Chris Chong was just 21 years old when he sold his first startup to Groupon, achieving the entrepreneur’s goal of a million dollar exit.
As a Groupon Singapore co-founder, he created over 200 jobs and made history by helping Groupon become one of the fastest growing company ever. He managed Groupon Singapore’s growth to become Singapore’s biggest e-commerce website from 2010 – 2014. His next startup failed, which humbled him and taught him important lessons along the way.
Chris has had a storied career, with highlights including working at a Top 5 law firm in Australia, the SCMP – Hong Kong’s oldest newspaper – managing millions of users across multiple websites and social networks and working as a full-time Advisor for REAPRA, a $100M Japanese venture-builder and VC based in Singapore.
After being covered on the front page of The Straits Times (2010), Channel NewsAsia filmed a TV documentary called “Millionaire Minds: Chris Chong” (2018). His goal now is to pay-it-forward by sharing knowledge through a semi-autobiographical podcast called “Ramen To Riches.”
What’s covered in this episode:
- What Chris’ journey was like from starting as a young 21 year-old entrepreneur in Singapore to building Groupon SG, a company of over 200 people.
- Some reasons why if you’re an entrepreneur in Southeast Asia, Singapore is the place you have to be.
- How to know if you should continue moving forward with a startup idea or when you should kill it.
- How Singapore is becoming as good of a startup ecosystem as Silicon Valley.
(This transcription has been redacted for readability.)
Alexander Leung: Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning into the Fullstack Marketing Ninja Podcast. We’re here today with Chris Chong, a person who wears many hats and is currently the founder and host of another Singapore-based podcast called Ramen to Riches. Chris is also a serial entrepreneur, having started several startups across Southeast Asia. In the public eye, he’s probably best known as the co-founder of Groupon in Singapore. Glad you could be with us today Chris. Can you give us a bit more info on your background?
Chris Chong: Absolutely. Hey everyone listening. I grew up in Sydney, Australia. My parents are originally from Singapore and Malaysia. I am Australian born Chinese and basically, after high school, I got into a law degree at my local university in Sydney and I just really wanted to get good with girls. I was kind of nerdy back then and I really wanted to try something new to get on an adventure and I really didn’t want to become a lawyer. At the time, I was reading a lot of law books and they were thick. I just started this adventure in Singapore where I basically copied a really popular idea at the time which was the Groupon model, this idea of like a daily deal. My brother also quit his job in New York. He was working as an investment banker and we basically tried our luck at coming back to our mother country Singapore with very little money; just just the clothes on our back and the savings in our car. We moved into a tiny hostel in a part of Singapore. If anyone’s ever been there, it’s called Little India – it’s like where all the Indian construction workers live. We shared a queen sized bed and basically just using a laptop built out a cheap copy of a Groupon for six months. And basically the day after we launched, there was a new competitor every week and we had to fight tooth and nail to try to keep our slice of the pie, undercutting each other on commissions and being on the verge of basically becoming bankrupt. We were surviving on two dollar meals and we couldn’t really even drink like Starbucks coffee. Groupon came into Singapore and they asked the top top five players to fly to Hong Kong and it was very much like a “Shark Tank” kind of interview grilling us about where we saw the future of the company where we saw the future of the business model and eventually they chose us. We were at that time not even first out of the five. We were probably the second or third option, but I think that was just something about my brother that they liked maybe myself as well and they said here’s a ton of money go kill your competitors and become the daily deal kings of Singapore. We also spread to the Philippines and I ran Groupon with my brother like it was a family business for four years. It’s super awkward when you are starting from literally waking up next to your brother in the same bed at the age of 21 to building a company of over 200 people with him.
A: Wow. I didn’t even know that was the genesis of how you got started with Groupon. You gave a really good understanding of how and why you got into the whole startup scene. One thing I think that was really interesting is that Groupon is considered one of the earliest success stories in Southeast Asia during the startup e-commerce era. What was that like? You kind of already gave us a harrowing account of how that experience was. What was it like doing a startup in Southeast Asia back then? Give us a little bit more detail on that. It’s an incredible story.
C: Hey thanks man. Yeah, you’re right. You know, if we compare the startup scenes in Singapore and San Francisco, I think that Singaporeans would really like to see themselves as being up to speed now, in terms of deep tech or A.I. or whatever the next step is. I think Dyson has just announced that they’re launching their electric car program IN Singapore – so they’re moving all their operations away from Europe or America. When we first came to Singapore literally I was like a second year university student. This was in 2010. The only real success stories from the Internet was there were like review websites? It was it was really far behind. E-commerce had taken off at maybe like an individual level. So there were some blog stores some like some trendy young ladies who had a knack for buying things in the markets in Thailand and bringing it to Singapore and then making a premium on that. But there was nothing cohesive. There was no real e-commerce ecosystem at that time. We chose Singapore because we had one cousin living here. So all my family had kind of scattered around the world to Canada, America and Australia. We chose Singapore because it’s English speaking. I can’t speak a word of Mandarin. I’m like a terrible Asian in that sense.
