ShopBack focused on expanding to Asia. The real story

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Joel Leong is a co-founder at ShopBack. He leads merchant partnerships at the company and is responsible for driving deals. He holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from the National University of Singapore (NUS), and worked at ecommerce player Zalora and Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) prior to building ShopBack.

In this interview, Leong talked about having a customer-oriented mindset, deciding between geographical and product expansion, and hiring talent.


Tell us about your background and how you started ShopBack.

There was this program at NUS where we went to Shanghai for one year to study and work at a startup at the same time. That experience opened my eyes. I realized that you don’t have to just work for a big entity, and that startups are actually an interesting and a viable alternative.

When I came back to Singapore and graduated, I worked at EDB. I left after six or seven months because it wasn’t really for me. I then joined Zalora, which was just starting at that time, trying to grow the ecommerce space in Southeast Asia.

After two years, my co-founders at ShopBack and I saw that the cashback model in Europe was doing well in the form of Ebates. It was a very successful business and got acquired by Japanese internet firm Rakuten for a billion dollars. There’s also a similar model in China called Fanli. So we thought, “Why is nobody doing that in Southeast Asia?” We planned to adopt it from a merchant perspective, left our jobs, and started ShopBack.

What did you learn going from corporate to startup? And any takeaways from your time at Zalora?

The hardest part was leaving EDB to join Zalora. At that time, startups were not common and people weren’t confident about online shopping. So the hardest part was jumping from something that’s structured to ground zero.

The main lesson I learned from Zalora is problem solving. The startup was trying to replicate the ASOS model here in Southeast Asia, but what happens if the environment is different? How do you thrive in a dynamic environment with less structure? How can you solve the problem?

There were a lot of problems that businesses in the West do not face (e.g. trying to get people get used to online shopping and trust credit card payments). It’s very interesting how Zalora was trying to bring a model tested in the developed world to the developing world.

How do you make sure your team at ShopBack maintains a customer-oriented mindset?

A customer-oriented mindset is very important. It’s very easy for someone who’s operating an ecommerce platform to forget about the humans behind every data point. If you think you’re losing just 0.1 percent, it’s actually a group of humans that you’re losing.

So we have certain procedures to ensure that we constantly focus on the customer. One initiative is calling customers to talk to them or meet up with them. We want to make sure we know how they feel and the problems they’re facing.

We try to get as many people at ShopBack to do this. For example, a marketing person should understand why a good campaign could create a lot of friction with the customers and hear straight from them.

We also reach out to customers who have purchased from us, so we get to know what products and features they like. We can then take that feedback to scale and create more features or make such features more prominent in our platform so people can interact with them more easily.

How do you strike the balance between product expansion and geographical expansion?

I think it’s really about what stage you are in the company. For example, at the very early stage, our goal is to determine how we can expand geographically instead of how we can scale our product.

If you are in a small market – say, Singapore, where I come from – it’s good if you can constantly tweak your product and make it better. But the pool of customers that really enjoy the better version of your product would be really small. The outcome wouldn’t be that big.

Four years later to today, when we found product-market fit, it’s very different. We have expanded to about seven different markets, and maybe we’ll enter one or two more. Right now, it’s all about product expansion: how can our users get a better product?

We noticed that at present, just a small tweak can have a major effect on all our users, unlike when we were starting. It would probably be better to get the product right, grow it, and find product-market fit instead of tweaking around at the early stage.

What kind of people are you looking to hire?

Having domain knowledge is important for us. They should have done something similar in the past so they can bring new insights and perspectives to the team. If we hire people who are not as experienced in the domain, we will be the ones teaching them, which we’re fine with, but that means there would be no increasing of the bar.

In fact, some people would even argue that you might be slightly lowering the bar because you’ll be the average between you and the person you hire. But every time you hire someone better, it improves the team along.

The people we hire should also have a passion for the problem we’re solving.

What’s next for ShopBack this year?

We’ll continue to try to reduce the friction in a customer’s shopping journey. We do that by trying to answer five questions:

  1. What products should customers buy?
  2. Who should they buy from?
  3. Should they buy online or offline?
  4. When should they buy?
  5. Why should they buy the product?

On the back end, we’re trying to hire good talent to help us solve this. I think we’ve been hiring a lot more people with domain knowledge or people who are just really hungry and interested in solving the problem, which is to help customers make better shopping decisions.

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Source: Tech in Asia


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