Carousell hits US$1 billion: The story of Asia’s latest unicorn

Carousell is now a unicorn – after the latest investment round led by South Korean private equity firm STIC upped the startup’s valuation to US$1.1 billion.

The NUS-supported company, the second to acquire unicorn status after PatSnap, is a household name, and one of the largest and fastest growing marketplaces in Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

However, not many know of the company’s humble start. Born out of a 54-hour hackathon, it began as a simple one-stop mobile platform to buy and sell secondhand items.

Roots in Silicon Valley

Inspired by the entrepreneurial energy of Silicon Valley while studying in Stanford University and simultaneously interning at various technology start-ups during their NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) stint, Quek Siu Rui, Lucas Ngoo and Marcus Tan were impressed with how people used technology to impact millions of lives. This marked a turning point for them to pursue their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs in earnest.

Upon return to Singapore, they realised they had plenty of books, laptops, cameras and other impulse-buys that were lying around. But the process of listing these underused items on existing online marketplaces and forums was too tedious. Developing the idea of a mobile application to simplify the buying and selling process, the trio took their idea to NUS Startup Weekend Singapore, a hackathon held in 2012.

Known as Team SnapSell at the hackathon, the idea was almost rejected twice before finally emerging victorious, beating 40 other ideas at the event. They were given free incubation support over three months at Plug-In@Blk71 (now BLOCK71 Singapore), an incubator by NUS Enterprise. Undaunted by their earlier rejection, Carousell made an elevator pitch and was awarded a S$7,000 Venture Ideation Grant by NUS Enterprise to develop the idea further.

Their passion for creativity and innovation superseded all else — with Siu Rui forming the start-up with his friends instead of furthering his honours degree or taking up a job offer in Silicon Valley, Marcus leaving his job at Oracle, and Lucas juggling schoolwork while working full-time at Carousell.

Stellar performance

With Carousell’s inception, the founders have checked off many milestones over the last few years, which include several successful funding rounds:

  • Formed partnership with ST Classifieds and SPH Magazines, Singapore in 2013
  • Raised about S$1 million in seed round led by Rakuten in 2013
  • Raised US$6 million in Series A funding led by Sequoia Capital, followed by Rakuten Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures, 500 Startups and Darius Cheung (an NOC alumnus) in 2014
  • Raised US$35 million in Series B funding led by Rakuten Ventures, followed by Sequoia Capital, Golden Gate Ventures and 500 Startups in 2016
  • Raised US$85 million in Series C funding co-led by Rakuten Ventures and EDBI, with participation from 500 Startups, Golden Gate Ventures, Sequoia India and DBS Bank in 2018
  • Raised US$56 million from Naspers and acquired classified site OLX Philippines in 2019
  • Received funding from Telenor and merged with 701Search entities, Mudah, Cho Tot and OneKyat in 2019
  • Received US$80M investment from Naver, Mirae Asset-Naver Asia Growth Fund and NH Investment & Securities in 2020
  • Received US$100M investment from STIC Investments in 2021

Referring to the newest feather in their cap, Siu Rui, Co-founder and CEO of Carousell Group, said, “STIC’s investment is a validation of our mission and strategic direction. We’ll deepen our investments in re-commerce across more categories and markets, and will continue to seek opportunistic acquisitions in scaling up.”

“The pandemic has shown us that our mission to inspire the world to start selling and buying secondhand is more relevant than ever. People in the community are using our platforms to make more possible for each other — through shared passions, making ends meet, affording what they need, or simply because it is more sustainable. We believe that the accelerated adoption of digital experiences is an opportunity for us to double down on our re-commerce efforts with a focus on convenience and trust, to unlock step-change growth in our community”, he added.

Business with a heart

Today, Carousell is more just a platform for buying and selling. Besides listings of unique items such as McDonald’s BTS packaging or services to upcycle used items, it has also help to spark meaningful conversations and connections.

During the pandemic, the start-up has made significant efforts to help fellow businesses. For example, it launched its Caroubiz Booster Package, an initiative to provide 1,000 help packages to heartland retailers and service merchants to help move their businesses online. Carousell also introduced a new local Food and Beverage category on its platform to help drive business towards local hawkers whose operations have been disrupted. In collaboration with partners, the start-up has also shown support to SMEs and creative professionals whose incomes are affected.

At the same time, they are helping further develop the start-up community. In 2013, Carousell took in its first batch of NOC Singapore interns and the company has continued to employ NOC alumni throughout its journey. In addition, the founders have made angel investments in other Singapore start-ups, helping to grow the very ecosystem which made their journey possible.

By NUS Enterprise