With more than 12 years of experience in the platform economy, Gaurav shares with us his leadership experience in utilizing technology to solve user problems and his passion for design thinking. Having raised series C from notable blue-chip investors including Sequoia, Telenor and Temasek, Mudah.my is the number one car site and number two property site in Malaysia and Carousell is undeniably a favorite among many users. Gaurav has been instrumental in shaping the direction and steering the ship in terms of new business, organic and acquisitions for the unicorn company Carousell.
Can you share with us more about the Asia landscape, how you're shaping the fast-moving eCommerce marketplace and your thinking behind Mudah.my’s business plan. Why did you decide to pivot and focus on secondhand items?
Gaurav shared that he was once a failed entrepreneur when he started off his first maiden venture around 10 to 11 years ago, where he was only able to be at it for one
and a half years. Since then, he joked that he has become an “entry-preneur” instead of an entrepreneur.
Having clear direction from day one
Gaurav made it clear that the company never decided to steer the ship towards a different direction but had always had one clear direction in mind - how to make secondhand the first choice. From day one, the focus of the company has always been on secondhand products. He highlighted that there was an immense business opportunity in this space as e-commerce grew and more urbanization happened. As consumption increased, space and houses became less and people needed to declutter old items. He also shared that there is a market opportunity in the circular economy, in recycling goods and extending the lifespan of an item that you have had at home. From a sustainability element, it is in line with Mudah.my’s purpose, which is to improve the lives of future generations by being able to extend the life of goods and delaying them from filling up landfills as quickly as the society would otherwise have.
Focus on problems that not many choose to solve
In order to scale at hyperspeed, Gaurav also emphasized the point that obsessing about the user experience, trying to solve a unique problem that others are not solving, led Carousell to where they are today. Focusing on the secondhand problem that not many people choose to solve, gave them a huge advantage just by learning and executing at a much earlier space than their competitors.
You are able to wrap Marie Kondo, ESG and Amazon, three turbocharged engines into one model. In the current market volatility, can you share with us the difficulties of navigating in the eCommerce and technology space for the past eight months and how you overcame that?
Focus on controllable inputs
Gaurav mentioned that one of their advisors that Mudah.my works closely with has been constantly helping them to focus on controllable inputs. Ultimately, the company tends not to focus on uncontrollable externalities such as the Ukraine war or inflation. Companies should focus on what is in your control and ways to adapt to make the best of the situation. Gaurav added that generally when inflation happens and the economy tightens, consumers will resort to secondhand items, making their business more immune to the overall inflationary trends.
In terms of dealing with the big geopolitical issues now, which is the supply chain or the constraints of delivery and logistics, how have you overcome that especially in terms of maintaining customer satisfaction?
Look for areas of opportunities
Using the car industry which has been hit a lot by the supply chain issue today as an example, the waiting time for a brand new car in Malaysia ranges anywhere from six to nine months and majority of the replacement cars on the market are second hand cars. The after effect of this will inevitably affect the car supply chain as a whole but unfortunately there is nothing much that can be done in that area. Following that, Gaurav advised to focus on areas where opportunities lie, using jobs as an example. Currently, there is less supply of employers and bigger opportunities in jobs. His company is taking advantage of being a horizontal player of having multiple categories on one platform, focusing on building the jobs categories because that is where the demand and supply constraints match more.
A few years ago, Carousell used to be free with no platform fees. You attracted many users onto the platform fast but there were a lot of bugs in the system which became an issue back then. For a startup with limited capital to spend on initially, how did you deal with these issues to ensure that the site continues to be online and active?
Find investors who believes in your long-term vision
Gaurav admitted that a company needs to have some capital in space if the company is not growing capital at that point in time. He shared that he has been very blessed in having investors who believed in their long term vision and are able to give capital for them to build a business in which we can actually monetize and scale. He mentioned the importance of having the right capital strategy and getting the right investors who do not just believe in the short-term achievements but who are there for the long-term strategic vision, helping the company empower its journey forward. The ability to attract these kinds of investors and to keep them on board from day one has played a massive contributory factor in this.
What would your advice be to early stage, capital stuffed startups who do not have access to sophisticated, knowledgeable, patient investors to raise capital?
Be that cockroach - survive, thrive, adapt swiftly until you prove yourself
“That's the reason I had to stop my startup. I was in Singapore and couldn't find investors, could not bootstrap beyond that and I had to stop it. So yes, it's a real problem,” Gaurav was being raw and honest about his past struggles to fundraise.
