Building from the ground up
How did the idea of Carousell come about?
Carousell started with three people: Quek Siu Rui, Marcus Tan, and myself. We were National University of Singapore (NUS) students and we spent a year in Silicon Valley under the NUS Overseas College Programme where we worked with technology start-ups.
We also studied part-time courses at Stanford University. That was where the inspiration came from. We saw companies such as WhatsApp and Instagram, which only had 60 engineers, but were able to build something to serve hundreds of millions of people. When we came back, we were determined to do the same thing in Singapore.
At that time, everyone was buying and selling items on forums such as Hardware Zone and ClubSNAP. Advertising has always been undergoing an evolution. “Classifieds 1.0” was about selling through the newspapers, 2.0 was about websites and forums. At that time, there wasn’t a 3.0 available through which to sell. 3.0 is about going mobile. If we didn’t do this, someone else would have done it. That was a golden opportunity for us, and we just went for it.
The Carousell demonstration model was built in 54 hours in March, 2012. How was that possible?
We joined a global hackathon competition called Startup Weekend, wanting to showcase our concept that selling through mobile could be really simple, by snapping a photo and selling within 30 seconds. You had 54 hours to design, code and prepare a presentation for the judges. The 54 hours spent building the working prototype wasn’t the full product but proof that the concept actually worked and that it was simple to buy and sell through the platform. It was a really intense 54 hours, but we made use of existing mobile functions, to develop the prototype faster. We didn’t really sleep much; we were just intensely coding.
After building it, we pitched the idea and the judges loved it. We won the competition and that sparked us to embark on this full-time.
You were juggling school with full-time work when full-time development of Carousell began in May 2012. Describe that journey.
After the competition, the three of us moved into the co-working space at Block 71, a hub for start-ups and entrepreneurs. We spent the next three months building up the actual Carousell product.
In the mornings, I was a full-time student, and I would come to Block 71 at 5.00 or 6.00pm and be a full-time entrepreneur. The only thing that stopped the three of us from working till very late was the last-train home just before midnight.
Weekends were better for us at it was usually much quieter. At times, I spent my Saturdays working on my university assignments, while Sundays were spent working on Carousell.
What were some of the initial struggles during that period?
Since this was our first official job, and the first time we had built an app, we were faced with many technical issues. We also initially struggled with aspects such as marketing. We had to be resourceful and learn things on our own. After taking three tough months to build the app, we submitted it to the app store.
We all felt relieved and happy when the app was approved. But, our happiness didn’t last for long. Once people started using the app, it crashed. We had to figure out how to better scale the product and how to better build our servers to support the huge number of users. We actually stayed overnight at the office on the day it crashed to migrate our servers to a new provider.
Describe a typical day at work for you now
I work very closely with the engineering and data teams, and I spend my days having quality time with them. Engineering and data are core components of our entire business. I make sure our projects are running well.
The normal working hours for our employees are from 10.00am to 7.00pm. I usually come into the office at 9.00 or 10.00am and stay till 10.00 or 11.00pm – that is the cycle for the co-founders. I also make it a point to spend personal time with the different teams. For example, we bring food back to the office everyday so we can all have lunch together. On Fridays, we will cater food into the office and there will be company announcements, people sharing developments, and we will all eat together.
How does Carousell compete with the much larger Amazon and eBay in the e-commerce scene?
In terms of the product itself, we are actually unique in the sense that Carousell is not just about e-commerce, but also about communities. You do not just come into Carousell to buy or sell and then leave; you also come into Carousell to be a part of its communities.
One of the features we have is “groups”, where you can join special interest groups, such as music groups. That is what makes Carousell special. We also focus very much on individual sellers, whereas a lot of e-commerce players focus on merchants, such as those who sell in bulk. What about the everyday people like you and me who may have things lying around that we want to sell? You can find some really unique items on Carousell which you may not find on other larger e-commerce platforms, which usually sell more structured items. Carousell makes it simple and discoverable for individual sellers. The positioning of Carousell will always be “individuals and communities-first”.
What are some key HR challenges in your organisation?
One is definitely attracting and recruiting the best talent to the company. This especially applies to engineering and is always on top of our minds; how can we build a company that attracts the best engineers to work for us?
The unique thing about Carousell is that we offer ‘ownership’. In a bigger company, you may just be one out of a thousand engineers, and the impact you have on the firm is different from us. We currently have 23 engineers and we’re growing our team to about 60. Even at this size, the team is serving millions of users and that’s a very attractive proposition for talents.
We get a few hundred applicants especially for popular positions, but we always look for quality, rather than quantity.
How would you describe the culture at Carousell?
