CEO Podcast - Zetl
Updated: Mar 3
Zetl is Asia-Pacific’s first financing company for asset-light businesses. They help services businesses with their monthly operating expenses by providing growth, payroll, and working capital financing.
Check out Zetl using the link below!
Callum Hull 0:00
Hello, and welcome back to another HR Digital Today Podcast. Today I'm joined by Shan and Mark from Zetl. Welcome, guys!
Thanks for having us on here Callum. I'm looking forward to this.
Thanks for having us.
Callum Hull 0:13
No worries. And so, I'll just jump straight into the first question, which is, what's your company’s name? And can you give me a brief description of what you do?
Yeah, so just clarify the name of the company is Zetl. We've had Zittel. We've had Celt, but the name of the company is Zetl. And it's a pun it's meant to be to settle your invoices. So, it's meant to be a little pun there. So yeah, that's the name of the business. Look, what we do is we're a FinTech business in the Asia Pacific, that provides financing products to SMEs and start-ups all over the region. At the moment, we're in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, we've just expanded into Australia, and very soon the Philippines as well.
Callum Hull 0:54
That sounds brilliant. I didn't, I didn't know that. It makes so much sense how you said it. And yeah, well, brilliant idea, whoever came up with that Idea is wonderful. You delved into a little bit then. But what problem does your company solve for its customers?
Yes, I think, particularly in the Asia Pacific, right? The markets here tend to be a few years behind markets in North America, and even a couple of years behind what's going on in Europe. And I think the concept of non-dilutive financing to businesses was a bit more commonplace in the States, particularly west coast of the states, and sort of was becoming more prevalent in Europe sort of four or five years ago. But when we were first looking to set up Zetl, there weren't a huge number of options available to businesses out here. Particularly at that time assets like businesses, so companies that didn't have a lot of, you know, furniture or hard goods, or warehouse for the commodities, which are the businesses that would typically get trade finance, if you're looking at these asset-light companies, particularly recruiting and staffing firms, but a lot of sort of digital marketing agencies, and IT consulting and contracting firms, they didn't have any options available to them to access, you know, to things growth capital, to sort of scale their business, maybe do activities, open a new office, build up a team, or even just working capital, right, where you might have a customer that only pays you every kind of 60/90 or even 120 days, you've got to pay your team, you got to pay your contractors and your rents. And of course, when these kinds of issues aggregate, they can start to cause cashflow problems. So, it’s kind of was set up to sort of alleviate both of those issues that we've seen.
Yeah. So, I'd also add that this was a problem that Mark and I both faced previously in our entrepreneurial careers, Mark, having run two successful businesses himself, and I faced this issue at a previous Fintech start-up that I run where we had for very long payment terms with a very large claim. And ultimately, you know, as a business owner and entrepreneur, you don't have many options to get access to financing, as an asset-like business. So, for me, it was a case of either taking massive dilution in the business or paying out of pocket and leveraging my credit. And ultimately, I took the latter option, which was a very difficult choice for me. And that's just something that we're hoping other founders and entrepreneurs don't have to go through when there should be a good case for flexible, fast business financing made available to
Callum Hull 3:25
Okay, brilliant. So just give us an idea of like, for your first customers, why they decided to join you. And did they switch from someone else? Or did you say there wasn't anything else available at the time? So maybe they didn't switch? But what was their reason behind joining you guys? Your very first customer?
Yeah, so like, I probably shouldn't share their name without checking in with them. Yeah, if they were a recruitment company in Asia, they had offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, and they still do. And they, they loved the idea. So, when Shannon, and I were sort of first running through this idea, and sort of the concept of this business, we spoke to a few business owners and tried to get some initial proof of concept documents signed with them. So initially, sort of test the waters. If this company existed, would you use IT services, right, something as basic as that? And actually, our first official company was one of the ones that had signed that they were relatively small, sort of 10-person organization at that time, doing a lot of financial services placements. And, you know, they had issues where a lot of their customers wouldn't pay them for sort of 6090 days or even longer, they I think they had some incidences of even waiting six months to get settled invoice some 10-person major banks, so they had never really used a service like this before, but they could see how there would be an immediate need for that. Before that, if that ever be any leads to the business, the directors would have to put in capital themselves. Like longer, Shannon mentioned earlier, they'd have to dig into their own pockets, but there's also a limit to how much capital they can put up when you've got families and other things to provide for. So that was the first customer you know, we longer, they ended up doing financing with us in Hong Kong, and I think they came back to us for some financing and Singapore. as well. And yeah, that was sort of the first sort of believer in the business, which was great to see. What did What do you remember as well? Sure.
