The Prodigy
Bloomberg Markets|December 2020 - January 2021
Yoyo Chang turned a hunch born in an English high school cafeteria into a next-generation payments app backed by serious, well-heeled investors
EDWARD ROBINSON

When Yoyo Chang first told his parents that he wanted to start his own technology venture, they were alarmed: This was not part of the plan.

Paul and Pauline Chang had emigrated to the U.K. from Taiwan in 2003 so their son could learn English and eventually pursue an international business career, preferably at a global investment bank. Sure enough, Chang excelled in school. He also fell in love with the stock market at the age of 13, raking in £250,000 ($326,650) in trading profits for his family by the time he went to college in 2018.

But then Chang’s life took a turn. Rather than focus on his studies and save his money, he wanted to plow it into a startup. His idea was an app that would enable stores to accept payments directly from customers’ mobile phones, slashing transaction fees and eliminating the need for card readers and other hardware.

Worried his only child was taking on too much, Paul researched the complexities of payments infrastructure and learned it was tightly regulated and dominated by the likes of Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal, not to mention banks. What made Chang, an 18-year-old freshman, believe he could jump into that world?

“I told my boy, ‘Don’t do it. It’s too difficult,’ ” Paul says with Pauline and his son at his side. “I told him to buy a house.”

“I didn’t listen!” interjects Chang, now 20, with a laugh. “I was naive.”

His mother shakes her head. “He still doesn’t listen,” she says.

Now Chang’s naivete is paying off. His venture, KodyPay, has morphed from a crazy idea he and some friends conceived in their high school cafeteria into a fledgling business. KodyPay raised $2.3 million from angel investors this summer. Chang made deals with a partner of International Business Machines Corp. and a subsidiary of Visa Inc. to build his technology. And KodyPay was ready to go live in November in cafes and shops at the University of York, where Chang is a third-year business management student. With the novel coronavirus forcing thousands of students to attend classes online throughout northern England, the plan is to try to release the app in January.

At first glance, Chang’s tech adventure follows the familiar contours of the Silicon Valley creation myth. He does idolize Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jack Ma and unabashedly dreams of creating a company that can change the world. Yet Chang’s journey deviates from the traditional narrative in myriad ways. For starters, he isn’t a solitary brainiac holed up in his dorm room or garage writing computer programs. Actually, he can’t read a line of code, let alone write one.

Nor is he the product of elite private schools or the hothouses of innovation that thrive in universities such as Stanford and Cambridge. Chang was educated in state schools in southern England and has become an unexpected star at the University of York, an institution known more for its acclaimed scientific and humanities research programs than for its incubation of tech startups. What’s more, his venture shows how the drive for innovation has truly expanded beyond the confines of Silicon Valley and gone global. “There’s a lot of hidden talent out there,” says Kiran Trehan, the pro-vice-chancellor for partnerships and engagement at the university.

Chang’s knack for strategic thinking and marshaling allies to his side is well suited to the next chapter in financial modernization. The fintech revolution of the last decade is largely done: Online banking and payment apps have been commoditized, and cloud computing has made starting a venture relatively affordable. The game now is all about forming creative business models, marketing, and partnerships, says Brad van Leeuwen, a digital payments entrepreneur and co-founder of Cledara Ltd., a cloud software company in London. In payments, a $2 trillion global industry in annual revenue, the prize is titanic. “The biggest challenge in the payments space isn’t the technology, it’s building a critical mass of customers,” Van Leeuwen says. “And the barriers to entry are no longer insurmountable—a 20-year-old can do it.”

A gregarious sort who talks at warp speed, Chang has attracted a squad of influential mentors to his cause. In June, Hank Uberoi, a onetime senior executive in charge of technology at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., became KodyPay’s chairman. As the former chief operating officer of Ken Griffin’s hedge fund Citadel as well, Uberoi moves in finance’s rarefied circles. He’s connecting Chang to his network of ex- Goldman partners, old Citadel colleagues, entrepreneurs, and angel investors.

The young man talks to Uberoi several times a day as he negotiates with potential partners and prepares to release the app. Although Uberoi knows his protege may ultimately fail in his quest, he’s happy to hop aboard for the ride.

“I’ve seen enough early-stage companies to know it takes 10 miracles to succeed,” says Uberoi. “But when I first met Yoyo, I knew within the first 10 minutes I was going to invest with him. It was his energy level, his enthusiasm, his grasp of detail that impressed me. And the reality is that often experience is a hindrance rather than an advantage—you’re constrained by what you think is not possible. Yoyo doesn’t feel constrained.”

What he does feel is pressure. Between assembling a board of directors, negotiating deals, raising working capital, and managing the rollout of the app, Chang’s days are a blur of tasks and meetings. When he wakes up, he says, the first thing he thinks about is all the business problems he must solve that day. Then he’s got his schoolwork, too. His university advisers fear their pupil will become so overwhelmed he’ll drop out. As for a social life, Chang has no time to do what guys his age typically spend their time doing—hanging out with his friends on Discord or WhatsApp, playing sports, or even dating.

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