Want Success? Start Small, Learn Big and Innovate Often
How one of Singapore’s leading startups emerged from a weekend event.
With the tech startup revolution becoming increasingly global, Singapore’s government is embracing it with open arms. It has welcomed new business creation by providing grants through initiatives like the Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE) Startups Fund—a private-led initiative program supported by the government, subsidized office space and more.
Against this backdrop, one of the country’s most successful startups, Carousell, has taken root rapidly since it was founded in 2012. Carousell, headquartered in Singapore, is a mobile classifieds marketplace where consumers can buy and sell new and secondhand goods. Beyond Singapore, Carousell operates in Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
Siu Rui Quek, co-founder and CEO of Carousell, spoke recently with Associations Now Brand Connection about the Singapore startup’s journey.
How did you and your co-founders come up with the idea for Carousell? What was the problem you wanted to solve?
Siu Rui Quek: If you’ve ever bought or sold something on a forum or classifieds website, you’ll remember how difficult and frustrating it could be to list an item or find something you wanted on those forums. You often needed a pretty good idea of how the forums or online stores worked, as they were built for different purposes and not as a marketplace. At the time, we had a ton of stuff that was in decent condition and we couldn’t bear to simply throw away. We saw the need to create a better platform for buying and selling.
In March 2012, the three of us participated in Startup Weekend Singapore and built the first Carousell prototype in 54 hours to solve this problem. The basis of the idea was that selling should be as simple as taking a photo, and buying as easy as chatting. We felt that this was important, as we noticed more people like us using the smartphone as the main device to access the internet.
We demonstrated the prototype and won the competition, but what really inspired us to take the plunge that brought Carousell to life was the hundreds of people who told us they liked the idea through our Facebook, Twitter and our Launchrock landing page. Some even tweeted us to ask if they could download the app right away! It was intense and crazy, and we loved it. After spending a year in Silicon Valley as part of the NUS Overseas College Program, we were inspired to use technology to solve meaningful problems at scale. We felt this was a meaningful problem since it resonated with a lot more people than just ourselves. After our mini validation at Startup Weekend, we knew how we wanted to begin.
We started working on Carousell full-time in May 2012. The first version was launched in the Singapore iTunes Store in August 2012.
What influence did your studies at National University of Singapore Overseas College have on your life as an entrepreneur?
The biggest takeaway was not a single lesson, but being able to spend months in a tech-centric, risk-taking environment, where people believed strongly in being able to use technology to solve problems, and make an impact on millions of people. That inspired us.
In Singapore, the appetite for risk, while slowly increasing, can still be relatively low. Singaporeans drive themselves hard and there is often limited room for failure. As a result we don’t set for ourselves the moonshot goals that startups in Silicon Valley do. One of my biggest goals when attending the NUS Overseas College Silicon Valley program was to get over my fear of failure. It’s always been a dream of mine to launch a startup right after school. Being immersed in the risk-taking culture of Silicon Valley helped allay that fear. In fact, starting up right out of school was my litmus test of whether the NOC was a successful program for me. That’s where I fell in love with tech and its potential to solve problems at scale.
How did Singapore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem influence your decisions about Carousell?
Singapore has seen increasing support for entrepreneurs both from the government and private sector, which has encouraged the growth of more innovative startups here. We have seen the startup community grow, and that encouraged us to keep going and to never stop believing in ourselves.
We’ve also seen many international venture capitalists set up shop in Singapore over the past few years, and they’ve also committed resources to fund startups. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, and we hope that this vibrant, growing scene will attract even more startups and talent to join the Singapore tech community. It’s good to have more passionate and talented people solve meaningful problems and make an impact with technology.
You have raised a significant amount of capital. How challenging was that for you?
We are truly grateful for the support of our existing investors, and for the great opportunity to learn from Rakuten, Sequoia Capital, 500 Startups and Golden Gate Ventures. At the same time, at home, the Singapore government has done a good job in giving startups in Singapore a fighting chance.
Schemes and grants like the ACE Startups Fund and the Early Stage Venture Funding Scheme and subsidized office space at Blk71 have made it easier for startups to get started and lowered the barriers for venture capitalists to invest.
Being a startup from Singapore has given us some unique advantages as well. Global investors have brought the mindset of the long game here, to support the new wave. In the early days, you’d have struggled to be running a pre-revenue startup. No one would give you the runway to build a service, gain network effects and play the long game. We are in a more fortunate era where there is serious venture capital. Being an entrepreneur and building a startup is indeed challenging, but the tech community here has been set up in a way that provides the support and mentorship one will need to better face these challenges.
What did you do to make sure your startup picked up traction in Singapore when you first launched?
Those early days were some of the most intense, where we would head out on the weekend to distribute free bottles of water in exchange for feedback on our app, sell discounted postcards for user downloads and visit flea markets to persuade pop-ups and vendors to give us a try. We wanted to get real feedback from the ground to improve our product.
Responses were generally positive. Many sellers faced the same issues we did, in that online channels were simply too inconvenient to sell effectively. Others also preferred the social interaction of dealing face to face, which was why they opted to participate in flea markets.
Feedback covered pretty much everything, like what categories we should include, customs in dealing, and how we could capture that experience on mobile.
That process really taught us the value of community. Until this day, we intend to stay close to the community when improving our product by solving their problems, while constantly innovating to enhance the buying and selling experience using the latest technologies.
What is ahead for Carousell in 2018?
Our goal is to become the number one mobile classifieds marketplace in all markets. In the earlier years, we chose to focus on getting the product right and growing our markets with the support of investors. We set out to grow a culture that encourages innovation and brought together teams and capabilities that enabled us to build a product-led company with a global footprint.
Now, with everything in place, it’s time to execute our longer term plan of monetization and create a sustainable company. This year, we’re focused on building revenue streams around high-value verticals, such as cars and property. We are exploring ways to work with professional users and industry agents to offer a suite of premium features to help them get more leads and more sales.
We are also focused on building classifieds 4.0 by exploring how we can use artificial intelligence and machine learning to offer a more convenient and personalized Carousell experience.
Because we have such a large and active community, we also work with like-minded advertisers and brands who are looking to reach out to our users. Essentially, we’re working towards building a meaningful and enduring company that inspires the world to start selling.
This profile of Qiuek Siu Rui, co-founder and CEO of Carousell, is part of Singapore: Passion Personified. It is the fifth in a series of eight profiles of individuals who embody the country’s entrepreneurial drive and “passion made possible” spirit, which shares stories to inspire the business leaders of today and tomorrow.