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Driving growth: Carsome CEO on how he built the largest used car trading platform in Southeast Asia

“A few years back, we realized that there wasn’t a centralized nor systemized platform within the used car market,” said Eric Cheng, co-founder and group CEO of online used car platform Carsome.

“Instead, it was fragmented and marred by distrust towards used car dealers due to the lack of transparency.”

Truth be told, the used car industry has seen immense challenges in establishing integrity, credibility, and authenticity. For a long time, the public perception of used-car dealerships was not very favorable.

In fact, a study conducted by the European Commission revealed that the second-hand cars market has had the lowest overall score among the goods markets—this was also the case in 2010 and 2011 in the European Union.

The market is affected by asymmetric information, which explains its particularly low scores on trust. It also registered the worst performance of all goods markets on problems experienced by consumers and on comparability.

Waiting Lounge / Image Credit: Carsome via Vulcan Post

Establishing a transparent buying-selling process

This led Eric in co-founding Carsome, along with partner and now chief business development officer, Teoh Jiun Ee, setting up operations in Malaysia in 2015.

Sharing more about himself, Eric said that he was an accounting student, but decided to terminate his studies during his second year as he always had an entrepreneurial streak in him.

He started an advertising network and creative agency, which he eventually sold off after nine months.

He then leveraged on his eight years of experience in digital advertising which strengthened his understanding of market demands to kickstart Carsome.

Carsome started off as a car comparison website in helping people with car purchasing. Eventually, the business switched to focusing on helping people sell cars.

“We take care of the entire car-selling process, from car inspection to ownership transfer and fast payment, leaving customers with an easy and hassle-free process,” added the 35-year-old in an interview with Vulcan Post.

The C2B platform connects sellers (consumers) with buyers (used car dealers) and it promises used car owners that they can sell their used cars within just three days.

It takes less than two minutes for users to submit their details, after which they will be contacted to schedule their car for inspection.

After which, a Carsome-certified auto inspector will conduct a thorough 175-point inspection—takes an average of 30 minutes—of the car, which includes a short road test.

After determining the realistic value of the car, Carsome will quote you a selling price, which you may accept on the spot or choose to put your car up for online bidding in their network of over 1,800 verified used car dealers.

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Once you accept the offer, you will handover your car and the necessary documents within five days.

All in all, this entire process can be completed within, as fast as, 24 hours.

By 2016, they had launched Carsome Singapore and passed the mark of 1,000 cars transacted annually.

While there are Carsome inspection centers at different locations in Malaysia, car inspection in Singapore is carried out at any place of convenience of the highest bidder. This means that you can choose to deal anywhere.

They were doing so well in Malaysia and Singapore that they expanded to Indonesia and Thailand in 2017.

In 2018, Carsome passed the mark of 10,000 cars transacted annually and was awarded the ‘Startup of the Year’ by the Malaysian Rice Bowl Startup Awards.

According to Carsome, they are now the region’s biggest used car trading platform.

Changing customers’ perception towards Southeast Asia’s used car market

Though they had bootstrapped the business in their early days and grew the team to its current size of 800 across Southeast Asia (SEA), their biggest challenge was convincing the market that [their] platform could be trusted, said Eric.

Getting sellers and dealers to use and trust the then-new product in the market was not an easy task, especially since they were the first movers.

In fact, in a September 2018 online study carried out by market research company, only 21% of consumers in Klang Valley, Malaysia were aware of the Carsome brand, while only 9% were ready to try out their services.

Image Credit: Carsome via Vulcan Post

Carsome recognized that one of the main barriers was the trust factor of used car dealerships.

Furthermore, consumers were unaware of Carsome’s services and their benefits and how Carsome differs from other car-selling services such as Carlist and Mudah.

There were also consumer problems and concerns that Carsome needed to be aware of and understand when consumers are selling or trading-in their vehicles.

With the results from the research, Carsome fine-tuned their ads with relevant messaging that focus more on consumers’ concerns, aborted certain ads and invested more in others.

As a result, they saw significant improvements and transaction numbers as a group grew tremendously year-on-year (YOY), while the group GMV (Gross Merchandise Value) also observed a significant YoY growth.

“Consumers and dealers are becoming more receptive to used car trading platforms like us, so we believe this will continue on as a trend and subsequently, a norm in Southeast Asia,” said Eric.

Approximately 40,000 cars are transacted on the Carsome platform annually—this equates to the transaction of around one every 10 minutes.

