How I Launched This Company
How I Launched This Company explores the path of entrepreneurs and innovators in the Asia-Pacific region. From challenges faced to lessons learned, we will join them on their journey as they share how they got to where they are today.
Join us this week as we meet with Rosaline Chow Koo, Founder and CEO of CXA Group
Welcome to Rosaline, but who I've known for many, many years. So I'm going to take, take the plunge and call you Roz.
And I think you said your team doesn't like to say the whole name either, just because it takes too long.
So we're going to exactly.
But I put your I've known you for over 20 years. I'll tell people and they'll know that we're over 20.
Over 40. So let's, let's not. Roz Chow Koo, who is a CEO and founder of CXA.
And we're delighted to have you on today at the Cloudflare TV to talk about how you built and launched this company, which is really well known in Singapore.
And for those of you who are on from other places, what I'd like to do is have you and actually not just Singapore, because I know you've grown throughout Southeast Asia.
So before we get into all the amazing things you've done, can you just tell us a little bit about CXA?
Yeah, it is.
So CXA helps employees take control of their company insurance spend. So instead of waiting until you're sick and in the hospital, you can instead use the money for early diagnosis for discovering any diseases you have and for getting healthier.
So we help people and companies redeploy the money for healthier employees.
So what you're saying is for whatever that employee, the employer might spend for my insurance program, then that money becomes, it's fungible.
So it goes more into prevention and wellness.
Exactly. Exactly. We shift the money. Is that a choice that the employer makes or the employee makes?
Like, could I just go in?
Employee, but do my employer have to sign up with you first? Like how does, how does that?
Yes. So employers have to sign up with us first and then employees get our app and then they use our app to choose their insurance.
Also, if, if, if their spouse is already working for someone else that covers their, their insurance for the whole family, they can free up money, you know, and, and use that to get healthier, or they can use it for their parents, for caregiving, for visiting them in the village, if they're far away or for their kids.
So yeah, we allow people to take control and personalize to their own life stage and their health needs.
So can you give me an example of what, like a younger person might use who is healthy, or an older person who doesn't have kids anymore, just to give us some idea of what this is?
So a lot of young people use it to go to the gym for yoga, to get contact lenses, to get massages, to do sports.
A lot of older people use it for maternity, because it's not always covered, or for their kids or for their parents.
So they actually tailor it to themselves. And so can you tell us a bit about your personal history?
You have a fascinating history. I've had the privilege of hearing it a few times.
I know you've been in Singapore for a long time, but you're originally from the US.
And what I love is that you're rare in that this wasn't the first thing you did or the second, you know, it took you a while to become a startup founder.
So let's hear a little bit about your career and what's driving you and how you got to this stage.
So I have been here for 24 years.
Came here from New York City. And I was the trailing spouse. So I wasn't working because I didn't expect to move here.
We're supposed to move to London. So when we moved here, I was Mrs.
Koo. I lost my identity. So I popped out a couple of kids.
But then I joined a friend's startup and launched his company in 1999 during the dot-com.
Bain Capital found me and I launched a second startup in 1999. And after that, I joined one of my clients from the startup, which was an insurance company.
Moved from there to Mercer Marsh, where I was the head of Asia Pacific, the 14 countries.
We grew 800% in my time there. But all of our clients complain, not just about us, but about the entire industry.
So they complain about one size fit all benefits.
They complain about the rising costs of healthcare. They complain about paper-based physical paper receipts.
And so I tried to convince my company. And I was already on the operating committee in New York to give me $10 million to fix the technology.
But five years later, I never gave up. They never said yes. So I was not able to convince them.
So I decided to spend $10 million on my own to fix the issues that I found in the industry and build CXA.
So this is a passion project for me.
And when did you start working on CXA? I was 51. I started seven years ago.
So I'm almost 59 now. So I'm hoping I can get somewhere before I turn 60.
Yeah, I saw one of your articles, right? We talked about this the other day, that you want to have a unicorn before you're 60.
And you said you might extend a little Yes, yes, maybe else before I'm 70.
You're getting close. So tell me a bit about the process.
Did you start just by yourself? Did you find some co-founders? How many people do you have now?
Where are you now? So I did start by myself in my living room, since I had taken my husband's money and my money and children's money.
So my kids are back in your living room now. I am in my living room.
This this is like my second living room. We're in a different living room. The other living room was much bigger.
So I did start on my own.
I was the only founder. And I hired some of my ex employees to join me and interns and my family.
So yes, but now we have about three over 300 people in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Jakarta, soon Bangkok.
So does that mean you cover individuals? So you have this plan for people in all those markets?
