EMERGING ENTERPRISE

Monetisation and AI are key areas of focus for Carousell

S'pore's poster startup eyes being No. 1 in South-east Asia.

Singapore

SINGAPORE's poster startup Carousell harbours big dreams of becoming the world's leading online classifieds marketplace one day.

Do not discount this ambition; the six-year-old firm has already established a strong presence in the region with over 54 million items sold and 158 million listings in seven markets.

In May, Carousell secured US$85 million in Series C funding - said to be the largest in the classifieds space regionally - to fund its growth and expansion plans.

Speaking to The Business Times, Carousell's co-founder and president Marcus Tan said he believes that the firm "has a good shot at becoming the dominant player" in South-east Asia in the next three to five years.

"We see this region as under-served and we know this market best. Over a longer horizon, we want to be No. 1 in the world," he added.

Growing the topline has been a core focus at Carousell in recent years; the firm has been rolling out monetising initiatives since early last year.

"In the early days, we were focused on developing the mobile app and growing the community," said Mr Tan.

"Now that the foundation has been laid, revenue is important so we can invest in R&D, create better products and acquire more talent to keep growing."

Launched in May 2017, Bumps is a paid feature that lets sellers enhance the visibility of their listings.

The company also unveiled Carousell Pro, a subscription-based platform aimed at helping sellers in the property and automotive industry market their listings.

A package costs around S$600 a year for 20 listings monthly, or S$1,200 a year for 50 listings monthly.

Advertising and partnerships is another key revenue stream. Brands can purchase in-app ad space and work with Carousell on marketing campaigns and services.

The firm recently tied up with UOB to offer digital car-financing solutions for car buyers on the marketplace.

Mr Tan attributed such revenue-generating opportunities to Carousell's "strong community" of users.

"When you make the app more relevant for sellers and buyers, that's when advertisers would want to come on board," he said.

With the company rooted in technology, it is no surprise that artificial intelligence (AI) plays a pivotal role in its quest for a larger slice of the pie.

Its founders were inspired to use technology to help users sell unwanted items after an overseas exchange programme to Silicon Valley during their university days.

"Seeing how those companies used technology to solve problems was a nirvana moment for us," recalled Mr Tan, who founded startup with Quek Siu Rui and Lucas Ngoo when they were students at the National University of Singapore six years ago.

"We are very purpose- and tech-driven. That has always been the anchor. Now we're looking at using more AI and machine-learning (in our operations)."

The firm already has several AI solutions in place to enhance user experience. For example, when a seller uploads a photo of an item, the app will provide a suggested title and pick an appropriate category for it.

This function boosts sell-through rates and increases the quality of listings. It also removes the hassle of having to type in the title and category manually, said Mr Tan.

Applications of AI are also evident in the app's chat function. When a buyer enquires about an item, the system can help the seller generate relevant auto-replies. This enhances the buyer-seller relationship, he said.

From hereon, the firm hopes to use such technology to help sellers price their items.

"We're looking at how we can match an item to a good market price. Sellers won't lose out for pricing too low, and buyers will be assured that the price offered is reasonable."

AI aside, mobile payment service CarouPay is the latest addition to the firm's digital initiatives.

Launched in June, this integrated system enables buyers to pay sellers directly within the app using credit and debit cards.

Previously, buyers had to transact through a meet-up or bank transfer.

"Through feedback from the community, we realised that having a convenient way to pay will help people improve their selling and buying experience significantly," said Mr Tan.

He noted that the new in-app service also helps to keep scam cases at bay.

ID verification is compulsory and funds are held by CarouPay until buyers have received their item.

To date, close to 250,000 listings are now Caroupay-enabled.

As regional rivals Lazada, Qoo10 and Shopee continue to expand their range of services and Amazon dips its toes into South-east Asia, the online marketplace space is poised to be a highly competitive one.

A 2017 study by UK-based market research firm Juniper Research revealed that the growth of the marketplace economy is set to double between this year and 2022, swelling from US$19 billion to US$40 billion.

Mr Tan is unfazed, and sees his rivals as motivation to improve the business.

He said: "Competition validates the market and keeps us going. We are only one per cent done. We cannot settle, we constantly have to think of ways to grow the business."