Steady, Silent, And Deadly: Inside Singapore’s Hidden Gem Startup, ShopBack
At the heart of Singapore’s startup hub Blk71, some 25 people are working late everyday in the hopes of growing ShopBack. We’ve had our eyes on the cashback site for a while now (as early as May 2014), when we got in touch with head of marketing, Joel Leong, saying that we would love to tell their story to more people.
We are not ready yet, boss, was always the standard response from their team, as they scaled up from the original team of 10 in a small room which looked like a sweatshop, to their current strength of 25 people.
When we spoke to Joel last year, there were just over 100 partner merchants onboard, including major e-retailers like ASOS, Luxola, and Zalora. Today, Shopback has emerged as one of Singapore’s leading cash back sites, which allows you to earn cash when you shop online through their website. They also have more than 300 partnering merchants onboard, with over 120,000 people visiting ShopBack’s website every month presumably looking for the latest cash back promotions going on.
And that is quite a big improvement in just 6 months.
On the consumer side, online shoppers are responding well to ShopBack too: during the holiday season end of last year, ShopBack drove about 10,000 transactions to its partnering merchants, especially those in the tourism, fashion, and electronics categories.
“It had to the do with the confluence of both opportunity and experience,” Joel recalled as he shared how ShopBack started.
“We were all working in ecommerce at the time and saw that this online cashback concept was popular in the US and UK but nobody had done anything for Southeast Asia. As avid online shoppers ourselves, we were always looking out for the best deals, thus we knew that ShopBack was something that could bring users a huge benefit that’s relatively unheard of over here. We couldn’t help but think that there was no reason why consumers wouldn’t use this service as there was nothing to lose but everything to gain through this!”
Prior to starting ShopBack with cofounders Henry and Bryan, both Joel and Henry were working as Head of Offline Partnership of e commerce giant Zalora and Director of Strategic Partnerships at SingPost eCommerce respectively. Bryan currently heads technology for ShopBack and was previously at social fashion site Clozette.
“We felt that with our experience in ecommerce, it would give us an unfair advantage in this field. We also put in a lot of effort to assemble a team like the one in “The Avengers”. Everyone was roped in for their unique skill set to solve a particular problem. This helped us to quickly scale in each of our sectors as we had made our mistakes and paid our “school fees” back in our previous roles. It also helped that Henry and myself were both from NOC and that made us catch the entrepreneurship bug.”
Investor Money Even Before Product Launch
One of the things which we were interested in was that ShopBack had investors backing them even before the website was launched, and before they had any merchants or customers. We found out that this was because the team had tried to pitch to investors to see whether seasoned professionals would buy their idea, in order to avoid becoming victims of group-think.
Joel explained, “Henry rationalized that it wouldn’t hurt to get outside opinion and advice, and we made a pact that if we could raise an amount that we had pre-agreed upon, we would start on this right away.”
A few venture capitalists were interested, but the team went ahead with one that not only shared their vision but was also quickest off the block because they shared ShopBack’s belief and knew that speed was everything. The result of that? ShopBack raised over US$500,000 in seed funding from Accel-X and other investors.
“They were so seasoned that they told us that the amount we asked for was not enough and that we would need more if we wanted to scale. In retrospect now, we are so glad we took their advice.”
Chicken And The Egg
For all platforms, there’s the classic chicken and egg problem: do you focus on the merchants or the customers first? Without one, you can’t get the other. In ShopBack’s case, getting merchants to understand the concept was the hardest part. While the concept is well known overseas, it wasn’t locally. However, once they understood the concept, they saw that it was risk-free for them and some of them took the leap of faith with ShopBack.
“ZALORA was our very first customer so it definitely helped.”
On the customers’ front, it wasn’t difficult to get people to sign up to look around, but the difficulty was getting them to understand how cashback works and getting them to make their first order.
“The biggest problem we face would be to convince them that we are for real. You add a new startup and free money and these two don’t seem so credible. But I’m confident that as we continue to put our customers first and educate them on how we manage to give them cashback above and beyond all other discounts, its only a matter of time that they will see that this is something not only legit, but very beneficial for them.”
“We started with family and friends and through word of mouth we were able to get more people to try us. We faced all problems that all new startups face in gaining street cred. But over time, as people saw that we were constantly bringing them additional savings like no other, customer loyalty followed,” Joel shared.
ShopBack is tapping into Southeast Asia’s US$60 billion e-commerce market, making it one of the most promising (and deadliest) startup under our radar.
A Typical Day At ShopBack
Bryan, Henry and myself meet at about 7.30am everyday for breakfast. It allows us to catch up and sometimes discuss things we want to do today. We reach the office by 8.30am.
Everyone in the office reaches by 9am for Scrum. We all get in a circle and everyone shares what they did yesterday and will be doing today. This keeps everyone in the team updated, as well as puts pressure on everyone to do more everyday because its embarrassing to keep saying the same thing everyday.
We enforce this 9am by having a late lottery system. Everyone who is late has to put an entry into a box. At the end of the month, we do a dip and the chosen ones have to buy Starbucks for the entire company. So we don’t force people to come on time, it’s their choice. 🙂
From 9 till lunchtime there is a lot of discussions and alignment. A lot of it is about team work and we’ve learnt that if we want to scale, communication is key so we normally have the discussions at the early part of the day.
We have lunch at 1.30pm to skip the lunch crowd. It’s normally a take away and the team sits around the sofa area to have lunch. Its normally an hour before someone says I have to get this done asap and the group disperses.
After lunch is hardcore work and we try to ensure that we finish our work before we leave. We either go plugged in or we go over to the sofa to concentrate on our work. There are not many discussions and it’s all a flurry of emails and skype messages to get things done. Everyone is on ShopBack adding new promotions or optimising the page for better customer experience.
After office hours, it’s administration time. We check in with the technical and customer service team on what has happened for the day and what observations we might have. We try not to touch them during office hours as their jobs are fairly operational and taking them out for discussions means operational downtime.
Most of the staff are out of the office by 8pm. Bryan, Henry and myself stay back to either discuss new initiatives or align on pushes for the next day.
By 10pm, the ShopBack team usually calls it a day. However, most of their days do not end without a game of ‘Red Pole’. From the ceiling of their office hangs a ‘Red Pole’, and the core team stands about 8 meters away from it and try to hit it with a stress ball. Each of them have 5 attempts before someone else’s turn. The game is simple: the first to reach 5 hits wins.
“We bet dinner for this and the 3 of us head out for dinner after this. Henry normally pays for my dinner.”