- “…a lot of the growth really has to do with the fact that we are focusing a lot more on B2C sales, basically selling [and] providing customers with the Amazon.com kind of experience for vehicles.”
- “We really use AI [and] machine learning in every facade of the customer experience when you’re trying to buy or sell the vehicle.”
- “For the last two years, we’ve been EBITDA positive. And I’m always glad to say that, we’ve been able to achieve it because…we don’t need to spend as much as our competitors do. And it all has to do with the fact that it’s machine-learning driven…“
- “So the first thing is about rewarding performance and making sure that you also hire fast, fire faster…The second thing I want to say about building a strong sales organization is that at the end of the day it really is down to tracking…The last part…is this relentless focus on customer satisfaction.”
- “You can be the best at what you do. You can be the most complementary to our team. We can get along well with us, but at the end of the day, you are not driven by numbers. You are not number-driven yourself. You lack the motivation. You do not have hunger. That’s not going to work.”
- “[Being EBITDA positive] is a testament to the fact that we are really running a business here…We actually have a path to making money and that has been super critical and actually very positive for us as we’re trying to fundraise in this particular environment.”
- “We will not stop at being a unicorn. We will definitely have to be at least a decacorn over the next five years, if not less…And for us, it’s about taking steps to reach that over the next few years.”
- “At the end of the day, Tesla may not be the only company that matters. Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo, and a whole bunch of them are not sitting ducks. They will do something and we will see a very robust EV market in the next two to three years.”
- “It turns out that actually Southeast Asia has quite obviously a lot of targets but plausible targets that are good hunting grounds for some of these US SPACs and we see them actively compete in the region.”
On this episode, we have on call Aaron Tan, CEO and co-founder of Carro, Southeast Asia’s leading car marketplace. Aaron has been on the show before on a panel to share learnings from steering Carro through the early onset of the pandemic. We’ve also had the opportunity to talk to the leaders of Carro from their Head of Tech to CMO and CFO. This time around, however, we’ve invited Aaron back to share his perspective at the helm of Singapore’s fastest-growing company into the future.
01:00 Updates on Carro’s past quarter;
03:00 Role of AI and machine learning in Carro’s business;
07:32 Prioritizing AI and machine learning use cases;
10:10 Building an effective B2C sales organization;
12:24 Hiring for C-suite and leadership positions;
15:09 Learnings from the past five years and vision for the next five;
20:20 Rapid Fire Round;
20:34 Thoughts on EV adoption in SEA;
22:45 Aaron asks Yinglan about SPACs;
Yinglan: Hey, thanks Paulo, Aaron. Thanks for coming on the show again. There have been very exciting developments on Carro’s front and I’m happy to give you a chance to update this. I’ve known Aaron for a long time. He’s been an entrepreneur since he was 18 years old, even younger, and now Carro is a very formidable marketplace, dominating the automobile space in Southeast Asia. There’s also a lot of development on the AI front. So Aaron why don’t you give us an update on Carro. The last time we had someone from Carro on our show was back in early December with Ernest, your CFO. Why don’t you give us our listeners a quick recap about exciting things that Carro has been up to in the past quarter?
Aaron: Thanks for having me Yinglan. So we are Southeast Asia’s largest leading retail auto marketplace. And hopefully, as a group over the last year, the company has grown more than two times year-on-year pre-COVID to now. And in fact, this year we are forecasting to end the year at somewhere north of 200,000 units at least, by the end of this coming financial year. And a lot of the growth really has to do with the fact that we are focusing a lot more on B2C sales, basically selling [and] providing customers with the Amazon.com kind of experience for vehicles.
So what we’re trying to do really at the end of the day is to offer our customers, especially the retail customers, an experience like almost buying an iPhone online or buying a tissue paper box online, so much so that all you need to do is just view the vehicles online, go through our process internally, fill out for the details to submit for a bank loan, down to insurance, warranties, and then selecting when you want the cars to be delivered to your doorstep. So it’s making it dumbed down to a process that is so simple that anyone can buy a car online with just a few clicks. And that’s how we tend to think about the future of the purchase of cars.