Yes, we do. We do. We help cover companies. And they cover their employees.
But it actually changed about a year ago. We're also now white label by banks and insurance companies for their corporate customers, their high net worth and their retail customers.
So we go directly to corporates, but also insurers and banks also white label us.
Wow. So what are the bulk of the 300 people do?
Are these sales people's customer service reps? Are they half of them are tech?
Okay, so half are tech and product. So we've evolved into a tech company.
What so are you saying you didn't think of yourself as a tech company before and now you do?
Well, I started as a digital broker, digitizing the whole brokerage journey.
And over time, we became more and more tech. And we started integrating the health screening, we digitize the insurance companies, and then we started digitizing the gyms, the telemedicine, the clinics, the doctors, the dentists, so the whole ecosystem.
So we've evolved more and more into a pure tech company.
That's interesting. And so half of your folks are doing the development for you.
Exactly, exactly. Does that mean you don't outsource it at all?
You've hired all your own engineers and built your own tech stack? Exactly. Yes, our own product, product management and our own tech stack.
So we have a Vietnam hub in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as a China hub for tech people and a Singapore hub.
So our tech people are located in three locations. Where in China, just out of curiosity?
They're in Shanghai and Beijing. Okay, so you've really found four different places to hire strong.
Yes, we had no choice. We were only in Singapore before, but we couldn't find enough tech people here in Singapore.
It's too small.
So we really did have to go to Ho Chi Minh, Shanghai, Beijing to hire more.
And how have you funded this, Roz? I know you said in the beginning, you took your own money and your kids' money, but I also think that's made it to universities, so you mustn't have taken all of it.
So I've heard lots about you around town, so I suspect you got some other investors.
Can you tell us about them and where you are in that journey now?
Yeah, so after my husband said no more family money, he wouldn't allow me to take any more family money because he went back to work.
He actually was retired when I took the money, so he had to go back to work, but took away my token and my bank account.
I actually had to go get venture funding.
So we have raised $60 million in venture money, led the first round by OpenSpace.
We were their second investment after Gojek. And then Series B was led by Edoardo Sovereign and B Capital, along with the Singapore Government Economic Development Board Investment Fund.
And then we had a convertible note round led by Aviva and HSBC Bank.
And are you done? Are you finished raising money? No, so today we've just appointed Goldman Sachs to actually lead our Series C fundraising.
So today is the start of the new round.
Wow. And the new round is to carry you for how many more years?
What's the general idea, or what countries of growth? Are you allowed to share any of that?
Yeah, so it's for the next two years before we go IPO or trade sale.
This should be the last round. And it's to expand us across Southeast Asia.
So this is to extend us to more markets, to the other markets. So what are the big markets that you're missing?
Did I not hear Indonesia? Yeah, so we're headed to Thailand, Indonesia, probably Taiwan, and later India.
So yeah, across Southeast Asia.
Well, India might quibble with being in Southeast Asia. Exactly.
Yeah, we're also hit the Philippines and Malaysia. So we'll get across Southeast Asia.
Wow. And how do you do that? Do you do that with partnerships with other brokers or with?
We do. So what's happened over the last couple years is that the largest banks and their insurance companies have white labeled us for their clients.
So for example, OCBC launched their new Health Pass app, where we integrated health screening and telemedicine.
So access to teledoctors who can deliver the medicine for you, where you can upload your medical records and get access to inexpensive, affordable Teladoc.
And they launched that because coming out of lockdown, people were still afraid to go into the clinics.
So here's a way that the bank helped their customers access remotely for doctor care.
So actually, this is maybe an interesting point to take up, why don't you tell us a bit about how Segway impacted your, how Segway, Segway into how COVID impacted your business?
Because obviously, we know a lot of hospitality and heavily impacted some businesses like e-commerce, and other businesses that are digitizing have gotten a big push because all of a sudden, people who maybe hadn't gone digital yet, were like forced to because they didn't want to touch any payment devices or touch any goods.
So how did this work for CXA? It actually helped us. Okay. Because the insurance companies discover that no one wanted to meet face to face with their agents.
And the banks discover that no one wanted to go into their branches, you know, or see their bankers.
So because banks cross sell insurance to their face, they both needed to go digital.
And there was heightened awareness of health, and, you know, preventing disease.
And then because of the economic downturn from COVID, customers were demanding cost savings.
So CXA happened to be in the right place at the right time.
We can help firms go digital because we digitize the entire journey.
We are focused on health and wellness. And because we've eliminated the intermediaries, we can bring cost savings.
