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Ex-CEO of Fave Joel Neoh shares how he turned S$6,000 into millions

Joel Neoh just turned 40 but already has 15 years of startup experience under his belt. Is he retiring for good?

Joel Neoh, former CEO of Fave
Joel Neoh, former CEO of Fave (Sulin Lee)

SINGAPORE — Perhaps turning 40 has something to do with it but after 15 years of being a serial entrepreneur, co-founder of payment app Fave, Joel Neoh, is pushing the pause button – or so he says.

In March 2023, Neoh took a break from Fave after helming the company as its chief executive officer for eight years – he remains a shareholder and advisor at the company. Last year, the company said it achieved its all-time highest volume of payment transactions. Fave was also acquired by Indian fintech player Pine Labs for US$45 million (S$60.4 million) in 2021.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance Singapore, Neoh said that he had been waiting for an opportunity to leave "on a high". Yeoh Chen Chow, who co-founded Fave with Neoh and served as its chief operating officer, succeeded him in the top post.

"We're coming off a very strong growth last year, and I looked at the team and felt that 'hey, you know, maybe this is a good time for me to take a break'," said Neoh, who remains invested in a slew of startups and companies.

"There's never a good time, right? Because there are always things you want to do in a company. I thought 15 years of entrepreneurship is a good time to take a pause. I'm turning 40 this year, you know?"

Neoh has made a name for himself in Southeast Asia's startup landscape. He co-founded Fave in 2015 as an offline-to-online payments app for businesses and consumers after seeing the rise of mobile payments in China. But his entrepreneurial journey did not begin there.

From engineer to entrepreneur

Coming from a "typical Malaysian middle-class" family in Kuala Lumpur, Neoh studied engineering at the behest of his parents — both of whom were teachers. "When I graduated, they photocopied my graduation certificate and were shipping it out, trying to get me job interviews because they were quite worried that I didn't want to become an engineer," Neoh recalled.

By that point, Neoh said he already had entrepreneurial aspirations even if explaining it to his parents proved difficult. His chance came in 2007 when he joined a corporate reality TV show called The Firm the Malaysian version of Donald Trump's The Apprentice. He won the competition three months later.

The following year, Neoh co-founded his first venture, YouthSays, an online youth opinion community which has morphed into today's SAYS.com, an online Malaysian news platform. At the time, Neoh said that he had "about RM20,000 (S$6,000) of savings", gathered through odd jobs and red packets, to start his first business.

"Back then, there was no venture capital or seed funding," said Neoh. "My parents are government servants, so they didn't have much as well... Even when I went to study at university, it was based on partial scholarships and PTPTN loans (Malaysian government student loans)."

In 2010, Neoh saw another opportunity to start a business in Malaysia. The new venture, GroupsMore, was a company that imitated the business model of US e-commerce site Groupon. Within four months, the company was acquired by Groupon and rebranded into Groupon Malaysia. Neoh was appointed its CEO, eventually rising to the position of Groupon Asia-Pacific's Vice President where he oversaw 12 different markets.

His first million

When he earned his first million at the age of 28, Neoh said he put most of it in a fixed deposit account, on the advice of his parents. "Building a startup is risky. While you can be successful, at the same time, there are eight out of ten startups that don't make it," said Neoh. He recalled his mum's advice to diversify, and not to put his eggs in one basket.

His approach to investing is simple: categorise them into low, medium and high risk.

"Cash, fixed deposit, fixed income will be on the lower risk side, and medium risk would be equities in good companies," said Neoh. As for the high-risk portion, Neoh reserves that for investing in other startups, in addition to his own.

What about the first item he bought with his first million?

A Yamaha digital piano that cost between RM5,000 and RM6,000 (between S$1,500 and S$1,800). Neoh still plays the instrument – he taught himself how to play it via YouTube videos.

Dream big, fail fast

At the heart of Neoh's investment philosophy is the desire to create impact. The idea of making lots of money or creating a popular product through entrepreneurship, said Neoh, tends to be over-romanticised.

"I think about 'if this is successful, what is the positive impact that we are actually bringing?' Ideally, if you build something that's related to consumers, you want millions of consumers to benefit from it."

Still, Neoh isn't immune to failures. An example is a product called "FavePay Later" which lasted only a year before it was shelved when Neoh and his team realised that it did not serve the needs of consumers or merchants.

"You've got to dream big, then you start small, and then we scale fast. But we must fail very fast as well," said Neoh. "The process of iteration is when we find the few that are good and scalable, but there were a lot of small projects that failed along the way."

Neoh said that his biggest takeaway from his journey so far is to always remember that "tough times don't last, but tough people do".

"Whenever you're going through a tough time, just remind yourself that it's not going to go on forever. As long as we are tough and surrounded by the right group of people that have the right intentions, eventually, we'll get out of it," said Neoh.

Having gone through the difficulty of starting a company himself, Neoh said that he will always encourage early-stage entrepreneurs to never give up and be open to sharing ideas. According to him, many aspiring entrepreneurs tend to keep ideas to themselves for fear of being judged or having someone else copy their ideas.

"If you don't share it, you'll never be able to get off the ground," said Neoh.

Giving back

While Neoh did not go into specifics about his next move, he made it clear that he truly wants to take a break and spend more time with family and friends and do some travelling.

As to how he would go about contributing, he dropped some hints of his plans: "giving back" to the startup community.

"I've received a lot of support, advice, mentorship and funding. So I feel like this year, maybe I want to give back to the ecosystem in a way where I would put aside some money to invest in other potential founders," said Neoh.

"I would also be looking at some opportunities, potentially, one or two board opportunities that can actually help to spur more startup or entrepreneurship activity in Southeast Asia."

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