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Payments Powerhouses: Creating Payment Solutions for the Future of Retail with Jeremy Wong

In this instalment of Payments Powerhouses, we learn about Jeremy's "accidental" journey into the payments space, the growing "coopetition" in Southeast Asia's BNPL space, and how Atome is navigating the trends that are shaping the future of retail.

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Jeremy Wong is the Head of Strategic Partnerships at Atome.

With over 10 years of experience in business development and strategic partnerships, Jeremy moved from top management consulting firms to a ​​video-on-demand (VOD) service before landing in the fintech arena. Having worked closely with senior leadership teams across global startups and Fortune 500 companies, he describes himself as an “accidental payments lead in the mobile payment space”.

Payments Powerhouses podcast

Great to have you on Payments Powerhouses, Jeremy. You’ve made exciting career moves in the past decade. Why do you say that you landed in the payments space by accident?

Jeremy: I’ve always enjoyed expanding my breadth of knowledge across industries and developing competencies in different areas, which I felt I got out of corporate consulting. I was gradually attracted to the high-growth startups growing out of the nascent tech scene and joined iflix in an international expansion role. This was back in 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, where iflix was one of the few startups that grabbed headlines, because of what they were doing in the streaming market.

My move into the payments space began with Fave. It was at a juncture when they had just acquired Groupon in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, and they were working on launching mobile payments.

If you cast your mind back to 2017, the act of someone scanning a QR code with their mobile phone was very foreign. When we first launched FavePay, we pitched to a couple of merchants and received similar feedback from all of them — they questioned why consumers would pay for something using a QR code, as there’s no cash being transferred, and it might be deemed as a fraud. We had to make many different pitches to convince brands to come on board. And I guess I say I’ve accidentally stumbled into this because I never thought I’d be here for five years. But given how fintech is continuously evolving, I’ll probably stay for another five, if not 10 or 15 years.

In the FinTech ecosystem, partnerships are key, and we’re seeing more ‘coopetition', where established financial institutions are partnering with competitors to extend their business into new customer segments. How do you balance competition and collaboration?

Ultimately, it's all about building the overall ecosystem. Healthy competition is crucial, and coopetition would only progress the industry further. For example, Singapore FinTech Association (SFA) recently launched a Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) taskforce that focuses on the sustainable growth of this industry. It includes us, Atome, and other players like hoolah (Note: now Shopback PayLater), Grab, and Fave, which is really an indication of how "coopetition" will lead and grow the ecosystem.

We can't always look inward and be overly protective of ourselves; we need to work sensibly with other players to grow the industry. When we cooperate and build the ecosystem through 'coopetition', the ultimate winner will be customers and brands.

So, tell us more about Atome and its mission.

First, let me start with our parent company, Advance Intelligence Group. Founded in 2016, we are one of the largest independent technology startups based in Singapore. Our first product, a B2B SaaS product called ADVANCE.AI, provides eKYC [Electronic Know Your Customer] solutions to financial institutions and tech companies. This AI-driven engine, together with established connections with global banks, built the foundation of our B2C BNPL platform, Atome. We’ve rolled out across nine markets to date: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.

Like other BNPL players, Atome automatically splits your bill into three equal payments. Our strength lies in creating a credit-enabled marketplace, and our mission is to inspire consumers in these nine markets to shop affordably and sustainably. As far as we know, among pure BNPL players, Atome is one of the few that provides both a pay-in-three and a loyalty program.

Atome+, our loyalty rewards program, actually started out as a pilot. For every dollar spent using Atome, shoppers can earn one Atome+ point, which they can use to offset purchases or redeem vouchers from Atome+ rewards. We launched this program last year and did a relaunch a couple of weeks ago to enrich and enhance our catalogue; with more premium partners now, we’re able to offer greater rewards for consumers. Of course, the pay-in-three already does that, but customers would never say no to more rewards, right?

Other BNPL players rely heavily on data to run proprietary solutions and provide value to businesses and consumers. How does Atome harness the power of data?

We deal with a lot of first-party and third-party data. First-party data comes from the direct touchpoints we have with consumers and brands — we’re able to find out what they spend on, when and how frequently they spend, etc. Our risk team and data insights team are at the forefront, constantly monitoring these touchpoints and deriving insights from consumer behaviours. At the same time, we look at trends to identify industries with greenfield opportunities.

