Carousell: an app that reinvents the online marketplace

Carousell founders, from left: Quek Siu Rui, Marcus Tan and Lucas Ngoo

Making buying and selling as easy as messaging on your smartphone is a great idea that has now been transformed into a successful app.

By Chris Wright

Fifty-four hours isn’t long: barely more than a weekend. Yet in March 2012 it was long enough for three young Singaporeans, two of them still studying, to put together a working demo for a new app at a start-up competition. It was a very productive 54 hours, it turned out. Their idea won, and today has evolved into Carousell, a mobile classifieds app with 41 million listings that operates in 14 cities worldwide.

“It started,” says co-founder and chief executive Quek Siu Rui, “as a solution to a personal frustration.” 

He had found the process of selling things online to be onerous and inefficient. “You needed a good idea of how the forums or online stores worked, as they were built for different purposes, not a marketplace.” 

Quek and colleagues Marcus Tan and Lucas Ngoo felt that “selling should be as simple as taking a photo, buying as easy as chatting”.

Their view coincided with the increasing use of the smartphone as people’s main interface to the internet, and with a desire for simplicity among users. The Carousell app, the first version of which launched in the Singapore iTunes store in August 2012, allows users to post a listing in 30 seconds, using an in-app system for photography and chat, rather than having to juggle SMS and email outside the app. It has also tapped into the growth of specialist communities. 

“We have diehard Lego fans, bike enthusiasts, comic collectors and even sneakerheads,” says Quek.

“Having a great product alone is not enough.”

Success wasn’t instantaneous; the first 18 months showed disappointingly slow growth. The three founders tried everything, including selling discounted postcards for downloads and visiting pop-ups and flea markets to spruik the app. 

“That’s when we realised having a great product alone is not enough,” says Quek. “Most people are social creatures who want to be where their friends and family are.”

The key to growth turned out to be word-of-mouth, which they continue to rely on in all their markets. Their confidence rose when they raised S$1 million in seed funding from Rakuten, Golden Gate Ventures, 500 Startups, Danny Oei Wirianto and serial entrepreneur Darius Cheung in November of 2013.

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A corner has clearly been turned. They passed one million listings in December 2013, and five million by August 2014. Sequoia Capital led US$6 million of Series A funding in November 2014, and the company raised US$35 million in private Series B funding last year, which “has given us a tremendous boost” as the business expands into new markets. It entered Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia in December 2014, Hong Kong and the Philippines this year. Quek says the founders are “less than 1 per cent done”.

“Carousell aims to become the world’s number-one classifieds marketplace, so that every smartphone user in the world is empowered to buy and sell without hassle,” says Quek. Work continues on improving discovery with data science, and scaling infrastructure for speed and stability. 

“There is still a long way to go.”

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