However, Gaurav shared with us one of Carousell's co-founder wisdom, “if somebody asks him what is his favorite animal, he quotes that he would love to be a cockroach. A cockroach cannot die, is very swift, very adaptable, thrives in extreme conditions and is able to survive till the time you are able to prove yourself.” Gaurav encourages entrepreneurs to have this attitude until they are able to go ahead and, and find the right investor to go to. Gaurav added that a lot of businesses in his opinion die early not because they are bad but because they could not find the right investors at the right time.
Reiterating his advice on the challenges faced when fundraising at an early stage, become “a cockroach”, find ways to survive and thrive, act swiftly, adapt, change and be thrifty about things until you can find that right investor who believes in you and can take you to the next level.
Moving onto the management side, it is a challenge to manage people to drive the business, to build and run technology and to manage sales and marketing on the platform. How do you advise startup managers to hire right?
Specify skill sets and diversify
Gaurav emphasized on having clarity on the purpose of hiring - what skill sets are you looking to hire? He shared with us his insight of experimenting over a period of time, creating the right kind of job description internally with the team before looking externally for talents. Spend time on deciding what is the job description you want the employee to do and what are the skills required to carry this job. “The clearer you are about it, the clearer you can evaluate the candidate for it in the first place,” Gaurav added.
Once this has been established, companies should then start to consider putting diversity into play and expand on the set of competencies that are coming into the organization. Hire somebody who can add value and can contribute to the company in ways that the company is lacking, someone with opinions who are not just a reflection of you but rather an extension of you, helping the company to propel forward. Sharing these two basic principles have held the company well in the last many years.
You have experienced the hiring process and interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands of people. Have you managed to formalize a process?
Be clear about the problem you are solving
Gaurav shared how over the years his company has managed to institutionalize the hiring process to a certain extent and it starts with the hiring brief. “If you're not clear about your problem, you cannot find the right solution,” going back to first principles, spending time on the problem is much more important than the solution.
Invest the time in hiring
Spending a lot more time on the hiring brief was key in the hiring process. Focus on details including who is going to interview the candidates, the specific skill sets that each interviewer seeks, and the ability for candidates to fulfill specific tasks were part of the hiring brief. The company also generally screens different aspects of the candidate including competency, culture and other important related things that they would like to have in the organization.
Pay attention to the process
Once a set of four to five interviewers have met this candidate, the interviewer would then sit together for a debrief. The decision to hire the candidate must be unanimous, otherwise the candidate will not be hired. Elaborating on the rigorous hiring process, Gaurav stressed that it is extremely important to get the right candidates into the organization and consecutively giving them the right opportunity to succeed. Gaurav mentioned that it has been a process to establish this hiring method but this meticulous process helps in raising the bar in every cycle that the company is looking to hire.
Being clear about the job description is one element but addressing a thin supply of talented people out there is the other part of which we have no control over. How do you address that? Do you find talent overseas or do you nurture from within?
Groom and outsource talents
“We do all of the above,” Gaurav answered. Gaurav simplified finding the right talents by two routes - grooming the talent from within or outsourcing them. He mentioned that it is unlikely that entrepreneurs can find all the qualities that they want in a North Star candidate exactly in that same person which means the person may be good in certain things but they have to be trained to learn certain things over a period of time.
Gaurav advised entrepreneurs to think far ahead and see if the person that they intend to hire has potential to learn the specific skills they require. If they do, then create an environment where a person can actually grow into that role. However, there will be certain roles where founders cannot afford to hire a person who does not have that skill set such as engineering roles. In this case, finding the right person is crucial and he advised founders to even consider having the right consultants until the demand for the talent has been met. He added that it is very important to take the right foundational decisions to hire the right candidate. Otherwise, the company will suffer a lot later. “It depends on the role of that person in the company, it depends on the talent available and sometimes you do have to search globally for that kind of talent for your company,” Gaurav added.
For those that you have already hired, how do you keep them motivated to keep on performing to the metrics that you want them to and to keep delivering, especially in a private structure?
