The Jay Kim Show #37: Siu Rui Quek (Transcript)
Today’s show guest is Siu Rui Quek. He is one of the co-founders of Carousell. If you live in Asia, you’ve definitely heard of Carousell. It’s one of the hottest startups based out of Singapore that’s in the scene right now. They just closed a 35 million dollar Series B round last August and the company’s doing really well.
Carousell is essentially a mobile shopping app similar to eBay, but it’s very mobile based and optimized. So all you have to do when you download the app is if you have something that you want to buy and sell, new or used, all you do is snap a photo, upload it, and within 30 seconds you’ve posted it online and you are connected with a social network of followers who like the same types of products that you just posted. It’s a very simple concept.
Siu Rui and his co-founders were trying to solve a person pain-point and they came across a billion dollar idea. My wife uses Carousell a lot. I think it’s a great app. Now that we have two kids, two little girls, and number three on the way, coming up soon, we have a ridiculous amount of just baby stuff that keeps piling up. And so, it’s a perfect way to get rid of some of that stuff.
Siu Rui is a very down-to-earth guy. He has some great insights on his journey and how to build a company and how to be successful. So let’s get on to the show.
Jay: Siu Rui, thank you so much for joining The Jay Kim Show. We are very excited to have you here as being one of Asia’s rising stars, so to speak. This is quite unique because a lot of my show guests are actually from the overseas, and so I always ask them to explain to our audience, locally, who they are and what they do. But this is the other way around. So for our listeners coming in from overseas, from perhaps the US and Europe, Siu Rui, if you could just give us a quick introduction who you are and what you do for a living.
Siu Rui: Sure. Thanks for having me on the show. I’m very excited to be sharing our story and introducing what we do. So my name is Siu Rui. I’m one of the co-founders of Carousell. We started about four and one-half years ago now, together with my two other co-founders, Lucas and Marcus. I initially was involved very much with product, essentially figuring out what we should be building, what problems we should be solving. Eventually I was wireframing the products, things like this. Eventually got involved with launching markets, customer support, and the works. That’s how startups go. You do whatever that needs to be done. And eventually, now, work closely with the executives of the company on the overall strategy and vision. So, that’s me, yeah.
Jay: Fantastic. And for people that haven’t heard of what Carousell is, maybe you could give us a quick introduction of your company and what exactly Carousell does?
Siu Rui: Yeah, for sure. So Carousell is essentially is a mobile classified app that makes selling as easy as taking a photo and buying as easy as chatting. So how is this relevant to you? We believe that everyone at home has something unused, or at least under-used, that should deserve a new home or benefit someone else. If you’ve got an old camera, old book, or an old dress that you’re not using anymore, you should be listing up for sale, connecting it with someone else who might benefit from it, at least save some money, or could … For instance, I sold one of my old MacBooks to this dad who bought that for his primary school daughter who just wanted her to experience the internet, and he couldn’t afford a brand new one. So things like this. Stuff that’s unused at home should find themselves a new home and benefit someone else. And we’ve made it super simple with the Carousell experience. Just snap a photo and put a title and a price and it’s up for sale in 30 seconds.
Jay: That sounds amazing. Okay. So before we dig in to Carousell, I want to take a step back and talk a little bit about your background and your history, sort of your entrepreneurial beginnings, how you decided that you wanted to pursue building a company, doing a startup, and also, sort of, if you had support from your family. I know this is a big thing for us in Asia where Asian parents aren’t necessarily 100% always supportive of entrepreneurship. A lot of times they try to steer their children to go into something more conservative and perhaps more “safe”. So tell us about your experience with that, Siu Rui.
Siu Rui: Sure. I was in school, National University of Singapore. I was actually in business school. I was doing my bachelor’s in business administration my first two years there, and I was essentially going through the motion of what a business school student would. Literally, they were ingraining into you that success is clearing ten rounds of interviews with Goldman Sachs and you should be an investment banker, management consultant, or a product manager in a CBG company. So there was success being built into us.
But in my third year of school, one of the things I was fortunate to be part of was this thing called the NOC program. It’s NUS Overseas College where they sent us overseas for a year to Silicon Valley in California, USA. It was where we worked full-time as interns in small companies and tech startups. So 20-30 people in a company, technology based products, and I was in a company called VC. It’s a video conferencing software company, and I was a product manager there. Being a product manager, there you get your hands into everything. So it was a great hands-on experience to learn the ins and outs of a startup. But actually the real magical thing was just being in the Valley itself. We took classes at Stanford. Everywhere you go, the coffee shops, take the train … Everyone’s talking about startups, about apps, and the latest technology. And you’re part of this culture where people there speaking at events, guest lecturers, people like Jack Dorsey of Twitter, co-founder of Twitter and Square. And when you hear their stories, these guys are just fundamentally passionate about technology and about solving problems at scale.
