I quit my London IB job for an early shot at Singapore fintech. It paid off

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You work in banking for about 10 years, you spot a gap in the market, and you launch a start-up – that’s how you’re supposed to break into fintech. But that's not the path that Gerben Visser took.

From 1999 to 2011 he worked in banking, initially for Citi in his native Holland and then for BAML and RBS in London. At RBS Visser reached director level in the global banking and markets division and was on course to make MD.

“But by 2011 I wanted to take control of my career and not have it dictated by an HR manager,” he says. “Banks had given me great exposure, but I needed to do something more meaningful.”

Visser decided he would move into fintech and move to Singapore, a country which at the time had “no fintech infrastructure to speak of”.

“I took an educated guess that because the Singapore government is pro-business and good at executing its plans, it would soon start pushing Singapore as a fintech hub, just as it had done in other industries. I wanted to get my hands in at an early stage,” he explains.

“I also moved here because Singapore is entrepreneurial, is a gateway into the region, and is a big city without many of the big-city problems you get in a place like London, such as bad public transport.”

Instead of launching his own specialist tech company, however, Visser wanted to play a wider role in putting Singapore on the global fintech map. “It was becoming apparent that fintech in the US and Europe was coming together as an ecosystem – I wanted to encourage a similar thing in Singapore,” he says.

In 2012 Visser launched IncubAsia Ventures, an early-stage VC company which has invested in several tech start-ups across Asia Pacific. Two years later he co-founded the Singapore FinTech Consortium, an incubator platform which organises industry events, helps local fintech firms with research, and links them to government bodies, financial institutions, corporates, and investors.

“There are more than 300 start-ups in Singapore and global fintechs are moving here too – the consortium is a way to bring this sector together,” says Visser.

He believes most Singapore start-ups should target Southeast Asia if they are to succeed long term. They should also play to Singapore’s current strengths as a financial centre: asset management and wealth management, for example, rather than investment banking.

“While Singapore only has 5m people, it can become a global fintech powerhouse because of its connections to Southeast Asia, which has 600m. Many consumers and companies there are under-banked and might naturally turn to mobile fintech rather than traditional lenders,” says Visser.

“There’s now a broad range of start-ups here focused on financial inclusion, which is a real issue in Southeast Asia – whether that’s for SMEs or for handling remittance for migrant workers,” he adds.

Visser doesn’t think Singapore is in competition with Hong Kong to become the preeminent centre for Asian fintech. “The better question is, how do the two cities work together to build cross-border businesses? Can the two regulators do more passporting, for example, so a fintech started in one market can easily set up operations in the other?”

The Singapore FinTech Consortium is recruiting this year, says Vesser. “We’re now in growth stage ourselves and are looking for people in roles such as business development, marketing and research.”

“In fintech, you need to find someone with the right personality – who’s prepared to share the pain of the business,” he adds. “But it’s becoming less difficult to hire in Singapore fintech as people understand that the big banks won’t always provide a secure long-term career.”

Visser says moving from being a banker to an entrepreneur himself was still a “big change”. “You have to alter your mindset and accept failure – see it as ok.”

“When I was in IBD the landscape was pretty simple – 10 or so banks competing against each other. Now in fintech it’s totally different. It’s about open-sourced technology, it’s decentralised, and it’s about collaborating.”

Image credit: ismagilov, Getty

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