EP 182 – Varun Mittal – Group Head of Digital & Ecosystems, Singlife with Aviva – Rapidly Switching Context Between Optimism and Realism


Michael Waitze worked in Global Finance for more than 20 years, employed by firms like Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, primarily in Tokyo.  Michael lived and worked in Tokyo from February 1990 until December 2011.  Michael always maintained a particular focus on how technology could be used to make businesses more efficient and to drive P/L growth. Michael is a leader in the digital media space, building one of the biggest and fastest-growing podcast listener bases in the region.  His AsiaTechPodcast.com show has listeners in more than 170 countries and his company, Michael Waitze Media produces some of Asia’s most popular podcasts.

Varun Mittal

Varun Mittal brings together Singlife with Aviva’s digital and ecosystem capabilities to support the company’s strategy to be technology first and harness data for customer solutions. Prior to joining Singlife in December 2021, he was responsible for FinTech business development in 130 emerging markets across the globe for EY. He has been involved in various technology companies throughout his career and he is co-founder of the Singapore FinTech Association and ASEAN FinTech Network.

This episode is brought to you by:

The Asia InsurTech Podcast spoke with Varun Mittal, the Group Head of Digital & Ecosystems at Singlife with Aviva, about the power of ecosystems and what is needed to improve the ecosystem further in Singapore.

Listen to our previouse episode with Walter De Oude here.

Find the transcript of our conversation with Varun below.

Michael Waitze 0:18
Hi, this is Michael Waitze and welcome back to the Asia inshore tech Podcast. Today we are joined by Varun Mittal, the Group Head of Digital & Ecosystems at Singlife, don’t do it to me, with Aviva. Varun, it’s great to have you on the show. How are you doing today?

Varun Mittal 0:33
I’m very well, super excited to be with you again.

Michael Waitze 0:36
It’s great to have you here. Before we get into the central part of this conversation, what do you think is the biggest trend in insurance, InsurTech innovation in Asia. And I would say by extension, the rest of the world.

Varun Mittal 0:49
One of the biggest thing is what COVID has done to most people is they started to realize value of different things. They started to value wellbeing for themselves in the society and their family. On one side, and on the other extreme, you have two things, anxiety and information overload. Because there was so much of social media and so much of work from home, there was so much information overload on these people. And now you have anxiety on top of that, you have inflation, you have recession fears, and people want to figure out what do they do? So, which is why when when we look at from that perspective, the companies which are saying, Oh, I will get you something which is to protect your umbrella when it rains? Okay, is that the biggest anxiety of my life?

Michael Waitze 1:39
Is this my biggest problem?

Varun Mittal 1:42
So what are the big things which matters? And the big things which matter for people right now, if we look at is what what can I do for my family? What happens to my family if something happens to my job? If something happens to me? And if for example, my business switches because so many businesses were upturned. People had stable jobs in travel, for example, yes, fully upturn. Imagine you were in travel industry for 12 months, 18 months.

Michael Waitze 2:13
You didn’t even think before this happened. You never thought like my job is unstable. all you saw was a growing global economy. A growing globalist economy and thinking people are just gonna keep traveling more and more and more than boom in one day. It’s gone. Sorry. Go ahead.

Varun Mittal 2:27
What else industry? Yeah, entertainment industry? Yeah. So you had few industries which have been changed for good. which have been changed for good.

Michael Waitze 2:38
Can I ask you this? Because this whole idea about information overload and anxiety, right? How do we how do we inform people, which is super important, right? It’s very important that people get informed, but how do we inform them in a way that doesn’t make them any more anxious than they need to be? Right? Like, do we need to have headlines that say, like, you know, what happens if inflation goes to 25%? Which it’s not going to do, but we just have we just do that to get people to click on it? Isn’t there a better way to inform people without scaring them?

Varun Mittal 3:09
So absolutely, as we say that we constantly strive to find a better way to address these things. And a simpler message would be, for example, this coffee costed $3 five years ago, which cost $5 today. How do you prepare to afford this coffee in 20 years from now.

Michael Waitze 3:29
but that’s the better way, right? Because there’s no anxiety, really, you’re not trying to scare somebody into a corner, you’re just saying, here’s the reality of modern life? How do we help you fix that? Which gets back to your thing from before? Sorry, go ahead.

Varun Mittal 3:40
And people do acknowledge and realize that the travel cost, for example, the vacation cost to Bali, 80 years ago, is different today. And that’s, that’s what they know. They’re like, Ah, okay, they know their rent has gone up. So they know. So when you correlate that to something which people already acknowledge, so then there is there is an acceptance, right? Once there’s an acceptance, then there is a much easier way to develop the realization of, okay, if this is going to impact me and my family, what can I do?