Embrace diversity - it brings more value
“Well, it's tough because we hire for diversity.” Gaurav then elaborated further that diversity is extremely difficult to manage and the culture that founders create in an organization is important in managing the employees especially when they first join. Elaborating on diversity, with diversity comes differences in people. Sharing his company’s culture and the behaviors that they try to encourage, “we have this thing called a palm of the hand with a heart in between which is about actually learning to respect differences, respect diversity because what that diversity brings is more valuable than the problems it creates.” Gaurav added that by hiring people from different backgrounds, you may clash on thoughts due to the differences in personalities but if people realize that differences is the actual value everyone is bringing to the table, then people will accept and embrace diversity more.
Diversity can mean different things, not just gender or racial diversity, but could also be age, economic, cultural or even educational diversity. What diversity metrics would work in an eCommerce market?
Gaurav mentioned that skill sets and personalities are the main areas for diversity. Using an example of creating a backend in a certain language, apart from needing a language competency to deliver, beyond that hygiene factor, you look at the personality and opinions that the person is building. “A way to write the code is not the same for every single individual even if the language is the same,” Gaurav added.
Look beyond individual heroes
Elaborating on this, Gaurav advised entrepreneurs to consider hiring people who are able to think differently, who are able to write a code in a way that it actually is breaking boundaries, who are able to collaborate with others while writing it. Writing a code is a collaborative effort, written with a group of people and has to be maintained by others over time. Hire people who are not just individual heroes, someone who can work with others yet still being good at the task they are doing. With Carousell having thousands of employees wide across the region, how do you make sure that culture is transferred along and preserved in a fast-growing company?
The importance of culture
Gaurav touched on the different dimensions of cultures. In summary there are three dimensions of culture, corporate, location and functional culture. “Culture is just an informal behavior that guides you to do certain things without having to lay out the rules. Culture is a fine tuning of the “body language” of the organization without having to create a hundred rules of how things are done. People would feel that this is the way to do things, hence make the right decisions and that is dependent on a function.
“Different functions have slightly different aspects of culture. Different countries have a contribution to what the culture is. Then there is another aspect which is corporate culture. The way we work is we look at the corporate culture at the top level. Then we let each country and each function customize it to their version so that they're working in a kind of a constraint but they're adapting it to each function, each country's specific needs in that scenario,” Gaurav explained. He summarized by reminding that It is not about values because those are outcomes, it is the behaviors that you encourage and focus on that actually creates culture in the end.
Why does culture matter so much? Is there any quantifiable value that it brings like shareholder, operational or profitable value? Why shouldn’t entrepreneurs just focus on business and just make money?
Empowerment of culture
“To me, culture matters a lot and I'll tell you why.” Using the technology industry as an example, you need technology engineers to create technological solutions for users. It is not a manufacturing process that can be “machine-nise”, there is a human being behind it that is actually doing a lot of thinking and a lot of creation. Ultimately, founders need to remember that we are a people’s business and they are managing people who
then create the right kind of solutions for consumers and users. Having the mentality that you are a people's business in the first place and that every individual that comes in brings in a different facet as no human beings are the same, will allow founders to value culture. Culture gives an organization a sense of purpose, a way to act together in a group, distinguishing what is acceptable and not in an organization. It takes away the need to create archaic rules for everything, it empowers people to make decisions and to act in a way that they can make progress without having to abide by a rule book. “So that is why culture is very empowering. It enables people to act across the organization. It creates distributed leadership, which you cannot create if you are setting rules and everything comes from the top,” Gaurav added.
When you are growing at a fast pace inorganically, how do you transfer culture to another business, which has its own culture originally?
Clarity on the role of the company acquired
An element that should be considered or be conscious of when buying companies is not just the financials but also the purpose, the way the company is actually growing, what is their culture. These are some of the factors that play an important part in the company’s decision making. Sharing his experience, when his company was acquiring, they were very clear on the role of the company that was being acquired. Were the companies acquired supposed to add a competency to the overall group or were they supposed to be independent organizations carrying different roles? “Most of our acquisitions are companies that are going to add value to the overall platform and the group as we grow. In that context, we try to choose companies that are not just financially going to help us or bring a competency that we need but these companies are also going to add or have directionally the same cultural aspects, even if they may be defining it differently.” Gaurav elaborated further.
The content of this article is summarized from our ‘Thought Inspire Series’, a series of six exclusive physical interviews with world-class & established company owners highlighting their entrepreneurship journey organized in collaboration with CGS-CIMB. The series is aimed to inspire, entertain and motivate all aspiring and existing entrepreneurs in the Malaysian entrepreneurial ecosystem. Follow us on our social media pages to get the latest news on upcoming events and key learnings.