Clarity and Culture in Scaling Successfully with Carousell
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?