And a lot of what we do over the last year is really to double down, triple down into our spending in technology, especially in areas such as AI and machine learning. And more importantly, even within our own people, making sure that we brought on the right people into the team. Recently, we just brought on a nuclear scientist to really help lead and supercharge our efforts in data science, computer vision, magnetic resonance field.
And we are very happy about the progress of the company over the past year. And moving forward this coming particular year, we are super excited because we feel that the company regained the potential to grow more than three times what it did last year. And thanks again for having me today on this.
“…a lot of the growth really has to do with the fact that we are focusing a lot more on B2C sales, basically selling [and] providing customers with the Amazon.com kind of experience for vehicles.”
Yinglan: One of the key themes that you are pushing for in 2021 is focusing more on AI, and AI has been key to Carro’s value proposition since early on, but it’s become front-and-center with your AI-powered insurance and customer service talkbots, and some of your recent hires. How do you see the role of artificial intelligence in Carro’s operation and overall user experience in the next three to five years?
Aaron: That’s something that I think about constantly every day, almost. The way I think about this is that I want to allow consumers essentially, really end retail customers — I’m not talking about so much the business owners, but more the real end-consumer retailers — to buy a car entirely online. And if you think about the whole process today, it’s pretty broken. And for us, [the question is] how we ensure a more positive customer experience?
Let me give you some examples. So when we think about the process that an individual has to go through — let’s not even talk about the pain of identifying the car, down to even things like going down, driving down to get a car sometimes to test drive. But let’s just look at the whole experience. Assuming that you identify the car that you want, the vehicle of your dreams, you typically go down there, and then you have to deal with a lot of things, ranging from questions about the vehicles down to things like the insurance, the financing, the trade-in value of the vehicle down to when you want the car delivered, and there are many other steps in between.
Customer Service Talkbots
But for us, we break down this process. So most recently we just announced that we have been doing a lot of these outbound and inbound calls using AI. And what does that mean? That effectively means that when a customer calls us or when we call a customer, now instead of hiring an army of people for customer service or sales, we actually use machines to do that. So the machines will be able to understand and then extrapolate the question that you want to ask, and then respond to you. And the whole process just doesn’t sound like a machine talking to you. It really sounds like a human talking. And that’s how we want to change the whole sales process right now. Imagine how scalable that business is.
Now you look deeper into like even trade-ins that are our core bread-and-butter of the business. We are able to take your car in instantly, given any car, make, model, and details of the vehicle, we can give you the pricing of the cars instantly. And that effectively means that we are able to trade in your cars in as little as a few seconds and then pay you off. Now, if you look at where machine learning or AI comes into play, that has got to do with pricing algorithms — how do we ensure that the pricing of the cars is accurate in real-time?
Credit Algorithms (Vehicle Diagnosis)
And so for us to be able to then provide you with that, or even deeper things like credit. But the truth is that a lot of it is done internally, so in-house we have credit systems that we have built using machine learning. We build credit models that actually allow us to understand what is the quality of the customers? Now assuming your credit is okay, then the question is, “How can we get more accurate in terms of, “Do we know the car you are selling? Is it safe? Is it a good quality car? Has the car been flooded, has the car been tampered with?”” And a lot of what we do today really is to diagnose the cars, using machine learning. Let me give you some examples.
So today, if you’re a customer, whenever you submit the vehicles, actually the machines will look through the pictures that you uploaded, and then in real-time, be able to detect all the scratches and dents and any cosmetic imperfections of the vehicle. And we do this entirely through machine-trained models. And similarly, we make use of magnetic resonance techniques — basically sound, to actually further tell us what’s happening in the vehicle.
So all I can say is that the net of this is, we really use AI [and] machine learning in every facade of the customer experience when you’re trying to buy or sell the vehicle. Whether or not you’re trying to buy a car from us, whether or not we are trying to sell a car to them or take their car in as trade-in, machine learning or AI is really throughout the entire phase of what we do.
