From Carousell To Grab: How SEA’s Largest Consumer Startups Acquired Their First 1,000 Users

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Inspired by Lennysan’s post on ‘How the biggest consumer apps got their first 1,000 users – Issue 25’ I decided to do the same, but for Southeast Asia (SEA).

Given that there’s a lot of material out there that covers startups in a PR-friendly manner, I thought a list that’s actionable for startup founders would come in useful.

There are many differences between launching your startup from the Bay Area as opposed to say, Jakarta.

For one, the valuations and amounts you can raise is a lot more modest, Internet penetration is a lot lower, and customer needs are inherently very different, which makes a lot of the best practises that are applicable to the US very different in Vietnam or Taiwan.

The methods applied in SEA is a lot more grinding hard work as opposed to the legendary hacks that Silicon Valley companies adopt like Airbnb’s Craigslist hack.

Below is a list of how the most successful consumer startups in SEA got off the ground. I would love to hear from the founding teams of these companies and suggestions as to what other startups should be included.

How SEA's tech startups acquired their first 1,000 usersHow SEA’s tech startups acquired their first 1,000 users / Image Credit: Cheng Zishuang

(Disclaimer: Most of the info was gathered through online research, would appreciate any corrections, if any.)

Key takeaways:

Going offline to acquire users, to reference Paul Graham’s seminal essay “Do things that don’t scale” and leveraging existing networks were the most common channels.One-third of the companies took existing behaviour and made it more efficient online.For two-sided marketplace startups, all the above companies sought to acquire supply side first.

1. Going Offline To Where Users Are

Key question: Who are your early target users, and where are they currently congregating offline?

SEA specific: Users in developing nations probably need more handholding when it comes to using Internet products, although this is changing rapidly.

Grab: Signing Up Taxi Drivers

anthony tan grabScreenshot from The Start-UP Asia video interview with Anthony Tan of Grab

Anthony Tan, co-founder of Grab, recalls knocking on taxi windows to convince drivers who brought in their cars for repairs to download Grab’s early app.

“Uncle give us a chance lah, your income is sure to increase!” Mr Tan recalls saying. “We were basically begging. Maybe out of 10 drivers I pitched, two would agree to try it.”

– Anthony Tan, CEO and co-founder of Grab in a South China Morning Post interview

Carousell: Flea Markets and University Campuses

Marcus Tan, co-founder of CarousellMarcus Tan, co-founder of Carousell / Image Credit: Carousell

(Quek Siu) Rui says the app gained traction by marketing on university campuses, placing magazine advertisements, and looking for potential sellers in flea markets and online forums.

Techcrunch, 2013

Bukalapak: Community Events

bukalapakImage Credit: Anton Hermansyah via The Jakarta Post

Since 99% of our talents are local, we’re familiar with their behaviour. We are close with our customers. 

I, myself, sometimes go to the sellers’ community events, and they really appreciate it when we go to them, encourage them, and motivate them to sell more. We also listen to the problems they face. They appreciate it, and they become evangelists for our brand.

– Achmad Zaky, co-founder of Bukalapak in a Next Billion by GGV interview

2. Leveraging Existing Networks

Key question: Is there density in activity going on in a very manual manner that you can make more efficient by bringing it online?

SEA specific: Are some industries more resistant to digitisation? If it’s out of habit, that can be changed once they see the value. If it’s for other reasons like tax evasion, that’s a whole other story.

Gojek: Going From Ojek to Gojek

gojekImage Credit: Gojek

Initially started as a call centre in 2010, Nadiem Makarim was able to bring efficiency to the process of Ojek (motorcycle taxis) riders and customers by using a call centre to reduce waiting times.

In 2015, when they launched the app to pent up demand, the rest was history.

– Today, 2018

Propertyguru: Taking Property Classifieds Online

We had paid someone 5 or 10 dollars to give us all the information in digital format on scraping newspaper classifieds content.

 – Steve Melhuish, co-founder of Propertyguru, in a Startup Grind interview

Gogovan: Van Drivers on WhatsApp Groups

gogovanImage Credit: Paul Yeung

The idea worked, but almost too well. Drivers responded to jobs, but because WhatsApp groups were then limited to 10 participants, and drivers were pitching for work on multiple chats, it became hard for the trio to honour their first-come-first-served policy.

When looking for a solution, the trio quickly realised they could work much more effectively if they consolidated all of their most trusted drivers into one platform.

– CNBC, 2018

99.co: Leverage Competitor’s Networks

… because Craigslist was more dominant than Facebook groups at the time, first 1,000 users came from leveraging pre-existing networks.

Conor Mclaughlin, co-founder of 99.co

3. Partnerships

Key question: Does my product need one side of the market to buy in before there can be real value delivered to the other side of the market?

SEA specific: Do I need to consider special relationship factors that’s not completely based on merit?

