Unleashing the Power of Choice: My four-year career journey with CompareAsiaGroup

“I got 24 hours a day. I spend 6-7 hours sleeping. That leaves me with around 17-18 hours to do something to create and give value to the world.” That was my answer to a question about time management raised to me on my first day with CompareAsiaGroup. I wasn’t exactly sure why did she asked that question until four years later today, 23 August 2018, as I celebrate my fourth year with CompareAsiaGroup.

How I got recruited

I was hired initially by a VC as a consultant to this group of internet companies. It was a not-so-fancy consulting job as I was tasked to “set-up” and “fix” all the financial aspects in preparation for the upcoming Series A fund-raising back then. As somebody who have worked for two out of the four top audit firms (I’m an ex-KPMG and an ex-PwC auditor) with banking (Citi) and some risk management and control background from one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the region (Unilab), a recruiter  tried to chase and lure me for months until I finally had the willingness to prepare my CV and finally submit to him. At the time, nobody knows what CompareAsiaGroup was and what do they do. It was clearly a nobody and I was more interested in building-up my own consulting practice than joining them.

As a former Big 4 CPA, I was trained to be a conservative, professionally skeptic, and to play “hard-to-get” to any pushy and even intimidating salesman. But after having interviewed and doing a some research on the business model, it took me only 10 minutes to see where the future is heading. Thanks to my mom who exposed me to the entrepreneurial way of life as early as 10 years old. She trained me to wake-up early at every 4am in the morning to go to the wet market with my aunt to buy fresh fish and meat for our little carinderia where I served as a dishwasher every summer from 8AM to 9PM everyday and receiving zero salary ever (at this point I realized I actually joined a startup at the age of 10 and not actually four years ago). In that 10 minutes time, I saw that this new startup is just like our carinderia. Unheard of, worth nothing but it has a lot of potential to become big. The next day, I followed-up my application with the recruiter and the rest is history.

The maiden year

It has been a roller coaster ride. As one of the early adopters – the crazy yet entrepreneurial types of accountants from an emerging country – I left a very promising career and experienced the ups and downs of building, managing and scaling a startup group of companies across Southeast Asia. Honestly speaking, it was an unglamorous one contrary to what the social media is now projecting as startup way of life. Building a startup from scratch means starting very lean and very tough.

It was really tough that not even some of the best and the brightest have been able to withstand. From acquiring or renting refurbished laptops, renting an office space that’s filled with cockroaches and dysfunctional air-conditioning unit, to luring top caliber people with below-the-market compensation, and even paying salaries from our own pockets due to bank account opening or even wire transfer issues. My predecessor alone in this position only lasted a day! In these types of companies the people who thrive and succeed are not necessarily the brightest ones but the grittiest ones with an average level of competence which they are willing to elevate to higher levels in order to help achieve the company’s vision.

The fund-raising experience

I worked side-by-side with CompareAsiaGroup’s Austrian co-founder and first Managing Director, Gerald Eder. As his Head of Finance, I acted as his first CFO as well (a CFO who can’t help him raise money at the time haha). We occupied that small 16 sqm. finance and HR room in Antel Tower along Valero Street in Makati Central Business District together with our Finance Manager and HR manager then. Few steps away was the MoneyMax.ph table (take note of the word “table” it was not a company yet back then)  Later on I became its President and Chairman because oh well, I’m the only Filipino in the management team then.

Sitting somewhere in Kuala Lumpur then was Martin, the German CFO of the VC that hired me (and is now a very good friend).  Together with Martin and his capable and reliable financial controller, Daniel, and Rita and Dhona, who were my finance manager and senior accountant, respectively, based in the Philippines, I spent countless sleepless nights working on the books, documentations and providing oral defense and arguments for 30 simultaneous audits (15 external audits and 15 due diligence audits) by external auditors and potential investors back then. I remember the many early morning calls with auditors from Europe and the USA at around 2am or 3am for around 3 months including during my honeymoon.

