Southeast Asia’s biggest virtual tech conference Wild Digital Southeast Asia 2020 invited speakers from notable companies and VCs such as Carousell, Lazada, and 500 Startups to debate on how to cope with COVID-19. The panel “Resilient or Rebound?” discussed challenges, but also opportunities of the pandemic, and preparation plans for the recovery.
“We are always reevaluating our business model whether we are in the right track, going to the right direction,” Carousell managing director Chee Soon Ng told the audience. “But this is the pandemic! It forced us to accelerate the whole process because things were changing so rapidly.”
There are many factors that play into a company’s sustainability during a crisis. KrASIA spoke with Ng about how Carousell is staying afloat, and about its 2021 plans.
KrASIA (Kr): On the panel, you mentioned that you had to make adjustments due to the changes brought by COVID-19. Can you elaborate more on the specific measures, and which of them will stay even after the pandemic subsides?
Chee Soon Ng (CSN): This year, all of us had to deal with the blow of the coronavirus pandemic. It definitely has impacted Carousell, as it has all businesses around the world. Internally, we’ve had to work twice as hard and double up on our portfolios.
When it comes to our marketplace, many of our markets are still facing various forms of safe distancing measures. We have always grown with our users and their needs, and found innovative ways to address market challenges, and this is crucial to survive in this new reality.
Like all other businesses, we’ve had to adapt our focus areas. With everyone working from home and spending more time at home, we’ve seen a shift in demand for our categories. Home services is one of our growing categories, and have seen growing interest over the past year with weekly demand growing by 1.5 times since 2019. Some of our popular home services include movers and delivery, renovations, home repair, aircon cleaning, and home cleaning.
So with this shift in demand, we are choosing to focus on growing this category further in Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. We have also launched a dedicated home services page in Singapore to make it easier for users to search for popular services, browse across complementary services in one convenient tab, and also read our in-house explainer articles on how to select certain services. We are looking to roll this out for Hong Kong as well.
Kr: You also mentioned how government support helped startups stay afloat during COVID-19. In your opinion, what has the Singaporean government done right to help digital companies?
CSN: The government’s efforts throughout the year have been really substantial when it comes to supporting startups and helping smaller local businesses digitalize. Several of the schemes they’ve rolled out signal the importance of digital transformation, and how it helps with business resilience.
We have seen many local and international businesses affected by COVID-19 and stay-home measures. While many retailers have considered scaling online and move to e-commerce solutions to cope with the dynamic and challenging market environment, many heartland merchants are still struggling due to their lack of e-commerce experience. Their business models also may not be suited for the larger e-commerce websites.
We saw an opportunity to step in and work with a government agency, Enterprise Singapore (ESG), to help them digitalize easily. In addition to the 90% funding support for merchants to participate in our program provided by ESG, we also tapped into its network, SME Centers, and merchant association contacts to reach out to heartland merchants who might not be reached by our usual channels.
Kr: Carousell has three revenue sources: advertising, premium visibility products, and subscription by bundling listing fees. Which one needs the most adjustment to stay afloat, and which one saw COVID-19-induced growth?
CSN: Advertising is now a core part of Carousell’s business and we have significantly invested in our advertising platform over the last 12 months and launched a number of new branding and direct response ad solutions that have contributed to significant YoY growth despite COVID-19.
Our advertising vertical also played a part in our COVID-19 relief schemes. As the outbreak escalated across the region, we saw inspiring examples of charities and groups across the community helping each other. We wanted to step in to assist these organizations in raising funds by giving them the visibility to promote their causes.
So we launched Free Ads for Charity, a SGD 2 million (USD 1.49 million) advertising support program to focus on supporting non-profit organizations across the region who themselves are facing new challenges, including limited access to volunteers and lack of donations. The initiative launched with existing partnerships including Singapore Red Cross, Give.Asia, Free Food for All in Singapore, Parents Without Partners in Malaysia, Habitat For Humanity in Hong Kong, and Caritas Manila in the Philippines.
Kr: With all the changes brought by the pandemic, where do you see the future of Carousell going into 2021? Which line do you think will see rapid growth?
CSR: There are a lot of new normals that we’ll have to adapt to, and there’s a big change that people in general will shift permanently to more online channels of shopping and transacting. At Carousell, we’re asking the question of how we can enable more people to access the items they want.
We believe our mission will become more relevant than ever. Carousell is on the cusp of a growing focus on sustainability. Consumers are rapidly changing towards such discerning consumption, and brands are taking their corporate responsibility seriously, looking into developing solutions with partners to ensure the sustainable consumption of their products. Our goal is to become the e-commerce leader in this region, solve the barriers to secondhand, and accelerate this trend in Southeast Asia.
The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.