Cover (Photo: Charlene Ree)

Charlene Ree of AI marketing platform EternityX gets candid about her investment tips and financial journey over the past two decades—as an entrepreneur, social media influencer and mother of three

Welcome to Money Milestones, in which an accomplished woman reveals her financial thought process and the spending, borrowing and investing that reflects her growth

Charlene Ree grew up in Taiwan as the middle child of parents with opposite financial perspectives. Her father, a doctor, is very generous and loves treating family and friends. Her mother, who came from a modest background, is a go-getter who budgets carefully and craves a discount. 

As a serial tech entrepreneur in digital advertising, Ree has adopted both their philosophies. For each business, she has set a strategic plan—and she has invested wisely in a diverse portfolio that includes real estate, conservative bonds and riskier startups and cryptocurrency. It's not all work, though: she makes a point to reward herself and spread the wealth around, with gifts for relatives and dividends for employees.  

“A lot of Asian people shy away from talking about money, but I feel that’s changing,” says Ree. “I’m willing to share because I know the value of being part of a community.” In that spirit, she breaks down her money milestones, from her first joint venture to her first investment property, and her ultimate goal of an IPO. 

First-ever luxury purchase (2002) = spent HK$9,330 on Louis Vuitton 

I was a philosophy major at Fujian University, which says a lot about my personality; I was always very curious and wanted to know the whys. But, of course in Chinese society, people feel, how are you going to make any money with that degree?

I decided to get a masters in media ecology at New York University, which was still not the most practical degree but taught me to analyse how the media influences people’s decision making. It equipped me with insights into marketing and how to fine-tune messaging.

After graduation, my aunt hooked me up with an internship to help a friend sell fabrics into New York from China. I made the inventory; organised fabrics with codes; and carried the portfolios, knocking door by door in the Garment District. I wasn’t paid by commission and didn’t know to ask for it. Even though I closed a few US$1 million (HK$7.8 million) deals, I only earned US$1,000 (HK$7,800) a month for six months. At least I learned a lot!

I wanted to treat myself with my hard-earned intern money and, luckily, I had a friend at Bloomingdale’s who let me use his 20 percent employee discount. I paid US$1,200 (about HK$9,330) for a Louis Vuitton wallet and four bags—one for myself, two for my sisters and one for my mom—which was a very good deal. 

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Httpool Asia joint venture (2009) = borrowed HK$643,560

I had been working in performance-driven marketing for a digital agency in New York, helping clients reach the right audience at the right time with the right message. One of my clients, the European-based Httpool Group, was interested in expanding to Asia and we decided to do a joint venture in 2009. Since I got married that year, I felt more financially secure and able to take a risk. My business partner and I weren’t experienced in startups, so it was good to get guidance and structure. Httpool also gave us a loan of €70,000 (about HK$643,560). We were very profitable and paid it back with interest after about two years.

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First real estate investment (2012) = spent HK$3.5 million 

My parents bought a townhouse in Sunnyvale in California’s Silicon Valley in 2007 for around US$250,000 (about HK$1.95 million). Five years later, they gave up their US citizenship and sold me the property for about US$450,000 (HK$3.5 million), a bit lower than the market price.

It’s always been an investment rental property. In 2019, the tenant wanted to buy and offered almost US$1 million (HK$7.78 million), so it’s increased a lot. But I felt an emotional attachment and wasn’t ready to sell. It’s the first property I owned and I got it from my parents. 

We’re very traditional Chinese in seeing property as very important for financial security. My parents own quite a few properties in Taiwan, and my husband’s family is also in real estate. A lesson we learned is if you pick the right location and have enough liquidity to be comfortable holding the property at least five to ten years, its value will almost always go up. We’ve since invested in two properties in Los Angeles.

General fund opened when her first child was born (2012) = invested in bonds

We set up a fund with a conservative approach—mostly bonds and the S&P 500 index—when my son was born. Now I also have two daughters, and our goal is to provide financial freedom for them so that hopefully they each can pursue what they enjoy doing. My husband and I were lucky to come from well-off families where we didn’t have to worry about money and we want to pass that on to our kids.  

When they get red envelopes for Chinese New Year, the cash goes into bank savings accounts that we have set up for each of them. Since they’re still young, we don’t really give them pocket money. They only have discretionary tooth fairy money (HK$100 for the first tooth and then HK$20 each). My son, nine, was joking he wished he had more teeth! And my daughter who’s five, turning six, just lost her first two teeth and can’t wait for the next one.  