With Rita, Gerald, Dhona, Martin and Mads in Manila around December 2014

Then, we have our team in Hong Kong (moneyhero.com.hk) being led by Alister and the finance team then (a one-man show) by Hauyin. All these three countries and people worked super late nights to close our first ever Series A funding then. It was US$40 million, the largest Series A in Southeast Asia in the year 2015.

New Boss and New Country

Not too many people knew that I sent out a resignation email three months after getting recruited as an “outsourced acting CFO”. I got fed up not because of the toxic environment or culture (some say it was Rocket Internet-like) but rather I just feel like I’ve been incessantly doing firefighting and reporting to too many people and stretching myself to provide all their urgent demands. That’s the downside of having a flat organization from a finance department’s point of view. Communication is easy for most functional groups but for finance people, it was more of a pain than convenience. Finance is not just about paying the bills, raising invoices, and paying taxes. Before we can come up with a report or analysis, there were so many detailed processes and activities that takes a lot of time to complete and are way more complicated than they seem to be from a non-finance persons point of view.

After receiving my resignation email, Martin and Gerald then flew to Manila to convince me to stay and promised that things will be better soon after the funding round. It was at that point that they announce to me about the hiring of CAG’s first CFO. They looked at my reaction then to see whether that’s something that will please me or not as I will be having a CFO boss to report to going forward. To their surprise, I said, “that’s music to my ears as I know fund-raising and investor relations are my some of my handicaps back then. I am no investment banker and I don’t speak the language yet. We need somebody to be the face of CAG to investors, both existing and potential”.

However, the funny part was when Martin told me that the new CFO is another German and an old friend from his boarding school days,  I was like “Oh my days are numbered. Another German boss, seriously?”. Having Martin as a boss was tough already, what more if there will be another “Martin”, life will be hell – that’s what I thought until I met Shaun.

Shaun was CAG’s first-ever CFO. He came in at the right time of the organization when it needed somebody to manage and control the newly-raised funds in 2015. Upon learning that he will be flying to Manila to meet me and my team there, I prepared some on-boarding slides for him. I was skeptical at first whether he would really understand what we were doing in finance especially the accounting and taxation side as he comes from an investment banking background around New York. I was wrong. My skepticism turned into admiration, respect and high-regard to him as it turned out that our dynamics and partnership as pilot and co-pilot in CAG’s finance function turned out so well. He became a sort of my ‘guardian’ in Hong Kong when I officially moved in October 2015. There were actually times that my wife got so jealous of him because I spent more time with him in CAG office (even outside work and on our business trips) than with her at home in Manila.

CompareAsiaGroup’s CEO Sam Allen described,“Shaun embodies the best of CAG and CAG is in many ways a reflection of Shaun… his relentless pursuit of excellence and tireless effort to make CAG better….never considering whether something is ‘below’ him, whether it is in his job description, or whether it is his ‘responsibility’. He does it because he sees the opportunity to make something better…and so he does it…and so he makes everyone around him better and he makes the company better.”

Shaun, together with Sam, led the Group’s Series B fund-raising efforts. His more than three years stay at the helm of CAG’s finance moulded CAG to be the CAG we have today – healthy finances, stronger business model, and a more professionalized finance, legal, HR and business operations functions across the markets. On a personal note, Shaun shielded me from all harms, be it internal or external, including discriminations I encountered with people we dealt with (you know how Filipinos are being looked down upon in Hong Kong). He looked beyond the color of my skin and focused more on my abilities and the intangibles that I’ve been bringing to the business.

Finance Planning and Strategy discussion with Shaun at one of Bangkok’s finest rooftop bars. Beers are better than Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth so all of my performance review discussions were held in bars.

Shaun may have moved on from the Company now but he’ll be always a friend and even a brother to me.

The sacrifices

I know I hurt feelings of my former bosses when I rejected a promotion then as the youngest “KP” (Key Personnel) in Unilab, the Philippines leading pharmaceutical company, by tendering my resignation letter a day before the announcement of my promotion. I chose to build this Group instead of staying corporate and living the corporate high life (with lots of bonuses, allowances, cars and more perks). It was a hard decision but I told myself, “it is now or never”. I have to pursue my vision of the future. I have to contribute something for the world.