A: I feel your pain.
C: A fellow banana! There was some e-commerce infrastructure here that already existed so we didn’t have to do cash delivery or like, mobile coupon payments. The Singaporean Government is very stable which we take for granted but it’s not the case in other countries where you have to work with families who are entrenched with the government and the merchants here are really forward thinking – it’s not a traditional Chinese environment where we would have have to first of all, speak Mandarin and develop relationships like you have to in China and spend a lot of time with them. So it had all the right ingredients and we came in at the right time in the right place and it was a hustle, you know? By the time Groupon came to Singapore there were 35 different players all trying to fight for the same merchants. So if any merchant showed up on my page, then they’d get five calls from our competitors trying to basically undercut us and try to win them over. It was really tough at that time as it was just about to explode. The scene was just ripe in Singapore.
A: It sounds like the infrastructure was a bit more developed than other Southeast Asian countries at the time, but right now I think we’re starting to see that inflection point with technology where you can leapfrog a lot of a national growing pains. Definitely, the amount of funding is growing consistently across the region, especially in Singapore for startups. What’s cool to hear is that even in 2010, you felt that Singapore was the right place to be at the right time.
On the show, we try to stick with things that are actionable and your background is really a mosaic of experiences. Obviously you’re a hustler, you learned a lot about business just by taking a bunch of bumps and bruises along the way. You studied and practiced law, you’ve worked in journalism and PR. You’ve also founded several different apps and the big Groupon win. How has all of this benefited your work in startups in Asia? What sticks out to you as elements of your skills and experience that have really helped your journey?
C: So my basis before becoming an entrepreneur was I had been studying law and I had been studying journalism in university and I had at that time just started talking to girls. So when you combine all the amateurish elements about me. It was just about trying to get out there trying to talk to people and network. But I mean that’s all I really came with in terms of my skill set. I mean, they say having a law degree is like having a degree in bullshit and maybe combining that as well with journalism – being able to sell yourself to journalists and always trying to present a rosy picture of whatever you’re doing, whatever company you’re building. It was really tough learning sales on the job because I had never pitched anything, so to go into a pitch situation to try go into many different industries from restaurants to like paintball places and try to pitch the Groupon model was tough.
It was tough to learn how to deal with all those different objections and rejections and rejections are tough. You walk away from a place feeling kind of deflated. Part of your core identity feels a little bit hurt that the person said no but you just have to understand that it’s part of the pitch process and if you ever want to get anywhere in life you have to get slammed down a couple of times and I think that’s what I’ve really learned through much of my entrepreneurial journey through all my startups. You know, I was kind of lucky.
You asked when did I know that I had a chance that maybe Groupon would acquire us so that the startup had any chance of any longevity beyond one of our competitors being bought out. We couldn’t really see it that way. For me, my personal journey was more about self discovery, overcoming fear and really looking outward for opportunities and not taking it too hard on myself if something didn’t go my way or if I didn’t close a deal. My brother is eight years older than me. He definitely was a bit more put together mind. He was an investment banker so he knew exactly what he wanted out of it, maybe financially or career-wise, but as a young buck, 21 year-old cowboy, I was just thinking, “you know, maybe I can mix the skills that I’ve been able to acquire and mixing that with different shop owners and then seeing if I can just become a better person to the world.” How that relates to journalism and PR was that, Groupon was bought out because of our story.
The odds were really stacked against us; there were more established people competing against us. It was literally two brothers who no one had ever heard of. We’d been to Singapore on family holidays two or three times, it was like coming in, snatching the pie in the middle of the night while no one was looking and taking it home, while the whole house was being guarded by all the “big boys” who were starting to look and say, “this daily deal model in Singapore is huge.” All the incubators, the VCs, even the companies that run public transport here, all the big advertising companies here were starting to set up their own kind of Groupon clone website. So for us – two nobodies – to have the opportunity to be the poster boys of this new e-commerce website explosion in Singapore really changed the complete landscape here. And I think it gave a lot of young people who didn’t have any experience, any corporate experience or weren’t one of the big wigs, weren’t one of the old, big families here that represent 98% of the wealth on this island a chance to dream that they could also do the same thing.