Yeah, I mean, the other thing I'd add was, so as Mark mentioned, you know, before we launched the business went around and spoke to a few different business owners to see just to canvass interest and see what kind of solutions already exist in the market. And, to our surprise, we found the word up, as we expected, but still a surprise. And out of these initial prospects, customers who had signed these pieces of paper, we started getting phone calls from someone saying, hey, you remember that thing? You were talking about a couple of months ago? When are you going to do that? And we started getting a few of these phone calls. And that's when you know, real business people are calling us saying, please build this business. And that was really when it became serious calls. And we decided, okay, let's do this.
Callum Hull 5:49
Yeah, I mean, if you've got, if you've got people after your business before you've started the business, that's always a good thing, right? So, you'll notice guys that there wasn't anything else like it when you've when you guys started. So, my next question is, is there anything like now, like, do you have sort of key competitors? And what makes you unique against your testers now in the market?
Yeah, I think, look, when we first started the business sort of four years ago, at that time, there weren't many other businesses that were focusing on the sector. Now we've tried to develop that further, you know, we focus on initially the asset-light segment, as I alluded to, but we've also expanded from that space, particularly the last year and a half, we've gone from sort of asset-light into also technology companies. So, a lot of our customers now will be technology businesses, sometimes even VC-backed technology companies that need to maintain certain growth rates, and they need to maintain their revenue growth. So, I think that's sort of where we've also sort of expanded into and by doing so, there is perhaps a little bit more competition in that sector as well. There are a few other platforms globally, and also now in Asia, that are sort of looking to try and target that segment. So, I would say that some words come from, but because of where we began, our entire kind of underwriting process, like our credit risk process, was set up to sort of finance these asset-like businesses. And that kind of gives us a different perspective on how we look at the asset-like risk assessment of these companies, right? And that's the difference too, I think a lot of the other competitors were, they started in the traditional trade finance segment, where there might be physical assets, you could pose as collateral, and then they kind of moved into the sort of asset-light technology sector. So, I think that still gives us an edge given where we've come from the datasets that we've been building the last sort of three, three and a half years or so. And if you'd like to add to that,
yeah, I mean, just to add on to that sort of the DNA of where we came from, was starting by financing, recruitment, and staffing businesses. So, I think we've got a very strong understanding of what the requirements are there and how that translates into an asset-like business. And to give a very concrete example, financing from a traditional trade finance type of financier, usually, what they'll ask you to do is to tell your end client that you're taking financing, and we know that that's gonna be very difficult to do, especially in this part of the world, which is why the type of financing that we do is confidential, and that is sort of a very obvious way in which our financing is different. And as Mark mentioned, that's because of where we came from. And that's how we're going to continue to support our customers.
Callum Hull 8:25
Oh, brilliant. And you mentioned a bit there. So, where you came from, where you are from now, how you've expanded to make that work? What was the biggest sacrifice that you had to take? So, it can be for you individually, or the business itself, the biggest sacrifice that you've had to give to make this work to expand from where you started. To where you are today? What was the biggest sacrifice?