So cheaper doctors, cheaper gyms, cheaper insurance, because we eliminate the middlemen for insurance companies, we eliminate the third party administrator that actually links up all the clinics, we eliminate the brokers and the agents.
So once you get rid of all that cost, you can have cheaper doctors, cheaper insurance.
And so that's what we were able to do. So COVID actually accelerated our growth much faster than we expected.
So are you able to, I'm sure as you're raising money, you've put together some statistics.
And I also, I'm sure you don't want to share them all.
But, you know, did COVID do anything like accelerate your growth another 5% from what you thought or push your cost down by 3%?
Or is there anything in that vein that you're able to share? We can't share too much.
But we can say that we have way more demand than we have capacity, which is why we're doing the fundraising.
Because if we're first movers to help the banks integrate the whole health ecosystem, we want to be able to invest now, you know, as a first mover, because this hasn't been done before.
So are you saying, because when you were describing this, it made me think that insurance companies were your main customers, but you've been focusing quite a bit on the banks now, are you finding that the banks are bigger customers than the insurance companies at the moment?
So most of the banks we work with own insurance companies.
I see. So these are the ones we work with first is the banks that do own insurance companies.
And if they can use our platform to cross sell, not just insurance, but banking, then it's a great combination.
And this insurance is health insurance only, right?
Because I know a lot of banks own life insurance, or in general.
It's life insurance, health insurance, cancer insurance, auto insurance, homeowners insurance, travel insurance.
So it's whatever can be sold to an individual.
I see. It's interesting, because since we both live here, I noticed that my bank at the very beginning of the pandemic offered me COVID insurance for free for a couple months, I think, to try to get me on board.
So were they doing that through you and through the insurance companies that you had bought to them?
And did they get a lot of customer acquisition that way? They did. Yes. We also found we sold a lot of mask and sanitizers.
So how does that work? Why is selling a mask and sanitizer part of health insurance?
Yeah, so because we're not just insurance, we're converting money to other things for people to get healthier.
So we include e commerce and integrate access to gyms, dentists, yoga, Pilates, diabetes management, masks, sanitizers, ventilators, vitamins, supplements.
So it's the whole range. But I understand there were physical, so prescriptions, and then you could extend to over the counter, which would include masks.
Exactly. Yes. Yes. So if we switch off of COVID for a minute, because I suppose people do get sick of talking about it from time to time, you know, our only our only topic these days, with a few political elections in the background as well.
Can you talk to me about hurdles you've had to overcome? You've been on this journey for seven years, bigger series C is super impressive, but there may be have been some obstacles.
And I think on the entrepreneurial journey, people love to hear how founders like yourself have kind of run into obstacles and gone over them or around them.
So yes, you're any you're willing to share. So the biggest obstacle we went through, everyone has funding obstacles, but they find some way to get through it.
So the biggest was when we signed up our first bank to become their platform, we discover that we have to be bank standard.
So for the tech to pass the bank, infrastructure, security, data, privacy, and all of the other requirements, cybersecurity requirements, we actually had to migrate our technology to, you know, very high end microservices for the connectivity and for the scale.
So our old platform was not good enough, the ones that we use for corporates for their employees.
So we had to upgrade. And that was a major, major shift from us just digitizing, you know, our brokerage to becoming a massive tech company.
So that was our biggest change.
How long ago? Initially, that was two years ago. So initially, we didn't have the experience.
What's that? You do it after the deal was inked?
Or did you have to punt and spend the money on this in hopes of getting the bank deal?
So we had an MOU, we ran a pilot, and they were very happy with the pilot, then they showed us the huge amounts of requirements to get to a contract.
So we we actually hired an outside firm, because we didn't have the technology experience to become a massive platform like that an enterprise grade bank platform.
So we we hired ThoughtWorks to to help us build that. And then we took everything in house.
But that was when that was our big change. Just working directly with corporates to becoming bank standard enterprise tech.
So but did that then enable you is that that sounds like you've met bank standards now.
So does that enable you to work with banks all across Asia?
And it's standard for Singapore?
Yes, all across Asia. So now we we know we can do that. So we've passed three bank standards.
And so we know we can pass any bank standard. It'll take a lot for someone else to catch up to us.
So you're a prime mover. You're also I think, called insure tech.
Sometimes do people talk about that the way they talk about? Yes, they call us insure tech.
But now we've touched fintech since we're the bank platform.
And we also integrate the health ecosystem. So some call us a health tech company.
Wow. And are there any other players in your field that you keep an eye on?
Or are there people that you see in other markets that you either model yourself on or get ideas from?
So there are a lot of employee benefits players that do it directly for HR for corporates.