As somebody who was groomed as a professional auditor, with trainings from Big 4 firms and conglomerates specializing in corporate risk management and finance, working for a startup was a big adjustment for me. Aside from the paycut, I encountered lots of difficulties as Group Head of Finance. First difficulty was convincing this VC and some top management team members that doing business in this side of the world was not as easy and straightforward as their home countries’. They thought that the region should embrace the business model as it was and never make compromises. That financial reporting, regulatory reporting and compliance, including taxation, are something they are immune from. I can still recall my long list of “management letter points” I drafted and sent to my then bosses as early as my Day 2 with the Group. I got one cold response from them, “Jay, what are you doing? It doesn’t make sense ”. I told them sure it may have no sense that time but one or two years from now, those issues if not addressed, may derail the growth of the group and will cost a lot in terms of money and reputation. Needless to say, I am right and I’m the only one left.

From a technical viewpoint, a major difficulty was how to adopt the traditional International Financial Reporting Standars (IFRS) to the dynamic (and sometimes, uncertain) business model of an internet company. From revenue recognition, cost classification and presentation, to taxation. Every year, I have to convince the auditors that we are a going concern still. I basically leveraged on my 99% grade in my financial accounting subject during my CPA Board Exams and some knowledge of international finance and taxation I developed over the years. I passed all those 30 audits and was able to hear positive reviews from due diligence auditors of our then potential investors. It was at that time that I realized that I have world-class skills and knowledge.

At Staunton’s during our weekend trip to Hong Kong. I got my relocation offer here written in a white table napkin.

Shortly after we closed Series A in early 2015, I got relocated to Hong Kong. It all began with a relocation offer written on a table napkin at Staunton’s when me and my team spent a weekend in Hong Kong. It was a hard decision for me as I’ve just got married at that time. But I felt like I am much needed by my “baby” named ‘CompareAsiaGroup’. So, I discussed about it with my then pregnant wife and she understood my passion and vision. I chose to take care of my pseudobaby, CompareAsiaGroup, than to take care of my pregnant wife who then was carrying my son in her womb. I took the sacrifice of living alone in a foreign land for the first time, with a below-the-market salary for my position, and fought the emotional struggle of being away from my wife and son.

Life in Hong Kong is an everyday struggle for me. I have no friends, relatives or acquaintances in Hong Kong. The only people I considered as my family were my colleagues. Aside from Shaun, I met Erick, our Finance and Corp Dev’t Manager who addressed me as “Pare!”. Erick grew up in California where there are lots of Filipino-American communities. His favorite Filipino food is caldereta and he loves adobo and sisig too! Somehow I felt home. Then came Kelvin, the brightest and most capable guy inside that finance and ops room. He’s my closest neighbor at North Point and he was the one who introduced me to a lot of Hong Kong local snacks. He would ask me to come down from my flat at night to have some late snacks with him. He loves Jollibee too for some reason (his FB profile pic is with Jollibee at NAIA terminal 3 up to now LOL) and he knows the word “tinigasan” (don’t ask me why haha).

With Julia, Fiona, Kelvin and Erick in our “newly-renovated” Finance & Ops Room at 21st Floor

Then, I had my first sisters in Hong Kong in the person of Julia and Fiona. I always felt secured and being taken care of everytime I’m with them especially Julia who was my lunch partner for all my lunch cravings especially Japanese food! Fiona, on the other hand, was the youngest in our group. She’s sweet, bubbly, daring and very promising. She’s like my little sister but there were times that she took the role of being an “ate” to me especially when it comes to warning me about not getting into the trouble of dating Hong Kong girls! Haha!

From Monday to Friday, I have a family. On weekends, I am always alone. I was always alone in the office every weekend to work on and complete the monthly and quarterly consolidations and also do the finance work for around 15 entities alone (sometimes Shaun and Erick go to the office every weekend too especially when we were doing Series B). I preferred to stay in the office every Saturday and Sunday than to roam around Hong Kong because I don’t know anybody. I tried to mingle with the crowd but I always felt I don’t belong everytime people, locals and expats, learn that I am a Filipino.

