Singaporean entrepreneur Eric Cheng pulled out all the stops to raise the US$50 million he needed to be a big player in the crypto world. He sold five of his luxury cars: two Rolls-Royces, a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, and a Porsche. He also sold a multi-million-dollar house and added the profits, along with a chunk of his savings, to the pot.
With the cash, Cheng, the 43-year-old founder and CEO of real estate developer Sevens Group, bought Japan’s FX Trade Financial and its cryptocurrency-focused affiliate BitTrade last month.
He has no plans of turning back.
The purchase was one of the biggest investments Cheng ever made. It also made him the first foreigner to fully own a Japanese crypto exchange.
When I met him at a coffee joint in Singapore, he was decked in designer brands from head to toe. He was sporting a glossy combed-back hairstyle and wearing a black Balenciaga t-shirt, brown Bottega Veneta plimsolls, and an automatic Richard Mille watch.
Cheng’s taste for expensive fashion didn’t baffle me, given the kind of opulent lives that many in the crypto space lead. As we talked, however, his soft-spoken demeanor and easygoing nature convinced me that he wasn’t cut from the same cloth as his peers. And maybe that’s because he had made his fortune in the property market.
Some luck, some grit
Cheng came from humble beginnings. He’s the eldest son of a family of six who used to stay in public housing at Upper Cross Street. His mom was a homemaker, while his dad held jobs in the food and beverage and security industries.
His younger years were unremarkable: after graduating with a diploma in computer studies in 1994, he performed his mandatory two-year military service. Then he entered the corporate world, starting his career as a flight attendant at Singapore Airlines.
Cheng says that like most people, he settled in his new job and became “comfortable.”
Years flew by, and in 2002, he began to feel restless. After a chance encounter with a monk on a plane who told him he was meant to achieve great things in life, Cheng gathered the courage to quit his job as an air steward. That same year, he got acquainted with a property broker who convinced him to join the real estate industry. “I needed to make a change in my life and step out of my comfort zone,” he says.
He continues, “A large plane has over 300 seats, and I was only taking home a fixed income even though I served that same number of people over and over again. I thought that if I were to converse with that same number of people as an agent, the amount I could earn would be beyond my calculations, so I decided to do it.”
His timing was just right as Singapore’s property market was booming. Cheng worked at Property Agent firm PropNex, with his fleet of agents growing to as many as 1,800 people at one time. He later engaged in flipping properties to earn more.
As he grew his network of contacts and amassed a sizeable “pot of gold,” he set up a property development firm in 2005 and started building and selling boutique residential homes. The rest is history.
From property to crypto
Today, Cheng lives comfortably with his wife of 21 years and two sons, aged 12 and 10. Meanwhile, his firm Sevens Group has accumulated a real estate investment portfolio of more than US$75 million.
So how did he make the leap into cryptocurrency?
Cheng began exploring this space in October 2017 after a business partner introduced it to him. He saw people involved in crypto as “humble” and “positive” techies who were throwing “wild” ideas around.
The concept of having “unprojected” returns on a month-on-month basis fascinated him. He continued to learn more about the industry, eventually becoming hungry enough to want in on it. Crypto exchanges began showing up on his radar, and he considered them the “top of the food chain.”
“In the crypto space, there are a lot of layers, just the same as the property industry. There’s crypto mining, ICOs, consultancy, coin trading, and exchanges. For property, there are sand suppliers, construction companies, real estate agents, and developers.”
When he was shopping around for a trading platform, Cheng visited a total of nine crypto exchanges in South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. But after many rounds of interviews, he set his sights on BitTrade in Japan.
BitTrade, which has been around for two years, is one of 16 regulated and government-approved cryptocurrency trading platforms in the country. It trades digital currency like bitcoin, bitcoincash, ripple, and litecoin. It also handles fiat currency-to-cryptocurrency and crypto-to-crypto conversions.
It took multiple proposals and interviews with Japanese regulator FSA before Cheng finally got the green light. The deal was completed in May. It is rare to see foreigners own a controlling stake in a Japanese exchange. The closest comparison to Cheng’s buy is Yahoo! Japan’s 40 percent stake in crypto exchange BitARG.
Cheng thinks that being a Singaporean was an advantage because it boosted his credibility with FSA. “We tend to be serious in having a real business and usually do not run fly-by-night shops.”
While his move has made headlines, it’s also gotten its share of criticisms. Skeptics have called Cheng “crazy” for throwing his money into something “uncertain.” But as he points out, his crypto purchase isn’t all that different from his real estate investments or developments – results do not come in haste. “It’s just like an investment in a property development. It is pretty much the same to me. It takes time to come to fruition.”
Cheng says he’s giving his crypto gamble “a timeframe of two years.” He adds that he has the full support of his family, and that’s the only feedback that matters to him.
At present, BitTrade’s exchange only transacts with Japanese yen. But moving forward, Cheng plans to scale the business beyond Japan and is looking to include other currencies for trading, pending approvals from FSA.
He believes that his 20 years of experience in entrepreneurship will “help him navigate this new business venture.” As he observes, “Every business has risks. But I trust my vision. So far, it has not proven me wrong.”
Although he admits that he’s not as knowledgeable about crypto as others who’ve been in the space longer, he’s banking on his “vast” network, which he says will help him gain ground.
His new venture has given him a lot of opportunities even at the onset, he claims. “People have approached me, wanting to list on the exchange.”
But choosing who can do so proves to be a challenge. “I have to confess that while this is an exciting space, some companies could just be here to make a quick buck and could be scams. I have turned most away.”
For those who want to try their luck in the crypto market, Cheng has this advice: “Don’t close your eyes and speculate. Use real statistics and fundamentals to support your financial decisions.”
On growing one’s wealth, he says it’s important to “dare to be first and think out of the box.”
He also warns against focusing too much on the money. “Life is all about chasing goals. If you chase your goals right, money flows naturally along.”