I think maybe I'll go first, you know, for me, its time has always been a big one. You know, there are limited hours in the day, you know, I came from a recruitment background, where, you know, people were used to working long hours, because you'd have to speak to candidates, either in the early morning, or when they finished work, which tended to be late at night if it was in finance. So, I think one of the things that I needed to be able to adjust to and expect was your time as a start-up founder is so different to when you're working, you know, in a nine to six job or 95 jobs, whatever you want to call it, where you can kind of do your do hours and know what you've done for the day. It has changed somewhat, you know, with obviously, everyone having a mobile phone and using cloud-based tools, but I do think particularly as a start-up entrepreneur founder, you have to be prepared for the fact that you can't necessarily just clock off at a certain time of day, anything can happen at any point. And realistically, you do need to be sort of either aware or prepared to handle it if you are unavailable for whatever reason. That's when you rely on the other founders, whether it's Shan whether it's Matt in Singapore or their co-founder, you know, we need to be we have to be able to rely on ourselves. I think that fleece for me personally at the time sacrifice has been a big one over the last Just kind of three and a half years. Yeah,
similar experiences. But apart from that, I mean, for me, it's also just been having to having to go through that first trough of the business as we're getting set up. And I'm sure many entrepreneurs will be familiar with this, but not being able to pay yourself right and having to see those savings been bogged down worrying about okay, when am I going to be in start covering my costs not to make big bucks that just to cover my cost of rent or whatever, right? So that'd be one thing. And I'd say the other is having to be where the business requires me to be. So, when, when we launched the business since we've launched a business, I've been in Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong offered the business and I expect in the coming years when the business needs me, I'll be happy to uproot and go there. So that's just the commitment one has to make to one another in business.
Callum Hull 10:52
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I've spoken to a few founders doing this podcast and the very common theme is time, it's always been time, like, how is there enough time today to do what we want to like, my hours and not nine to five that, you know, whatever time away cups, whatever time I shot, I never really stopped and having worked in tech start-up myself, I know one thing for me is that having to wear so many hats isn't you have to Your You're the martyr, you're the sales guy. You're the website builder, and all these kinds of underwriters start. Yeah, so basically everything. So, I appreciate where you guys are coming from that with the time sort of time side of things. Just like on the thing. So, you have all the sacrifices that you have success, and your success comes from many different sales and marketing channels. But if you had to pick one marketing channel that has been most successful for you guys, to bid through an expanding product, what would you say that is?
I think, well, for me, at least I would, I'm probably biased, given I've used it so much. But you know, I've always thought that LinkedIn has been such a powerful tool. I know so many people use it these days. But it is, you know, I used it many years ago when people were putting their public CVS on there, right? And even that concept of putting your CV and your resume on display for everyone to search was thought quite wild back in sort of 2007 2008. But you know, from then it's evolved a lot further, you can build your professional brand, your brand on there. But realistically, I do find that a lot of engagement comes from that, whether you post an article that has some relevance, maybe it appeals to people, perhaps you actually can propose some solutions that a persona hadn't previously considered, you know that that audience that you can get from thought LinkedIn is still very powerful. So, I think I'd certainly see that as like, probably been one of them the most useful tools up until now. I mean, whether that will continue as we continue expanding into other markets, you know, perhaps markets where LinkedIn isn't as institutionalized as it is in Hong Kong and Singapore, maybe that remains to be seen. But that's what I've sort of seen so far.
Yeah. And to add to that, I think, for us being able to share with our networks, what we're doing with Zetl from a very early stage has really helped to build a lot of the brand following support, not just from prospective customers, but also partners, future employees, and even investors. So being able to share building public, show what we're doing, I think it's been a really big boost for us. And in that sense, LinkedIn has been fantastic.
Callum Hull 13:19
Yeah, like, as I said before, a lot of the founders facing LinkedIn seem to be the way so it seems to be the way to go. We spend a lot on new guy successes. So, the success over the years, but what I want to know now is your biggest failure, what's one thing that failed? That massively is going wrong. But also, what did you learn from that failure? So, we all often ask the question, what's your favorite failure? And that's because we want to know the failure that turned the business around or change the direction of the business or made the biggest impact on the business. After all, everyone's got them. But we want to know yours. What's your biggest, and what is your favorite failure?
