THE INC. LIFE

Groupon Singapore Co-Founder Talks About Life After an Exit

Set up a clone. Sell to the original. Run a big company. Find your bearings all over again.

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BY Adelle Chua - 11 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Australian-born Christopher Chong was a 20-year-old law student in Sydney when he got a call from his older brother Karl, then working in New York City as an investment banker.

“He was gushing about Groupon,” Chong says.

The more the brothers discussed the concept, the better it sounded. It was a win-win concept. “We looked at different countries and where we can best set up a similar business.”

They decided on Singapore because it already had great infrastructure and the people were very confident transacting online. They called their venture Beeconomic.

Chris had no qualms abandoning his studies. “I realized I did not like the law, per se, just the application of it. I could not see myself as a lawyer.”

Karl also packed his bags and left a promising career in the Big Apple to settle in Singapore.

Tongue-tied and tired

The brothers lived in a tiny hostel in Little India.  It was so cramped they had to sleep in the same bed. “Imagine waking up every morning next to your 28-year-old brother, a grown man,” Chong says.

Every day, the brothers talked about their business, perfected their pitch and delivered presentations in malls, lugging their laptops along.

“We did the whole door-to-door thing, looking for merchants who might want to offer discounts. We talked to waitresses, hairdressers, and receptionists hoping they could point us to their managers.”

This was particularly difficult for the younger Chong, who was so afraid of getting rejected. “Every day, we put ourselves out there, and it was petrifying. I had never done that in my life,” he says.

Nine times out of ten, they found themselves either thrown out or ignored.

After one particularly frustrating cold call, they entered a furniture shop, sat on a bed dejectedly and wondered whether they would ever catch a break in trying to arrange meetings with bosses of businesses. Karl sat down next to him and told him they should not give up if this was what they really wanted to do.

The first successful meeting, after nearly a month of constant rejection, was with the owner of a dance school who they suspected merely took pity on them.

There was no turning back for the brothers since then. “Eventually we learned how to pitch well and use more appealing words in our presentations. When we had signed up ten companies, we were ready to launch,” Chong says.  

An about face

Beeconomic was not without competition at the outset.  The brothers went the extra mile in trying to get free marketing for themselves and build a strong relationship with their merchants.  Meanwhile, their rivals were fiercely undercutting them with even lower rates.

And then, the surprise of their lives – Groupon, which had sparked, in the brothers, the original idea, bought them. “I think it recognized that our merchants were more reputable and that we were working so hard at the business,” Chong says.

All of a sudden, they were given a big budget to expand operations and yes, blow out the competition.  “At just 21 years old, I was managing 160 staff members and three offices in Singapore. It was a different challenge,” he says.

Those were amazing times to be part of a start-up superstar like Groupon, he says. “It was so cool to be an entrepreneur then. We were one of the big acquisitions. We even made it to the front page of The Straits Times. It was like a dream.”

Chong stayed with Groupon for another four years. “We got burned out.”

Back to basics

Looking back, Chong says, achieving success at such a young age was not too much of a good thing. “It did not prepare me for life after Groupon.”

This life was marked with failures, anew. With his savings, Chong started a grocery delivery service, but soon found out that logistics costs were high and the margins in the grocery business were slim. The business only lasted a year.

He went into the photography marketplace, but realized he was in it for the hype — he did not do an adequate market research. “People did not really need what I was offering,” he says.

When establishing a business, any business, Chong says: “You have to have a natural problem that you want to solve.”

He has tried to live by this rule, and in June this year he set up Sumostory, a company that provides public relations services to start-ups who cannot afford to spend on traditional marketing to boost their stock.

“You can either go the usual route and pay a monthly retainer of $5,000, or you can do it yourself at no cost, have some intern write a press release, with no guarantee of results. There has to be something in between these extremes.”

Chong prides himself in reading up on public relations during his early days in Beeconomic, and in being the child of journalists, both of whom gave him precious advice when he was starting out.

It’s a matter of finding out what journalists want in a press release, and how to make these press releases stand out from all others.

And why Sumo? No special significance, Chong says, except that the room he was working in on the day the idea came to him was called Sumo Room.

Onward bound

After the grand exit, and the tentative (re) entrance, what is next for Chong? Two things, he says. He would like to support young entrepreneurs who are strong in art but need guidance in business.

“I also want to devote a significant amount of my savings to help save the environment,” he says.

He cannot flesh out the details right now, but he is sure he would go in that direction, exiting a phase in his life while embarking on yet another adventure.