That one year really changed my mind and my co-founders’ minds. They also went through the same program. It was when we realized that we love technology. We love how technology could make a big impact in the world. And that was how we got started even tinkering around with products and building products. That was, in essence, how we got started with even figuring out the first steps of Carousell.
We came back to Singapore. We started learning how to build apps. And one of those apps that we started building was an app that we wanted for ourselves, which we just want to de-clutter our life. We built a Snap, List, Sell app, which eventually became Carousell. We brought it to a hackathon. In 54 hours we put together a prototype of it. On Friday night we shared the idea, through the next 54 hours built a prototype, demoed it on a Sunday night. And we realized that this was actually solving a problem for way more than just three of us. And it was then that we realized that, “Hey, we’re on to something quite special.” This problem seemed to resonate with a lot more people. And this was March 2012, was just finishing up my final semester in school, and it’s a crossroads. You decide to do a startup or to go and find a job because that’s what society expects of you in Singapore, in Asia. So May 2012 came, we decided, “Hey, this is too exciting. We really love tech. We want to see how far we can go with Carousell.” And we took the plunge to do this full-time in May 2012.
So there was a time we made our parents really, really angry as well. If fact, that has been one of the toughest things of all of starting Carousell, is just actually telling your parents that you’re going to do a startup. Because they fully expect you to go get a job, a good job, in the corporate world. But eventually, they became one of our largest supporters now, but initially they weren’t too happy.
But May 2012 is when we went heads down, really started building the product. All three of us were self-taught, so we spent the next three months heads down building the first version of Carousell. It wasn’t a very good version but it worked. We launched it on 13 August 2012 and the rest is history.
Jay: Wow. So first of all, your two co-founders … Did you know them before you went to Silicon Valley in the program? Or you met them there?
Siu Rui: Marcus I actually have known since 2007, I think. So this was in Poly, in [Ngee Ann Poly 00:09:47] in Singapore where we went to school together, where we did our diploma in business. I’d known him then, already, and we kept in touch. We’ve always wanted to do something together. And eventually when Carousell problem was interesting for us to go soft, we roped him in. I also met Lucas during my year in California. So Marcus I knew earlier, but Lucas I only knew in Silicon Valley and we were actually housemates. We used to spend weekends hacking together just building apps. That was how we got together.
Jay: Ah, that makes sense. Okay. So the three of you were there in Silicon Valley. All three of you were going through this transformation and you were like, “Caught the bug. I want to change the world with something big.” And perfectly enough, you are all living together so you can spend your weekends and nights hacking together whatever you can. As the product sort of developed along its way, were there natural roles that came that each person played? For example, if you are … I guess it’s a little different because you guys started from the ground together, as the three of you. But let’s say you were just building a company separately, you’d probably try to hire a tech guy, a marketing manager, and whatnot. So were there natural roles that you guys just fell into?
Siu Rui: Yeah. Actually one of the cool things about Carousell and me and my co-founders is we are extremely complementary. I did product and this, maybe, user experience side of things, wireframing. But I’m terrible when in comes to pushing pixels and whatnot. That’s where Marcus fills that gap. He’s passionate about photography and knows photos and just about pixels. And he loves design. He naturally took care of all things: brand design, app design, web design. And eventually, once he took my wireframes, translated it into what the buttons should look like, the color schemes of the app, then Lucas would engineer it. Lucas actually built the first version of Carousell’s backend on [Piton and Jengle 00:12:00] and he also built the first version of IOS. So very complementarily we found a place as one product team that was self-sufficient. We did everything in house. We were boot-strapping Carousell, was just three of us and our laptops, we had no funding for the next 18 months. And it was just us and our laptops and building this with savings. We could go a long way without funding in a pre-revenue state because it was the three of us building products self-sufficiently.
Jay: That’s great. That’s such a good story. And so, now let’s talk about the time when you are coming up to graduation, you had been tinkering along with this startup. All three of you, each one, had to go to your respective parents and have the talk. How did you approach it? How did you feel when there was obviously some push-back or resistance as I would imagine? And what sort of tips would you give to people that are listening that might be in a similar situation and they’re nervous about approaching their parents?