And internally, we are almost a thousand people now, across mainly four countries, but I daresay that’s a number that I’m not super proud of. As a tech company that is really driven by machine learning, and data science, we really want that number to be as low as possible. In fact, I always tell my investors, “If I can one-third that number — so basically go from 1000 people to 300 people — that’d be ideal.” If I have a choice, half the company, if not more, should be data scientists, programmers, engineers, and we want this to be a platform whereby it’s scalable using machine learning and tech. And we think by far we definitely have the best team and the best pedigree to be able to achieve with something like this.
“We really use AI [and] machine learning in every facade of the customer experience when you’re trying to buy or sell the vehicle.”
Yinglan: Fantastic. I want to dig deeper into some of your investments in AI, which really has seen a lot of progress in the past 12, 15 months. How do you prioritize some of the applications, use cases that you’ve developed within Carro?
Aaron: So for me, a lot of it involves asking ourselves, “What is the business telling me?” Actually, AI for us is less money-making in that sense versus cost-saving. And so there’s a bit of both, but let me explain.
So one of the things that we prioritize a lot is computer vision because we realized very quickly that our mechanics would take somewhere north of 30 to 45 minutes to literally inspect every car. So the question for us is, “Hey, how can we lower the time taken on this, by just getting anybody literally to upload the pictures of the vehicles, and then the machine can immediately tell you what the exact imperfections of the cars are in seconds?” And by one full sweep of doing this, we get to wipe out, first of all, the need to hire mechanics as and when we expand.
And by the way, it’s not super expensive to hire mechanics. And that’s not the issue. The issue is about standardized reports? So we realized very quickly, if you run a scaled business like ours, you realize very quickly that, if you have humans trying to do inspections, that the humans might have a bad day. They might have quarreled with the wife the day before. And then, as a result, the inspection might deviate a lot, inspector-to-inspector, day-to-day. Well, the machines don’t need that. Machines don’t really have any emotions and whatever they have to take care of.
So there’s a lot of this byproduct of using lesser people. But what’s more interesting is to upgrade the skillsets of the people. Now, instead of taking the pictures and being that operation system, you enable the machines and then the machines will help you do that automatically.
I come back to your question, Yinglan, how do we prioritize? At the end of the day, it really is a business case. So in this case, quite clearly, if we can get an inspection time from 45 minutes down to 45 seconds, we should definitely do something here. It’s a 100x difference. Or even things like machine learning [and] pricing algorithms. We spent a lot of time understanding exactly how much you should buy a car for because that has a lot to do with our top line and bottom line. And today we remain the only automotive marketplace, transactional ones, at least, that is at scale and profitable.
So in fact, for the last two years, we’ve been EBITDA positive. And I’m always glad to say that, we’ve been able to achieve it because of the fact that we don’t need to spend as much as our competitors do. And I have been able to do this at a very good pace. And it all has to do with the fact that it’s machine-learning driven, but there you go. It’s primarily two things. Number one, I would say again, “What is the business case? What’s the cost savings?” Now if it’s not cost-saving, then the question is as simple as, “How much money would that make me?” That’s how we prioritize it, and if there’s a dollar value attached with it.
“For the last two years, we’ve been EBITDA positive. And I’m always glad to say that, we’ve been able to achieve it because…we don’t need to spend as much as our competitors do. And it all has to do with the fact that it’s machine-learning driven…“
Yinglan: Thanks for sharing your insights on AI in Carro. One of the key things that I forgot to congratulate you on was Carro was just voted the fastest growing company in Singapore, for the past year. And one of the big things you’ve been driving is consumer focus and B2C. And a huge part of it is building a robust sales organization. How do you think about doing that — building such a sales organization across multiple markets in the region, especially during the pandemic?
Aaron: That’s very important. I mean, the good thing for us is that we have been doing B2C now over the last couple of years. And in fact, more than 20% of our revenues today already is B2C related. And a lot of it has to do with the importance of a sales organization and enforcing a sales culture internally. And I want to say that we have not sorted that out entirely. I can’t claim that we have built out the strongest sales organization. I always think that there’s room for us to improve, especially when it comes to managing in the midst of a pandemic. The good thing though, is that we have sort of identified a few things, but for me, building a sales organization comes down to actually a lot of carrot-and-stick and also a lot of tracking in-between.