Michael Waitze 4:09
So don’t you think it makes sense to make people feel comfortable as opposed to anxious and then if the because from a customer, and I don’t even want to say customer anymore, but from like a partner standpoint, right? Isn’t it better to make your partners feel comfortable so that then you can convince them to do something in a way that’s much easier because they’re so comfortable that you’re just trying to help them as opposed to trying to scare them into doing something? It’s like, you gotta get out of this room otherwise, like, it’s gonna get flooded, and you’re gonna die? Or, hey, you know what, maybe we should prepare for things that we haven’t anticipated. And here’s the way we do that.

Varun Mittal 4:40
I think it Michael slightly even further. Go ahead. Because the way we look at is the definition of what we say what you would like to have his financial freedom. And that would mean different things for me and you exactly what we would want to do is to make you cognizant of what would that mean for you? Because that’s the first thing for one person, it may mean paying off for their kids education. For somebody else, it may mean that okay, as long as I get them through the school, and I have a house of my own, that’s enough, right? So. So what we look at, can I get you to get that Cognizant organism’s level? So I’m not trying to scare you, or convince you to something, I am trying to help you find your Northstar your moral compass. And then once we identify and to answer something, you may have a view that I don’t know, I will figure it out. But to develop that level of organisms, and then you say, now, let me work with you to help you achieve what we just worked out is your North Star. And North Star for you and your best friend are different?

Michael Waitze 5:49
Do you think it’s an which is super important? Right? Yeah. Because even two people that look exactly the same, that have the same sort of what’s the right word, like anonymous data profile, can still have a different psychological profile, and you’ll never going to be able to figure that out just with artificial intelligence and machine learning. I want to know this too. Did the pandemic also teach us that people have like they want interaction with other people? Does that make sense? Like, let me give you my example, when I was at UBS, and when I was at Goldman Sachs, right, we built something called Smart sales trader. That was just one of the brand names that we did. And the reason why it was built was because we had all this information overload and our clients would ask us all the time, hey, how about this? And how about that we’d be like, I just don’t remember. But I’ll get back to you. But we built this thing that then could feed us information in real time. But it never meant that the people that were asking us didn’t want to deal with a human. So there was this like, hybrid thing that they really wanted. Do you think that’s the same thing in the insurance industry as well? Don’t you think that the pandemic taught us that like, I don’t want to be cooped up in my house dealing with machines all day? At some point, I want to talk to a person. Does that make sense?

Varun Mittal 7:00
Absolutely. So what we look at is there are transactional and I would say psychological questions. The transactional questions can be handled at machines level. Sure. So for example, so I’ll give you an example. So let’s assume if I’m feeling headache, and I want to find a doctor, so that time I want to have a few filters in my brain, what is the closest doctor to me, right, which is the doctor where I will find the fastest appointment. And which one will be the cheapest for me are covered most by my insurance. So if this is something acquired, if you put this to a human, that will be painful. Because you have too many permutations and combinations. But this kind of query is better handled by a machine? Because I can I can increase decrease from one kilometer to five kilometer. And my how much longer I’m willing to wait from 15. Imagine if you ask a human becomes complex.

Michael Waitze 8:03
Can you also imagine you just made me think about this, because you use use combinations and permutations. So you turned on my math mind, right? And then you use the word wait. And I’m thinking he doesn’t mean that he means how much time? But imagine, imagine asking your best friend, okay, I want something close to me, I want something where I can book pretty quickly. And I want something with a high rating. But I want you to overweight, the rating for like distance the to to just be like, go ask a machine. Do you know what I mean?

Varun Mittal 8:30
Actually, my point is, I give an example. There are queries where a machine is more powerful. However, if the query were to be reversed, that I want to have an equitable distribution between my kids, but one of I acknowledge that both of my kids may not be doing professionally equally, right. So I want the one which is weaker to get more. And I want advice on how to structure this in a way so that the weaker of my kids get something more so that I try to give them in what they need more from that person, right? That’s something a human or machine would not understand. Because then you need somebody who understands your view, your family dynamics, how would you want to have that financial well being and Family Well Being stitched together to create something which is personalized and customized? Yeah, that’s something machine can never go there.

Michael Waitze 9:26
Not really the right though. There was a You just reminded me of something else, too. There was a TV show in the late 60s and early 70s. That was called Boston space. And one of the characters on it, there was a soul family, right? The Robinson family one of the characters on it was a robot and the robot would have responded to that kind of query with that does not compute because like why would you want to be so unfair, but in the real world, and this is why I think that the hybrid model is so important, is because at some point you’re gonna have to make a human decision. And it just don’t think we’re not there yet with machines and also I want to talk to you don’t want to talk to your computer. And other fact is humans

Varun Mittal 10:03
have biases. For sets of facts. Yeah. So for example, I would have a bias that this dish, I like it hot in a certain way from that specific place. And human biases are not always rational. And give a very simple human rational bias, there are people who would decide to pay off their mortgage, even though they’re better off not paying off that mortgage, because the s&p 500 will return them more money over the 20 year window than paying off. But they want that peace of mind that my house is all paid off. I don’t have any loan on that house. And that peace of mind is so much valuable for some people, that they will potentially give up a bunch of investment gains from that perspective.

