#SgGoesGlobal: ShopBack conquers six markets in under three years

#SgGoesGlobal: ShopBack conquers six markets in under three years

From a Singapore-based team of just three people in 2014 to a regional force of 100 employees today, e-commerce cashback start-up ShopBack explains how it has managed to flourish across six nations in Asia in less than three years, and outgrow their No. 1 competitor, Ebates.com, in the region.

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Since opening its doors in 2014, ShopBack, the homegrown e-commerce cashback start-up, has grown at a breakneck speed. In just two and a half years, the company, which offers rebates and discounts to customers who shop online, has expanded their business to six countries across Asia: Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore.

According to Chief Commercial Officer Ms. Candice Ong, ShopBack has already "substantially" outgrown their No. 1 competitor, Ebates.com, in the region. That's no small feat for a humble Singapore firm that started out with a team of just three people. Ebates, an American company with about 500 employees worldwide, was purchased by the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten for $1 billion in 2014.

So how did they do it? Ong pinpointed three key rules of thumb that have formed the foundation of ShopBack's business, and have fuelled the company's growth and success. She also described how IE Singapore, which shares ShopBack's global aspirations, has supported the firm's overseas expansion efforts.

1) Going global, with "intention"

From day one, ShopBack's ambitions had always stretched beyond Singapore's borders, said Ong. The company knew it wanted to expand across the region at a rapid pace so when it launched, it had already crafted a plan to achieve this aim.

"I don't think a company can successfully go global unless you have the intention to do it from the start," said Ong. "You have to have that global mindset."

2) Localise, localise, localise

Asia, and Southeast Asia specifically, is a very fragmented market, said Ong, with each country in the region posing their own distinct challenges and offering their own unique opportunities. This can be a barrier to entry for some companies that might be intimidated by the diversity of the region, but for firms that are prepared to put in the effort to localise, it can be a "competitive advantage", she said.

Hiring the right people locally is a critical part of this process, said Ong. And senior management has to familiarise themselves with these local markets as well. That's why at ShopBack, the company's three co-founders and other senior staff such as Ong travel extensively to their various regional offices, spending a substantial chunk of each week immersing themselves in these different markets. Ong said she personally spends at least half of every week outside of Singapore. 

Finally, establishing local connections and partnerships can streamline the growth process. IE Singapore, said Ong, has helped ShopBack significantly in this area. In Taiwan, for example, IE has connected the company with several local e-commerce merchants, including 17 Life, Buy123.com and Go Happy, which are now part of ShopBack's retailer network.

IE has also supported ShopBack's localisation efforts in other ways, including offering financial help in the setting up of regional offices and offsetting the salaries of local staff. "This support has helped us extend our pool of possible candidates," said Ong.

IE has additionally helped provide local consultants to empower the firm to better understand local landscapes and to navigate local regulations. IE's support, said Ong, has also been indispensable for the company's reputation abroad.

"As a small foreign company coming into these various markets, it can be hard to convince them that you're credible, so having a stamp of approval from a government agency, it really helps with credibility," she said.

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"If a company is truly invested in expanding to a new country, they need to spend time in that local market," said Ong. "You can't say I want to grow regionally but then send three interns to those markets. It just won't work. You need to understand the local markets, and understand consumer preferences and behaviour — and all this takes effort and time."

3) Cultivate an "atmosphere of mistakes"

To succeed, you must fail. That's a maxim touted by many successful companies — and it's one that ShopBack has personally taken to heart.

When asked what some of ShopBack's biggest mistakes have been over the past few years, Ong and her team were at a loss for words.

It wasn't that mistakes have not been made, Ong explained, but that the company had cultivated an "atmosphere of mistakes", where failure is celebrated and not condemned.

"There are always going to be upsets here and there," said Ong, "but it's about learning from those lessons and moving on."

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- Produced in association with IE Singapore -