ShopBack's chief commercial officer is at ease with ambiguity

She took a pay cut and left investment banking to move into e-commerce

Ms Candice Ong said she is "super glad" she took a drastic 70 per cent pay cut in 2012 to join Zalora. Less than a year later, she became its managing director. In January, she joined smaller home-grown start-up ShopBack.
Ms Candice Ong said she is "super glad" she took a drastic 70 per cent pay cut in 2012 to join Zalora. Less than a year later, she became its managing director. In January, she joined smaller home-grown start-up ShopBack.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

For many, taking a drastic 70 per cent pay cut would be a financial nightmare, but Ms Candice Ong is "super glad" she did just that.

The chief commercial officer of ShopBack, a cashback shopping platform, left a plum investment banking job in 2012 to take on regional brand buying for e-commerce platform Zalora.

"No one believed that I would take such a pay cut." Half of her colleagues thought she was making an "exciting move", while "50 per cent just thought I was crazy", she said.

Ms Ong had been taking home a five-figure monthly salary as an associate at Credit Suisse in 2012 and she said she knew that she could have moved within banking.

But the reasons for moving into tech were clear. She looked at the trajectory in the finance field and realised it was not for her in terms of lifestyle and future career paths.

"It was just very clear that it was important for me to develop skill sets and to develop more options."

It is more common to hear of bankers moving into the more lucrative tech space now, but back in 2012, Ms Ong said she knew of just one or two people in Singapore who had made a similar transition.

She gained more confidence in the move as she saw her banking peers in the United States increasingly move into the tech space.

For Ms Ong, the bet has paid off, although she added that she still makes less than some banking peers. At just 33 years old, she is now approached with job offers at the vice-president and C-suite level.

But her first three months with Zalora were a steep learning curve, she conceded. "It was tough because South-east Asia wasn't developing that quickly in the e-commerce space and I had to manage people with a lot more experience in fashion, both in depth of knowledge and length of time."

While Zalora previously featured only local brands on its platform, she managed to convince global brands like Guess and Aldo to sell on Zalora because of their reach in South-east Asia. A few months later, she moved on to head the marketing team, setting up nearly half of it.

"It was interesting because I was jumping from 'barely know' to 'barely know'. But it is about figuring things out, putting structures and team in place to drive actions and outcomes, " she said.

She credited the rigour of long banking hours and "understanding precision and standards" with helping her adapt to the pace of start-up life; she was promoted to managing director of Zalora less than a year after she joined.

But she noted that she had to quickly get up to speed about people management. She had to make major judgment calls and lead teams, and at one point had 50 people report directly or indirectly to her.

"The issue with bankers is that they get paralysed by ambiguity. The first three months at Zalora were tough, but ambiguity is now my business-as-usual," she said.

One might even say she developed a taste for the unfamiliar. After 41/2 years developing Zalora's business into a South-east Asian household name for e-commerce with a revenue of €261.2 million (S$400 million) last year, Ms Ong left in January to join ShopBack, a smaller, home-grown start-up.

The platform gives users a percentage of their purchase money back when they shop at affiliated online stores. This "cashback" is taken from the commission ShopBack receives from the merchants, with about 75 per cent of the commission given back to consumers.

Founded in 2014, the firm with 120 staff is now in six markets, including India, Indonesia and Taiwan. To date, it has raised more than US$1 million (S$1.4 million) in funding and has more than 2.5 million users.

Ms Ong said two ShopBack founders who had worked with her at Zalora courted her persistently for 18 months before she decided to join them. "All the stars aligned. It was alignment in how we saw the business, what we thought the potential was. The founders never saw themselves as a garage start-up. Their ambitions have always been very big," she said, adding that ShopBack aims to be the top South-east Asian player in the space in the next two to three years.

While the first two years at the company were focused on growth, Ms Ong's mandate is to grow the company's profits, while also running its marketing and country teams. "The first two years at ShopBack, the emphasis was more on growth. In terms of focus now, it's new customers and margins as we need to show a path to profitability."

But she added that the firm is still looking to grow at a rate of 20 per cent month on month, which will result in trade-offs in profitability. She does not expect the firm to achieve profitability this year.

Ms Ong also addressed the perception that the rebate percentages given to users have fallen. She noted that when some merchants began working with ShopBack, they gave "too aggressive a rebate", which was tempered over time to ensure the sustainability of the business model.

"We want to make sure that our business model is sustainable for merchants, it's not that we are trying to increase our own profits," she said. To give better value to consumers, the company is adding more categories for rebates, including travel and transport, this year.

On top of her managerial hats, the Raffles Junior College alumna is also part of the Government's Future Corporate Capabilities and Innovation sub-committee, which is driving the push for greater innovation in Singapore.

For Singapore to foster a more entrepreneurial culture, Ms Ong said there needs to be greater appetite for risk-taking and failure. "If we don't frown on people when they make mistakes, that would be helpful."

Ms Ong said she would encourage people to take more risks, especially when they are younger, and to look into joining start-ups.

"The world is rapidly changing. What may be an illustrious occupation in the 2000s may not be so in later years.

"Why I am super glad now (for my move) is that I am in a space that is moving so much faster than other industries. I think disruption will be a very common theme, and will be even more pronounced in the next decade," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 15, 2017, with the headline 'ShopBack's chief commercial officer is at ease with ambiguity'. Subscribe