Traveloka: Improving Product To Get Partnerships

At the beginning of our presence in the market, there were no airlines who intended to build partnerships with us. We could only create sales through our resellers, without receiving any payment.

At that time, our focus was to grow our website visits and make improvements, such as developing a clean and simple website interface. In just a short period, airlines and hotel groups became aware of us and started forming partnerships with us.

– Ferry Unardi, co-founder and CEO of Traveloka in a Prestige interview

Klook: Cold Knocking

Back in 2014, there were only a few travel service providers who knew about our platforms. We were literally knocking on their doors cold, hoping to form partnerships.

– Eric Gnock Fah, co-founder of Klook in a Whub interview

4. Online Marketing

Key question: Am I in an uncrowded space that would allow me to do this cheaply and efficiently?

SEA specific: This space generally isn’t as competitive, hence cheaper than the US, but changing rapidly.

Propertyguru: Reaching Property Buyers Online

seo marketingImage Credit: Digital M Singapore

(This was) back when Google CPC rates were low.

 – Steve Melhuish, co-founder of Propertyguru, in a Startup Grind interview

Bukalapak: Trying Anything To Drive Traffic

We did everything we could to drive traffic – SEO hacking, so on and so forth. The first year after I started Bukalapak, the traffic actually soared – we received 10,000 hits a day, which was not bad at that time.

– Achmad Zaky, co-founder of Bukalapak in a Next Billion by GGV interview

Klook: Content Marketing

Quality content attracts users and generates leads for Klook via social media channels and organic search. Besides providing a wide variety of attractions on the platform, Klook creates high-quality content like online travel guides, photos and videos. 

Content marketing helps Klook build brand awareness and generate leads. On the other hand, Klook partners with online influencers including bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers to reach a wider range of audience.

Whub interview

5. Public Relations

Key question: Is my product solving a problem that’s largely unmet and easy to understand for the everyday person?

SEA specific: My personal thoughts on this is that there is a lot of room to differentiate here given that a lot of the competition is still running run-of-the-mill ads, especially if you’re going up against traditional competitors. Circles.Life has done a good job in this area (disclaimer: they are my former employer)

Grab: Media Blitz

After months of tinkering, the Grab app debuted in June 2012 to a media blitz. It received 11,000 bookings on the first day, which meant finding more drivers became a top priority.

Grab blog

Tokopedia: Word Of Mouth To Media

Image Credit: Tokopedia

On the second day of its establishment, Tokopedia was visited and featured by Tempo Magazine, one of the media in Indonesia. At that time the article was about “Online Mall”.

– Tokopedia blog

Bukalapak: Television Ads

Image Credit: Bukalapak

For the first wave of e-commerce, we used creative television advertisements to promote our brand all over Indonesia.

– Achmad Zaky, co-founder of Bukalapak in a Next Billion by GGV interview

6. Word Of Mouth

Key question: Can I get users to love my brand?

SEA specific: Each country in the region probably has a different level of propensity to share.

Propertyguru: Agent To Agent

They started to get leads, they started to get transactions and they told their friends.

 – Steve Melhuish, co-founder of Propertyguru, in a Startup Grind interview

Bukalapak: Emotional Value

To our customers, it’s not just transactional, but we also have an emotional value because we are a homegrown brand.

We grow together with you, and they really love it, appreciate it, and they start to promote Bukalapak. And they also invite many of their friends to sell on Bukalapak. That’s the value that we bring to the local scene.

– Achmad Zaky, co-founder of Bukalapak in a Next Billion by GGV interview

In A Nutshell:

Here are the top six strategies to acquire your first 1,000 users:

Go offline to where your users areConvert existing offline behaviour and make it more efficient onlineCreate partnerships to bring in supply side for demand sideOnline marketingPRWord of mouth

And here are six key questions to ask yourself:

Who are my early target users, and where are they currently congregating offline?Is there density in activity going on in a very manual manner that I can make more efficient by bringing it online?Does my product need one side of the market to buy in before there can be real value delivered to the other side of the market?Am I in an uncrowded space that would allow me to do this cheaply and efficiently?Is my product solving a problem that’s largely unmet and easy to understand for the everyday person?Can I get users to love my brand?

Lastly, here are some SEA-specific thoughts:

Users in developing nations probably need more hand holding when it comes to using Internet products, although this is changing rapidly.Are some industries more resistant to digitisation? If it’s out of habit, that can be changed once they see the value. If it’s for other reasons like tax evasion, that’s a whole other story.Do I need to consider special relationship factors that’s not completely based on merit?Online marketing generally isn’t as competitive, hence cheaper than the US, but changing rapidly.There is a lot of room to differentiate here given that a lot of the competition is still running run of the mill ads, especially if you’re going up against traditional competitors, take a risk and be boldEach country in the region probably has a different level of propensity to share your product

This article was originally published here and is reproduced on Vulcan Post with permission.

Featured Image Credit: Logos of respective companies

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