We were on the front page of the national newspaper, there was a documentary made about us and I guess the message that we wanted to convey is that at the core of entrepreneurship is that, hey, if you really have enough gusto and believe in yourself and if you’re not afraid of a bit of failure and rejection, then you can aim sky high and there’s a chance that you might get that prize that we got and that was really what I wanted to tell everyone. You know, you don’t have to go through all those five-year courses or work at a co-working space that looks like a McDonald’s. You can you can share a queen-sized bed with your older brother and eat two dollar meals and drink fifty cent coffees and hustle your way to success.
A: Being ambitious and hustling is celebrated in startup culture, but being pragmatic and understanding when to realistically quit or pivot is another. You’ve started several startups in the past – how do you know when to continue moving forward with an idea or when to pivot or kill it?
C: You know, I was just like, “Wild Wild West cowboy” style of thinking, “hey this is a cool idea, could I adapt it for the Singapore market? Or, the original entrepreneur methodology is just looking for a problem and trying to find a solution. It was definitely and just like, “was I making money from it? Where was I getting customer interest in it? Was I getting customer retention?” [This] is probably the most important indicator because you don’t want to be a one-hit wonder with customers. I think the most important thing I learned at the VC was that there is a strict methodology – before you even put one single cent of your life’s savings into a startup idea and that’s doing a lot of research on your customers. A lot of face-to-face interviews; I’m not talking about, creating a Google survey and just sending it out to as many people as you can. That’s one touchpoint, but literally going into the street and trying to talk to your target customer and asking open-ended questions, not asking presumptive questions but really asking, “like hey, how is the state of this current process?” and just holding back and letting them answer. So active listening is really important. Before you even put a single cent into creating a minimal viable product if you can do as much preliminary research into a customer then you can hope to basically hedge your risk and avoid having that startup that bankrupts you. So if you’ve already launched and you know you’re not getting a great vibe from your customers, you’re not getting customer retention, then it’s probably time to kill it or pivot and move on but you definitely know when you have a hit when there’s a product-market fit, which is basically customers that are buying from you and then keep on coming back and is so wowed by their experience that they’re actually telling their friends about it.
A: Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs that are moving to or thinking about moving to Singapore?
C: Yeah, I mean that’s a great question. You know the gap between say, San Francisco and Singapore’s tech ecosystem used to probably be very wide. You know, like the type of mindset, the culture, the language barrier, but in the last ten years, I think Singapore has really caught up to speed in terms of having the same infrastructure, the same ecosystem, the same opportunities and the same resources as San Francisco. I mean right now, what’s very hot here is deep tech, AI, very much the same as San Francisco. We’re over marketplaces, we’re over chat bots… it’s just exploded in Singapore. If there’s one thing that I could emphasize to a foreigner who’s thinking about coming to Singapore for the startup scene is that it’s very similar. It’s very cosmopolitan. You’ll find the same sort of access to resources, you can find funding, you can find learning materials and you can find great coders. So, basically, Singapore is a hotbed in Southeast Asia where the best of the best try to make it. So that gap has minimized in the last 10 years. We’re still copying some great ideas out of San Francisco, but we’re doing it efficiently and we need as much talent here as possible. I encourage anyone to come to Singapore.
A: As someone who’s seen startups at work both in Singapore and San Francisco, I completely agree that Singapore has come a long way in less than a decade. Thanks so much for joining us today Chris. To end our chat, I wanted to know, what’s on the horizon for you this year?
C: So as you mentioned earlier, I’m working on my own podcast and the mission of my podcast is to really dive deep into the hardships that entrepreneurs have had to overcome to make the success that they’ve had. I’m trying to interview some of the big household brand names in Singapore, the brands that impact Singaporeans on a daily basis, but not make it super promotional and paint it like this overnight success story that the mainstream media seems to be obsessed with but really dive into the stories where it was a battle. Like, looking in the mirror and wondering, “am I going to give up?” The first guy I interviewed, his younger brother committed suicide on the weekend and he had to show up to work on Monday and still be a leader. I interviewed another gentleman who was on the brink of bankruptcy and he went through an emergency fundraising round and his co-founder ditched him. Fundraising is a job in itself; he had to run the operations while fundraising and he had to carry both those weights on his shoulder. And I think it’s that kind of picture, that persistence that is the key to success in entrepreneurship. From what I’ve seen, the startups that succeed are the ones that just didn’t die out of pure persistence by the founders. I want that message to be conveyed to anybody who’s entering the startup ecosystem. Whether as a fresh grad or they’re thinking of making the move from a corporate job, because I don’t want them to come in super bright-eyed and bushy-tailed thinking, “oh you can instantly just become an overnight success.” Usually it’ll take like three or four startups or it’ll take a lot of failures and a lot of rejection before you gain any validation in this space. So that’s what I’m working on and my goal for 2019 is to turn my podcast into a TV show, so I hope I do that.
A: Thanks for your time today Chris.
C: Thanks so much for having me man.
Podcast music by Ikson Music.