Investing No Longer A Solo Activity With Investing Communities [Chills 43 with Investing Note]

In the past, investing was perceived as a private activity between you and your broker. It seemed inappropriate to be poking your nose into how others manage their finances. All these changed with the internet. Nowadays, there are many investing communities where investors have no qualms about sharing and discussing their investments. This phenomenon culminated in the unprecedented Wall Street Bets/GameStop saga where retail investors banded together and prevailed over traditional financial institutions. 

Is there really power in numbers, or will we fall into a case of monkey see, monkey do? In Chills 43, we discuss more about the social aspect of investing with Ethan Ho, COO of Investing Note, an investing community in Singapore!

In this episode, Ethan shares his knowledge and insights on investing communities: its pros & cons and how retail investors should navigate them. In his own words, “social communities and social interactions are the best way to spread information.” Do you agree with him? Listen to Chills 43 and learn how you can enhance your investment journey socially!


podcast Transcript

Andrew: Meme investing has become a thing and a huge part of it is driven by online communities. Nowadays, trading apps are also adding community features like asking you to like, share and comment on articles and these articles are also community driven, written by someone who is a user of the app, just like yourself and not institutions or publications. TFC has a community as well. You can check out our Telegram group. 

Of course, online forums have already existed. It’s just natural for people to form communities. But how does the social aspect of investing play a part? Does discussing investments with a group of strangers online help you to find hidden gems or does it lead to more FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and therefore bad decisions? We also talk about online pump and dump schemes and what to watch out for.

Expand Full Transcript

Hello, my name is Andrew and welcome to another Chills with TFC episode. In this series, we talk to interesting people with relevant experience and insights to help us learn from their perspectives so that we can create the life we love and manage our finances well. 

My guest today is the COO of Investing Note, a platform and community for investors and traders. He understands how forums and online communities work, whether you are a lurker or an active contributor of such forums or just somewhere in between. I’m sure, along the way in your investment journey, you would have come across such online communities. Let’s find out what goes on behind the scenes from Ethan Ho! 

So actually the first thing I’m gonna ask you is about… do you follow the whole Wall Street Bets phenomenon and the whole GameStop and meme investing? What is your take since you are a community builder yourself? 

Ethan: Good question. I think this Wall Streets Bets thingy started earlier this year and I feel… I do in fact follow that, but you know, that it emphasizes and it highlights that the retail participation is actually pretty strong. This is an unprecedented move at least for financial markets. Of course, there’s a lot of hype where… retail, the so called meme apes. They call it the meme apes. 

Andrew: You mean like “apes together strong”? 

Ethan: Yes, exactly. They are already everywhere, but of course when it happens once, people think that strength in numbers, then they can go against the big boys so there’s this… how do I call it? This story behind where it’s like a different class of investors, like the retail and the institutions… the retail are the guys that are doing these memes and they are fighting against it. 

Of course, we have seen the spikes for real but whether it can be sustained or not, that is another question. We all know that who are the movers of the stock market? It’s actually the institutions, right? So it just takes one or two institutions to… in terms of volume, in terms of the fund flows, it can just dampen everybody from the retail. 

So I just feel that yes, there’s a hype but how I see a community of investors is not simply just buying and selling stocks, but more of building the rapport and investing and sharing information. That’s how I see it as a viable, strong community. 

Andrew: What do you think about the saying that there could be institutions within Wall Street Bets and all these forums themselves. Probably by now, there should be some sort of infiltration within these forums.

Ethan: Yes. I think this is a very valid question. I feel that definitely, there are some hidden in their mask, right? But I’m not sure whether that is against the law in any country. I’m pretty sure that if they do it, they need to have a certain influence and they need to be very influential on certain platforms and they need to build that kind of influence, but I don’t think some fund managers, they have the kind of time to actually build their influence because it’s different. 

Andrew: You need to be one of the guys. You need to speak the lingo. Every time I go into Wall Street Bets, it’s actually quite entertaining. “Apes together strong” and all the other memes, you need to know that’s how they speak. If you go with the typical fund-manager-from-a-big-institution mindset, you’re not gonna blend in. You’re gonna stand out like a sore thumb. 

Ethan: Correct, and it takes time. It’s not like you can just create an account overnight and start to telll… “let’s buy this up”. Nobody’s going to listen to you if you don’t have a strong following which takes time to build.