Siu Rui: Right. Here’s a tip. Pick the right date. Don’t do it at your Dad’s birthday dinner. That’s what I did. I chose the worst time to break the news to them. When I told them, I was obviously nervous to tell them. I had no idea what they were going … how they would react. I suddenly knew they were quite adverse to the idea of me starting a company, and so I was quite nervous telling them. I eventually told them over dinner. It was my Dad’s birthday dinner. It was really hard. As soon as I told them, I could tell the look of disappointment on both my Dad and Mom’s face. And it was really, really hard. At least my brother was there to encourage me and comfort me. But you just have to pick yourself up and just move on. You’ve made a decision. Just commit to it and go with it. So the next couple weeks and months, what we did was we just showed our parent that we were truly committed to this. We were not mucking around. We knew what we were doing.
In Singapore, one of the fortunate things we have is that the government and the university have been very supportive in creating an ecosystem here. We actually had an office to go into. They had a co-working space that was set up by the university in [inaudible 00:14:21]. So we actually had an office. That helped a lot. It was legit, so like, “Okay, fine. You guys actually have a workspace to go to.”
And couple weeks after we launched our app in August, we were so fortunate to be covered by the national newspaper. We had a half page story on Carousell. And the title was like, “In US, [inaudible 00:14:43] startup dream round of Carousell.” And it’s really irrational that news stories and all that don’t count anything to business success. In fact, the earliest days of Carousell was really challenging in getting traction. It wasn’t until, I think, after a year later before we got meaningful traction. But to parents they see that, “Oh, wow. Newspaper coverage. You guys must be real.” So since then they’ve been fans, know they can cut it out, show my grandparents. So just you should know, showing them they are absolutely committed to this, that you’re very serious about it. It’s a real thing with a real office. And actual validation from the media and press really helps a lot. And they’re our biggest supporters now. It’s almost embarrassing the extent where they’re constantly going around and talking to people about Carousell.
Jay: That’s amazing. That’s such good advice, though. Not only the birthday dinner and timing part, but I think really just proving and stepping up and showing to your parents that, “Look, I’m serious about this. This is not just me on the couch, on my laptop, screwing around with my friends. I’m really serious about this.” I think that every parent does wants their kid to be successful or happy and not starving on the street. The fact that you were able follow through on that is amazing.
Okay. So fast forward. Now we are sitting here. Carousell is huge, now. My wife uses it all the time here in Hong Kong. She loves it because it is perfect. Once you have kids, the amount of stuff that you have that needs to be sold is amazing, the amount that piles up. So the first question on that is … Carousell. The first parallel is, obviously, everyone’s like, “Oh, this is kind of like eBay.” This is different from eBay. I mean, obviously, it’s conceptually a very similar model. I imagine it’s much easier to use and much more accessible. So what are the main differences there?
Siu Rui: Yeah. The thing about Carousell and the beauty of it is that we are not actually reinventing a business model at all. I’ve been a user of marketplaces and classifieds as I was growing up. And the key thing was I even used things like eBay and Gumtree and so on as I was growing up, as a kid. But one day, we just sat around and decided to build Carousell for the exact reason that we stopped using their services. We started using the mobile device a lot more. We spent all our time on our smart phones doing everything on the internet. And we felt like, “Hey. Why not buying and selling, too?” And it actually, by the way, could make it a lot simpler. We used to sell on forums and desktops and marketplaces. It would take like 10 minutes plus to create a listing, a good listing. On Carousell, it’s now snap a photo, add a title, and a price and it’s up for sale in like 30 seconds to a minute.
So very, very simple experience on mobile was definitely that first different [inaudible 00:17:46] that we had, and that thing is transformational. We built in a chat system so that transactions and replies and interactions are a lot more instantaneous. You don’t have to wait until you’re back home on your computer before you reply to a PM or a message. You can reply on the fly. And that helps a lot with the user experience. If you are a seller, you want to make sure you get back to your buyer as soon as possible. That increases the chances of selling something. Other features that we built in that are quite fundamentally different is that we built in this social element with it. So on Carousell, from day one, you could photo people that you actually like, you share similar interests with. You can like and comment on things. It’s very interactive.
We’ve also built this feature called groups because we saw that people were buying and selling one another not just because of dollars and cents, but because they actually share an interest. People would like Pokemon Go. People would like Lego. They wanted to congregate together on the platform and actually buy and sell from one another. Because that experience of buying and selling between each other is not just a transactional one, but it’s an opportunity for you to make a friend. And each transaction, we believe, is essentially an exchange of stories.