Let me go and throw mine out there first. So back in about 2015 2016, I saw an opportunity in Hong Kong for a co-working space. There was sort of the wasn't the proliferation of them. Now, as there were then there were a couple of players that were doing it. And you can see there was a lot more of an entrepreneurial drive going on in the city. People wanted to have their businesses, they wanted to set them up but didn't want to have huge overheads. So, I saw an opportunity to sort of do a sort of a co-working smaller co-working space in showing one which is near the central business district. So basically, put it all up, set it all up. And lo and behold, a few months later, what became WeWork opened just down the road. And, you know, they came in with massive VC money from SoftBank. Matt could offer outrageous prices. I mean, it was cheaper than what we can offer. And you had an essence of Google offers available to you. For us. It was kind of a no-frills offering but at a reasonable price. And I think the lesson I learned from that is, you know, I should have probably closed a lot sooner than then drag it out. As long as I did. I should have learned to call it quits when the time was appropriate when I could see when we lost that edge. There were other bigger players with more backing that could offer a cheaper alternative to us. As it turned out, the cheaper alternative, of course, was a castle built of sand, it was never going to be sustainable or profitable, which is why always glad to see we work. When I see negative news associated with it, it's one of my pet peeves. But one of the good things that still came out of that actually, one of the good things is coming out of that is that Shan and our current CTO exited, they did work out at that co-working space for a little while. So, I will always be thankful for the fact that although I do count, the actual business itself as a failure, there were still some bright spots that came from that, and I think also helped us to get to where we are now.
Yeah, I mean, similarly, I would say my biggest favorite failure led directly to how we do business at Cecil. And that was at one of my previous FinTech businesses, we spent far too long in red. So, we spent close to two years building out our software, not monitoring it to market, trying to make it as quote-unquote, perfect as possible. Of course, there's no such thing as perfect. And the best way to learn is to put something out to the market and get actionable feedback to put a product in front of the person to try and get a financial commitment off them. And had we done that sooner, then we would have got to market much faster, got to revenues much faster and learned a lot faster, spent a lot less money runway would have gone longer. And so that directly led to how we launch settle in that. As we mentioned before, we went around and got people signed with pieces of paper and said that they would use the service, we launched it, and we tried to get that validation going early on. And even now, when we build the software, we're not trying to build it and hope they will come. We're building software around the processes that people do to add value immediately with the software to market. So that's my favorite failure.
Callum Hull 16:53
Sounds like you guys have got some good failures. And you've learned as I've seen, you just said 2015 co-working space, and you're gonna say we were I just knew that was gonna come. I just knew I watched a documentary on it a company when it was just like that right on Netflix. Right? Netflix? Yeah. Just Studio 2015. Co workspace. This is going to be sensitive as we work.
What makes me more upset as people are throwing money at Andrew Newman even now, he just raised a couple of 100 million dollars earlier this year. So, nobody's learned their lesson.
Callum Hull 17:22
And I see them popping up all I see the light all around London and time. So, we work spaces near like Victoria station that when I used to. I was off the Washington document for how is that still there. But obviously, I'm sure people still throw money at it. And so, until it does crash and burn, but anyway, yes, we'll move on. So, it sounds like a failure in the business. I thought the success you've had but one of the now what your guy's proudest moments was individually like the thing you've looked back on the business; you can look back sat in there now. Yeah, that was the proudest thing, the proudest moment of the business. That was the best thing we've done. That was you know, that's the creme de la creme of what we've done so far.
Yeah, I think to look, what's really what I like about our businesses, where we're dealing with founders and founders themselves, obviously quite inspiring, because they have passion for what they're trying to build. But with the kind of business that we have, we're trying to step in and provide them with, you know, either growth capital or working capital, as I mentioned. So, I think like real-world examples of where we get feedback from a customer where they've had concerns coming from late payment of clients, you know, they're on the verge of, you know, considering whether they have to cut headcount or make reductions in their fiscal fixed costs, we're able to come in and provide them with a fast solution. You know, normally, we could do it within a few days, maybe up to a week. And it allows them to maintain the business, they don't have to cut headcount, they can keep people employed, they can keep their business ongoing and look to sort of growing it again. And I think that's where I find it satisfying. And obviously, looking at what's happening now in the last few months, where it is quite a volatile market. I think that to be able to do that. And I feel there will be more of these conversations over the next few months to be able to keep these businesses sustainable and keep them expanding. That's really when you get that satisfaction. I do I love it. And I think that's something that we're going to continue to see coming up is one of our recent clients has invited me to go for dinner on Thursday to go into the see their business in success and how they're doing a sort of bringing all these goods from So, overseas. And I'm just so excited to be able to go and do that. And, you know, it'd be able to celebrate together the fact that we've kept that business growing and thriving. So, I think that's probably been it for me.