Andrew: You need to build up over time. 

Ethan: Yes.

Andrew: Okay. Just like I mentioned, every time I go into Wall Street Bets, I see all this emojis. It’s very entertaining, very fun. But of course, the whole Wall Street Bets and the GameStop phenomenon started because somebody started sharing about GameStop itself and there are other people who think critically and have their own point of view and they’re very influential like what you are saying, they build it up over time. So what do you think is the percentage of people who have really opinions that are all value versus all the emojis, all the fun stuff? 

Okay. I mean, as a community builder, I would definitely say the people who are the key opinion leaders, the numbers would be probably for every 10 people, maybe 3. Maximum I give you 4… of those people who are more vocal and key opinion leaders. The rest of the people are retail investors who look up to the leaders. 

It’s just a figure, a rough figure but if you can see, there are not many people who have the adequate investment in financial literacy even for people on the ground, the everyday investors. Investing is something that is not like food, it’s not like cars where you can gain knowledge immediately when you see that “oh, this is a car. I just need to know how much, what’s the engine…”, all this kind of thing. But investing is a very long journey and even if you know how the market works, it is not guaranteed that you can make money. That is for sure. 

Okay, so what do you think about the social value of investing in which you talk about it with a group of people? You’re mentioning, people get onto these forums. Maybe they wanted to hear what others say, but there could be this opinion that instead of getting expert opinions, you might fall into FOMO, the fear of missing out, right? Like you missed the stock, you wanna jump in and you buy high, sell low. What do you think is the percentage of all these happening?

Ethan: I think… okay, very good thing to point out there. Of course, there’s always this risk of it happening. When you talk about traditional forums, a lot of people are just “ah… those guys are just trying to make some noise, make people feel that they’re missing out” so that pump and dump schemes do happen on these forums. 

But as the community leader, what our community in Investing Note, how is it different is that first of all, we do not let our users delete the posts. On forums, people can say that… let’s say a certain stock is a buy. After that, if it doesn’t happen, they can delete the post so they don’t have any credibility. But for our platform, we have the kind of credibility, that system in place. 

The next thing is, when people start to say that “this is a buy.” We have come to make this community in such that they are self-regulating so other members will say that “hey, what’s your basis of this?”. The comments are actually very fluid and they are countering each other. As a reader, you would say that actually, this calls for a spark in the thought. Either guy might be right or they might be wrong, but the whole objective of a community is to give differing opinions and it’s for the reader or the people who are engaged to voice their opinions.

Andrew: Earlier on, you mentioned pump and dump and I think that needs to be regulated as well?

Ethan: Yes, yes. 

Andrew: Do you know of any examples of a pump and dump?

Ethan: Okay, so this was way back in 2013. There was this case called the penny stock saga. I think that is when some of the stock just went all the way up and on the same day, it just crashed. This case, I think up to today, it’s still under trial. There are quite a few pump and dump schemes over the history of Singapore. Pump and dump is definitely something that Investors should watch out for. The most vulnerable stocks are actually those which are smaller cap in the penny. 

Andrew: Penny stocks.

Ethan: Yeah, because these stocks have lower liquidity and it just takes very little to manipulate the price. 

Andrew: So how does a typical pump and dump scheme work out? So I go into the forums, I have a lot of people commenting, hype it up? And then when I read the forum, I buy in, right? Is that how it works? 

Ethan: Simplistically speaking, yes. But I think from the trial of the penny stock saga, it’s not just that it’s… last time, they still had a lot of… they had people called the front runners where they are brokers to ask the clients to directly buy the stock. 

Andrew: Could you explain front runners? I know that is a specific term.

Ethan: Yes. I think to my understanding, maybe I’m not… in definition, you know that some people are the ones that are manipulating by asking people to buy, basically. This do not just happen in forums. Actually, person to person, it’s even worse because if you know another guy who is your friend who say “hey, you know what? Just buy the stock. Ask your friends to buy. Ask your family members to buy”, it’s even stronger than an online person telling you to buy because person to person, there’s this connection and this network. 

So pump and dump, actually I would think back then, it was more of the person to person attributes rather than online. But of course online does have some impact, but I think what really moved the needle will probably be this person to… word of mouth referrals like “hey, you know what? Just get this.” 