I also faced a lot of discrimination. I face it in some meetings with external parties and even during interviews! There was an interviewee who actually asked me how did I pass the immigration process in Hong Kong as I am an just accountant from the Philippines. Ouch!

Hellos and Goodbyes

Shortly after Series A, I expanded my team across the region. I hired my local alter egos, the country finance managers. It was super tough to look for accountants or financial professionals who are at the same time entrepreneurial and have lots of grit to thrive in a startup environment.

With my Country Finance & Ops Team across the region, Jonathan, Hauyin, Bren, Loan, Andy, Anti and Julia right after the First CAG Finance Conference (with Alister, Country Manager of moneyhero.com.hk)

Recently, I was on the phone with an executive search firm for my recruitment needs in the Philippines and the recruiter was telling me the same issues that I had years ago. However, hiring in Jakarta was the easiest one as more accountants there are open to joining startups because of the popularity of startups there. I am so blessed in having signed-up the likes of Anti, outgoing Finance & Ops Manager in Halomoney.co.id. But in countries like Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, and my home country, the Philippines, it was and still very hard to find the right candidate. The willing candidates are either too expensive or too junior. Lots of multi-titled professionals from good schools and from good companies. My first finance manager in MoneyMax.ph was actually an ex-investment banker from Morgan Stanley in New York! I thought he’ll last on the job. He only last few months and told me “Jay, this job is really hard than I thought it was”. He then moved back to NYC.

In Hong Kong, I had to interview around 40 candidates before I got the chance to finally hire my current Regional Finance Manager, Loan. In my home country, I felt so embarrassed for not having able to recruit people like me, with the same background, mentality and grit (later on, executive search firms told me that I am the only one of my kind LOL).

For four years, after all of my experiences in finding, managing, and mentoring the right people, I realized that the best people for this kind of company are those people who are not necessarily those that are bright, multi-titled and multi-awarded, and coming from major companies in the world. The best people for this kind of environment are people who doesn’t necessarily are the best in their class but those people who share the vision, who are gritty and smart enough to know that they are not the best people in the planet. Those people who are not aware that they are gems in the making. They are the diamonds in the rough.

After undergoing lots of heat and pressure, the rough stone soon became a perfectly-cut shiny precious diamond. They become too attractive to the eyes of the public. Their value increases to the point that I can no longer hold them back. I have to let them go. I’ve already lost some of my diamonds. It was a bittersweet experience.

Today, I’m back in the mining site. Digging the soil, hoping and looking for the next batch of diamonds in the rough.

What the future looks like: Financial inclusion and empowerment

Some people working for startups would say that four years in today’s startup standards is quite a long time already especially for a non-founder like me. Obviously, I am not the Mark Zuckerberg-type or not even a Jack Ma-type of person. I am just a bookkeeper trying to make a difference in the world by contributing the most productive years of my life in a startup or early stage company.

Recognized as CompareAsiaGroup’s Cultural Ambassador during our 2017 Christmas Party. I asked our Group CEO, Sam Allen about why they selected me. I will never ever forget his words, “Because you have this (he’s pointing to my temple) and most importantly, you have this (pointing to my chest). You have the brains and the heart. You really deserve it, Jay”.

Should I stay for another four more years? Or should I move on to heed on the call of other potential “babies”? Or should I go home to the Philippines to be with my real baby, my son, and fulfill my dream of becoming a chauffeur of my wife?

My answer is ‘None of the above’. I work and stay in this Company not because of how cool it is because it wasn’t really glamourous in the first place.  It is not because of people I am currently working with. Most of all, it’s not because of the bananas at the pantry every Monday (Belle, I find the ‘apple banana” hard to chew).

It’s all because of only one reason. I want to empower people. To be part of the the solution to the financial inclusion problem in this side of the world through the power of choice. I want them to realize the power of choice. That they have a choice.  All they need is something that can lead them to know what they don’t know that platforms like CompareAsiaGroup can bring to the world.

I now know why I was asked that question exactly four years ago. I got 24 hours in a day. Six to seven hours are for sleeping. And the remainder? It needs to be spent in unleashing the people’s power of choice towards healthier financial lives.