So the first thing is about rewarding performance and making sure that you also hire fast, fire faster. So for our sales staff, the net of this is that we subscribe to the belief of, “If you can’t perform, then you should leave.” So that’s how we tend to think about this. And then, of course, if you perform well from our standpoint, we will then reward you accordingly, hence the carrot and stick analogy.
The second thing I want to say about building a strong sales organization is that at the end of the day it is really is down to tracking. So for us, we invest a lot of time, money, and effort into data science and more data analytics in this case. Internally we have tablo systems and data studio systems that we set up to view. And it will literally tell us the health and condition of the company in real-time. And as a sales organization or a company that wants to build a strong sales organization, that’s super important because you do need to be able to act on numbers really quickly.
The last part I would say also is this relentless focus on customer satisfaction — internally what we call NPS of course, net promoter scores. So we spend a lot of time, money, and effort really to solicit feedback from customers to understand, “Are you happy with their service?” If they’re not, we need to move faster than they’re being unhappy. So these three things that I just outlined are things that I would say are supercritical for us to try to build really a strong sales organization across Southeast Asia.
“So the first thing is about rewarding performance and making sure that you also hire fast, fire faster…The second thing I want to say about building a strong sales organization is that at the end of the day it really is down to tracking…The last part…is this relentless focus on customer satisfaction.”
Yinglan: Another part of growth is evolving the leadership team and finding the right execs to fill up key positions of departments and country-level leadership. What was your approach to finding the right people? What advice do you have for other founder-CEOs looking for C-suite or senior leadership hires?
Aaron: The way I think about this is number one, it’s all about looking for people that can complement your skills. So for myself, I think that I’m pretty good technically. So half the team, we are either programmers by training, from Carnegie Mellon, Cambridge, etc.
But one thing we found that has been amazing is that we have people like Helen, for instance, who is currently still the head of my multi-finance business. She brings with her a wealth of experience in the depth in the sector. So, the thing when we first got her onboard really was that we thought that, “We need someone really with deep, strong domain expertise.” And in this case, we found a friend in Helen because she quite clearly knows her stuff. That’s where we can come in and say that “Hey, we can complement her by injecting tech into the multi-finance business and vice versa. She can compliment us by the fact that she can inject her domain expertise into us.”
I would also say to a certain extent, age doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, it’s really just, it’s down to the chemistry between the founders. So I always try to get my other co-founders or other people in the management team to interview other management hires. So the second thing I would say is actually it has a lot to do with chemistry. And you want to make sure that you bring someone on board that your other fellow early co-founders or management team can work with. And that’s actually supercritical.
And the third thing really at the end of the day is to bring someone that is hungry. And I always say this, which is, Helen — she’s more than 60 years old, but I feel that she can run faster than any of the 30-year-olds or 20 plus years olds in the company. I don’t mean it too literally, but that hunger, that passion, that aggression is something that money cannot buy. And it’s something that I feel has been critical for us.
When we tried to hire for the management team, I looked back and I asked myself, what has been a hit and miss. And half the time if I were to miss on that it’s mainly because I feel that the candidate himself lacks this particular ingredient. You can be the best at what you do. You can be the most complementary to our team. We can get along well with us, but at the end of the day, you are not driven by numbers. You are not number-driven yourself. You lack the motivation. You do not have hunger. That’s not going to work. So these are the three things that are supercritical for you to look out for, especially when you make management hires.
“You can be the best at what you do. You can be the most complementary to our team. We can get along well with us, but at the end of the day, you are not driven by numbers. You are not number-driven yourself. You lack the motivation. You do not have hunger. That’s not going to work.”
Yinglan: That’s great. At Insignia, we have a saying “unstoppable.” So when we are hungry, no obstacle is too big. I want to go back to the business that the Carro business and I’d love for you to share to the audience what you learned in the past five years when looking back and where do you see the company going forward in the next five years?
Aaron: Well, I’ve learned a lot of things. I mean, the question is so broad, but let me just bring it into what I have learned as a CEO. From a CEO standpoint, I feel that your most important assets in the company are not your investors. Your most important assets are actually your people.