So fundamentally, those are the key differences. Carousell, it is very mobile centric. It’s very community centric. It’s very instantaneous because of the way mobile has enabled. Snapping a photo is a very snappy experience. It’s connecting people very seamlessly through chat. So those are, on the high level, why we are fundamentally different.
Jay: Right. I think the community aspect is very interesting because it actually makes perfect sense when it comes to things like collectibles or more niche products that are being moved on your site because it’s not all laptops or Kindles. There’s some very personal items that are being bought and sold. And I think that the community aspect is huge because you want to find like-minded people and people that share the same interests as you. So it’s a perfect platform for that.
So as far as the basic transaction goes, you snap a photo, you post it, connect with say a buyer. How does the backend of that transaction work? As in, let’s say, I’ve matched with you, I want to buy your laptop. You just chat and you find a place to meet up and that’s as far as it goes?
Siu Rui: I think some transactions end up that way. But essentially what we built was a hammer. We built the tools for you to list an item, for you to discover items. And we built a chat system for people to get connected. And fundamentally, we just leave it up to people to go figure out how they transact. I think one of the things we’ve learned is that if you’re building a platform that caters to millions of users, you can’t second guess how they’re going to use the platform. So give them the basic tools. Let them go figure it out. Make it really flexible for them to go figure out how to do deals.
So one of the use cases that you described was that people do meet up. They chat on the platform, they figure out which MPR they should go to, to go deal. But we also see many [inaudible 00:21:00] transactions where sometimes people end up meeting at each other people’s homes. Or they would do a transaction where they would actually post something or call an on-demand delivery service to get the item fulfilled. So there are many, many ways that people have creatively used the platform. Meeting up in school, meeting up at the workplace, are just some of the examples too.
I think fundamentally we just want to give people the tools to connect. And then we allow them to go figure out what’s the best arrangement, usually, to get the item fulfilled or the transaction completed. That said, we are fundamentally in the business of, product wise, very much focused on removing friction. If we see sudden patterns of transactions happening where we can actually have the opportunity to go streamline that experience, we want to find a way to build and productize that. We find that meet-ups happen a lot in MPRs, maybe we want to build a scheduling system so that people can more seamlessly match up their times where they can meet. Or if they’re doing a lot of shipping kind of transactions, then maybe at some point we want to streamline that. But fundamentally we just want to build a platform’s that almost like a hammer. We just want to allow the community to be very creative about how they deal.
Jay: Right. And the name Carousell, is that like the merry-go-round. Is that reason why you guys chose that? Or is there a story behind that?
Siu Rui: Yeah. Here’s a fun fact. Carousell was not know Carousell from day one. Actually we were known as [Snapsale 00:22:31] before. We found it to be a bit too utilitarian. We really wanted to bring this emotional appeal to this. So one day we were just sitting around finding a name, and one of those TV shows that we really like is called Mad Men. It’s about an advertising show [crosstalk 00:22:48]–
Jay: Don Draper, yep.
Siu Rui: Yeah, Don Draper. So one of the episodes Don Draper was pitching the wheel, the Kodak Carousel. And we were just looking at that presentation and we were like, “Hey, isn’t this very much what we’re trying to achieve with Carousell.” So each slide is essentially your Carousell listing. It’s being projected into a marketplace and on projector. It’s a merry-go-round. It goes around and around. Things go from one person to another. And we added an L to play the plan of selling. So all in all, it was just a perfect name in combination and if you look at the icon in the logo, it looks like a camera, but it’s actually the pop-down view of what a Kodak Carousel projector is. If you didn’t know that, at least it still looks like a camera and that resembles Snap, List, Sell. It still means, in essence, the core value proposition of Carousell. So the name, the icon, the logo was like a perfect package for us. And we all love the name, really.
Jay: That is genius. That’s very, very savvy. I like that. I had no idea. That’s a great story. This is very interesting. So let’s talk about the company, where its at now, funding, and as far as how you see the growth coming up, what are your goals for 2017 and beyond? And as far as monetization, I know that was a big topic of discussion, how that’s going to pan out. And ultimately, what your exit goal is.
Siu Rui: Yeah. Sure. So I think that’s a really, really broad question.
Siu Rui: But fundamentally in 2017 we want to do three main things. The first thing is continuing our international expansion. That means deepening our presence in our existing markets as well as continuously exploring what other markets we could expand into. And behind that is that fundamental purpose I shared with you, which is we ultimately just want to be able to solve problems and build impact and make impact at a very large scale. And we feel like this problem is a global problem that we’re solving. We still remain one of the few players in the world to be tackling this problem. And we want to continue to use all the lessons and insights we’ve gotten in the past one and a half years to benefit even more people worldwide. Hence, that focus on internationalization.