But no one has become a bank platform that integrates telemedicine for the banks or the insurers, you know, and the clinics.
So we're, we believe we are first in the world.
And I'm sure it'll take someone else, you know, a lot, they have to overcome many hurdles to get to where we are now.
But, you know, we've successfully overcome those hurdles. Sounds pretty interesting.
Ross, let me ask you, you know, you're a sole founder, I know you've built some strong teams over time.
But where do you go for advice? I mean, one of the things we hear from entrepreneurs is pretty lonely at the top.
And I think it's lonely at the top for all CEOs.
But it's probably even harder when you're trying to build a business and you have these major obstacles that you've, you know, some of which you've shared with us, how do you get advice?
Where do you go? So I get advice from a three time entrepreneur, he's Singaporean, he built three companies in the US, all three were successful to trade sales, one IPO.
And he's back here in Asia.
So he's already gone through all the hurdles. So whenever I have a tech issue or business issue, I do go to him.
He turned me down, he didn't invest in us because we didn't have enough atoms, we had too many humans and not enough digits back then.
So and now we're too big for him, but I still go to him for advice. Right.
And he does this as a favor? Or have you had to pull him in as a an advisor?
How do you or he just grows to like has grown to like you? I think, I think he's just very supportive.
So he's not a formal advisor, but he knows I go to him for emergencies.
And I typically tell him, you know what, you were right, I should have done that sooner.
Okay. And while we're on advice, what kind of advice would you give to people who are not as far along in their entrepreneurial journey?
I mean, really, I know Series C isn't finishing, but to have Goldman Sachs running your financing is pretty impressive.
That means you've come a long way, seven years, big bank deals, bank qualified, you're much further along than many people.
So it would be great to just hear any tips and tricks that you have. So Ping Ong, he's, he's the one that advises me the advice he's always given me that I didn't follow at first, was that if you have toxic employees, right, they could be your rainmakers bringing in all your money.
So you may be reluctant to get rid of them, but culture really matters.
And having the right people in the right role really matters.
So if you have someone that is, that brings a lot of negativity to the firm, that may not be aligned with the overall direction, even if they bring most of the revenues, you have to make a tough call and make that hard decision to, you know, kill that poison because the cancer will fester.
So I've learned that all that matters is the right people and the right culture.
Once you have that, it's magic.
But, you know, you, you have to make those hard decisions on people and not procrastinate.
And I did initially. I was going to ask, have you had that? And is there a way to like, I've, I've seen a lot of your stuff on Facebook and LinkedIn.
It seems like your company culture, you're very bonded, very enthusiastic as a firm, but can you give me any insight or share with us any insight to the type of culture you built or the values that you really espouse the most?
So one of our values is that we have to have each other's backs, right? It's all about respect, being accountable, ownership.
So having a team that's aligned really, really matters, right?
None of this backbiting, you know, the passive aggressiveness, the, the, you know, yes in the meeting and go outside and the backstabbing.
So we're really a culture that tries to eliminate politics, bureaucracy, poison, right?
How do you have a culture that's really focused on execution and moving the firm forward and not internally fighting?
So having that alignment is so important because then you just focus on the market and focus on beating the market.
I think everybody would want that. Do you have any tips on how to build that?
I mean, I'm sure founder personality matters a lot, and I know you carry those values.
Is there anything else? Are there any particular processes or meeting hints or even activities you do with your team that you think carry that through?
And you can, you can refer to pre-COVID things that involve people being together.
Yeah, we, we actually do, used to do a lot together. Now we do a lot together remotely.
So, but values are pretty important. Really getting to know each other and, you know, earning that trust and building that relationship matters so that we give each other the benefit of the doubt.
So I, I think relationships matter.
And so many of us have been together for a long time. And look, it's, it's a hard struggle to keep going forward, but we're all so aligned and we meet so frequently.
The leadership team meets twice a week, not once a week, but twice a week.
Just align on the strategy, any obstacles in a way, the, the product priorities, the tech priorities.
So we just have to be aligned all the time and we have to make decisions fairly quickly because if something sits, it's not moving forward.
So how do we together do that all the time? Roz, I, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I know we're at the end of their time and I want to close and make sure that everybody knows where you're from because CXA is a really interesting insurtech business.
So folks, if your banks are offering products that they've white labeled, you might want to keep your eye out and keep your eye out for Roz herself, who's quite a leader in the entrepreneurial space in Southeast Asia.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your journey, you know, how, how well you've done out of COVID and the fact that you've launched Series C today.
Congratulations. Thank you again. Thank you so much. Bye. Bye.