I’ve heard many stories of people telling other people “just get this.” Last time, even during my mother’s time, I’ve heard stories of the aunties telling them to “buy this! Sure go up one!” Someone has got to start the whole thing and that’s how rumours start. 

Andrew: So apart from pump and dump, let’s say on an online forum, back to the online community, what other pitfalls should people watch out for? 

Ethan: Okay. I think to be in the online community, you have to approach the online communities with an open mind. Who shouldn’t use online communities are those people who believe in what other people say easily. For example, if you are the type that goes on Facebook and you see those articles sharing about… let’s say in the US, Donald Trump saying a certain thing and you don’t verify your facts, then these people are the ones that are most vulnerable in social media. Anywhere, even on Tik Tok, Instagram and Facebook. It’s not just Investing Note. That is one. 

The second one is that you need to have some form of knowledge, at least a little bit of the knowledge first before you can interact in a conducive manner. That is important. But of course, in Investing Note, we welcome everybody. People who learn, you can just read the comments and if you have questions, just ask. Other people will help you. We have trained our users to be that way so it’s self policing. Everybody just contribute. We emphasize this a lot and this is where the value of a community is to help each other. 

Another thing I want to bring up is actually why rapport as an online community matters so much because if you’re not from a finance or even a business background, especially when you’re a working adult, it is very difficult to get started on investing. There are so many terms, there are so many things, there are so many asset classes. The potential thought of the risk of losing money is great. During our parents’ generation, people say that “you know what? Don’t play stock market. You will burn your hands.” 

So a lot of risk and a lot of unintended consequences entail the idea of investing, that’s why people don’t get started and that’s why people tend to pay a premium to go do those easier… like buying funds, robo investing, etc. No harm in that, but ultimately, we are talking about how investors should have their kind of investment literacy. You got to pick it up and how to pick it up fast is through an online community where people share on a daily basis, per minute, not even on a daily basis, the posts keep coming on a minute basis… as opposed to going on Facebook to watch cat videos, or Tik Tok to watch people dancing. Why not open up the app and read what people are saying about the stock market? 

For example, let’s say this week, something is going to happen when there’s a federal reserve meeting. People are already talking about it. So as a guy who have… let’s say I have completely no idea of what federal reserve is, but I see people commenting, it will prompt me. Actually, what is the facts? Why is this meeting so important? If I am very serious about investing, I’ll probably go Google it. 

That’s why I came up with the tagline: connecting investors for better investing outcomes. Essentially, we are connecting everybody together so that we can have better investing outcomes, be it in terms of knowledge, in terms of trading outcomes. But ultimately, it should be beneficial to you. Not just to go in, listen, what to buy, that kind of thing, but ultimately, it’s about building rapport with other people and if you have any questions, you can always ask. It’s about openness.

Andrew: Are we able to quantify whether having all this online robust discussions lead to better investing outcomes? It feels a bit more qualitative still. 

Ethan: Yes. Of course, we are not a broker. We are not like a broker that has a committee inside and we can directly track people who trade and make money. We are not. The fact that year on year, there’s an increase of people using our app, using our virtual portfolio, joining our competitions, joining our tournaments, engaging in the webinars… we can see that definitely, they are getting some value out of it. Be it, like I said, whether they are really making money or whether they are having the knowledge building, definitely. either or… the community is beneficial to them. It beats not having something.

Andrew: Let’s go back to the beginning. How do you build a community? That’s the holy grail of marketing and several other businesses. 

Ethan: That is a very good question. This question was what boggled my mind when I first joined Investing Note. Basically, the app had very little users. How we build communities was a lot of groundwork. I think pre COVID, like I said earlier, we have a lot of seminars. We worked with a lot of KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders), meeting people, really getting to know all these KOLs. 

Right now, the people that we’ve known for so many years, they become our friends and any time, I can just say that “hey guys, we are going to do a webinar. Are you keen to do it?” “Oh, sure. Let’s go”, so we have built a kind of bond with a lot of KOLs. 