Michael Waitze 10:44
Absolutely. Because it matters, right. And again, a machine can’t help decide this. I want to go back to one thing first, though, before we keep going, what is your background? Like? How did you get into all this stuff for people that may or may not know you.

Varun Mittal 10:58
So I had a very traditional background, computer science engineer for Java programmer, I started my career writing software for credit cards did you so write the software, which is inside the credit cards you carry in the pocket? Nice. I used to do that. And from that I moved on to digital payments to run digital payments for SingTel. So this is like way back into 2012 when the credit cards were not as popular, and people were to buy games and everything. So I did that for SingTel and Samsung, to doing payments for digital digital payments, using telco and credit cards and all of those things. Then I did a startup scale very rapidly, which was the first company acquired by and financial outside China. So we went to hunt Joe, and we were the first people to be trained in English because they didn’t have English manuals.

Michael Waitze 11:52
What was the name of the startup? Hello, be? Okay, go ahead. weights, they didn’t have anything in English at all. And nothing even though it’s never bought?

Varun Mittal 12:02
Well, because the nice is they never acquired a company outside China. So the Employee Orientation menus were in manual, they didn’t have employee orientation menus in English. That’s incorrect. They had to actually create one and we were the first batch to go into that English employee onboarding.

Michael Waitze 12:19
What was that whole experience? So like just getting acquired? You know, it feels like it. Here’s the reason why I’m asking. So many things that are associated with the startup community are embedded in this mythology, right? Where like, you’re just eating ramen noodles every night. And then you build this thing. You’re writing code, you don’t talk to your mom for like, three years, you know what I mean? Like your brothers and sisters, forget your life, and then boom, you get acquired, and suddenly you’re a billionaire? Like, what is this whole thing? Really? Like?

Varun Mittal 12:46
It’s not neither side of the things is true. It’s not like you’re three years, you’re eating ramen and all of that stuff? It’s not not that’s just fictional accounts. Yes, there are a lot of ambiguities. For every startup, there are challenges they’re trying to solve with. In some cases, they have like a lot of resources. But I would say less resources than a traditional corporation. And that’s why like, that’s the whole premise of why it’s a startup. And it’s not a SME. Yeah, that’s the difference between an SME and a startup. For sure, that’s the thing. The acquire on its own does not mean much. To be honest. It’s just a milestone. What matters is what it means for the people who are involved in building. Yeah, depending on what is the stakeholders, like, what are the investors there? What is the hand like how much how long the new team needs to stay? What’s the construct, so the way I look at is its equivalent of you moving from junior school to high school, where you will use what you have in the learning. But now you have a new class, or you have to make new friends, you have a different school premises, and you graduate from them. And then you have to excel in that. Because once you move to the new place, your old credentials, and your old success does not mean anything’s gone. You just restart, you’re restarting. Because there’s a new place, you have to go again,

Michael Waitze 14:12
this is such a killer analogy that read particularly for a guy who switched schools so many times when he was growing up. It makes really great sense. It’s starting to crystallize in my mind right now. Right? And again, I moved from Morgan Stanley, to Deutsche Bank to Goldman Sachs and you’re right some of the credibility comes with you but you don’t know anybody in London and you don’t know anybody in New York and you can’t lean on the people that came up with you in the system, right? So you sell Hello paid and financial. But then you join another like, I don’t know what the timing is right. But you know, Singlife at some point was just like a nothing. It was nothing there, but also a rapidly scaling business. And now you’re in charge of growth. Like is there anything you can take from what you learned during that whole original process into this? Even though it’s like joining it’s like going School in Boston and then finishing high school in California kind of thing. You know what I mean?

Varun Mittal 15:05
Absolutely. So the things you can take so for example, the learnings that you know that okay, when you try to build a high frequency transaction system, yeah, well, anything’s gonna happen. When you are building your teams with, like, diverse people. These are the possible scenarios, which can not work out how you build for long term, because a lot of times as a startup, you’re looking only for short term outcomes you’re not looking for, okay, well, what when this thing’s has to scale for a million users, what will happen? It is not designed for that. So a lot of times, so there’s a recent quote, I was learning for the entrepreneurial person or a growth person, the real power is to be able to rapidly switch context between optimism and realism. And the faster you can do the context switching, the more successful you can be.