Of course, as business owners, we need to be accountable to both sides of the platform, and that's where third-party data comes in. We work with ADVANCE.AI, as well as creative agencies, alternative data agencies, and risk and fraud agencies, to continuously enhance and grow the engine to do things like risk monitoring, transaction monitoring, data scoring, and credit reports.

As we look to grow beyond financial services, we're also looking at data to determine how we develop and grow our content and provide tools for merchants to grow their businesses. Ultimately, we’re leveraging data to enrich the services we can provide to customers and merchants.

How do you address concerns about data privacy?

As an AI-driven company, data is at the forefront of what we do, which is why we care a lot about encryption, privacy, and data security. So, we’re continually working to ensure that security is top-notch.

Firstly, in terms of regulations, we have local teams working diligently with local regulators to fulfil any personal data protection requirements in any of the countries we’re present.

Secondly, in terms of technological infrastructure, we also work on cybersecurity. I'm not an expert in this, but I know that a lot of encryption goes into data. We keep data exchanges in a neutral, encrypted database that neither party holds and ensure cybersecurity policies are in place.

You mentioned that Atome is currently in nine markets. Are there any plans for expansion?

At this point, our focus will be on these nine markets. It's a bit like having nine children — at some point, you'd think to yourself, “That's good enough.” In the medium-to-long term, we feel that these markets offer plenty of development opportunities.

We’re aggressively bringing in local talent who understand local cultural nuances, how local consumers work, and know what it takes to grow Atome in their market. In that sense, our expansion wouldn’t be on a geographical scale but rather a deeper expansion into each market, strengthening our leadership position while continuing to deliver satisfaction or inspiration to customers.

What does the increased competition in Southeast Asia’s BNPL space mean for Atome, your merchants and consumers?

Firstly, we view this as a win. With large players like Apple entering the game, it's a validation of the business model. It also pushes and motivates us to work harder to stay ahead.

At the end of the day, execution is key. In Southeast Asia, you need to take a very localised approach and be present in the market to be able to understand how it works. You can’t be sitting in an office in Singapore and claim to understand how the Vietnam market works; you’d need to be in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, observe behaviours, and spend a couple of months immersing yourself in the culture.

We found that a “one size fits all” approach can’t work, especially in the ASEAN and East Asia countries, where everything's so diverse. We’ve been investing in growing our local teams and taking the effort to immerse ourselves in each market, to study and understand them. This gives us the edge in continuously delivering value to customers and success for brands and merchants.

For example, the retail market in Japan differs greatly from the retail market in the Philippines, not only in terms of consumer demographic but also their spending patterns. In Japan, the audience is more mature compared to the relatively younger audience in the Philippines, which means the latter's spending isn’t as high. Hence, we’d have to cater differently to these demographics in terms of the kind of brands that come into play. We’d also consider how and where consumers spend, be it on e-commerce websites, in-store, or social commerce where they make purchases via livestreams. In all those scenarios, we need to think about how Atome can help them.

What exactly is social commerce, and how is BNPL being applied to it?

I first saw social commerce take off when the pandemic started. I was working from home when I saw my mom on Facebook Live watching a fishmonger sell fish. But I was highly sceptical! This was a fishmonger from a small fishing village, and he was attracting 100,000 viewers. His approach was very straightforward — if you want item A, drop him a personal message (PM). So, all the uncles and aunties tuning in would just PM him to purchase. And I questioned my mom if something so rudimentary would work. But she received the fish three or four days after, and I was truly impressed.

Two years later, social commerce platforms have advanced significantly: many can anticipate when merchants will be livestreaming and what kind of products they will sell. This makes it more straightforward for merchants to determine the catalogue they want to promote via livestream ahead of time, and release the livestream link at a suitable time. Now, everything is automated: once the livestream link is live, users can simply click the link, make their payment, and their order is completed. I don’t think we would’ve seen this development if it weren’t for the pandemic and merchants like that fishmonger, who are willing to adapt to changing consumer behaviours.

