Arvin Singh is co-founder and CEO of hoolah, Asia’s leading omnichannel Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) company. He oversees the Singapore-headquartered company's overall business operations, focusing on the marketing, product development, customer experience, and operations divisions.
Before setting up hoolah, Arvin was the Director of the New Channels team at Visa, helping non-financial institutions across Asia Pacific scale their businesses. Originally from Toronto, Arvin’s experience in payments started on the merchant side at a Canadian telco, where he delivered a co-branded Visa credit card. He subsequently joined WorldPay’s business development team to provide comprehensive payment solutions, including gateway, acquiring, analytics and risk to ecommerce retailers in Asia Pacific.
Arvin holds an MBA from INSEAD, where he continues to contribute to fintech events with the alumni association.
2C2P and hoolah recently confirmed a BNPL partnership, which enables 2C2P to offer hoolah’s service to merchants in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Arvin joins the first episode of the Payments Powerhouses podcast to discuss the evolution of hoolah, the opportunities that BNPL unlocks for consumers, and how he expects Asia's payments ecosystem to change post-pandemic.
Listen to the podcast below, or read on for the highlights of our conversation with Arvin.
Arvin Singh: Absolutely! We established ourselves in BNPL just a few years ago, and it’s amazing to see how much it has grown since then. BNPL has even made its way into everyday lingo - it’s truly exciting to see how far it has come!
Let’s go back to the early days of digital payments in ecommerce. My co-founder Stuart Thornton and I had identified a key pain point faced by merchants: the inability to convert consumers despite the growth of ecommerce. At the time, Europe and Australia had started to drive the concept of paying later, and we observed that it had been delivering real value for merchants.
This was when the idea for hoolah took root. We had the opportunity to solve a nagging pain point to help merchants increase their conversion rates and grow their businesses.
Furthermore, we intended to execute our plans in Asia, a market that the pay-later solution hadn’t tapped into yet. However, Asia is a challenging market due to its fragmented nature, consisting of many countries, and we had to grapple with differences in regulatory approaches, languages, and even cultures. Despite the challenges we faced, we persevered as we strongly believed that we would be able to build something quite special in Asia.
hoolah’s story is the classic startup tale in the sense that it began over coffee. At the start, we already had a name for the business in mind, but we quickly realised that it wasn’t going to scale regionally. We needed something easy to remember and pronounce across the Asian region.
So we conducted this little exercise over coffee in Singapore, where we spent an entire weekend just throwing names at each other. We used Google Translate to ensure that the words we picked could be pronounced in every language.
The names we picked came from various languages, including Vietnamese and Chinese. Eventually, we landed on the Chinese word 后来 (hòu lái), which means after or later. We thought this fitted very nicely with the concept of Buy Now, Pay Later.
Eventually, we adapted the word into hoolah, which was easy to pronounce with just that slight Singaporean touch mixed in. We initially wanted to go with hoola without the ‘h’, but the domain name was already taken. Thankfully, the hoolah domain name with the ‘h’ was available, so we rolled with it.
Yeah, so we have a lot of fun at hoolah - our team is even known as the hoolahgans! You also see lots of hula hoops in what we do, with the two ‘O’s in our name coming together as the hoops.
It’s hard to condense culture into a single statement. But yeah, we’ve tried to create an open culture at hoolah. We allow our folks to be honest with their feedback and share business opportunities that could benefit hoolah. We don’t want them to feel any fear when sharing their feedback, so we needed to set that tone in the company.
That’s what my fellow founders and I did in hoolah’s early days. We sat together to think of the tone we wanted to set for hoolah even before considering the type of business we wanted to build. Spending that time to understand each other’s motivations and how we wanted to achieve our goals was fundamental in laying the groundwork for what hoolah is today.
Here’s a small example of how I get feedback from my team members. I like to keep an open slot every Friday for anyone in the business to arrange a one-to-one meeting with me. In this meeting, anything goes. I’m open to feedback and even complaints - I want to hear my folks speak their mind.
To me, this arrangement works much better than an engagement survey. While surveys give a good overview of what folks are thinking, they don’t provide room for the amazing conversations I’ve had. Some of these conversations have even led to initiatives that changed hoolah’s business for the better.