Michael Waitze 15:57
Maybe that should be the title of this episode, switching contexts between optimism and realism. I love it. But it’s true, though, for the It’s true, though, for startups at scale, I really want to focus on this, though, for a second. And I was just on a call with somebody too, and mentioning this, I take a long term view on everything. Right. I’m not a public company. I don’t think you guys are a public company, either. But I think it’s easier to end at the stage of development, where you are now considering that you are building growth too. How do you, how do you? What’s the right word? How do you fix this balance between short term benefits and being able to show people short term growth and then this long term sustainability of we’re not just growing to make numbers for this quarter for next quarter. But we want to focus on the fact that we feel like we’re going to be around for 2050 70 years. And we want that growth to be sustainable and continual? Do you know what I mean? Cuz that’s hard.

Varun Mittal 16:50
So premises, I’ll give you real examples of how how we we’ve been implementing some of these things, because I give a very simple example, if today you are sick, God forbid, your family is the one who will be taking care of you. But the your family today has no way to find out what coverage Michael has, which hospital what room is covered in your thing, the only way the adults start to go dig up your mirror to find some files, or the call of some agent, because you are sick, you are not you don’t have. And if I were to ask you, would you be open to the idea of giving a full year of whatever coverages you have to three family members of your choice? On a read only basis, not the health insurance coverage,

Michael Waitze 17:40
I understand but still like, yeah, it depends, right? And everybody’s relationship with their family is different. So

Varun Mittal 17:47
or caregiver or friends, you can choose whether it’s friends, family, or who Yeah, people who people who would be if you are, if you are, if you faint on the street, who receives a phone call.

Michael Waitze 17:58
Yeah, like I want my little sister to know everything because I feel like if she knows she’s just gonna be there to help me and I want like one of my best friends to know too because like, You’re right if I fell on the street and hit my head, so

Varun Mittal 18:09
Premises our thesis is whosoever ARIA three emergency contacts. And once you start to put that into real picture, what does that mean? That means that every person has a social nucleus around them, can we can we help tie their social nucleus together with things which really matter and will continue to matter for them? The moment you do that with your little sister and that best friend of yours, they will feel that if I am in trouble, I can trust Michael I should do the same. And when Michael receives the same phone call, he will be the first one to pick up and come in to take care of me or my health and stuff. So, the idea of staying long term I want you to bring you to that social nucleus level, but what do I do in short term. In short term, I help you one consolidate and have a digital passport of yours will you will have open banking and open insurance to pull all your insurance policy from all companies in one place. All your bank accounts from the top seven banks in one place your retirement mortgage SRS CPF in one place, you have that in one place as a consolidated view and I start to give you the ability to selectively share that information Yeah, it will, it gradually it will evolve to the point where the family or a group can have like a combined financial planning. So, our view is that 10 to 1020 years from now, people will look at people will look beyond individual financial planning. People would look at financial planning and financial freedom for people which will matter to them. Because if the people who matter to you are in trouble, there will be some I mean there will be some elements which will be pure personal and there are some elements which will be towards your core nucleus. If and when we build towards that long term view, we can start with short term which we can deliver in next one year. And that starts to create value for you as a, as a consumer today. And that gives you more trust that okay, short term, I’m getting something which I can practically use, we will figure out the journey along the way to the end state. And that’s something we want to travel with our customers together.

Michael Waitze 20:23
Do you see a mindset change in your potential customers here as well, where they are saying, like, I’m now open to, because this idea, and I just want to repeat this, that every person has a social nucleus around them? It’s actually super important, right? These are, these are smaller networks. And in some cases, not so small look, my grandfather said to me, when I was a kid, and it didn’t make any sense to me, then obviously makes a lot of sense to me now, because when you get married, you don’t marry one person, you marry an entire family. And I’m like, well, that’s gonna be a, it’s gonna be a lot of people walking down the aisle kind of thing. But now, I know what he meant. But the point is that if you can build that over stages, right, and you’re building this little ecosystem around you and yourself and your family and interested parties, that should build that sustainable thing. But is there a mindset change among people where they feel like even their insurance policies are kind of private, so that you have to get them comfortable to share, if that makes sense?

