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Snap, list, and Carou-sell

The Carousell app on an Android smartphone

Publication Date : 05-12-2013


Singapore-based mobile marketplace Carousell aims to inspire 610 million Southeast Asians to start buying and selling through their mobile phones


Do you have too many underused items, but possess neither time nor patience to put them up for sale on existing e-commerce websites?

Imagine a virtual marketplace at your fingertips, where trading is as simple as snapping a picture on your mobile phone, making a listing, and selling off your item!

Like many e-sellers before him, Carousell co-founder Quek Siu Rui was frustrated with the complicated process employed by dated online forums.

“You have to take a photo, put it on your computer, upload it to Photobucket, capture the URL and embed it in your post. Isn’t it much better to just take a picture on your smartphone and put the item up for sale straightaway?” asked the community and product support manager at their office in Blk 71, Singapore.

During a recent visit to the startup incubator space, the 26-year-old provided a live 30-second demonstration of how to list an item for sale on Carousell.

The app’s intuitive design and ease of use was testimony to months of 16-18 hour workdays: features include inbuilt photo filters and image editing, cross-posting to existing social media networks for a larger buyer base, auto-creation of a mini home page for browser-based users to visit, and in-app live chats to seal the deal.

“Like a carousel slide projector which projects photos, the photocentric Carousell projects people’s items into the marketplace. And like a merry-go-round, things go round from one person to another!” said Quek of the name, which was gleaned from a classic episode of their favourite television show, Mad Men.

Seeded in the Silicon Valley

The Singapore-based startup first found its footing in the Silicon Valley, where each team member worked and studied for a year via a National University of Singapore programme.

Co-founders Quek, Marcus Tan and Lucas Ngoo worked in tech startups on a full-time basis, and fell in love with the field as “technology is the main conversation there.”

“Commuters are programming and coding on the train, while people from Apple and Google share knowledge and hack together in coffee shops,” said 30-year-old Tan, who described the setting as serendipitous.

Ngoo, the team’s sole Malaysian member, said the community was more interested in ideas than idle gossip, and called the Valley “life-changing” for the trio.

A computer engineer by training, the 25-year-old picked up the Python programming language after “being thrown into the deep end” at work, and now serves as the back end for the app.

Upon their return from the Valley in 2012, Quek and Ngoo had decided to work on an idea that they could use in their own lives.

“What better way than to look at one of the problems we had? We realised that our rooms had tons of gadgets and books which were not sold despite being underutilised,” said Quek.

This idea earned them top spot at the Startup Singapore Weekend that same year, and many attendees expressed interest in downloading the demo version of the app there and then!

“Our startup had to be technology-based, and it had to solve a meaningful problem that could apply at a very large scale. That outing made us confident that the idea was worth pursuing because it resonated with people,” said Quek of their decision to create a marketplace app.

They also needed a team member with design competencies to design the app’s interface, and their May 2012 meeting with the photography-loving and Photoshop-fluent Tan would spark the start of their 18-month journey towards one million listings on the Carousell marketplace.

And having raised S$1 million (US$797,003) in a seed round of investment led by Rakuten, the world’s third largest e-commerce platform, the trio have set their sights on one growing opportunity: Southeast Asia.

Serving the region

Southeast Asia has a population of 610 million, but over 400 million people are still not on the Internet.

However, many are equipped with mobile phones and greater numbers are increasingly switching up to smartphones. According to Accenture, 194 million new Internet users will come online between 2010 and 2020.

“If people are going to buy and sell online, they will want something that’s similar to the first app that brought them on the Internet, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“They will want something equally simple, mobile-friendly and beautiful. Design is no longer an afterthought, but a competitive advantage,” said Quek.

Thus, the Carousell team leapt at the opportunity to build an “eBay equivalent or bigger” for Southeast Asia, an under-served region.

And with Ngoo hailing from Port Dickson, Negeri Sembilan, a natural next in the pipeline is Malaysia and Indonesia.

According to the team, the Malaysian market is five times bigger than Singapore, but both demographics have a 70 per cent female user base in the 16-25 age range with similar e-buying behaviour

Despite a small Malaysian user base, hundreds of transactions are already taking place every week, and the team is looking to hire a full-time community manager to help the app grow.

“Prior to using the app, these users were already buying and selling on Instagram and Facebook, which indicated the need for a mobile-first platform that was social and simple,” said Quek.

Months before the app’s official launch in August 2013, he and Tan had visited Facebook groups and forums to “literally beg the better sellers to try the app”.

Their initiative helped to generate feedback and seed the marketplace with quality content, and news of the app soon spread through word-of-mouth.

Other outreach efforts include visits to their alma mater - a successful method they hope to employ in Malaysian university campuses - and building a community among buyers and sellers at local flea markets.

Positive user feedback and community growth remains their greatest joy, and Tan shared that the team is guided by three major questions: “How do we solve a problem, how do we make selling simple, and how do we inspire people to start selling? When you answer that, then the other pieces just fall into place.”

As none of them are formally trained in the skills the startup requires, the greatest challenge lies in self-learning the required knowledge on the spot.

Now, they hope to take the inspiration, passion and technological know-how acquired from their time in the Valley, and use it solve local e-commerce problems.

Though their eight-month fundraising effort was never a number one priority - “We focused on how to improve and grow the app, and a good metric is getting more people to use it and provide feedback,” said Quek - the encouraging investment will certainly go a long way towards enabling Carousell’s expansion in Southeast Asia.

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