So one thing we learned very quickly in the company really is the fact that we need to continuously reinvest in our people, to keep our people around. So that’s something that I feel has been very important to us and very integral to where we have been. So if you look at less headcount management, or even the middle management people, we have been having the same people for the last few years. And most of them have been around for at least two, three years. And that’s pretty good from my standpoint.
So, it’s all about, “How do we retain talent? How do we make sure that people want to join us? How do we invest more into HR?” And that’s something that if I reflect upon myself over the last few years, that’s something that we are doing okay with. That’s something that we can do a lot better, which is managing people, managing expectations, helping bring the right people into the organization, inculcating the whole culture.
People always talk about culture, but the truth is that no one can really give you a very good definition of what exactly is a culture and how to build culture. But internally, I feel that that’s something that is pretty big in us. In that sense, we focus a lot on how we bring in the right people on board, and how we make sure that the people we bring on board are the same with all of us. And a lot has to do with holding this whole particular culture.
So, really one of the many things that I learned as CEO of the company is that managing 100 people is quite different from managing a thousand people. And you should try to build up that organization, sooner, rather than later. Rather than leave the problem — “I’ll wait two or three years down the road,” we should build systems in place, build employment practices in place so that your organization can scale. That to me is supercritical.
One other thing I learned is about investors. So, we have to count our blessings because we have very strong supporters like yourself, Yinglan, on the team. It’s super important to have the right investors who believe in your vision and your dream and in building the business. Because it’s not something that you can do overnight. You need years. And congratulations, you have an IPO coming up soon, but that was also many years in the making. So for us, we need to look for like-minded people. Otherwise, life is too short for you to deal with investors who don’t understand what you’re trying to do and then keep giving you problems and pressure, which is unnecessary. So the number two thing, I would say really is the importance of choosing the right investor. And I must say that one we have done okay with. Again that’s something that’s super important.
The third thing I would say is also financial discipline. We have purposely stuck towards the idea of being EBITDA positive and EBITDA neutral. Half the time, whenever investors look at my books, they’ll say, “Hey, how come you are EBITDA neutral or EBITDA positive, whereas your competition in other markets is doing far off that? Why are they burning so much money?”
It has more to do with discipline, with the idea of that, “Hey, it’s important to look up product-market fit before you even try to expand beyond too much, because trying to spend money or burning VC money is very irresponsible. And then at the same time, you probably will end up subsidizing the market too much. And you will stay irrelevant in that sense.”
If I look back, one of the many best strategic decisions I have made — I still remember sometimes three years ago, four years ago, one of the earliest investors asked me, “Aaron, it’s good that you are EBITDA positive on certain months, but, do you really need to be EBITDA positive?”
I said, “Yes.” And, voila, three years later, we definitely made the right call. The company has been EBITDA positive for last year and this year. So it is a testament to the fact that we are really running a business here. We’re not just running any other tech business. We actually have a path to making money and that has been super critical and actually very positive for us as we’re trying to fundraise in this particular environment.
“[Being EBITDA positive] is a testament to the fact that we are really running a business here…We actually have a path to making money and that has been super critical and actually very positive for us as we’re trying to fundraise in this particular environment.”
Now, if you ask me, in the next five years, where do I see Carro? We will probably be a public company by then. For us as a company, we will definitely have well over a billion dollars in valuation, for sure. And that’s where we want the company to be. The question for me is how do we reach decacorn status in five years. And that is the question that I’m still trying to figure out, exactly how we’re going to get there. But, if I have a crystal ball in front of me, it will definitely be to become the largest retail wholesale marketplace across Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and hopefully by then we would have completed our launch in the Philippines, already have Vietnam and a few other places. And that’s where I feel that the future of the company will be. We will not stop at being a unicorn. We will definitely have to be at least a decacorn over the next five years, if not less. That’s the only thing that I want to do. And for us, it’s about taking steps to reach that over the next few years.
“We will not stop at being a unicorn. We will definitely have to be at least a decacorn over the next five years, if not less…And for us, it’s about taking steps to reach that over the next few years.”
