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Adrian Yap: Telling stories through numbers

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The CIO, co-founder and in-house financial advisor at theDesk is part of our ‘Meet The Investors’ event that’s aimed at helping startups find backing. He speaks to us about making numbers sexy, thinking about the ‘stories’ they tell and taking your integers seriously…

Full disclosure: we’re hardly super-excited to start our day of interviews here at the newsDesk with a morning chat with an accountant. However, as soon as Adrian Yap, theDesk’s CIO, co-founder and in-house financial advisor, starts talking, any worry we have about this being a boring hour of stats and figures disappears into the ether. Yap is a man who’s spent his entire adult life dedicating himself to the ‘exciting’ world of numbers. We’re immediately energised by his enthusiasm.

The universe of pluses-and-minuses, which can seem so foreign and impregnable to the untrained eye, quickly comes into vivid colour as Yap launches into conversations about the multiple possibilities, ‘stories’ and ‘personalities’ that can be culled from a mere single-page financial statement. “Numbers are a kind of language,” describes the 34-year-old. “It’s a way of translating your ideas into something that everyone can understand.”

Numbers may seem dull on their own but, according to Yap, the insights they can provide are completely unique. We speak to him ahead of tomorrow’s ‘Meet The Investors’ event at theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Wan on Thursday, June 1, which sees a panel of investment experts speaking to startup businesses from theDesk, as well as firms in the Sai Wan, Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town neighbourhoods, about how they can effectively procure investments for their new businesses and what financial resources there are in the city to tap into. Yap is on the panel and there are still some places left.

“For startups, a financial statement is all about the story. Private equity or venture capitalist firms won’t invest time in the actual numbers themselves, since there isn’t much capital to start with. But the numbers demonstrate how you apply your logical mind and whether you know what you’re talking about.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Yap studied accountancy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and began his career by spending five years at professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, working in auditing and business assurance for major consumers and industrial clients. Then, citing the fact that he’d never studied abroad and had a pining for experiencing other cultures, he worked a year in a Los Angeles accountancy firm, translating Asia-Pacific financial frameworks to ones workable in the USA. Returning home in 2009, he worked at professional services company Ernst & Young, now known as EY. His job here was to specialise in corporate restructuring, insolvency and distressed assets.

Still with us? Good. Because underneath all that financial jargon saturating a seriously impressive resumé, we find a common thread weaving throughout Yap’s career: the ability to read numbers as stories full of personality, including tales of companies’ financial habits, vignettes of idiosyncrasies in business histories and how organisations see themselves against others. Moving through auditing and distressed assets, Yap has gained invaluable insight from ‘building financial statements and using financial statements’, he tells us. “It’s about interpreting,” he says, “reading to see how a company perceives the future and how they build that perception with numbers.”

SEE ALSO: Adam Wong: Run your startup like a triathlete

While Yap is undoubtedly good at what he does, it’s not because numbers particularly stand out to him. In fact, he doesn’t even think he’s good at maths. “I studied maths in high school but I don’t think I’m that good,” he tells us. “Compared to my friends who studied maths or engineering, my maths is kindergarten-level. They talk about integration and differentiation. I’m nowhere near that.” These are particularly comforting sentiments for mere number-plebeians like us and help cast the work of accountancy in a less daunting, more accessible light. “Accounting is all plus-or-minus. It’s simple maths,” he says. “Accountancy is boring in itself. But it’s a unique way to understand and make sense of numbers.”

To Yap, accountancy entails skills that are neither purely arithmetical nor entirely logical. Instead, accounting is in essence an exercise in storytelling and translation. It’s an art, really. “What I do at theDesk,” he says, “is translate businesses into numbers that provide a new angle into the business.” And that novel angle is as important in startups as it is in established ventures, if not more. “For startups, a financial statement is all about the story,” insists Yap. “Private equity or venture capitalist firms won’t invest time in the actual numbers themselves, since there isn’t much capital to start with. But the numbers demonstrate how you apply your logical mind and whether you know what you’re talking about. Based on your projections, we can see how you’re telling your story, how you translate your business ideas into numbers and whether it all, ultimately, makes sense.”

SEE ALSO: Alex So: Your guardian ‘angel investor’

So, in a sense, accountancy is paradoxically not about numbers at all. It’s about the individual or individuals behind them. When asked about what he looks for in a startup, Yap tells us: “To be honest, we look for the people. If we think a person has the endurance to cope with the ups-and-downs, then we’d consider their business model.” And it’s precisely through speaking to young startups and reading their financial statements that Yap comes to a decision about whether or not an idea will go far. “When you pitch a business, you pitch the idea,” he says. “A financial statement is about how you link up people, ideas, business models and markets into a single-term sheet. It’s about how you translate your idea into a common language. The financial aspect is just one part of the story but it tells you how someone interprets their own ideas and whether they can cope with adversities.”

Yap deeply enjoys interacting with startups at the formative stages and delights in sharing his many years of ‘accumulating knowledge’, as he puts it, to others who may want it. He teaches part-time at the HK Institute of Certified Public Accountants and can often be seen engaged in deep conversation with the various members of theDesk. “I’m so happy to share what I think needs to be done,” he tells us with a smile. “Sometimes, the questions our members, for instance, ask aren’t even about the problems they think they have. Maybe there are other more pertinent, underlying issues. I’m very happy to share what I see.”

Yap encourages young entrepreneurs to ‘dream big and set high goals’ as they’re ‘creating something of their own’, like he’s done with his fellow co-founders at theDesk. And, like everything else he does, there’s an elegant logic to this, he says: “If you set a goal high enough but you don’t reach the top, you can still look back and realise that you haven’t done badly at all. But if you aim for the middle, even if you reach your goal, you won’t have anything else to work towards.” So don’t get too bogged down in the numbers. Instead, use them to paint a bigger picture. And Yap can tell you how, at theDesk’s upcoming Meet the Investors event. Don’t forget to mark down his digits!

By Grace FungAdrian Yap, in brief
Name: Adrian Yap
Business: Accountancy/financial services industry
Position: CIO, co-founder and in-house financial advisor at theDesk
Age: 34
From: Hong Kong
Business Location: Sai Wan, Hong Kong

Special Event: ‘Meet The Investors’ at theDesk
What are investors and VCs looking for? How do I distribute shares? What is the best business structure to attract investors? If you’re a startup looking for advice, tips and connections to funding and investment sources, then join us for an evening with three Hong Kong investment and finance experts. This event explains all the dos and don’ts of funding types, business structures and exit strategies. Join us on Thursday, June 1, between 7pm and 9pm at theDesk, 511 Queen’s Road West in Sai Wan. Fire questions at and meet our guardian ‘angel investor’ Alex So, as well as private banker Adam Wong and theDesk’s chief financial officer Adrian Yap, who’s a former director at EY. This is a free event but seats are limited. Register using the form below or at thedesk-fundyourstartup.eventbrite.hk. See you there!

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