Varun Mittal 21:19
So so the way we look at is this, right? We acknowledge that not all things you would want to share, right? But But for example, the stock pitch, like for example, health stuff, where if I’m sick, and my family’s taking into hospital, I need them to know what type they can flash so that they don’t need to pay the whole thing upfront. And, and they can ensure that I can get decent medical care? Would I be open to share? Like, all things probably depends on the scale. But would there be parts so we acknowledge that analytics, social social networks is an example, what you share on LinkedIn as a person, versus what you share on your whatsapp reels, versus what you do on your Instagram market? Very, it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be. I mean, depends. For some people, it’s not enough. For those who’s not is also a fair choice that it’s okay. It’s okay. Their choice. Yeah. So we need we see that different social nuclei around you will be equivalent of your social network profiles. Some people would want it to be very, very close knit and tight towards to the level of a small Whatsapp group. Some people would be slightly more open, some people would be a lot more open. Yeah. And we want to embark on that journey, from a social life to the financial life. So when you are looking that from a perspective of my financial freedom, my path to financial freedom, I can have different some I may be doing investments together with my friends. And I may be investing some stuff for my family. Those are two separate social circles.

Michael Waitze 22:56
They are do you want to talk about this at all, I find this really interesting. You’re building this thing called FinTech nation. And you also wrote a book about it as well. Like, what have you and, and your your writing this about Singapore. So I find Singapore fascinating. And I’ll tell you why. My first time in Singapore was December 1990. Back then, it was a manufacturing hub. We used to go there to shop because it was cheap. Like you could go down Orchard Road and not he’s probably laughing about this. But you could go on Orchard Road and get like high quality goods at a really low price. And obviously that’s changed over time. But Singapore since its founding in 1965 1959, depends when you when you count. Yeah, but real announcement was 65. Yeah. It’s changed so much over time, but it seems very deliberate now that it wants to be FinTech nation. Where does all this stuff that you’re doing fit into that and kind of what has Singapore learned? And like, what have you learned over time, as you’ve been writing this and studying about this? Is that fair?

Varun Mittal 23:53
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So so the genesis of that book came in from the perspective that I was in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem looking at how Israel built itself as a startup nation. Yeah. And they found that there were some things which were incidental, and some things which are orchestrated. Go ahead. So when I started to look back at Singapore’s background in history, I realized that Singapore also had something similar. Yeah, there were some things which were deliberate in some things which are accident, which which which Fortune favors the one who dares kind of thing. Not in the Matt Damon style, but in real life. But, and when we looked at I analyzed, what is the difference between Singapore and some of the other markets. If you look at the background goes all the way back to 1997. Asian financial crisis, the domestic banks in each markets went through their own turbulence and stuff. At that point, a lot of countries looked at liberalizing, and several countries had like international banks calm small banks became some markets like As powerful some markets consolidation and Singapore took a very, I would say unique approach to say. We historically were a financial services hub. And via Singapore financial services hub was because of the dollar trading because it was between New York and London. So it was a perfect time to do Asia Asia desktop dollar trading, that was the foundation of how Singapore became a financial services super on top of import export and from Asia dollar. From that in the in the y2k era, Singapore looked at saying okay, how to look for financial banks champions become and they become regional players. They become regional champions in their their respective and Singapore habits. Some of these codified, like unsaid principles. And when I looked at I codified them into three pillars. One was right first fascinator Singapore has this unique view that we need to be right. It’s okay, we are not the first year Singapore was not the first country to issue digital banking license. Singapore was not the first country to issue digital insurance license. It was also not the first to issue crypto exchange license, and that’s fine. Yeah. So Singapore’s view is we’ll do it the right way. And I give example, on on one of these is later. So second pillar is what we call what we call a single nomics. This is a very unique Singaporean model of economics, where you will have state play a role where it needs to, but it will let private market play and drive as long as it can. But where state needs to come? Because there are bottom like baseline infrastructure or public movements. So I’ll give an example. So digital banks, when Singaporean became the first people asked why Singapore figured out that Singapore actually created a digital banking regulation in 1999. It was called Internet only bank. And for next 21 years, no company actually applied to get the internet only bank really only now Standard Chartered NTUC, enterprise joint venture to one of that, right. So the internet only bank regulation was announced in 1999 2000. Interesting, and the challenge was, it was dial up internet, internet time. Yep. And the reason why they did nobody took it was you have to solve for basics you need to solve for digital KYC, you need to solve for local domestic payments, which right? You need to solve for that infrastructure. If you do not solve for that and you take away the branch, then the bank will not work. Other markets which announced and the rest of the infra was not ready, and then falls apart. So we just fly Singapore waiting for those foundational blocks of Govtech mind for all of those pieces to be put in place. Because then that’s the foundation on which you can build a proper digital banking infrastructure, which is not given only to banks, it’s given to wallets. fintechs others also right. And another example is open banking. So unlike West Windsor, here’s the law. Now you go figure it out. Singapore said, Okay, why do people need open bank? What’s the use case? So the use cases people want a consolidated view of their financial position? Yeah, that’s what but do you need all of that in real time? You can, but like, what will you do it in real time? You can push banks, but to be honest, you put massive cost on financial institutions, yeah. Which where it will not generate that we’re

Michael Waitze 28:37
out. And regular and regular people don’t need real time access to their bet to all of their consolidated stuff. Like they’re not not everyone’s a day trader. And even most people that are day trading, shouldn’t be doing it anyway, go ahead.