Yinglan: That’s great. We go into the rapid-fire round. So I’ll ask a question and then you just reply with short snappy answers.
Who is a leader or CEO that you look up to?
Aaron: Lee Kuan Yew
What are your thoughts on EV car adoption in SEA?
Aaron: From an infrastructure standpoint, we’ll be there. The EV car adoption in places like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia will be slower to come, especially in places like Indonesia and Thailand, whereby the infrastructure physically has challenges. That said, I do foresee that there’ll be a lot of government incentives across the various regions, as the various governments intend to spur the growth of EV fleets amongst their own population. I also think that at the end of the day, Tesla may not be the only company that matters. Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo, and a whole bunch of them are not sitting ducks. They will do something and we will see a very robust EV market in the next two to three years. But if you talk about mass adoption, if you talk about things like, “When can we expect EV to be commonplace?”, that’s at least five to 10 years away.
“At the end of the day, Tesla may not be the only company that matters. Toyota, Volkswagen, Volvo, and a whole bunch of them are not sitting ducks. They will do something and we will see a very robust EV market in the next two to three years.”
Advice for early-stage founders raising their first round?
Aaron: The best advice for early-stage founders raising your first round is — please don’t get screwed, trying to give up too much of a company away that’s all.
Biggest misconception founders have about scaling a company in SEA?
Aaron: They think that raising a lot of money is everything. Sometimes it’s an issue for you, it’s a bane rather than a boon.
Go-to activity to de-stress?
Aaron: My go-to activity to de-stress, believe it or not, is programming. Either driving or programming, those are two things that I do. And I still do both of them quite regularly.
Anything you’d like to plug or share to our listeners?
Aaron: You should watch out over the next couple of months, two, three months, we should have a massive announcement coming up soon. But let’s just say that, we are super excited about growing the company at least two or three times over the next year.
Anything you’d like to ask me?
Aaron: I have a lot of things to ask you, but let’s ask why don’t we start with a simple question, which is what do you think about SPACs?
Yinglan: That’s a great one. Lots of conversation about it. The simple answer is actually SPACs are not a new concept. It’s a form of reverse M&As. It’s kind of a form of reverse mergers. Five, 10 years ago, reputationally it wasn’t that great, but it’s more commonly accepted now. There have been a series of SPACs in the US, which is quite interesting because a lot of them are reaching the twelve to 24 months mark and they are looking for targets.
And it turns out that actually Southeast Asia has quite obviously a lot of targets but plausible targets that are good hunting grounds for some of these US SPACs and we see them actively compete in the region. There are some pros and cons. The cons are that you may not get the publicity or the roadshow marketing effect, that you get in a traditional IPO. But the good thing is that instead of doing 400 meetings, you might just get done with 30 meetings. You can showcase your future projections. That allows for some of our portfolio companies, it does allow a path to exit. But also you have to be cautious on the front that, “Hey, after going public, you still have to run a public company.” For companies that are still sort of in the experimental stage, going through a SPAC may or may not be the best option. But certainly a worthy option for some of our companies to consider.
“It turns out that actually Southeast Asia has quite obviously a lot of targets but plausible targets that are good hunting grounds for some of these US SPACs and we see them actively compete in the region.”
So on that note, thanks Aaron for catching up with us on our show. It’s been amazing to see how grown over the past few years. And, it’s been an honor to work with you, and definitely excited to see where Carro goes in the next five years!
About our guest
Aaron is CEO and co-founder of Carro, Southeast Asia’s largest and leading auto retail marketplace, which has recently been featured as Singapore’s fastest-growing company in 2021 according to Straits Times and APAC’s top high growth company from the 2021 list by Nikkei Asia and Financial Times. He is a programmer by training and a venture capitalist by profession. Prior to Carro, Aaron joined SEA’s leading venture fund – Singtel Innov8 ventures. Aaron was instrumental in the starting of Blk71 – Singapore’s largest startup ecosystem – as well as setting up the firm’s San Francisco operations. He graduated summa cum laude with a double degree, BSc and MSc from Singapore Management University School of Information Systems and Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science.