I’m also overjoyed to have conversations on what we can do better for our customers - after all, hoolah is centred around our customers, and there’s always room to improve their experience with us! I appreciate my employees’ problem-solving mindset telling me things like, “Hey, I recognise we have this issue that needs to be resolved” or “Let’s go tackle that problem ASAP.”
Generally, my folks already have a good idea of what needs to be done and just want confirmation that the problems exist for them to solve. And I’m more than happy to provide a listening ear and give them the validation they need.
There are way too many things I would have done differently! When you’re on a business-building journey like me, you’ll find yourself looking back all the time to reflect on the choices you made. Through this retrospection, you can learn so many things about yourself and even identify things that you could have done differently.
I think this is always the case with life. “Oh, I wish I could have done this or that differently.” Having all these punishing thoughts is perfectly normal. The most important thing to do is learn from the past and acknowledge what you can do better moving forward.
Today, I enjoy chatting with founders of other companies to share my experience on the insights I’ve gained throughout my entrepreneurial journey.
It’s been a very exciting time for us! ShopBack is exceptional in placing merchants and shoppers front-and-centre, which ties in very nicely with hoolah’s mission to create value for them. Of course, there's lots of work to be done post-M&A, and a lot of it involves getting teams into the right places and understanding everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Above all, it’s important to hit the ground running and continue executing the great things that we’ve been doing all along.
2021 has been a sensational year for hoolah. We saw BNPL ramp up and hit an inflexion point, especially in Singapore - there was so much media coverage. And on a global level, there were some high and low points for BNPL, which have continued well into 2022.
Looking back on 2021, the first key event we celebrated was our third anniversary, or “hoolah Day”, as we like to call it. It was the first time that we went all out in our celebrations, with our team members, partners, merchants, supporters, and even our loyal shoppers getting involved. It was incredible to see just how many people turned up to support us by celebrating our birthday. There’s also the emotional aspect of things, where I looked back and reflected on all the work we’ve done to date. Ultimately, it was simply fun to kick back and enjoy ourselves in the ecosystem that we built from the ground up.
And of course, the other key event we experienced was joining forces with ShopBack - all those conversations and discussions we had to bring the two businesses together were enormous highlights for me.
An ecosystem that benefits all hands on deck. So whether we’re working with a partner on the consumer or merchant side, what’s most important is ensuring that everyone gets enough value out of the relationship. Merchants need to see us delivering on our promises. As for our shoppers, the real excitement for them lies in the accessibility of the products they wish to purchase - we create the opportunity for them to obtain what they seek.
This is a great question! And it’s very interesting since I’m a lifetime credit card user myself - you know, the typical North American who gets one the moment they turn 18 to kickstart their credit score. After all, owning a credit card does come with its own set of benefits.
But for BNPL, our business model works differently from a traditional IPP product. The key difference lies in the fact that we generate maximum value for our customers when they pay on time.
This is different for IPPs, where the maximum value position kicks in when customers miss payments. On top of that, customers have to deal with late payment penalties and compounding interest, which are huge revenue drivers for credit card providers.
We work directly with merchants from whom we derive our revenue stream. That’s why we focus on making sure that consumers pay on time. We’re thus quite selective in terms of the products we service and the methods we use to convince consumers to pay on time. On this front, we’re very proactive in our communication strategy - we even set up a reminder system that allows customers to be reminded in a timely manner.
Ultimately, the differences that set IPPs apart from BNPL have a lot to do with philosophy and the types of businesses we work with.
Yeah, this is something we hear debated a lot. Again, there’s a fundamental difference between what BNPL provides versus a blanket credit limit. When you’re given an entire credit limit, you’re pretty much free to use it any way you see fit - you can even take advances on it.
This is very different from what we do with BNPL, where there is the crucial element of responsible affordability that we’ve built into the whole system. This means that we provide proactive safeguards for consumers, preventing them from making too many transactions that they cannot afford. The system is set up such that consumers will need to settle some of their outstanding orders first before using hoolah for their subsequent purchases.
hoolah is also driven by the desire to make big-ticket products more accessible and not locked behind a credit limit. For example, let’s say you need to replace a broken study desk. You’re thinking of getting something more comfortable since you’re working from home. With hoolah, you can pick up a pricier, quality ergonomic desk without splurging upfront. And it’s a win-win situation for you since it’s a good career investment that sets you up for success from the comfort of your home.
We actively engage the proper community channels to educate our consumers. We specifically target financial literacy influencers who can leverage their platforms to educate folks on how to maximise the value of BNPL and use it responsibly.