Varun Mittal 28:48
Which is why when Singapore put open banking in place, it was a very unique approach. It was a government facilitated process with massive consultation focused on how do we help people get a stock of their positions, plan for their retirement and have a better quality of life? Instead of saying, this is the right everybody must have now go figure it out. Burn millions of dollars. Yeah. So that so the first was right, first, fast later. The second was synonyms. And the third pillar was what we call garden economies. Singapore is a garden nation. And one of when you map it into economy, view, Singapore every few years, it’s a sector of economy. Yeah.And that bed of roses gets all the attention and focus and everything to make it work.

Michael Waitze 29:42
So how long have you been? How long have you been living in Singapore? Were you born and raised? 13 years, 14 years? Yeah. So this is this is the thing about Singapore that’s been so interesting to me. Right. And I think that’s made it a model for like, you know, Dubai’s international financial center and also for the financial centers that are trying to grow in Africa and Burundi and Rwanda. And that is that like, they’ve always done this purposeful thing of like looking into the future and trying to figure out what is going to be important. And sure some of its coincidental right or happenstance, but a lot of it is like you said, gardening where they say, We need to plant the seeds of this thing. How do we plant those seeds? Yeah.

Varun Mittal 30:21
Yeah. So the premise is really, it’s not that easy to clone this and I go back to why financial services became so financial services a regulated industry. So you need to have a respect and fear for regulations in cinah, right way, sometimes respect sometimes fear. Yep. Singapore, Singaporean dialect has a word called kiasu. Which means fear of missing out. So an average Singaporean would Singapore residents would feel that they don’t want to miss out, they want to do the right thing. They don’t want to miss anything. They want to miss the cue, they don’t miss anything. So they will, they will try to be a lot more diligence. So this would be I would say, very contrasted to what, what an Israeli virtue spa would me, which would be that you will just go ball head in that box in a tech setup, when you’re trying to build a fake like a startup or a technician. Yeah, but when you’re looking at FinTech nation, you need a balance between innovation agility on one side, and regulations and governance on the other side. So which is why there are two cultural aspects of the adherence and respect to the system, where it’s not the Silicon Valley attitude, or we will see forgiveness not permission model, you need a balance. And that’s something which is very cultural, ingrained kind of thing. So, which is why I actually advised a couple of Middle Eastern and Caribbean nations on building FinTech hubs there in my previous life, okay. And we had to create a new plan for each, because what we what we designed at that time for, let’s say, a Qatar, versus what we designed for Egypt, versus what we designed for Trinidad and Tobago, very different. Imagine the cultural difference between Trinidad and Tobago and Egypt and Qatar, and their needs and their aspirations. So it’s like a, it’s, it’s more, it’s way more accustomed to it than a readymade t shirt you can buy.

Michael Waitze 32:25
For sure I mean, do you? But also, do you think that Singapore benefits from the fact that we’re almost I don’t know if you want to call it second generation or third generation of startups now and third generation or second generation of founders, but like, once you build something from scratch, turn it into like a viable business. Is there some responsibility may be the wrong word, but isn’t there some sort of kind of like big brother little brother, big sister, little sister thing of looking around at the rest of the startups and saying, hey, you know what, there may be a way for us to help you because we figured out some of this stuff and particularly for someone like you who’ve been through hyper growth, twice, at least you know what I mean?

Varun Mittal 33:02
Yeah, so absolutely. So there will be a lot of mentoring. There will be like, so we already have like founder capital, helping other founders, we have local, even like, to FinTech nation evolved to create like a FinTech nation investment Syndicate, where a lot of founders come together to fund the next generation of founders. Because we all know each other, we will pull together money to invest in other founders as a FinTech nation point and syndicate model. So we have a lot of those. But what’s important at that point, there is one part which is lacking, to be honest, is public markets. Singaporean tech and fintech startups have not tested and tasted what it takes to be public markets.

Michael Waitze 33:44
Where would they go public? Right? Because here’s the thing. If you’re a FinTech in Singapore, it’s gonna be hard to list on the NASDAQ.

Varun Mittal 33:55
Oh, I disagree. Because you see premises this. Singapore is Europe based market, right? It’s not the only market. I mean, if you look at the number of companies from Israel, which listing in US, it’s huge, right. And Israel is what seven and a half a million people we have five and a half million people not so different inside.

Michael Waitze 34:14
Not so different in size. And GPP per capita are similar as well. Yeah. Like Israel is not a poor country. Singapore is a rich country. They’re very similar, right?

