The Dot.Com Commando

Former commando Joel Leong co-founded the successful online enterprise ShopBack and fulfilled a long-held ambition to become a entrepreneur.

By Alywin Chew        7 September 2018

Joel Leong has never been a fan of the conventional. In fact, his proclivity for going against the grain was evident when he was just 12. While his Primary Six schoolmates dreamt of becoming astronauts, doctors and lawyers, he aspired to be a entrepreneur. “Back then, my uncle always checked the stock market movements on Teletext and I was mesmerised by the amazing results that the companies appeared to deliver. In 2001, the industry crashed… and so did my dreams. “I guess that’s why I chose stability and began my career in the government sector,” quips Joel, co-founder of ShopBack, an online platform that offers cashback rewards when shoppers make purchases through its platform.

But it was again this penchant for the unconventional that made him rethink his decision to join the civil sector. Citing a preference for a dynamic working environment that was not laden with protocols and regulations, as well as his desire to design his own scope of work, he quit his role at the Economic Development Board after less than a year to pursue a career at Zalora, which was then still a fledgling e-commerce start-up.

A New Start

The working hours were long; the learning curve was steep. There was no guarantee that Zalora would even work out in the long run. But all these hardly bothered Joel. He was more excited about living his dream of being a part of the industry. He relished every moment of his time at the start-up. His passion fuelled his energy. “Work-wise, my first job was more stable than interesting, which was not really for me, so I switched to a fastgrowth environment. I excel in things that I’m interested in. School was not so interesting to me, hence I didn’t do that well,” he laughs. “I’m all for challenging conventions. I like to think about ‘what ifs’ and what can be done differently.”

The idea to set up his own business venture came about in 2014 when Joel hitched a ride home from his friend, Henry Chan, one of the co-founders of ShopBack. Things moved quickly after that conversation. Before long, four more friends got involved, and that same year, they founded ShopBack. Though he may be a self-confessed sceptic, Joel says the decision to set up ShopBack was a no-brainer. He was still young and didn’t actually have that much to lose.

“I didn’t see starting ShopBack as a gamble. I’d rather call it a ‘manageable risk’. Besides, the time seemed right for e-commerce as well,” he says. “There was not much of a downside, even if we didn’t manage to grow the business. We were all still employable individuals. For us then, it was now or never. We only saw an upside to starting this venture.”

Tough Beginnings

Joel still recalls how tough the early days were. While he describes the project as having taken off “immensely well”, moving forward with a lean team meant that everyone had to manage multiple responsibilities. Joel, who had to double up as a customer service representative, often found himself replying customer queries until 5am. But the sacrifices have paid off – ShopBack’s growth since its inception has been phenomenal. In its first year, the start-up raised in excess of $500,000 in seed funding. Last November, the company concluded a funding round worth around $34 million. The cashback platform, which is available in seven countries, now has over six million monthly users and partnerships with over 1,500 merchants.

This year, the company even made its maiden acquisition, buying the business behind the personal finance app Seedly. The success of ShopBack has inevitably led Joel back to the setting that he once tried to avoid. Today, the e-commerce platform has a staff strength of more than 150 people, and as with any entity this size, protocols and systems need to be in place. He notes that he has had to learn how to step on the brakes and embrace the new dynamics. “Working with structure or within frameworks is not my strongest forte, but it’s essential in bigger companies. You cannot just chiong [charge] without a plan in mind when you’re operating in a bigger set-up!” he says.

Will To Win

Looking back on his journey to success, Joel says it’s all down to a willingness to fail, chasing one’s passion and having an indomitable will to win. Indeed, he does love winning – even when playing computer games. “I’m very motivated in whatever I’m interested in. A few weeks back, we borrowed a few arcade machines with the Virtual Striker 2 game for a community event. I was literally glued to the seat throughout the event because, like I said, I like the game and I just want to win. That really affected my productivity!” he quips. National service, he adds, also helped to prepare him for the rigours of the start-up grind. His posting could be considered somewhat serendipitous as it was a perfect match to his personality.

He became a commando trained in the art of unconventional warfare. “Being in the commandos taught me three things that I’ve managed to put to use in my career: Pushing myself to the limit and doing things that I never thought I could do; scaling with structure and handling big groups of people; and ‘over-communicating’ to ensure everyone’s on the same page,” he says. It appears that he has also put his commando reconnaissance training to good use at ShopBack. He reveals that he is currently planning for ShopFest, the company’s inaugural year-end shopping extravaganza that also helps customers to scout the best buys available during the bustling year-end sales period.

When asked what advice he would give to aspiring entrepreneurs, Joel says to always choose passion. “I believe that you can only excel in something that you are passionate about. When you’re passionate about your job, there’ll be no ‘dragging your feet to work everyday’ type of situation,” he says. “Passion is a cycle. Being passionate about something will naturally enable you to perform at the highest levels, and this in turn translates to good results. And all this just makes you even more passionate about your work.”