When Quek Siu Rui chose to attend business school at the National University of Singapore, he imagined a career as a consultant or banker – not as the leader of a multimillion-dollar startup that would redefine the region’s classifieds industry.
Quek is the CEO of mobile classifieds firm Carousell, a company he cofounded with two friends seven years ago that has gone on to completely change the way people buy and sell secondhand goods across Southeast Asia.
The company’s innovation was deceptively simple: they developed an app that lets users snap a picture of the item they want to sell and post it online, sharing the information immediately with potential buyers.
Although this approach might sound straightforward today, when the company was first founded the notion of using a smartphone app to post items for sale online was virtually unheard of. The idea behind a “snap, list, sell” app came to Quek and his co-founders Marcus Tan and Lucas Ngoo after the trio grew frustrated with the cumbersome task of trying to sell their own secondhand electronics online.
“We had a lot of gadgets that we only used once or twice, and we used to sell them on [online forums in Singapore],” says Quek. “It was a hassle: you had to take a photo and then transfer it to your computer, upload the picture to an image hosting site, and then link it to your post. The process was painful.”
In 2012, they entered a startup hackathon with their idea for a do-it-all classified app, coming up with the prototype for Carousell over one weekend. They not only won the hackathon – Quek and his cofounders also drew inspiration from the support they received from other participants during the event.
“By the end of the weekend, people were coming to us wanting to know when we would launch it,” Quek says. “That gave us the confidence to focus on Carousell full-time.”
The app has proven to be a big hit, launching at a time when smartphones have become a leading means for people to communicate and shop across Singapore and the surrounding region. For the majority of Southeast Asia’s more than 600 million people, smartphones have become the primary way of accessing the internet after the region leapfrogged the PC age and went straight to the mobile internet.
In Carousell’s home market of Singapore, more than half the population of 5.6 million has signed up to use the platform, Quek says. The company has since expanded to other markets such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, and is currently valued at about US$560 million.
Over the past seven years, users have sold more than 70 million items across all seven of Carousell’s geographic markets. While there are no plans for “major expansions” outside Southeast Asia yet, the company does have an operation in Australia.
The company has several revenue streams. It does not charge regular users to transact on its platform but it does sell ads and charges for additional services, such as featuring a seller’s listing more prominently.
Since 2016, Carousell has branched out into other verticals such as cars and property listings, working with car dealerships and real estate agents who pay to post listings on the site. Carousell users have matured together with the company, says Quek, and in Singapore, more than 50% of its users are over 25 years old.
For these users, exploring bigger purchases such as cars and property is the natural next step, he says. And while markets like Singapore may be small in terms of population, it is relatively easy to generate revenue since people in the city state are used to shopping online and tend to make bigger purchases on digital platforms than buyers in other countries.
Carousell’s promise caught the eye of one of the world’s largest technology investors, Naspers, which has invested in Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings, among other companies. Last month, Carousell landed US$56 million from Naspers subsidiary OLX, an online marketplace.
As part of the deal, Carousell will take over OLX’s business in the Philippines as it seeks to cement its leadership in Southeast Asia.
The company is facing increased competition, including from Facebook, which has launched its Marketplace feature that allows users to list personal items for sale. On the shopping front, Carousell also competes with ecommerce platforms such as Shopee or Qoo10, which also operate as marketplaces that allow users to sell items.
There is also the lingering concern that at the end of the day, many consumers still prefer buying something shiny and new from a rival as opposed to hunting for secondhand bargains on Carousell.
But Quek is unfazed. As sustainability becomes more of a concern for consumers, he believes that a “natural rebalancing” may occur in which consumers consciously seek out secondhand items first to preserve the lifecycle of products before turning to firsthand alternatives.
“That might seem hard to imagine, but if you think about it just five to 10 years ago, jumping into someone’s car to get from A to B was also unimaginable … but that’s the model for Grab and Uber today,” he says, referring to the growing popularity of ridesharing services.
“The grand vision here is to create this world where secondhand goods on a peer-to-peer marketplace [like Carousell] become the first choice for you whenever you need to buy something,” Quek says.
“We think that five years from now, we can actually create that world.”