Varun Mittal 34:25
Exactly. So which is why so I do not I, so I said, NASDAQ, London, wherever. So the premise is public markets creates a very different kind of structure and mindset, how you hire people, how you reward people, how you retain people. The moment you do m&a as a public company versus a private company is absolutely different ballgame.

Michael Waitze 34:48
But is it better. Here’s here’s what I think. And I’m willing to be wrong on this. If you’re a public company, you may start taking a more short term vision of like how to build things right. In other words, if you’re a private company, you can say we’ll get to that in time, but your public shareholders can say to you, hey, look, last quarter didn’t grow the same as the previous quarter. And last year your growth is slowing and all this other stuff? I don’t know, what’s your view on that balance?

Varun Mittal 35:13
To be honest, some of the biggest innovations have a lot of big innovations that come from big public companies also. I mean, I mean, what isn’t Apple ecosystem innovative for that matter? Right? It’s a massive public company, what Amazon for that matter? So I do not think that it’s a public or private makes a difference? It’s a question of, can you explain to your stakeholders what is the rationale and their timelines in the potential upsides and downsides for this, the idea is that for an ecosystem to mature if you look at the lifecycle of an ecosystem, so today, that ecosystem only has the trade sale, part of the things right, and trades, it also will have like either you need to find Southeast Asian buyer or global buyer who needs to come in. So which is why to complete the full lifecycle, you want a scenario where you have founders who exit list and recycle and run the next number, second, second, second unicorn, the third unicorn beyond that, right? So which is which is something which I believe Silicon Valley, for example, because when a founder, to be honest, when a founder is leading a company of let’s say, 20 million, 30 million valuation, versus the skills, he or she needs to run a $800 million company, so different verses, he or she needs a $2 million listed company, and different skills vary, we have to grow that muscle in our people. And that may mean that we may need to bring in some people who would have probably done that in some shape and form. Some of our people will learn it. But that’s something because we are good at like series ABC, probably D in some shape and form. Maybe. Yeah. So if I look at long term view, that’s what I would want to see that I would, I would, I would be, I would be very proud of the day, Singapore can put five founders on table who have listed companies and they can guide the next 10. Guys, guys, this is how you need to transform your culture, your operations, your marketing, to plan to go public at that stage. So the day we reach that, that’s my milestone.

Michael Waitze 37:14
So let me ask you, let me ask you the interim thing, though, right, that’s a great milestone to have. But in the interim, can companies that have built themselves into sustainable companies? What’s their responsibility? Like what Singlife’s responsibility? And what do they do what a big what a big established now previous startup companies do to help even just the local ecosystem to build Yeah.

Varun Mittal 37:37
Even examples will be launched recently, a program called ODC, we believe, they are all startups and SMEs want to digitize, but it’s very tough for them to find all the solutions and get like a decent deal in that place. Because they’re individuals and even for companies who want to help them digitize, whether it’s a cloud provider or an expense management provider. The longtail is a problem for both sides and we created an open ecosystem platform where we aggregated, I will say 1015 of these providers, including the likes of Pay Pal Grab, we aggregated them on one side. And we brought the SMEs on the other side says no strings attached, you can come and you can claim all of these, we just want to help you succeed and achieve digitization and improvement of productivity at your site. So it’s the first time and industry player would come in and say I’m opening it to you even if you are not my customer, and that’s fine. I’m okay with that.

Michael Waitze 38:36
What’s the response to that though? I’m curious.

Varun Mittal 38:42
It also reminds us we’ve seen a lot of inquiries on that. Because one people are like, Okay, so what’s the catch?

Michael Waitze 38:48
Yeah, what does it mean that the idea was like, there must be, if it looks too good to be true, maybe it is too good to be true kind of thing. Go ahead, which is

Varun Mittal 38:55
why we are really working with our partners to explain to them, the concept is that we believe that if our SMEs in our ecosystem become more efficient, they become better at productivity that will increase that will improve the overall livelihoods of their employees, their customers and lift the economy, and which which ultimately will benefit us. So the way stripe, for example, says their mission is to improve the GDP of internet. So we believe that if we can improve the life quality of lives of our constituents that will create second order third order effects for us and we are happy with that. We are not trying to say okay, there must be a sale on the day one, if you grow if you succeed, if you accelerate. I’m sure on the journey, we can find areas where we may have relevance to support you in your journey.