USD 85 million in funding to-date

In December 2019, Carsome raised a Series C funding round of USD 50 million (SGD 68 million), their largest amount to date.

Investors include MUFG Innovation Partners, Convergence Ventures, Ondine Capital, Endeavour Catalyst, Gobi Partners, and Daiwa Pl Partners.

They will be pumping the USD 50 million raised from strategic investors into its Southeast Asia markets to significantly expand their presence.

They are also looking at expanding their product offerings and existing services including insurance, aggregation of financial products and a significantly different experience of buying used cars.

Eric also said that he is looking to solidify Carsome’s position as the number-one player in the region, while also expanding within Southeast Asia.

In 2018, they had two funding rounds—a Series B1 round of USD 19 million and a Series B2 of USD 8 million.

Over the course of six funding rounds from 2015 to 2019, they have raised USD 85 million and are setting their sights on growing their presence in the existing markets.

Southeast Asia’s used car market is worth more than USD 40 billion

According to a report by venture capitalist Momentum Works, six million used cars were sold in 2019 and the industry is dominated by players including Belimobilgue, Cardekho, Carmudi, Carro, Carsome, iCarAsia, OLX, and SGCarmart.

Amongst the Southeast Asian market, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia account for the most used car transactions.

The used car industry is an underserved market in Southeast Asia with high growth potential.

Compared to developed countries, emerging countries from Southeast Asia offer better potential for car ownership. Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are good examples of consistent high historic growth of used car sales and future potential because of lower bases they are at now.

According to the research gathered by Momentum Works, Malaysia number of units sold per capita is the highest in the region, although in absolute numbers it ranks behind Indonesia and Thailand. The highly liquid market offers Carsome a good home ground.

In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, the used car industry has a market size of more than U$40 billion in 2019 and are the top three biggest markets in Southeast Asia. Naturally, our business focus is to go to where opportunities lie and consolidate the market as much as we can.

For 2020, we will focus on horizontal and vertical growth where we currently operate in — Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. We will be eyeing further expansion into more cities within these countries to grow our network and help more people sell their cars.

– Eric Cheng, co-founder & Group CEO of Carsome

Singapore comes in at 6th, behind the Philippines and Vietnam. Singapore is lucrative in average car transaction value, but limited in market size. The growth is further curtailed by the government’s zero car growth policy.

Used car market unaffected by COVID-19

Typically less volatile compared to new car sales, used car sales are expected to remain stable and less impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Carsome has almost fully recovered to the record high transaction volumes pre-lockdown: used car transactions in June 2020 were 300% more than May 2020, and up over 70% as compared to June 2019.

The Carsome Consumer Survey conducted in April 2020 shows an expected 76% decrease in the usage of ride-sharing services among consumers as they felt safer using their own vehicles.

Consumers continue to shun public transport and ride-sharing services in view of the pandemic situation, turning to private car ownership.

According to the survey, 34% of Malaysians, 43% of Indonesians, and 25% of Thais plan to sell their cars within the next 12 months, with most citing the reasons being wanting to get rid of their old cars or have more cash on hand.

Moreover, the introduction of new tax tariffs in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand have also contributed to strong consumer demands in new and used cars.

This has led to higher inspections uptick across all Carsome centers, with a notable rise in car disposals.

Carsome also saw more robust demand from its used car dealers in restocking their inventory to cater to the pent-up demand.

As a result, in 2020, they partnered CIMB Bank to launch a digital financing solution for dealers and PT Bank Danamon Indonesia for cash management solutions.

On the supply chain capability side, they are working towards obtaining accreditation in their car inspection standards.

How Southeast Asia’s used car market would look like beyond 2020

The performance of the used car market is generally influenced by that of the new car market, and is an indication of demand for private cars.

From the recent events, we find that the used car market generally does particularly well in the face of recession, said Eric.

This is also observed across the industry, with the recovery trend for cars below MYR 30,000 (SGD 9,800) seeing a higher rebound since the Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia.

Car ownership in Southeast Asia is increasing, which then transforms to much more room for growth in the used car industry.

In order to make a difference in this market and be a true disruptor, the key is always trust—trust from the mass market that they are able to sell their cars at a fair rate, with convenience and speed and trust from the dealers that the source of used cars is of good quality and is exactly what that is represented by the pictures provided in the inspection report.

“We strongly believe that Carsome has addressed all the key points in delivering a truly game-changing product to revolutionize the used car market,” affirmed Eric.

This article was first published by Vulcan Post


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