That's awesome. That's awesome. You Yeah, I mean, very, very similar. For me. I think the proudest moment for me was around this time last year, I sat down with one of our clients who took me out for lunch. And he took me out for lunch because COVID was at its absolute worst when lockdowns were the hardest. This entrepreneur had 30 staff on his payroll and he was in his wrestling cash contract because all of his clients had gone to war. work from home and none of them were paying the bills. They weren't good for it, of course, but they just weren't paying on time. And he was at a point where he had to just cut stuff. But he didn't want to do that he didn't want to have to fire anyone during the pandemic. And we managed to, we managed to help them out, we managed to ensure wage continuity. Eventually, of course, the client settled, and then everything was smoothed out, and everybody was happy. But the fact that he didn't have to find a single staff member to make anyone redundant was Shan 19:28 proud moment for him. And this is why when he took me out for lunch, she was he was thanking me and thanking us for having set up Zetl. And to me, that was a proud moment because it was very tangible, that we'd managed to help this entrepreneur help his employees get through a tough time. And it was the first time that was such a tangible response. So that's yeah, that was my first proud moment in business.
Callum Hull 20:52
Oh, I can imagine there's, there's no better feeling than that, like actually seeing a problem that you fixed and seeing the knock-on effects of that problem and how it affected the person or company or people. That must be amazing. I mean, both of you guys are getting bought food this week, you got bought a large meal getting taken out again, so you must be doing something about the business struggle how successful is your boss expansion while only x know you guys a little bit more now. You guys as individuals, so answer these questions yourself. So, what is one productivity hack that you cannot live without? Something that you do that makes your day so much easier? I
think, for me, and I hope it's not OCD, but my emails, my emails are spotless, you can go through my inbox and everything is categorized, I know where information comes in, I know where to search for it. And as we talked about, the right time is such a finite resource every day, I know exactly what I need, and where I need to go to find the information I'm going to require at any point, of course, you'll have CRM and other tools for that. But I always try and make sure that my email is on I'm on top of it. And you know, my nightmare would be to come in and see 3000 unread messages in there. Like I probably have a heart attack if I saw that. So, I think that's probably the main one for me.
Callum Hull 22:03
I don't think you want to take a look at my emails. As John so
for me, it's prioritizing my workload. So, I use Benjamin Franklin's prioritization quadrants matrix says, popularised by Stephen Covey in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But essentially, it's splitting your work into quadrants that are a mixture of important not important, urgent, and non-urgent. And typically, you know, the tasks that fall into either extreme of the bucket are very straightforward, right? Something that's not important, not urgent, because the bottom of the list something that's important and urgent, because at the top, but what people mistake is doing the urgent work. That's not important before the important work that's not urgent. So being able to categorize it and do the important but not urgent work first, has meant making meaningful progress in the work that needs to be prioritized. And that's been the best productivity hack that I took you in the last few years.
Callum Hull 23:04
That sounds interesting. So, you must check it out. Because I often find myself doing like, what seems like really important work that like said might not be important, but it's urgent. Does that make sense? It's I've got to do this now but I could wait for it perhaps that's So, really interesting. So quickfire person questions, we're looking at sort of a sentence as a maximum. So, we'll start with your first mark, I want to know your first job. someone you admire your favourite book, film, music, and also your favourite gadget. So, if you don't remember all of those, I think I can repeat them that job someone you admire, book, film, use it gadget.
Okay, well, the first job, I can tell you that. So, I was in a unit in Cardiff, it was a telesales job. And I was calling to check if people were happy with their insurance products. And I the amount of time that people slammed the phone on me and told me all sorts of God ungodly names under the sun. It was a real experience as a sort of 20-year-old thickened my skin. So that was my first job. someone I admire. God is cheesy, and I'll probably get a lot of trouble for this when I say my wife because I do admire her and she's been through a lot, especially in the last few years as a teacher in the pandemic. And you know what she's had to endure here in Hong Kong as well. So, I'll say her book, I'm gonna go for a book that I've been reading quite a lot recently. Because you know, to habits to change for me, it'd be 21st lessons for the 21st century. Yuval Noah Harare. Just it's a fascinating book, and he's just a genius. comes up with all sorts of really interesting ideas. What was your other favourite film?