Michael Waitze 39:43
Right. Yeah, I mean, look, I say this to a bunch of people all the time, and that is, if everybody’s getting wealthier, it’s better for you. In other words, if they’re increasing the size of the pie, it has to help you. They’re not taking stuff away from you. Do you want your neighbors to be in abject poverty And you have to like, step over them when you leave your mansion? Or do you want your neighbors to also be super wealthy and help them? Because it just has to be better for the world? If everybody’s better off? That’s what I think. Absolutely, absolutely. Before I let you go, I want to ask you about this too. You’ve been involved in like everything from computer science to building growth companies and to exits. Do you invest as well? And if you do, if you’re also an investor, because now you’re looking at it from the other side of what Odyssey is trying to do, right? And if you’re looking at it from an investor standpoint, how has that changed the way you look at companies that are trying to grow or scale? Or even building new products from scratch, if you know what I mean? Yep.

Varun Mittal 40:44
So personally, I have a small family office from which I invest in early stage startups. And the way I look at when I’m investing the Personal Capital from there is, I look forward to companies which are working on a circular theme, where we know so we have like three tests on every company we want to invest. Okay. So we look at wave test that we look at, are you riding a wave, for example, SME digitization? Yep, the number of SMEs, which started to replace paper, from that perspective, is huge, right, and they’re not going to go back, they are not ever gonna go back. If you are working in that business, the fact that the market for SMEs to go digital will only grow. And as long as you are two or two, top three providers, one of the top three providers, there will be business for you. And you will continue to do well. Yeah, so that’s an example of you look at are you looking at a wave, that’s one model we looked at. The second test we apply deploy is what we call as grasp test. So we believe that every time there is a storm or a flood, the ones which are swept away are the big heavy trees, which are very egoistic, and reject something which survives, something which survives are the grass, because they have the humility to not go head on, they have humility to bend down. And then once the water recedes, they will back come back up. So that’s something we look at. From that perspective. Can

Michael Waitze 42:29
I ask you this before you get to number three, how do you test for hubris? And ego?

Varun Mittal 42:34
Oh, it’s very simple. It’s actually very simple. Tell me you ask the person that Okay, have you ever changed your prices? Pricing of your products? Very simple. Have you changed pricing of your product?

Michael Waitze 42:45
And what if they say no? And if they say no, that means like, they’re just so stuck on themselves? Like, how does that? Well,

Varun Mittal 42:50
it’s not there is no right answer. It’s the question is like, depends, like if they explain like, Okay, if we have not changed it for this reason, maybe they have a right reason. Yeah. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. Like, we’re not saying it’s wrong wrong, per se. It’s not wrong, per se, it’s depends. And which is why like, you ask them scenarios that okay, if you were to pivot, for example, why would you pivot? How would you pivot? Like, okay, what’s your plan B. So I’ll give you an example. Right? So we have seen companies. So we had a very, very interesting company, which was doing sauces like very nasty cheese sauce. And it was a direct to consumer brands initially. And during COVID, the direct to consumer was not as great. And they figured out scenarios that people like chili, and there’s this kind of stuff in bars. So they ended up doing partnership with the bars and stuff. And they became a b2b, b2c company from a b2c company. Writing just on the chin.

Michael Waitze 44:01
I love it. It’s a great example.

Varun Mittal 44:05
So which is why like, it depends on which is why again, you cannot get get it right every time. The key question there is when you talk to the talk to the founders, you discuss with them that what are the scenarios if this thing doesn’t work out, which is okay, which is very normal. Yeah. What do you do that? What’s, what’s your scenarios, and that helps you understand. And honestly, sometimes it’s okay to be egoistic, it’s not wrong. But then you need investors which which have a mindset. So there are investors who, for example, who want to go contrarian bets. There are contrarian bets can create outside outcomes also, sure, what I do is I don’t do as much of contrarian Yeah, I am more like, I’ll go with the flow from that perspective, and choose the battles I want to find. And the third test we do is sand test. sand sand is the most malleable A player. Sand can be a bunker buster for you. I mean, the bunkers will have sandbox sandbags at it. And sand will be used as for concrete to build the thing. The ability to maneuver and it’s important for early stage companies are the people willing to switch roles are the people willing to switch gears and this goes back, I think I mentioned the team which is right for a $20 million valuation company may not be right for when they become $500 million. Some people may have to switch roles may have to switch gears may need to acknowledge that they set up a function where they are not the head anymore. So that ability to acknowledge the other side switching the context. The switching of that context is what because sand is the best example in nature of switching context. It can create a sand dunes, it can create a sand storm, and it can protect your house from the same thing as well. It creates a glass it creates diamond. Sand is the perfect example. It can soak in water, but it can be concrete. So which is where sand is the epitone for context switching for us. So we do wave grass and sand. And that’s how we look at any company personally.

Michael Waitze 46:20
I love it clearly. You’ve put a lot of thought into this Varun Mittal, the Chief Growth Officer at Singlife with Aviva.

Episode 250