RHONDA WONG GAVE UP HER JET-SET LIFE TO COMMIT TO A CAUSE: HELPING FAMILIES IN NEED OF A HOME THROUGH OHMYHOME, A PROPERTY APP THAT CUTS OUT THE MIDDLEMAN AND SAVES YOU HASSLE AND MONEY.
As child, Rhonda Wong wanted to be a musician. In A her teens, she wanted to be a doctor. Eventually, she wound up as the only woman derivatives trader (with a job scope of buying and selling stocks) in a company in Chicago, and earned her first million by 25. She returned to Singapore in 2008, and continued trading while juggling several businesses on the side: handling the import and export of military equipment; being an education consultant for schools in China; and even starting her own plus-size lingerie store. It was a pretty long CV for someone who was only in her 20s.
The reason for her restlessness? The now 33-year-old never felt truly emotionally invested in what she was doing. They were, to her, purely moneyspinning projects. Her true passion lay in volunteer work. From the time she was young, she remembers wanting to help “the old amahs who were carrying a lot of things by the road”, and going on volunteer trips; she even considered becoming a doctor so she could help society more. But her mother, everpractical, had another solution: “If you want to help people, go to business school. Then you can hire all the doctors you want.” So Rhonda left Singapore for Michigan, where she got her business degree and began life as a trader.
Anthill Realtors, launched in 2014, was yet another business she ran while trading on the side. Together with co-founder/ older sister Race (formerly of Cantopop duo 2R, whose other member was another sister, Rosanne), Rhonda managed investors’ portfolios. The business took off and was soon handling more than 100 investors’ portfolios in seven countries around the region. “We started Anthill Realtors because I couldn’t find an agent who could give good advice and who truly cared about the customer,” Rhonda explains. But while Anthill was profitable, Rhonda and Race didn’t feel an emotional connection to what they were doing.
There’s an App for
It So when Anthill had $200,000 to pump into innovation, Race suggested that they focus on HDB flats. “At Anthill, we were making money off people who were already wealthy,” Rhonda says. “But we wanted to help those who needed quality services more.” Something clicked inside her – she didn’t just want to offer services to people who lived in bungalows, but also those who lived in HDB flats and wanted property advice. “With Ohmyhome, I realised that I could combine volunteer work and business.”
Here’s the elevator pitch of Ohmyhome: It’s an app that allows users to list their HDB property for free, and connect with buyers and potential planners via the chat function. The company doesn’t charge for successful transactions, but if you do choose to hire an agent, the fixed fee is $2,888. It’s a pretty good deal, considering that a traditional agent would take a 1-2 per cent commission fee from your property (on average, that’s $9,000). Ohmyhome’s revenue comes from agent services, as well as advertising from law firms, real estate developers, and home-staging advertising on the site.
Ohmyhome launched in September 2016, but it’s already had its fair share of headlines. Rhonda, given her love of all things numbers-related, can’t complain about the digits: more than 200,000 users, more than 2,300 homes transacted (with a combined value exceeding $1 billion), more than $20 million in commissions saved by customers, and most recently, raising a cool $4 million from venture capitalists. It’s impressive stuff, but it’s not the reason why Rhonda shows up at work every morning. Ohmyhome, she believes, is fundamentally about family and helping those who cannot afford the time and money to wade through agents, hidden fees, and confusing information in the market.
Volunteering from a Young Age
Rhonda’s career might have been diverse, but her love of volunteering has been a constant. The cause that she’s most connected to is helping young children and families. She remembers a formative moment when she was just eight years old and on a volunteer trip in Cambodia. “An old man told me that there were a lot of child prostitutes. I didn’t understand what that meant,” she recounts. “He said, ‘Girls like you. They sell their bodies to make money.’ I thought it was so unfair. Why was it that we were all children, but other children had it so much tougher?” As she grew older and realised that she was in a much more fortunate position than others, it cemented her desire to give back to those who were less able.
Over the years, she visited an orphanage in Myanmar, volunteered at an age care facility in Chicago, taught children in the Dominican Republic to write, and worked at an after-school facility in Detroit that kept at-risk youth off the streets. “All my work stems from my love of children. No child is born to be a prostitute. It happens because of their parents, and not having a stable home,” she states firmly. “If you think of homes as shelter, then if we can give children a stable shelter, they have a better chance of having a normal life.” Singapore may be fortunate compared with other countries, but poverty and struggling families still exist here. Rhonda remembers instances where customers told Ohmyhome staff that thanks to mistakes they had made with property, they’d wound up having to live in tents at East Coast Park. It’s appalling stories like these that motivate her to help others. She has a full-time staff member dedicated to pro-bono cases, and so far, Ohmyhome has assisted 16 families, including a struggling mother whose husband had cancer, and a single dad making ends meet. The team of 20 agents and almost 40 staff is starting small in Singapore, but Ohmyhome’s long-term plan is to expand globally and build homes in poverty-stricken countries.