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First special order Hermès handbag (2016) = spent HK$86,000

I started collecting handbags in 2011, and one of my goals was to be invited to customise a special order Hermès bag. It comes down to your relationship with the sales associate and how much you spend annually (the threshold is about HK$250,000).

In 2016, I already knew I was going to sell Httpool and funds would be coming in, so I purchased more from Hermès. On one of my visits to the flagship store in Central, my salesperson brought it up: “I have a surprise for you; you got approved to do a special order.” It was very exciting.

I decided to let my mom design the special order bag; she chose the Birkin 30 and really took her time researching colours and details. I put down a deposit of HK$40,000; the final price is determined by the market price when the bag is finished which, in this case, was HK$86,000 two years later. So Birkins do increase in value. I’ve been invited to create three more special order bags.

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Her first Instagram collaboration (2016) = earned a few thousand HK dollars

When I started hearing buzz about influencers, I became curious to try it myself. I knew Instagram wanted more video content, so I did unboxing videos, and my account grew quickly. I set a goal to make 200 comments daily and find profiles to follow. Someone with 1,000 to 2,000 followers is a sweet spot; they want to interact and will follow you back.

My friend’s brother was a marketing manager for Christian Louboutin Beauty and he approached me for a paid collaboration. It wasn’t much money, but I do like Christian Louboutin. I’m quite selective with collaborations and usually fine to work with a gift, as long as I like the brand. Most luxury fashion brands like Chanel will not pay influencers, anyway, in my experience.

I was looking for a community with an interest in luxury handbags and have made genuine friends through Instagram—people I hang out, shop and compare notes with. It has also given me first-person insights that are useful in my main job with clients such as LVMH and Richemont Groups.

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Httpool Asia acquired (2017) = cashed out undisclosed amount of shares

As minor shareholders, with 20 percent shares each, my partner and I didn’t have much say in where to take the company or when to exit. After nine years, we were relieved when IMS—the largest ad network in South America and part of Sony Group—decided to acquire 50 per cent of the global Httpool Group in 2017.

Among its 16 offices, we were the second-highest revenue and EBITDA driver, so we really helped the company achieve its desired valuation and that gave us a better position to negotiate how we wanted our shares to be purchased back in the end. 

EternityX joint venture (2018) = invested an initial HK$2 million

When I was at Httpool, clients always saw China as a market they need to tap. So when we got our exit, I met with the CEO of a Chinese technology platform and developed a joint venture. The China market is challenging because the landscape is so different; the return on investment is often not satisfying for brands. They need technology to give them more insights.

The Chinese platform was initially the majority shareholder with 51 per cent; I put down HK$2 million and the remaining 29 per cent was the option pool to share with the team. It’s very important to give your team the right amount of shares to incentivise them. At a big company, options are often tied to an exit event and are otherwise just a piece of paper. I decided that if EternityX is profitable, we’ll distribute the dividends. 

I’m more on my own than I was with Httpool; I have to make a lot of decisions, which I struggled with initially, but which has also been more rewarding. I've found that once you prove your value and service, high-end clients are very loyal and you can utilise that case to gain other business.

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Family investment fund opened (2019) = invested in crypto and tech startups 

My husband is a lawyer, and his mother encouraged him to take over the family business and investments. We decided together to set up a fund with a more aggressive approach since both sides of our family are already focused on property. We invested in cryptocurrency, for instance, and saw our funds double in 2020.

We’re also investing in startups and some big technology stocks because that's my sector. I knew we needed to own Facebook, Google, Amazon and, in China, Tencent, Alibaba and Didi, which I still believe in. We look to hold stocks for years, not dip in and out. 

EternityX majority control (2020) = invested HK$5 million 

With our profitability, we were able to infuse HK$5 million so that my husband, the team and I own about 60 per cent of the company. Now, three years after our launch, I’m proud that we've generated more than HK$100 million revenue and expanded from three people to more than 50. My ultimate goal is to IPO in Hong Kong; my husband is an IPO lawyer and brought so many deals, so why not EternityX?

I have girlfriends who are hesitant to take the leap to starting a business and I know that feeling from when I first started, but I always encourage them: don't be afraid to set a more ambitious goal for yourself.

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