Financial technology, or fintech, is reshaping the world of banking. J.P. Ellis, founder and CEO of C88 Financial Technologies, tells Liviani Putri that his mission is to champion access to banking and insurance for tens of millions.
“Before CekAja.com, digital marketplace didn’t really exist as a category in the world of finance in Indonesia. So we pioneered that, and we have made it really efficient. And now pretty much every financial institution in the country partners with us.”
John Patrick Ellis (known to his friends, and even his wife, as J.P.) is talking about the world of financial technology (fintech) and the successful company he co-founded and is Group CEO of, C88 Financial Technologies, at the end of 2013.
“We exist to champion financial access in Indonesia and the region -that’s our mission,” he says of the firm, which is a privately held, venture-funded technology company that designs, builds and operates large digital financial marketplaces with embedded modern eligibility assessment in Southeast Asia.
“Over 25 million customers in Indonesia (at CekAja.com) and more in the Philippines (eCompareMo.com) have transacted with us since we began,” says Ellis. “Our brands are vertically integrated, licensed, fully transactional. We advance financial access to hundreds of millions of emerging consumers.” Ellis describes his company’s role as “tech meets insurance and banking.” “Our relationship with traditional financial institutions is based on partnership, as they work with us to grow their market share. CekAja.com marketplace allow fast-growing consumer demand to meet financial supply from banks, non-bank financial institutions, fintech lenders, insurers and asset management companies. We grow sales and distribution, enable digital infrastructure, help underwriters better understand risk, and design big data and machine learning models.”
An American national, Ellis was raised in Asia. “My father was an expat, so I spent a lot of my youth in Singapore and in Taiwan, among other places. So my upbringing was in the region. After college in New York City (he studied at Columbia University, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations in 2003), I wanted to go to graduate school.
“But prior to doing that, I wanted some adventure – to go to new places.” He joined VIA (Volunteers in Asia), whose mission is “to create a global community of changemakers”, and from June 2005 to December 2006 was “placed with NGOs in rural villages in eastern Indonesia doing public health and education projects. My first 13 months in Indonesia was spent in Manggarai, Flores. That was a great, unique experience. And then I was planning to go back to school, but life turns… I’ve always had the opportunity to work with really interesting people, doing fascinating things. Of course, Indonesia is such an interesting country.”
After completing his stint with VIA, Ellis was hired by by John and Cynthia Hardy to work at John Hardy International in Bali as well as at their new school they started called the Green School. It was there that he met his wife Agatha, who is an entrepreneur in herself and now works with him at Cekaja.com as President Director. The couple have been married for 10 years and have two children aged 5 and 3.
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Says Agatha: “J.P. and I first met, fell in love and then worked together at John Hardy in Bali. I was working there already at the time and, one day, J.P. came as a guest and later was hired by John and Cynthia Hardy. So we’ve pretty much always been working together from the start of our relationship, and we soon found that we work well together. We are quite different in many ways, but we know and accept those differences and rather than let them get in the way of things, we allow these differences to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. From the start we knew we wanted to be partners in life, which to us means in and outside of our marriage.”
Asked how he handles stress, Ellis replies: “I’m a competitive swimmer. I train with Millennium Aquatic Swimming Club in Cikini almost every morning, and I actually win competitions. And then I like to cook for my family, getting good at making pizza. I make the dough from scratch. That’s what I do to de-stress. Family life is very important for stability and inspirations. The children come to the office very often. I think it’s important to see things. When I was young, my dad brought me to his office. So I can understand what he was doing and why it’s important.”
After leaving John Hardy International, Ellis spent four years as Managing Partner’s Assistant at Quvat Capital Partners, a US$500 million private equity firm. His next project, lasting two years, was as co-founder of Harpoen, which was a mobile app for digital topographic maps. He sold the firm to a North American online marketing company.
How did Ellis dream up CekAja.com? “The internet really started to happen here around 2011-12. I thought to myself: ‘What area of the economy here is still very much offline?’ It was a natural progression to think that we’re shopping online, we’re booking tickets online. How exciting would it be if consumers could start doing financial transactions online?
“So that was really the idea, and it’s a massive market. Financial services, particularly consumer finance, is a large industry that is still very much paper based. It all happens offline, and that’s traditionally expensive and inconvenient. The way to think about that is, imagine applying for a credit card at the bank branch, filling out the long forms is just so complicated. So the idea was: How do we make it easier and faster for consumers?
“It took us several years to gain the trust of the large banks. But now pretty much every financial institution in the country partners with us. We’re really focused on trying to help consumers make better and more informed financial decisions. We think finance tends to be this industry that involves many different terms that are difficult for the consumer to understand. How many types of interest are there, for example? There’s actually several, right? So we exist to help consumers make better financial decisions, and ultimately live wiser and wealthier lives.
“We are the market leader in Indonesia and in Philippines. We’re starting to develop a presence in Thailand as well. So I think we are the largest digital company doing this kind of work in Southeast Asia. We’re partnering with over 90 financial institutions, including all the large banks, all the large insurance companies. And we’ve processed over US$8 billion in financial applications so far.”
How does Ellis ensure that consumers’ information is secure? “We have just signed an exclusive Southeast Asia partnership agreement with Experian, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange and is one of the world’s largest consumer credit reporting agencies,” he says. “We have a commercial partnership with them and this actually means that we comply not only with Indonesian privacy and data standards, but global standards. So when we talk about data privacy and secrecy and customer consent, we actually comply with standards are stricter than the regulations here.”
Looking back on the timing of his move into financial technology, Ellis remarks: “When we started in 2013, we were maybe one of the first five or six fintech companies in the country. And we’ve actually been very active in the Indonesian Fintech Association to try to gather the community of fintech entrepreneurs and companies together. Because we all basically collaborate with each other, and we exist to help make people to live a better life.
“We actually hit on a big market need. And what we’ve been able to do is to make their experiences more transparent, easier to manage. As a result, CekAja.com is growing over 20% every month across the board. So that’s a pretty fast growth, and it shows that there’s a massive need for fintech going forward.”