Lunch With Sumiko: For the first 18 months, Carousell co-founders had no salaries

Their Carousell online marketplace is valued at US$550 million, but they see what they do as not just a business but also a mission

Midway through our lunch, two young men stop at our table to gawk.

"I think you guys are the Carousell founders," one of them declares.

"You guys have been an inspiration for us," he continues, awestruck. "Seeing you in person is very lucky. We're always talking about you."

Quek Siu Rui, Marcus Tan and Lucas Ngoo - co-founders of Carousell, an online marketplace - nod, smile and thank them for the compliment.

The two men, who look to be in their 20s, say they work nearby. They continue to stand and stare.

It starts to feel a little awkward so I offer to use one of their phones to snap a photo of them with their heroes. They leave looking happy.

You do get recognised, I remark.

"Maybe only here lah, because it's a smaller ecosystem," Mr Quek says, modestly.

"Here" is Timbre+, the hipster food centre in Ayer Rajah Crescent which is fast filling up this Thursday afternoon in mid-April.

It is next to Block 71, a former factory building which has housed start-ups, venture capital firms and tech incubators over the past decade.

The crowd looks to be mostly under the age of 40. Many are in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, which is also what my millennial guests are wearing.

Mr Quek, 31, is chief executive of Carousell; Mr Tan, 34, is president; and Mr Ngoo, 30, is chief technology officer. Seven years ago, the three friends were among the young people at Block 71 with a tech dream.

Their product was a smartphone app where people could easily take photos of things they no longer want and upload them for sale.

Buyers can browse, click and buy via the app. Both parties decide on the mode of payment and delivery.

Its unique selling point: It takes just 30 seconds to list an item.

Classified listings have, for decades, if not centuries, been the advertising mainstay of newspapers.

When the Internet came along, website listings like Craigslist emerged. Carousell caught the smartphone trend just when it emerged and became the pioneer of mobile classifieds.

Last month, it got an investment from South Africa's Internet giant Naspers, and also acquired an online company in the Philippines. The deal valued Carousell at US$550 million (S$759 million).

Other shareholders of Carousell - which has yet to turn a profit - include big names like Rakuten Ventures and Sequoia Capital.

The three co-founders reportedly own 8.75 per cent of the company each, which on paper translates to a cool US$48 million per person.

NO, WE DON'T FIGHT

We meet the day after Naspers' investment is announced and they have, in fact, flown back - via economy class - from Manila just that morning.

A publicist from Carousell's external public relations company is there, and volunteers to get us lunch. She comes back with a plate of chicken quesadillas and another of jalapeno poppers from Myra's Express. They are delicious but the guys barely touch the food.

They have chosen Timbre+ for a sentimental reason.

When they were starting out at Block 71 - the company has since moved to Keppel Towers 2 - the site where Timbre+ is now housed a hawker centre.

"Before Timbre+, before this nice environment, it was where we always bought our lunch, our cai fan, our yong tau foo," says Mr Tan.

DIFFERENT INSIGHTS

We have very lively discussions but we all know it's not personal. We truly believe that each of us brings different experiences, viewpoints and insights. 

CHIEF EXECUTIVE QUEK SIU RUI

"This is a nostalgic place for us. It really reminds us of Day Zero and why we do what we do, which is to build technology, to build products and use them to solve problems."

Listening to the three speak, you sometimes get the feeling they aren't talking so much about a business but a mission.

They are brimming with start-up zeal, and the word "mission" pops up a lot, as do words like vision, value, connection, meaningful, inspiring and serving the community.

"The key for us is how we continue to serve the mission of inspiring every person in the world to start selling and buying," Mr Tan says earnestly at one point.

Adds Mr Quek at another: "There are so many things that actually can be and should be sold, and that's something that drives us a lot, and that's why our mission is to inspire every person in the world to start selling."

Success hasn't gone to their heads and they are - for now at least - down to earth. There's a good vibe among them and when one speaks, the other two keep a respectful silence.

Mr Quek is articulate and has an infectiously loud laugh. Mr Tan is bubbly and the one who engages me in small talk when we walk to another spot to do the photos later, while Mr Ngoo is quiet but not unfriendly.

They are often asked if they fight, to which their response is they have differences but it's never personal.

 
 
 
 

"Actually we don't recall ever one time fighting," says Mr Quek.

He says a core value of Carousell is "mission first, where no single person's ego should come in the way of the mission".

"We have very lively discussions but we all know it's not personal. We truly believe that each of us brings different experiences, viewpoints and insights, and we're definitely going to come out with a much better answer as a team than any single person can alone."

Mr Ngoo adds: "We have different opinions but that helps push the thinking. This kind of healthy tension helps us develop a better plan and also helps us be all-rounded."

BEGIN WITH A PROBLEM

Their story began in 2004 when Mr Tan and Mr Quek were at Ngee Ann Polytechnic's business school.

Mr Tan, an only child whose father is in logistics procurement and mother in sales, had studied at Assumption English School, then went to a junior college. He didn't do well there and switched to the polytechnic route.

Mr Quek, the younger of two sons of a military regular-turned-businessman and a secretary, had gone to Ngee Ann after Ghim Moh Secondary.

The two were very keen on advertising and marketing, and got to know each other in a marketing interest group.

Mr Tan went on to the National University of Singapore's (NUS) business administration faculty. While there, he did an overseas stint in Silicon Valley.

"He was bragging about it, that it's so cool," remembers Mr Quek. "I eventually went to NUS and I went for that programme as well."