Atome has also had to adapt to these shifts by localising many of our solutions. We recently went live as the exclusive Buy Now Pay Later provider for Shopline Pay. Shopline is one of the strongest livestreaming e-commerce enablers in the region, and we've been learning a lot from them. With 2C2P, many brands in Thailand have been using the 2C2P payment links.

One thing that blew us away when we researched on the ground was that Thailand has 500,000 social sellers, most of whom are mom-and-pop businesses and high school students with their own fashion lines. And they’re solely selling online. So it begs the question, how do we cater to their needs? Some aren’t set up as businesses, and they aren’t corporations; they’re just interested in selling clothes. However, standard payment gateways wouldn’t accept them because they would require a business registration document, a bank account, etc. We must consider how these social sellers can utilise our solutions while mitigating risk and navigating onboarding restrictions.

Have you bought anything recently using social commerce?

Actually, I have! I've always been an avid fan of Marvel and DC Comics. Recently, a brand in Malaysia was doing a little promotion for Marvel. I bought one of their limited-edition Doctor Strange figurines, and it wasn't even through an auction. Everything was done within the streaming app. There was one pop-up, but otherwise, the experience was seamless. Upon clicking the link, my purchase was completed within a minute or so: my credit card was charged, a confirmation email was sent to my inbox, and I received the product within 14 days.

I think we’ll encounter more seamless experiences, and with further innovations, the processes might be even faster in the future.

On that note, what are your thoughts on the future trends of the retail industry, and what role is Atome playing?

From our perspective, brick-and-mortar stores will never go away; they will always have their place in the retail space. However, what they will look like will surely change with technology, and we're already starting to see that with a lot of our merchants creating an omnichannel experience. For example, you can purchase something online and collect it in-store.

These days, it's not just about online to offline; there are other platforms like livestreaming and payment links through chat apps like LINE, WhatsApp, and Instagram. For brands, how can they react and adapt to these new channels? Value doesn’t come from a singular channel, which is why we’ll start to see more channels of commerce. The metaverse was starting to become popular, albeit no one’s talking about it now.

Ultimately, both business owners and customers will have to adapt to changing behaviours, and the technology will only accelerate the pace of change. We have multiple solutions to support merchants, from basic solutions such as cashier QR standees to POS integration to credit card terminal integration. Our online solutions include tokenised payments, virtual cards, and e-commerce payments. For social commerce, we have payment links and dynamic QR. Whenever we develop a new solution, we’d first test it out with a couple of merchants and track its usage, especially from a conversion and payment experience point of view. Whether it performs well or not, we learn lessons from each cycle and then iterate until we land on a final viable solution.

Now that we’re moving towards a post-pandemic world, what’s Atome’s strategy in terms of re-engaging consumers and merchants?

In Southeast Asia, we started in Singapore, and just wrapped our mid-year campaign called "Own Your Expression". It was an O2O (online-to-offline) fashion show - arguably the first of its kind - with over 2,000 attendees at Suntec City. We also livestreamed the event across all our markets and garnered over 200,000 viewers in total. The event was part of the approach we're taking to build the brand, to ensure that we have omnipresence offline and online.

Strategy-wise, we've made a great start in capturing the attention of and providing value to the market. Right now, it's about continuous improvement, continuously iterating solutions, and adapting to channels. We'll be rolling out a couple more interesting solutions in the upcoming months that brands and customers can benefit from, and we look forward to announcing that to you.

In terms of taking the fashion show elsewhere, it took a huge effort, so we may look at scaling down for upcoming campaigns. We might try something different next year, and who knows, we may be extending invites to a fashion show in the metaverse.

Before we wrap, do you have any advice for anyone else looking to ‘accidentally’ enter the payment space?

Well, Atome is always hiring, and not just in Singapore, so do check out our career website. More importantly, I feel that if you have an interest in fintech, you need to take that first step and not worry about appearing dumb. In this day and age, everyone seems to care too much about whether they have the capabilities or the technical knowledge to enter this field.

From my point of view, if you have a purpose, that's where you have passion. So if you’re ready to dive into this space, go out, speak to people, network, and go for job interviews. If you’re willing to make this career shift, go for it! For me, it was accidental, but I didn’t regret it for a second. So, give it a try. Life is short!

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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.