Singapore payments startup hoolah pushes ahead with expansion amid pandemic

·5-min read
Stuart Thornton, CEO and co-founder of hoolah. (PHOTO: hoolah)
Stuart Thornton, CEO and co-founder of hoolah. (PHOTO: hoolah)

By Lyn Chan

SINGAPORE — As many small companies still struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore payments startup hoolah is showing that not all is doom and gloom.

The two-year-old startup offering a “buy now, pay later” solution is forging ahead with its plans to expand in Asia, and has also launched its solution in physical stores in Singapore in August.

Hoolah was first launched in February 2018 as a “Buy Now Pay Later” solution for online e-commerce platforms, offering consumers the option of completing their purchases in three separate zero interest monthly payments.

The popularity of hoolah grew as online shopping boomed as the coronavirus pandemic spread and people are confined to their homes. In Singapore, e-commerce sites saw a 23 per cent in visitors for the first half of 2020 compared to a year earlier, according to a study by product comparison website iPrice and web analytics platform SimilarWeb.

“Over the past six months, website visitors have increased by 500 per cent, with a sevenfold increase in total transactions made via the platform,” hoolah’s CEO and co-founder Stuart Thornton told Yahoo Finance Singapore in a recent interview. “We deliver between 20 and 40 per cent increase in conversion and basket size for our merchants.”

To date, hoolah has more than 1,000 retailer store partners, a 280 per cent jump from October last year, he added.

The idea for the start-up took shape during Thornton’s four-year stint at Worldpay. The UK-born executive, who has lived in Singapore since 2008, approached his three co-founders — Arvin Singh, Daniel Pieper, and Jason Van — with the proposition to introduce a similar solution to Asia.

“As the idea took shape, it became obvious that it would need a variety of experience and expertise to make this idea come alive. It was at this point that the team started to form,” said Thornton, adding that “it was never difficult convincing them of the opportunity”.

Today, Singh, an ex-colleague from Worldpay, is the chief operating officer, with Pieper as chief information officer and Van holding the post of chief technology officer.

The company, which hires over 75 people in the four market, is actively looking to add more staff as it expands, he said. In February this year, the company expanded to Malaysia, and partnered with two fashion tech companies, Novelship and BlinQ.

Coming full circle, hoolah offered its solution to physical retail stores in Singapore, and it is available at over 150 retail outlets islandwide since August. As Singapore gears up for Phase 3 of reopening, Thornton and his team hope to partner with more outlets.

“Given the popularity of physical shopping across the Asia Pacific region, we had always intended on bringing the in-store solution to market,” he said. “The goal, however, wasn’t to align to either e-commerce or in-store, but to build a truly omni-channel solution where a customer could seamlessly shop where they prefer but still have the same great experience.”

Hoolah has since launched its online and in-store solution, or what it calls its “omni-channel solution” in Hong Kong and has signed up 10 merchants in October, he said. Thornton said his team has just wrapped up talks with Thailand’s regulatory bodies for the same offering, its final expansion for 2020.

The expansion is funded with an eight-figure sum raised in the Series A funding, led by investment firm Allectus Capital earlier this year. The company is now actively raising funding for their Series B round, Thornton said, declining to give more details about the company’s valuation. The company raised a seven-figure sum in seed funding, led by AccelerAsia Ventures and Aletra Capital Partners, eight months after it was founded.

Thornton shares his experience and inspiration with Yahoo Finance Singapore:

Q: What misconceptions and apprehensions do merchants and customers have about hoolah?

A: To manage the misconception of hidden fees, we ensure that our customers are able to quickly identify through all of our channels, from our website to our customer support chat, the consistent message of “no hidden fees” / “no processing charges”.

On the merchant side, occasionally, there is some apprehension that hoolah may not be able to deliver the same type of growth experienced by our past customers. The proof is always better when shown through a proper study with a merchant, so we benchmark upfront a merchant’s existing performance using the data shared with us and control for other other variables like seasonality.

What risks do you face with the “buy now pay later” option?

There are risks of fraud and default payment, although such cases have been very low. We built a proprietary risk decision engine that crawls through a number of data points for real-time risk assessment. In addition, measures are implemented to mitigate these risks: We communicate with consumers regularly, reminding them of payment dates and treating them respectfully throughout the process.

Who inspires you the most?

There are many people who have inspired me – teachers, leaders, companies and my parents. One person who inspires me, and more so, motivates me, is my daughter. She inspires me to create something and be someone she will be proud of. I want to be able to show her that hard work, and sometimes sacrifice is important and inevitable — nothing comes to you easily.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Creating and setting up your own business is a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, sacrifices, hard work, and hustle. It is sometimes portrayed romantically, and a lot of people aren't ready for what it takes to succeed, and perhaps are swayed by the opportunity to work with some level of freedom.

My advice to anyone is that there is never a right time to do it – but make sure you are absolutely aware of your motivation for doing it as this will be your north star. Be ready to sacrifice a lot, change your lifestyle and find ways to do the impossible. Make sure what you end up focusing on is something you are passionate about. It is vital to keep an open mind, listen to the people around you and listen to your customers

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