In Silicon Valley, Mr Ngoo, an NUS computer engineering undergrad, was Mr Quek's roommate.

The former is from Port Dickson in Malaysia. The second of three boys, his father is an electrical engineer and mother an accountant.

All three rave about their one year in Silicon Valley where they were attached to tech start-ups and attended classes at Stanford.

"That was where we fell in love and caught the whole bug of wanting to build something scalable and really solve problems, meaningful problems," says Mr Tan.

Mr Quek and Mr Ngoo began learning to build apps, with the former doing product management and user experience, and Mr Ngoo coding.

"One of the things we needed was someone who shared our passion about using technology to solve problems, and could bring a design skill set," Mr Quek says.

He knew Mr Tan - who was then working in IT firm Oracle - had always loved design and photography.

In 2011, Mr Quek introduced Mr Ngoo and Mr Tan at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Holland Village.

"It was almost love at first sight," he laughs. "They just clicked, and then it was quite natural that we could work together."

Their starting point was to do a product that could solve meaningful problems at scale.

At that time, they had a lot of old gadgets collecting dust.

"We used to sell and buy them on other platforms, but there was no easy way to do it," Mr Quek recalls. "To sell on a desktop platform, you had to take a photo, put it on a computer, upload it in an image host... It took 10-plus minutes to create a listing."

They were then all hooked on their smartphones and loved how easy it was to use them. "We thought, hey, wouldn't it be magical if we could just take a photo, put the title and the price and list something for sale in 30 seconds? So we literally did that."

Even better, a search showed there were no other apps doing what they wanted to do.

The three took this idea - then called Snapsell - to a hackathon and won. The prize was three months of free office space at Block 71.

On May 14, 2012 - they remember the date well - they moved into the co-working space with a desk each.

Mr Tan quit his Oracle job and the three hunkered down to get the app going. It was launched in August that year.

The name Carousell was something all three came up with.

It was inspired by Mad Men, the American TV show about advertising folks in 1960s Madison Avenue.

In one episode, a character describes Kodak's carousel slide projector as "a time machine" that "lets us travel around and around and back home again".

They loved the idea of how their app was also about letting people share photos and trying to find new homes for pre-loved items. They added an "l" to "carousel" and came up with the perfect name.

The product was mobile-only for the first two years but now has a desktop version.

The first few years were hard as the then-20-somethings visited flea markets to get people to list, continued to improve the app and discovered they had to settle things like incorporating their set-up.

They say the titles each got came naturally as it fitted what they were doing. And, no, they didn't fight over that either.

They went without salaries for the first 18 months and had to win their parents over to the idea of them not having regular jobs.

But once they were convinced, they gave their support. Mr Tan tells of how his mother would get him to print fliers about Carousell so she could distribute them at bus stops. "I gave her a black-and-white one and she said, no good, must be colour."

BUILD FIRST, THEN MONETISE

Carousell is now in seven markets and globally gets an average of 136 listings per minute.

Asked about profitability, Mr Quek says candidly: "Right now, I think profitability as a group isn't the No. 1 priority... Scaling this up and being the leader for South-east Asia is the No. 1 priority for us."

That said, being financially sustainable is top of his wish list.

There have been moves to monetise through paid ads and premium services. He says there are some markets that will turn profitable much earlier than others because of different priorities for different markets.

Mr Ngoo says innovations continue to be rolled out, such as using artificial intelligence to make the experience simpler. Last year, the CarouPay escrow service was added to address complaints about errant sellers.

  • WHAT WE ATE

  • Myra's Express at Timbre+ Unit 01-32  73A Ayer Rajah Crescent

    1 chicken quesadillas: $8.80 

    2 jalapeno poppers: $9.60 

    TOTAL: $18.40

The company has grown to 400 employees, with half dedicated to tech aspects like engineering, product and data.

The three pride themselves on creating a happy work culture. Staff are paid competitively and there appears to be a rah-rah feel-good mood with activities like Family Fridays where employees gather to "celebrate wins".

The company has five core values - mission first; care deeply; solve problems; be relentlessly resourceful; stay humble.

The three men - who are currently single - lead simple lifestyles, with Mr Quek and Mr Tan driving ordinary second-hand cars, bought on Carousell of course.

On Valentine's Day this year, married staff got a card addressed to their partners. Signed by the three co-founders, the card thanked the husband/wife for sharing their wife/husband's time with the company.

I get a taste of this Carousell love. Before we say goodbye, Mr Tan presents me with a Carousell goodie bag and a handwritten card signed by all three, thanking me for the lunch and support. It's a sweet gesture.

I wonder what it'll take for someone with a start-up dream to make it the way they have.

 

Mr Quek says passion and purpose are No. 1 for him. "If you're going to do a start-up, make sure you're absolutely passionate about what you do because it's absolutely going to be a challenging journey."

For Mr Ngoo, staying curious is crucial. Many founders of start-ups start off not knowing everything, he notes. "As long as you have that curiosity anchored with your mission, every day you learn and you become better."

As for Mr Tan, he urges would-be technopreneurs to start now and start small.

"Do not procrastinate, and although it sounds counter-intuitive, start small. All big ideas start small. So think of a problem you can help solve for a hundred people and make them super-happy first. Then you can scale up."

They see no reason Singapore can't build a truly global Internet company, and in their quietly confident way, it is clear they have ambitions to be one.

"We hope that one day, people will say, hey, Carousell really is the gold standard," Mr Quek says.

Twitter @STsumikotan