The second piece of it is related to, I guess, monetization. So we are a classified business model. It’s existed for a long time. It’s a great business model to be in. We’re not reinventing it at all. It’s a 50 plus percent up and down margin business. You look at all the public coms of this kind of classified companies. So very, very great business model. And we want to start executing to one-step business model this year. Why this year? Because we now have more resources. We have several large markets in our popular markets, and it makes sense to do it now. This is the time where we are going to be starting and [inaudible 00:25:56] the Caarly acquisition that you know about. We bought a cars marketplace company [inaudible 00:26:02], and that’s paving the way for monetization strategy. Starting off with subscriptions for car dealerships, but also then moving on to what we call performance products, our visibility products. So helping our sellers sell even faster and quicker through things like Promote It Post, premium services, and premium listings. And this is a traditional, tame revenue product, those traditional classifieds companies. So we have the benefit of applying what has already worked for many, many, many years. Except that now we have proven that we can create a much better user experience for mobile, a much stickier one, and actually inspiring a whole new generation of people to participate in this because of the simplicity.
And the third focus for the company this year is really doubling down on our core of product. Carousell has gotten where we are today because we were very much focused on solving problems with technology, building great products for users, great user experiences. And it’s a work in progress. In Carousell, we have this saying, “We’re less than one percent done.” We’ve built a product that’s working for millions of users today, but we’re never ever content. We’re always staying close to our community, listening to what problems they’re facing in the platform, what needs they have, and using those insights to continuously improve on our product.
There’s some examples of what we’re going to be working on this year is really having a big focus on applying data science to improving discovery. So we have, now, more than 57 million listings on the platform. How can we better efficiently match-up demand and supply? We have this advantage now of so many much data points of what our users are liking, commenting on browsing, and listing. And we should use that to tailor their own personal experience. Whenever they open it, we should be able to give them a good, faster way to access items that they are likely want to browse and eventually buy. So discovery will be a big part of it, continuously removing friction, improving our chat systems, exploring ways of how we can help people transact even quicker. On the backend of things, also, we want to constantly be improving efficiency across all operations. How do we ensure that our users see the best quality listings? Do we keep bad actors off the platform? So this a few big areas that we’re working on, on the product, in addition to going into verticals like cars and applying the monetization. All this combined just really reinforces our international strategy to be, hopefully, an apex dominant classified site as well as eventually being one of the world’s largest, or hopefully the world largest, classifieds business.
Jay: Amazing. Well, thank you so much for your time. I just have a couple more questions. I know we have to wrap up soon. First question in the finale here … What does success mean to you? In, sort of, the grand scheme of things. You’ve obviously have grown Carousell a long way. You’ve personally have grown a lot. You’ve achieved a lot of milestones along the way. How would you define personal success to yourself?
Siu Rui: Sure. Like I say, we are really less than one percent done for the reason that we know, for me, success is less about making a billion dollars. It’s really about the ability to build products and services that could potentially benefit and help a billion people. For me, that is success. Ability to make impact on outside scale is success.
Jay: Okay. And second to last question is for all the aspiring entrepreneurs that’s heard your story now today, and just are super inspired by what you did coming out of school, coming up with the idea with your team, and building this huge, huge company. What’s one piece of advice that you would want to leave them with?
Siu Rui: You know, I think for founders and aspiring entrepreneurs, you need to be absolutely passionate about what you’re going to be doing, what problem you’re solving. Because startups are going to be very hard. It’s very, very hard. Every single day is going to be hard. Like the only easy day was yesterday. And you’re going to be running into challenges after challenges, and the only reason you keep going is because you are absolutely passionate about the problem you are solving. Because you won’t settle until you’ve solved that problem well. So I think for startups, aspiring entrepreneurs, you have to really find what you love before you commit to it. It’s just going to be extremely difficult journey.
Jay: Great advice. And last question is … Where can people find you, follow you, and connect with you and see what you’re working on these days?
Siu Rui: Yeah. I’m on social everywhere with a very simple and boring handle. It’s just my name, SiuRui. So, yeah. Hit me up on Twitter or email me at email@example.com.
Jay: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time. We had a great time catching up with you, hearing your amazing story. And we are definitely going to keep an eye out on your journey and your success. Thanks again for coming on the show.
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