I quit HSBC for a Singapore start-up that failed, but my new fintech firm is booming

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I quit HSBC for a Singapore start-up that failed, but my new fintech firm is booming

The hurdles of fintech

When I was younger I was never an outspoken girl. I was a nerd at heart, enjoying solitude and being confined to the four corners of my comfort zone.

Now – just seven years after graduating – I’ve already quit banking, experienced the trauma of a company failure, and turned my career around by launching a now-thriving fintech firm in Singapore.

Growing up, in typical nerdy fashion, I was intrigued by the world of numbers and the process of making some sense out of it.

So I left Singapore in 2005 and I completed two degrees: a BSc in Actuarial Science at LSE and an MSc in Financial Mathematics at Stanford.

After a short stint in investment consulting at Mercer I moved into an equity capital markets role at HSBC back in Singapore in 2010.

Of course, I found that being in finance had its perks: high-profile pitches and very attractive remuneration among them.

But I just couldn’t see myself doing investment banking for the rest of my life. I wanted to break out of my 'golden career cage' (endlessly climbing the ladder at a big bank) and actually create something.

So in 2013, when I was still only an associate, I said goodbye to my banking career and embarked on my first start-up venture, a geo-located social-media app called BlastOut.

With every new company, luck and timing are of the essence and these two elements were lacking in BlastOut unfortunately, which led to its demise.

When Daniel, my BlastOut co-founder, asked “so what do we do now?”, I replied, “back to finance, where we came from”.

But I didn’t mean returning to work in a bank.

Starting up again

We had a eureka moment when we found the one thing that all financial market participants needed but never had a good solution to: reliable price monitoring and alerts across a range of asset classes in real-time.

Our current company, Call Levels (i.e. call me back when the price reaches this level, a phrase often heard on trading floors), was born from this idea.

Bootstrapped for cash after our first company didn’t work out, I took on whatever tasks were thrown in front of me, relearning and learning everything from scratch – accounting, HR, PR, marketing, and every nitty-gritty aspect of managing the business.

I’ve typically been a bit awkward in social scenarios (still am, sometimes), so getting my hands dirty didn’t always come easy.

I had to force myself completely out of what was left of my social cocoon by networking with as many people as possible about Call Levels.

Gone were the days when I could simply name drop the big bank I was working for and immediately get recognition from everyone.

When you first work in fintech you are a nobody, so you must learn to swallow your pride and deal with rejections 99% of the time.

But that doesn’t mean you give up, in fact you work even harder for that 1% of business.

And through hard work, doors have opened up for me during the past two years.

I’ve also learnt to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and to never let my old fears hold me back. These days I always seek help when hit with a problem I can’t immediately solve.

I’ve learnt my own limitations since setting up Call Levels. I eventually released my grip and hired specialist people to work for us, and this has helped us to grow the business 20-fold in just 12 months.

The funny thing is that outsiders view the world of start-ups as all ‘rainbows and unicorns’, but the grittier side – where founders fail, then toil and hustle to succeed – is often overlooked.

Persistence and a fighting spirit are key in fintech. If I had chosen to give up after my initial failures and return to banking, Call Levels wouldn’t even exist, let alone be where it is today.

I used to get a lot of negative questions like, “do you regret ditching your investment banking career for a start-up?”. But now people just ask, “are you enjoying your new career?”

You bet I am.

Singapore-based Cynthia Siantar is the co-founder of fintech company Call Levels. She appears in Forbes Magazine's '30 under 30' list for finance and venture capital in Asia.

Image credit: miljko, Getty

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