ONLINE classifieds platform Carousell, ubiquitous with the buying and selling of second-hand goods, is fast growing up and moving into higher-value verticals such as cars as well as job listings.
This is all part of a concerted push to create new key revenue streams to capture the changing profile of its users, says Marcus Tan, co-founder and president of Carousell.
With over half of users now above 25 years old and with arguably greater purchasing power as working professionals, the company has to keep up with their evolving needs.
The Singapore-based startup may be considered relatively young, but it has come a long way since it started in 2012. What began as an amorphous idea by its three co-founders – Quek Siu Rui, Marcus Tan and Lucas Ngoo – during their university days to create a peer-to-peer marketplace for fellow students has resulted in a mobile application with over 80 million listings and more than 32 million items sold.
Carousell now has a presence in more than 19 cities and it raised over US$41 million in funding from investors such as Rakuten Ventures, Sequoia India and Golden Gate Ventures. Mr Tan, however, declined to disclose the company’s revenue or financial targets.
Scams and fraud
The company has gone places – literally – by moving from startup hub Blk 71 to join the league of the big boys in Tanjong Pagar in the heart of the Central Business District earlier in 2017.
One of its biggest changes to date is the new focus on higher-value verticals. This has led to the acquisition of local car classifieds online platform Caarly, and the launch of Carousell Motors in February this year, where users can search for second-hand cars.
On top of that, users are now able to land employment gigs through Carousell’s new “Jobs and Services” category on its mobile classifieds marketplace. It was launched in Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong in February this year, and then Malaysia in April.
And most recently, the company launched a paid service known as Carousell Bumps to help sellers make product listings more visible.
But despite the exponential growth in the last five years, Mr Tan insists that at its heart, the company remains the same.
“Our mission has not changed since we first started and this is to inspire more people to sell their old things by making it easier to find people who want them,” he says.
The company is also no stranger to controversy. There have been many instances of scams taking place through its platform. Most recently, while not against the law, there were reports of students offering ghostwriting services to complete school assignments for their peers for up to three-figure sums. This has resulted in a warning of disciplinary action by liberal arts college Yale-NUS to its students.
When asked by BT, Mr Tan says that Internet scams and fraud are an “industry-wide challenge” and remain a top priority for the startup.
Steps have been taken to improve Carousell’s technology and platforms to protect users and provide a safe environment, he shares.
For example, the startup has built features for user feedback and user verification, as well as provided trust and safety guidelines. Artificial intelligence is also used to detect “unusual user activity and bad actor patterns at scale”, he says.
Dedicated teams are in place to monitor for suspicious activity and look into community reports to ensure the quality and safety of Carousell’s marketplace.
Despite the challenges it faces, the company is pressing on in its goal to make Carousell available worldwide.
It currently prioritises markets where it thinks it can make the biggest impact. Some criteria considered include the market’s familiarity with buying and selling online, smartphone penetration, and infrastructure to support mobile connectivity.
In order to “go local to be global”, Carousell has local teams in all its markets to ensure that everything it does is relevant and resonates with users in that country.
Mr Tan adds that the company’s app is optimised to perform even in “challenging Internet conditions”, with flexibility to allow buyers and sellers to transact in a way that makes the most sense in their context, rather than imposing a certain way of doing things.
Aside from its product, the other crucial part of the business that Carousell prizes is its people.
Recruiting global talent
It recently won the Singapore Computer Society’s Best Tech Company to Work For award in the small organisation and startup category.
Realising that employees of today want to make a difference with their work, the leadership team often shares meaningful user stories so that staff members are aware of the impact their work has on other people’s lives. Some of their favourite stories are captured as quotes around the office, to remind the team of their purpose.
Like many startups these days, the company has adopted an open office environment to facilitate collaboration and also has a spacious pantry for breakout sessions – conditions conducive for teamwork and innovation.
As Carousell has to compete with larger, more established companies for the same pool of talent, it is forced to be resourceful to find the right people and make them stay, says Mr Tan.
He says: “One of the biggest hurdles that Carousell is facing right now is the short supply of good engineers that will be needed for our next level of growth.”
To plug the gap, he adds, the company is open to recruiting talent globally, pointing out that its engineering and product teams have people from across the world. They currently manage two development teams based in Vietnam and Taiwan.
The company also recognises that besides finding the right people, having the right leadership is just as important.
Carousell recently hired as its new VP of Engineering, Silicon Valley veteran Jordan Dea-Mattson, who has worked in tech firms such as Apple, Adobe and Yahoo.
Says Mr Tan: “While Singapore is gearing up to become the next tech hub in South-east Asia, we need people like Jordan with this level of experience and talent to improve the organisation and get us shipping better products faster.”
He is cognisant of the fact that the road ahead is likely to be fraught with speed bumps in a saturated market.
“In general, any offline or online channel where individuals go to buy and sell could be a competitor to Carousell, including online forums and offline flea markets,” he says.
But he remains confident that the company stands apart on three fronts: simplicity of use, the “inspiring experience” of browsing on its platform, and its community. In fact, he says boldly that Carousell’s goal is to become the No 1 mobile classified marketplace in the world.
Not content to cruise along on its current achievements, the company is already exploring the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to offer users a more personalised experience.
Mr Tan concludes: “The job is always less than one per cent done, and we will continue to look for ways to improve and grow as an organisation.”
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