Marcus Tan credits his mother for giving him the courage to take the leap with Carousell. After working for a year as a business development consultant at tech company Oracle, Tan, along with two other self-proclaimed computer geeks, decided to create an e-commerce platform for buying and selling of new and secondhand goods. “She was initially worried when I left my job, and I could understand where she was coming from, as it was an unconventional route. But she gave me full support,” says Tan. When Carousell was launched in 2012, his mother printed promotion flyers and distributed them on the bus, at work — wherever she went.
This lesson of being relentlessly resourceful when building a business has stayed with the three co-founders, Tan, Quek Siu Rui and Lucas Ngoo — all graduates of the National University of Singapore (NUS). From a headcount of less than 10 in 2012 to over 200 full-timers now, Carousell has become a household name in Singapore, and expanded to Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Australia and Hong Kong, with over 150 million listings and over 50 million items sold in the seven markets. Reportedly worth US $500 million, Carousell pulled in an $85 million Series C fund in May, which was led by existing investor Rakuten Ventures and EDBI, the corporate investment arm of Economic Development Board in Singapore. Other participants included 500 Startups, Golden Gate Ventures, Sequoia India and DBS, Southeast Asia’s largest bank.
After spending a year as interns in Silicon Valley, part of the NUS Overseas College Programme, the three founders were inspired to use technology to solve meaningful problems at scale. “If you’ve ever bought or sold something on a forum or classifieds website, you will remember how difficult and frustrating it could be to list an item, or find something you wanted these sites 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,” says Tan, the 33-year-old company president.
To solve this problem, they participated in the Startup Weekend Singapore in March 2012, and built the first Carousell prototype in 54 hours. “The basis of the idea was that selling should be as simple as taking a photo, and buying as easy as chatting,” he says. They won the competition. Carousell came to life in August 2012.
The initial phase is challenging for most startups. It was no different for Carousell. The founders were trying to establish themselves in a space dominated by the likes of eBay, Lazada and Craiglist, and they were well aware of it. Another key challenge was growing their community.
“There were times we had single digits of people signing up in a day,” says Tan. But they didn’t give up. “Two reasons: we were passionate about the mission and the problem. There are many challenges that you’ll go through daily in a startup, and the only reason why you’ll keep persevering and pressing on is that you care a lot about what you do,” he says.
“Secondly, we believed there were people like us who wanted to use Carousell. Although we had low sign-ups, there were early signals that we were building something people want. We had a community of early adopters who believed in us. We then decided to be laser-focused on the early adopters — the youth and the Snapchat generation,” he says, proudly. By creating campaigns to attract such audience, Carousell grew organically.
What has also worked in their favour all these years is the simplicity of the app. All one needs to do is take a snap of a product and start selling. Earlier this year, Carousell introduced CarouPay, an integrated payment system that allows customers to pay directly within the app, to make the platform more convenient.
This ease, however, has resulted in some controversial listings. The marketplace, for instance, was recently in news over maid servants being reportedly sold on the platform. “We have removed the listings and suspended the account. In this instance, we are assisting the Singapore authorities with their investigations,” Tan clarifies.
The company is now experimenting with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to augment fraud detection efforts and to flag out bad actors or errant users, and roll out features like auto-suggestions for categories, subcategories and even item titles.
The Right Attitude
Perhaps the biggest reason for Carousell’s success is their focus on creating a community. “We want to inspire every person in the world to start selling, with the goal of becoming the No.1 classifieds marketplace for anyone to sell in the world. The problem we are solving is a global one, and we have this once in a lifetime opportunity to be the world’s largest community marketplace because of the mobile phenomenon,” plugs Tan.
When it comes to his view on success, he humbly admits, “We are less than one percent done. We are just scratching the surface of this mission; there will always be more ways to improve.” Tan is ready to face everything that comes with the ever-changing world of emerging technologies. “My mother taught me to never give up. She’s the ultimate hero in my Marvel universe, and I will never give up.”