ShopBack's founders so chill they let employee leave a piano in office

Ever wondered what CEOs and founders are like? Are they all work and no play? Do they have a nurturing or intimidating personality? In Employee No. 1, catch a glimpse of what it is like being a homegrown boss under 40. Take an inside look into their day, how they run their successful companies, and learn what it takes to be employee number one.

One would expect the owners of a multi-million-dollar business to be decked out in crisp shirts, tailored pants and expensive shoes.

But when we meet Joel Leong, 35, and Henry Chan, 37, two of ShopBack's six co-founders, the casually-dressed pair strike us as remarkably down-to-earth.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'd probably have heard of Shopback, an e-commerce platform that allows shoppers to redeem cashback from various merchants like Shopee, Adidas and Traveloka.

And despite growing from a small team of about 15 full-timers to a multi-national corporation with 750 employees, Joel and Henry are still big on maintaining a horizontal start-up culture.

The birth of ShopBack

For years before their business became a reality, Joel and Henry had already been fascinated by the idea of start-ups and the mechanics behind such companies.

Inspired by American cashback company Ebates (now known as Rakuten Rewards), they realised that there was a gap in the Southeast Asian market for such a business model.

So, in 2014, Joel and Henry took the plunge and quit their stable jobs at e-commerce giant Zalora.

They started ShopBack with another four of their ex-colleagues from Zalora, each one bringing something different to the table. Some had experience in marketing and design, and Joel and Henry had plenty of experience in business partnerships.

The company started out with 15 full-timers and around 20 interns in the first year. By the second year, business was going so well that they managed to expand to around 100 employees. And today, ShopBack has a total of 750 employees across nine markets — talk about rapid growth!

Learning from mistakes and being open with their employees

When asked if it was tough building the business at the start, Henry laughs and tells us that it's "an uphill struggle every day".

And as part of their continuing quest to improve, the pair take feedback very seriously. This involves constantly asking ex-colleagues, business owners and fellow entrepreneurs for advice and suggestions.

In fact, the pair tell us that they were so "hungry to learn" that they even camped outside the old Ebates office to speak to its employees, which evidently paid off.

"If you're open to asking, people are actually quite open to share their advice with you," Henry candidly tells us.

Apart from seeking advice from people in the business world, they also value having open and genuine conversations with their staff and encourage them to pass on bad feedback when necessary.

"That helps to put both parties on the same page when we're trying to solve problems or to improve things," Joel explains.

Joel and Henry are also all about making the ShopBack office a lively, welcoming space for all.

This means gamely joining in on the fun and games during office hours, which sometimes involves partaking in "intense" ping pong competitions with staff.

In fact, we hear from one employee that Joel has been known to get so carried away during ping pong games that he's run late for meetings before.

The pair also reveal that the massive piano that has followed the company "since the start" actually once belonged to an employee.

She had left the piano in the office as she "didn't know where to put it" after moving homes, Joel tells us as if it's the most natural thing in the world.

"Since then, we've moved office multiple times. Every time we've moved, this has come along with us," he adds.

No e-commerce experience? No problem

While most companies require years of experience before they even take a second glance at an application, things are different at ShopBack.

"What we've learned is that if you're able to put them under good people, they're actually able to learn different skills," Joel explains, adding that it's actually easier to teach "new and fresh" people.

Joel also emphasises that it's more important to look out for those with good character, sharing that they've hired people from different walks of life who have ended up outperforming their own expectations.

He raises the example of one of the employees on their payments team who made a mid-career switch from practising law.

"Before that, he knew nothing about payments and only knew about the law," Joel says with a hearty chuckle.

Expanding to Southeast Asia and beyond

"If you told us at the start that we would be 50 times bigger, that we'd have 700 people and be in nine markets, I would never have believed you, and Joel wouldn't too," Henry tells us as Joel nods.

At the start, they hadn't even harboured hopes of expanding beyond Singapore, he confesses. 

"Then we went on to Southeast Asia, we went to Taiwan, we went to Australia and Korea, and we were market leaders in all of them."

But even though they've already achieved results far beyond their initial goals, the two tenacious men aren't resting on their laurels.

"I hope that five years from now, or 10 years from now, we still are very focused on making shopping rewarding, but in a way that we cannot imagine," Henry humbly shares. 

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