For us, we also build the bond with the people who are not KOLs: the readers, the everyday investors will use our app. We have many instances where we go to fests, we go to seminars, we talk to people that use our app. We talk to them “oh guys.” “I’m a user.” “So what do you like about the app? Can you give us any feedback?” We take the feedback very seriously and we take it back to the tech team to say that “you know what, guys? We need this. Many users we spoke to say this… can we do this?” 

The users and the customers are the ones that, ultimately, we listen to. We are building the app for them, not just for ourselves. That is how we grew because people knew that we were listening. I think it’s not just about finance or community building, but it’s how a business should be, I believe. No matter whether you’re in finance or even… let’s see you’re opening a cafe, if the customer say that your food is too salty or it is too sweet. Then out of 10 people, 8 people say that, maybe you have to reduce the salt a little. That was how much groundwork we had to do back then.

Andrew: So I’m imagining a lot of groundwork at the start. You’re literally going out, right? 

Ethan: Yes. 

Andrew: But what makes you all different? For example, can you recall something that they give feedback about and you implemented it and therefore, it lead to an increase in members or engagement? 

Ethan: Yeah. So there was this particular person who really liked how the community was flowing, but he felt that Investing Note could have had other features like virtual portfolio. The virtual portfolio… a lot of the people who use their portfolio, say on Excel sheet. Prior to that, a lot of people use Excel Sheet. They key in the date, buy date, sell date, then the dividends and they key in… For us, they said that “guys, you have the technology. Why not just build a virtual portfolio? It’s much easier for me.” 

Let’s say I buy a certain stock at this time a few years ago, then for us, we say that, okay, the app is able to track all your dividends for you and what’s your profit and loss. Everything, we check it for you. Of course, you have to put in your own data because it’s for you to view yourself. So a lot of people have started to use that feature. 

Andrew: It sounds like a value-added service more than a community building tool. 

Ethan: Yes. That one is more of how we enhance the user’s experience and the usability of the app so that we keep them engaged as well. This part is… how we made it social is that we allow the users to actually share their portfolio if they want to so when you share, other people can see what you buy and sell. 

Andrew: You call it virtual portfolio, but actually it could be my real portfolio. I just input my data into it and you construct a graph, whatever. 

Ethan: Correct.

Andrew: Other people can look at this portfolio. 

Ethan: If they choose.

Andrew: If they choose to let it be open, public. 

Ethan: Correct, so they have a choice to do that. Another thing is that we have been running simulated challenges, which is like a virtual challenge. Basically, paper money and we give you real prizes if you are in the top few. This concept is not new. It’s been around the last 10 – 20 years. Definitely, people have been running paper trading, they call it. But how we do it different is that… what makes it exciting is that you can see everybody’s transactions and it’s transparent to the public. 

Andrew: Real time? 

Ethan: Real time, and if the first guy… you can see what he buys and sells, so people will say “wow!” The key problem for challenges, let’s say they are held by brokers, people cannot see what they buy and sell. They only can see that this guy, 30% return in three days but I have no idea what they buy and sell. Okay, he wins… But for us, we made it open. We made it transparent so that people can see “oh, actually this guy bought this at this price. How did he know?” 

We even have an area where people can put down why they did so. For example, why did you buy a certain stock and [indiscernible] to the return? It’s a very open community that we have.

Andrew: Same goes for the virtual portfolio. I can follow key opinion leaders, people that I like and I see their trade in real time if they input the data in real time, of course. 

Ethan: Yes. 

Andrew: Okay. I always have my own doubts about this. I like to see what people do so that I get a reference point, but at the same time, you could be falling into a trap of just copying other trades. 

Ethan: Yes. I think that is a very valid concern there because this idea is not new. It is something… I think in Europe, it’s pretty big. Europe, US maybe. It’s called social trading where people create their portfolios and people can just pay a small little fee and they can just copy it directly. We’re talking about real cash here. 

Of course, on the good days, everything is good. Wow, you know what? 20%, 30% return in one, two months. Wow! But when the rain drops, it’s going to be hell and you wouldn’t know what went wrong.

Andrew: And there are apps that let you copy trades.

Ethan: Yes. A lot of these kind of apps, but for us, even though we have the functionality, but we are not brokers so we are trying to go the route where people share each other on what they do instead. Of course, capabilities are there but social trading itself is not new and definitely, it is something that needs to be thoroughly thought of as well, especially when there’s real money involved.

