How Carousell's Quek Siu Rui Is Changing the Future of Retail

By Karen Tee

With one in three Singaporeans a user of the app, Carousell’s Quek Siu Rui is leading the digital charge to disrupt the e-commerce landscape by making it as effortless as possible to participate in the circular economy

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Cover  Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow

After being mostly grounded through the pandemic, many in Singapore are excitedly planning upcoming vacations via the recently launched Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme. But not Carousell co-founder and CEO Quek Siu Rui. “None of the countries we operate in currently have VTL schemes,” says Quek, entirely disregarding the notion of even going on holiday.

It is an apt reflection of his current headspace. For the past few years, it has been all systems go for Quek. In 2019, Carousell acquired online classified marketplaces in Malaysia, Cho Tot in Vietnam and OneKyat in Myanmar, cementing the company’s leading position in Southeast Asia in this e-commerce category. At the heart of it all is a deep-rooted ambition to, in Quek’s words, “make second hand the first choice”, as a way to reduce Man’s impact on the planet.

Carousell is already arguably Singapore’s most popular e-commerce marketplace, with one in three in the country signed up as users. The beauty of the platform lies in its practically encyclopedic range of products and services. Quirky finds, such as tarot card readings, purple McDonald’s packaging that was used for its tie-up with K-pop band BTS and canned Singapore air “sourced” from iconic locations the likes of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, ensure it is always entertaining to scroll through the app. But there are also true treasures to be uncovered—think authentic vintage bags and prosaic but useful services such as the transportation of bulky items.

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Above  Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow

This year, Carousell secured an investment of US$100 million in a funding round led by South Korean private equity firm STIC Investments, taking its valuation to US$1.1 billion and making it one of Southeast Asia’s latest unicorns. This funding round will enable Carousell to cement the company’s position as the leading online classifieds platform in the region. Up next: Quek is reportedly mulling an upcoming initial public offering. No wonder taking a break is the last thing on his mind.

“It has been a few good years,” says Quek, whose strong-headed personality shines through in all that he does, whether it is focusing on continually growing his company or insisting that he is photographed in his signature look of jeans and a black T-shirt.

He notes that the pandemic has in fact made Carousell’s re-commerce model of allowing users to easily list their unwanted items for sale even more applicable in everyday life. “We certainly feel that more people are turning to digital experiences and more are using Carousell to buy and sell, whether to make ends meet, to be able to afford what they need, to live more sustainably, or simply to share their passions,” he says with conviction. 

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Above  Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow

I find myself nodding in agreement as I recount a Carousell experience I had earlier in the year, when I sold a used but lovingly maintained Crate and Barrel wine bar via the platform. Ever happy to chat with people about their interactions on the platform, he leans in closer to the Zoom screen to hear my story.

I tell him about how the eventual buyer was so pleasant, I ended up giving her an unopened bottle of wine as a “housewarming gift” to thank her for giving a cherished item new life. He is pleased with this mutually beneficial transaction and says: “It has been a time of realising that our mission is actually so relevant.”

See also: How This Company Is Using Social Media To Shake Up Malaysia's Wine Market

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Above  Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow

This passion for sustainability is rooted in his youth. Since he was a student, Quek had been buying and selling his own second-hand tech gear online. During his undergraduate days at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he went on a year-long NUS Overseas Colleges internship programme in Silicon Valley, where he had a eureka moment.

“In Singapore, there is a certain definition of success, so you almost believe that there’s a pathway to endeavour towards,” reflects Quek. “But being there, when you go to class and have guest lecturers such as Jack Dorsey of Square and Aaron Levie of Box, you begin to realise that they’re not so different from you and me—they just really were passionate about a problem, dedicated their lives to solving it and went on to make a huge impact. It was fascinating.”

We certainly feel that more people are turning to digital experiences and more are using Carousell to buy and sell, whether to make ends meet, to be able to afford what they need, to live more sustainably, or simply to share their passions
Quek Siu Rui

He and then housemate Lucas Ngoo realised that a key pain point they had in reselling their belongings was that it was time-consuming. “How great it would be if we could just snap, list and sell in three seconds. That was the genesis of the idea,” Quek recalls. In 2012, while Quek was in his final year at NUS, the duo teamed up with another friend Marcus Tan, who had also been on the same programme, to launch Carousell.

Chatty and engaging, he confesses with a laugh that he decided to forego pursuing his honours degree despite his parents’ misgivings in order to build Carousell. It was only when the young entrepreneurs were given office space at NUS Enterprise incubator Block71 and Carousell began getting featured in media reports that they started to regard the business idea as legit.

Today, the group has a leading presence in eight markets, including Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but Quek says its journey is far from over. His mission is to make a difference in the lives of as many people as possible.

“Knowing that underutilised and even new stuff can go on to benefit someone else and create possibility for others, we want to inspire more people to sell and buy second hand.” This is why he is continually introducing new tweaks and features to the Carousell app, to “reduce the friction to creating a listing” that could prevent users from reselling or buying second-hand products. 

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Above  Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow

Most recently, the company announced that it had acquired Singapore-based Ox Street, a marketplace for authenticated sneakers and streetwear. This move, says Quek, will strengthen Carousell’s authentication capabilities for the luxury category. “A barrier to buying and selling second hand is trust,” he elaborates. “If it’s a luxury item, you want to be assured of its authenticity.” It is likely that in the future, users can choose to get their purchases authenticated by Ox Street, so they can buy with peace of mind.

Another tenet of the circular economy that Quek holds close to his heart is the element of giving back. He talks fondly about how the app’s users have pitched in to help out one another during tough times, such as the “Uncle Postman” incident when a Carouseller decided to give a 60-year-old postman an e-bike for free.

“When people transact on Carousell, it’s an exchange of possibility and this is what really anchors our purpose,” he says. There is still a long way to go, he reflects. Compared to the company’s humble beginnings, when it had a mere seven sign-ups per day, “today, we have more opportunities than bandwidth and management focus,” he acknowledges.

See more honourees from the Retail & E-Commerce category of the Gen.T List.

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