think we all bond with these privileges, and I think what's fair is that you're giving people more shots at life in the future. So thank you so much for what you're doing, Greg, for so many folks out there. I personally appreciate it, even though they may never know your name, yeah. All right, thank you so much for coming on the show, Greg.
Gregory Van (39:00):
Thanks, Jeremy. It was a good conversation.