One key value of our organisation is to be “mission-first” in whatever we do, be it in engineering, customer support, or marketing. Everyone here is working towards serving the larger mission, which is to be the number one mobile classified site in five to 10 years’ time.
We are also relentlessly resourceful. When we began our start-up, we did not have funding, but we grew by being resourceful. For example, we went to schools to paste posters and visited flea markets to hand out free water bottles. Even though we have grown to nearly 100 employees now, we still need to retain that mindset. Not everything can be solved by simply throwing money at it. There are still lots of creative things we can do.
Employees at start-ups are not known for staying long in their roles. Does this apply to your organisation?
After the three co-founders, Victor and Huang joined Carousell as our Numbers One and Two employees respectively. They are both working in engineering and have been with us for four-and-a-half years. Victor has even grown from being a back-end engineer to one who is now managing teams and devising strategy.
This is the kind of culture we’re trying to create, where people can really grow their careers. We are also seeing a lot of our other early employees now managing teams. I don’t think attrition is a problem; it’s the kind of culture we create that allows people to grow and take ownership.
How would your staff describe you?
I am “Mission-first”, always. In the earlier days of the company, I was driving things a lot more but as the company continues to grow, you learn how to give more power to the team and let managers run and own the show.
What are your thoughts on Singapore’s start-up sector?
We always say we’re lucky to be at a stage where we’ve witnessed growth. When we started, there weren’t many start-ups or Venture Capitalists coming into Singapore. But this has changed. Now, more international investors are setting up shop here and more start-ups are popping up.
When we started, there was just this one co-working space available (Block 71). But the Government is now heavily supporting the start-up hub, and a number of other blocks that house start-ups have been built, with further construction also ongoing.
Another key culture of Carousell is to stay humble. We always say there is less than one percent done, and there’s still so much we can do. That’s the mindset we want to instil moving forward and that’s what we tell everyone as well.
What is your utopian dream for Carousell?
We want to be the leading mobile classifieds in five to 10 years’ time, and we want to be Number One, not just in this region, but globally as well.
That’s a very tough target, as it generally takes a long period of time for a classifieds platform to become dominant. But we have this ambitious dream to achieve it in that time.
Another utopian dream would be to move to “classifieds 4.0”. We think machine-learning is going to bring us to the next level. Imagine if you can point your phone at an item and it can auto-populate your title description, and then give you the best price. We believe that’s the foundation of 4.0.
What is your biggest regret?
Having not started coding earlier in my life. I only began coding when I went to university. I was wowed when I had my first lecture in coding during my undergraduate studies. We hear lots of stories of people who started coding when they were 12 or even eight years old. I only started when I was 18.
What is your top tip for aspiring leaders?
You have to find something you’re passionate about and just persevere with it. This four-and-a-half year journey for us really hasn’t been a rosy one. The only way you would stay on to do things for a very long time is if you’re passionate and show perseverance.
Giving away his Legos
Lucas Ngoo, Co-founder of Carousell, says one of the most difficult parts of scaling up the organisation has been having to delegate duties and responsibilities to incoming staff.
He uses a phrase coined by Molly Graham, who had the same problem as a senior executive with both Google and Facebook in their key development phases- “to give away your legos”.
Graham says scaling up an organisation quickly is akin to building with lego building blocks. Children feel a lot of natural anxiety when they need to share. They want to be part of the team that completes the project, but they don’t want to be sidelined or stuck doing the less interesting parts.
Everyone’s first instinct is to grab back the legos- to fight them for that part of the tower or to micromanage the way they’re building it,” Graham says.
“But the best way to manage scaling (and one of the secrets to rapidly growing a company) is to ignore those instincts, and go find a bigger lego tower to build.”
It’s something Ngoo can identify with all too well.
Having started Carousell as one of three co-founders, he was virtually responsible for every aspect of the business in the early days.
However, as the organisation grew rapidly to its current headcount of nearly 100, Ngoo says he simply had to begin delegating tasks away.
“As an entrepreneur, it’s sometimes hard to give away that responsibility,” he says.
Handing over the legos in this way was however, ultimately rewarding.
“People tend to hold onto things but in order to grow the organisation, you have to hire people who are better than you,” he says.
I love: Being able to build a strong engineering team and culture to create something meaningful with technology, and seeing it positively impact millions of people around the world.
I dislike: Settling with the thought that we’ve done enough, as there is always more to learn and meaningful problems to solve.
My inspiration is: To be able to build the future with technology. There’s a saying “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
My biggest weakness is: Communication. I am introverted by nature, and would love to be able to express myself better.
In five years’ time, I’d like to be: Still growing with Carousell, helping it to be at the forefront of technology, be the world’s number one classifieds and be part of a world-class engineering team.
Favourite quote: We are less than one percent done.
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