Andrew: Yeah. Okay. So as you mentioned brokers. A lot of trading apps are adding community features nowadays. What do you think is the trend of community in the finance domain, moving forward? 

Ethan: I think with all these meme stocks and this Wall Street Bets saga, people are giving more attention to online conversations because prior to that, nobody knew that they could have moved the market. But like I said earlier, it doesn’t happen that often. It’s once or twice because if you were to do it too many times, first I think the authorities will come in. Definitely, if they step in, then that’s it. 

Second is that you want to do it every time, you need to have that kind of influence and you need to be right every time. Let’s say if you do it once, yes you are right. But the second or third time, you’re wrong, then that’s when the lever breaks in and everything just crumbles. Do we need to be right every time? It’s hard. Definitely, it’s hard unless you are a fund manager hiding behind. But we have already ruled out the possibility that fund managers are behind, even though there might be a chance. 

So how we think of this is that it’s going to be interesting for a lot of retail investors because prior to this technological advancements, they are not able to talk to each other and they are not able to find out who are the ones who are experienced other than word of mouth. Let’s say 20 years ago, do you know who are the good ones in the market? Probably just the people who are out in the market teaching courses or stock brokers. But right now, the whole landscape has changed and microbloggers, bloggers have stepped up to the game and these guys are the ones that are influential and they know their stuff, so there’s a lot of knowledge being shared down there. For me, I think that social communities and social interactions are the best way to spread information. 

Andrew: Do you have some sort of reputation points for your members? Give you a kudos, good tip… I don’t know. These are all community features.

Ethan: Yes, yes. We do have reputation points, but of course the reputation point… last time, our reputation points was a very simple algorithm where we give a like or a comment, you get a certain point. Of course, right now we felt that the algorithm needs to be changed into something that it’s more in line with what we feel that is correct so that people can’t game the system as well. We do have that kind of reputation points that people can be more reputable in our platform. 

I think one of the key metrics is how they get more followers. Some of these influencers inside have 2 – 3K followership. But in our platform alone, it’s actually quite big already, because you’re not talking about Instagram, let’s say Ronaldo has 500 million followers, so we are not… because this is finance. For the scale of finance, it’s actually quite big already so I think going forward, more people are going to have enagagements. You can see from countless Telegram groups that pop out, even brokers having community so I think everybody would acknowledge that there’s some benefit of communities. 

But how we are different is that first, we are neutral. We are not just working with a particular broker. Second is no matter what broker you are, you can still use our app. Doesn’t matter if you’re from Broker A, B, C, you can use our app. Third is that we book with all the different people in the ecosystem from asset management firms to sometimes… even before COVID, we have worked with a few listed companies to bring our community members to site tours and even panel discussion with the CEO, C-suite management. These are the things that we’re doing different with other communities. I’m very sure forums don’t do that. 

Andrew: Well, we are talking about the future of online communities, the trading apps we are using is getting me to like and share certain posts, getting me to see what’s happening in the online discussions and all that. Earlier on, we brought up Wall Street Bets again, it definitely attracted many retail investors, especially younger people and you can see it from the data, because more people are downloading and using Robinhood app, for example. What if we can take a step back further than that? More people are coming in during the COVID 19 pandemic as well, either because they have more time or they are more interested in learning how to make money. You can see all these data points. 

Ethan: Correct. I think going forward, definitely, there will be more emphasis on this kind of social communities. But like I said and like you brought up earlier, when these online communities and forums thrive, even in your WhatsApp and Telegram group, there’s a higher risk of pump and dump. There’s even a higher risk of pump and dump because let’s say… for me, I have been targeted by those scammers to join a particular WhatsApp group and they asked me to buy a certain stock. 

Andrew: They give you a link… 

Ethan: Yes, to buy a certain stock so I foresee this was going to be very rampant and once they target many people and you keep joining all these groups, it becomes more easy for people to have this kind of schemes. That’s why is important to have a strong community moderation, because all this WhatsApp group, your Telegram group, they’re not moderated in any way. Even SGX has publicly posted an announcement to ask people to watch out for all these Whatsapp and Telegram groups. 