Callum Hull 24:30
So more recently again, because I also love the book June, I just love the way that the June movies have been done the production values story the politics behind it. Music again, it's I've been listening to so much recently the SAM fender just saying this guy's phenomenal too. Honestly, I know people in the UK already love him but here in Hong Kong, it's only been recently I've come across him and then gadget again. I got my birthday a couple of months back from my wife the Oculus quest to find the enter the metaverse trying to experience that I have to It is I had that feeling I had when I kind of first got a PlayStation when I was like a teenager and sort of like wow, this is like the new tech that we're experiencing. So that's probably the one for me. It's been an amazing thing. What are they got on there?
Callum Hull 25:12
That's pretty awesome. Yeah, I saw I went to see Sam fender on Friday night at Finsbury Park. Amazing. Cool. One of the best things
I've seen every song is just phenomenal. Like, it's mad
Callum Hull 25:24
that you get so good. And Shannon yourself the same question. So, the first job, someone you admire Brookfield music Gadot.
Okay, so the first job was pulling pints in a pub, as I'm sure many people went through. But for me, it's very much a coming of age and learning how to deal with drunk obnoxious customers and learning to people manage. So that was a very interesting experience. It helped me grow up very quickly. So that's the first job. Someone on my Warren Buffett so I read every one of his partnership papers that he put up so even before Berkshire Hathaway, and there's a remarkable consistency, openness, and honesty the in his approach to running a business. So that's somebody I've looked up to for a long time. My favourite book, this the more recent edition, but I recently read a book called the mum test, something like why your mum and everybody else is lying to you by a fella called Rob Fitzpatrick. But the reason I like it so much is it talks about how to go out and validate ideas. So, this kind of leads to my favourite failure, but it gives me it's a short actionable book on how to go out speak to people and validate whether whatever it is you're trying to sell is sellable. So that's my recent favourite book, and film, probably a Japanese film by Studio Ghibli called mono location. So, Princess Mononoke. It got very fond memories, of watching this as a child with my grandparents in Japan, but gave me a strong appreciation for nature, and how we should live in harmony with nature. So that left a very lasting impression on me as a child Music Hall as a kid, I used to be very much into progressive rock. But recently, my taste and Melody have become a bit more basic. So, anything I can bump my head to dance at a festival, EDM, loss frequencies, Armin van Buren, that kind of stuff gets me going these days. And favourite gadget I recent purchase is the Apple Watch. And that's because it's helped me become more aware of my health. And I think that's, that's invaluable. So being able to track my sleep, my steps, and check my heart rate, all of these things, it's given me much greater awareness, and it's helped me become healthier in my own life. So that's my favourite gadget.
Callum Hull 27:37
That's cool. Yeah, I think I think my next gadget will be a smartwatch for subscriptions, for the same reasons that I was gonna get some idea of how much I'm leaving. I know, it's not a lot, but I want to get somewhere that. That's a little bit more about you guys. And that's all about your business. So, we've got one last question. It's a question we always end on this podcast. It's where do you see your company? In five years, time? If we would see this interview again, in five years? Where do you think your company will get it?
To the Moon, right? Look, I see us being in all the major markets in the region. I imagined having a presence there and having brand recognition. We're gonna have clients all across the Asia Pacific, we're probably going to be in looking even more westwards from their South Asia, even towards the Middle East, perhaps, I think we're going to have a huge team. I think that we're going to build a really exciting product that people will love to use with sticky customers. And who knows, maybe by that point, it might even be a list of business.
Yep, the same sentiment, I think will be in every single market across APAC, expect to have present their customers their much wider product range. So, I think we'll have loads of different products and not just one size shoehorned fits all for every single customer, but a bespoke product for any kind of customer need. And yeah, to the moon.
Callum Hull 28:59
Well, world domination it is. I don't doubt for a second that you guys will get there. I'm sure you won't have any issues after speaking today. I just want to thank you so much for coming on the podcast and thank you for your time and your answers. I hope everyone watching this podcast has enjoyed it and learn more about Zetl and learnt more about Shan and Mark. I love what they're doing. And if you do, obviously head to their website, reach out to them and get to know them guys yourself, and check out that product. So yeah, thanks, guys for coming on. It's been a pleasure.
Thanks for having us. This has been fun.
Callum Hull 29:33
And I look forward to catching up with you in five years. When you're on cheers