A Family Business Rhonda speaks from experience when she talks about the importance of having a roof over your head. Her family, originally from Malaysia, moved to Singapore when her father was migrating his sandalwood business to this country. At one point, it was the largest sandalwood distributor in Singapore. But the evershifting financial market, especially the 1997 Asian financial crisis, hit them hard.
“Looking back now as an adult, I see that there were times when we struggled financially,” she says. “Whenever we did better, we would buy a new home. Once a crisis hit, we moved into a smaller, rented place. In total, we moved 15 to 20 times. But I never felt poor, because there was so much love in our home.”
Today, her parents are real estate investors, but Rhonda has never forgotten where they came from. “My parents had it way tougher than I ever did: My mother came from a family of 13 kids; my dad had no formal education.”
Sheer grit and determination, she believes, was what got them where they are today. And it was also her love for her parents that compelled her to move back home after just two years of working in Chicago. Realising that they were getting older, she wanted to make sure she spent as much time with them as possible. Now married with a two-yearold son, she still lives with her parents.
Committing to a Higher Purpose
Rhonda may have changed the lives of the people who use the site and those whom she hires, but the one person whose life has done a one-eighty is her own. She once spent six years without a typical nine-tofive job, with trading as her main source of income. “Even at Anthill, I was travelling every month, living the typical carefree Instagram life,” she thinks back. “Ohmyhome was the first time Race and I had to sit down and have a serious talk. We realised that if we were to do this, our lifestyles would have to change.”
Venturing into the tech start-up world didn’t come cheap; they each put in $1 million from their personal funds, and added a few hundred thousand from Anthill Realtors. They knew Ohmyhome would need time to generate profits, and the pair went without a salary when the app launched (Rhonda had to rely on her savings to pay the bills).
Costs aside, the sisters had other unexpected problems. During the year spent building Ohmyhome, both Race and Rhonda found themselves pregnant within five months of each other. It couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time – not only were they knocking on doors, giving out fliers and wearing sandwich boards to get the word out, they were also courting investors.
“We were careful not to meet investors while visibly pregnant, because we didn’t want them to have doubts about working with two pregnant founders,” Rhonda explains, as they worried that investors would think they would be away on maternity leave for a long time and leave the business hanging when it was still in its infancy (pun intended). “We knew that we loved the work and that being pregnant wouldn’t make us less committed.” She worked throughout her pregnancy, and was back in the office 11 days after giving birth.
The jet-setting lifestyle has long since been grounded for motherhood and office hours. It’s a stark change, but Rhonda shrugs off the sacrifice. When it comes down to it, she loves what she does. “I was in Bali recently for a surprise birthday trip planned by my husband,” she shares. “He asked me what I wanted to do, and I thought, hey, I would rather sit by the beach with my laptop and work. I had the option not to, but I wanted to. I like talking to my team and to my sister. I like seeing the progress made and reading customer testimonials. That was when I realised that I truly enjoy what I do.”
"Rhonda visited a boys’ school in Myanmar and provided sponsorship for their meals."
“If you think of homes as shelter, then if we can give children a stable shelter, they have a better chance of having a normal life.”
"During her visit to the boys’ school in Myanmar, Rhonda also gave school supplies to the orphans."
HOW OHMYHOME STACKS UP AGAINST ENGAGING A FREELANCE AGENT
1 Hiring an agent to sell a property would cost approximately 2 per cent of the selling price, and purchasing a property would cost you 1 per cent. With Ohmyhome, sellers pay a fixed agent commission of $2,888 nett for flats transacted below $600,000, and $3,888 nett for flats above $600,000.
2 Ohmyhome agents are reportedly 70 per cent more efficient than freelance agents, because technology propels 75 per cent of their work. This enables them to take on more clients.
3 Ohmyhome agents take an average of 60 days to find a buyer, twice as fast as the industry standard of 120 days.
4 No duplications are listed on the site. Properties listed on other housing sites typically see a duplication of 20 times. But all properties on Ohmyhome are unique.
5 Only home owners and Ohmyhome agents are allowed to list on the site. No external agents are permitted.
TEXT CLARA HOW PHOTOGRAPHY VERONICA TAY, ASSISTED BY PHYLLICIA WANG ART DIRECTION ALICE CHUA STYLING GRACE LIM HAIR & MAKEUP BENEDICT CHOO, USING KEVIN.MURPHY & YSL BEAUTE OUTFIT & SHOES H&M