We have also created written content to drive BNPL education on a dedicated blog. Videos are also a medium we’ve explored, with YouTube as our video-sharing channel of choice. There’s still a lot of work for us to do to show our consumers how to effectively use BNPL as a tool to manage their finances - specifically with regards to their cash flow.
And we’ve seen this play out in a big way with the gig economy, where income is volatile and inconsistent. hoolah’s BNPL system has worked as a solution to help folks stabilise their expenses over a period where their income fluctuates. For example, with payments broken up over three months, it’s easier for folks to settle them even when their incomes are irregular.
Further down the pipeline, we’re talking with other industry players and financial literacy institutions to put together training programmes for our consumers. This is something that I feel that hoolah shouldn’t be doing alone - the whole community should be involved.
This goes back to how we define BNPL: a responsible way for people to access products and services as they make timely repayments for what they purchase. And this is what we drive in the conversations we have with regulators. We’re currently based in Singapore, where open dialogue is possible given the openness to responsible innovation.
I have two insights to share on this. First, our user base has changed due to the new merchant categories we bring in. This falls back on the basic concept that different shoppers have different aspirations, impacting the products they desire.
My other insight is derived from the COVID-19 pandemic where folks spent more time at home. We saw a massive uptake in home office equipment, baking, and coffee machines during this period. As time progressed, these trends shifted towards healthy living and wellness products when people came out of eating poorly and exercising less.
Even though people made these purchases because of prevailing trends, they ultimately made smart investments with long-term payback.
I was really into making pizza in the early days of the pandemic, plus I also took up baking. That aside, I also drank a lot more coffee at home, so I spent good money on better beans and other related products.
And in the last six months, I’ve been trying to maintain healthy eating habits, so my spending has shifted accordingly. My next big investment will definitely be a gym membership!
Ecommerce exploded during Covid-19 and is a key contributing factor to the dramatic increase in digital payment adoption. In the next couple of years, I think we’ll definitely see more digital payment methods pop up in answer to consumer demand.
This uptick in digital payment adoption is fantastic for the world outside of ecommerce. With pandemic regulations easing, folks are going out more often. This means that we can fully expect digital payments to be used in greater volume in offline environments like shops and restaurants.
For fintech players like us, we need to deliver an amazing online and offline experience. And I think that the omnichannel concept hasn’t been truer than it is right now. Folks today want digital payments to be seamless, whether they’re stepping into a mall or logging into an ecommerce app.
We've been ramping up the work that we've done. In fact, we have already launched an offline, face-to-face retail solution during the pandemic. And with the return to retail happening in full force, we’ve seen an uptick in adopting our solution in physical environments.
That’s why we’ve been working really closely with our in-store retailers to optimise the retail experience - for example, we’ve done onsite activations that incorporate instant-win vending machines. We’ve planned a lot more of these activations for physical retail stores, and now it’s the right time to roll them out.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll be able to return to full capacity in the physical retail space soon. We have so many creative and exciting ideas planned for our retailers in their physical stores, and we can’t wait to execute them!
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to put on different lenses to look at the business and determine how best to manage all its stakeholders at any given time. Different groups have different expectations, and they all have their individual opinions on how hoolah’s business should be run.
It’s important to acknowledge and respect all their voices, but I’ll eventually have to make decisions based on what’s best for the overall business. Driving these decisions and owning them can get very difficult, especially when too many conflicting voices are present.
Regardless of where you are in your business, managing stakeholder expectations is an important skill to learn and hone. Take a step back, recognise who your stakeholders are, and identify where conflicts could potentially arise. Conflicts are unavoidable, so it’s also crucial that you learn how to talk through them.
100%! The moment you step into the entrepreneur's life, it’s liberating.
I’d like to say this to anyone who’s about to take that leap into the entrepreneur’s life: It is on this journey that you’ll experience the biggest emotional ups and downs of your life. So make sure you’ve got lots of support on the personal front.
I count my blessings for having a super supportive partner who’s stuck with me throughout the highs and lows of this journey. We celebrate our wins together and support each other through our losses.
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Payments Powerhouses is a monthly editorial series interviewing the movers and shakers of the payments and wider fintech industry in Southeast Asia and beyond. If you’d like to be featured on Payments Powerhouses, reach out to us here.