Andrew: Oh, it depends on the groups that are joining. My personal experience is that yeah, if it’s a pump and dump, it’s very obvious. They’re always talking about which stocks to buy, but if you join a group like… well, TFC has a Telegram group as well. We have also quite robust discussions, people asking questions and other people answering. You can take a look, look around a little bit, look at the content, look at the quality of ideas that’s being posted before you make a decision and this is the part about doing your own due diligence.

Ethan: Back to that point, yeah. I totally agree because those people, they are… the highest risk like I said earlier are those people who have no or very little financial knowledge and they are the gullible ones. For example, if someone tell you that “hey, you know what? This investment will make you 20% per month”. 

To a person, who has no financial investment knowledge, you say, “wah, actually that is not that bad. But for the people who are in the market is like “hey, that’s impossible. There’s obviously a red flag somewhere.” You got to have a bit of that kind of knowledge before you can even enagage conducively in this kind of online communities but the good thing is there’s always YouTube, there’s always podcasts. There’s always content written by financial portals that are legit, even Investopedia. There’s a lot of channels which are legit that people should make use of this content. 

Andrew: Yeah, there are different sources nowadays. 

Ethan: Correct. 

Andrew: Online forums and communities are one of them. 

Ethan: Yes. 

Andrew: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Ethan. 

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Before we wrap up today, I have three questions for you. The first question is what is one core life principle that you hold?

Ethan: I think for me, I’m always learning because I personally do a lot of sports. I do rock climbing, I skate, I jump rope and I feel that whatever I learnt in these different sports, it can be translated into what I do in terms of my work. Because these sports… of course, they are different. It is physically straining but the values that this sport give me is for example perseverance, consistency. If you don’t train, you’ll not be able to do those sports. Consistency, perseverance and how to motivate myself because many of the times as a rock climber personally, I need to do my own physical training, right?

If not, I’ll be going to the wall, not being able to perform. Even when there are rainy days… but I know that today is training day. I can’t give it up so I believe whatever values I get from the sports is translated into my work and my career. 

I’m managing a team in in Malaysia right now so we have to have that consistency. That’s why I believe learn as much as you can and learn from different things you’re doing. It’s always interchangeable.

Andrew: Trains your mind as well, especially when it comes to investing. 

Ethan: Correct. 

Andrew: Okay. What is one piece of financial advice that you think should be shared more often?

Ethan: Don’t wait till you are old and working before you get the investment knowledge. That is when a lot of people would try to get a piece of your money. I used to work in a bank, in a branch. That’s when I saw people coming in with million-dollar checks, asking to put into a fixed deposit. That was where I knew that these guys, they have the money but they don’t have the financial literacy. With a million dollar, you can do much more so don’t wait until you have the money then you get the knowledge. Get the knowledge first so that when you get the money, you know where to spend it and you know where to put it, to make it grow for you.

Andrew: Okay. My last question for you. What is an area of your life that you are giving additional focus right now? 

Ethan: Additional focus? That’s an interesting question. I believe that right now investing, growing Investing Note is one of the key priorities. But for me, like I said earlier, I do quite a few sports… maybe a word of advice for the listeners. I always believe in having three hobbies: one that keeps you fit, one that keeps you creative and one that makes you money. The one that makes me money probably would be investing and trading. The one that keeps me fit would probably be the sports and hobby. The one that keeps me creative would also be some sports and hobby because there are tricks and skills to be learned.

Andrew: Okay. If you have work, that’s the creative part as well and then you do your sports so this is how you will divide your time… 

Ethan: Yes. 

Andrew: … among all the different activities in your life. 

Ethan: Correct. So think of life as a holistic thing. It’s not just work and you go back home, you just Netflix and chill, right? You need to spend some time to improve on your personal growth. I think personal growth is something that I really stress on, even to my colleagues. I tell them “you know what, guys? The real learning is not on the job. The real learning is what happens after the job when you go back home.” Do you take up a book to read, or do you choose to Netflix and chill and sleep?

A guy who does this for one year, Netflix and chill and sleep, after one year, you never improve. But the guy who picks up a book and starts to read and start to Google, start to YouTube all this stuff, who want those answers, he will eventually get it. That is one advice that I would give the listeners.

Andrew: Okay. All right, thank you for your time. Thank you, Ethan! 

Ethan: All right, thanks. 

Andrew: Thank you. 

Ethan: All right, thanks.

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