Inside Shopee's journey from startup to retail sensation

Shopee encountered many resource challenges in its early years. Its Chief Commercial Officer Junjie Zhou shares how he guided the company to steadier ground.

For more Asia-Pacific CEOs and business leaders discussing their HR challenges, head to HRM Asia's dedicated Leaders Talk HR forum.

There’s a single question and answer from the following interview with Junjie Zhou that immediately stands out as definitive of our subject.

When asked what was the best decision of his 14-year career so far, the Chief Commercial Officer of Shopee has no hesitation whatsoever. He says making the move from the corporate world to a fledgling startup was not just his boldest move, but also his most successful. That’s because it wasn’t just any startup that Zhou made the jump to, but the Sea Group in particular.

Zhou met with the founders of what was then the predominantly online gaming business Garena in 2010, and says he was inspired and captivated by their vision and strategy. He switched over from a promising career with local stevedore PSA Corporation to work in any way the young company required.

It was – he admits today – a huge leap of faith, with plenty of risk and uncertainty attached. But sitting in the brand new, modern office space of Shopee in Singapore (which made HRM Magazine Asia's Most Effective Workspaces list in 2017), the otherwise mild-mannered executive cannot help but smile proudly at the success he has attained since then.

The new journey naturally started with Garena’s gaming products. Zhou had responsibility for Garena’s channel sales in Singapore, before relocating to head up the company’s Indonesia operations.

It was during that two-year stint that a relatively new business began to gather speed within the Garena portfolio. Shopee is a mobile-focused trading platform, or “social marketplace” that connects buyers and sellers with each other as well as secure payment and logistical support.

Founded in Singapore, it offers a truly local Southeast Asian mobile shopping experience, and both users and investors have flocked to it over the last few years. Zhou too has made the switch, and has led the commercial operations of Shopee Singapore since October, 2015.

Can you share a little about your career journey so far?

I first started my work in 2004 – wow – that’s like 13 years ago!

I started in PSA Corporation as a returning scholar, so I was offered a scholarship to study in the US. After I joined PSA on my return, I did a few things. First, I worked on terminal expansion projects, and after there I was an engineering manager, managing a newly-setup key site crane section as I am an engineer by training.

I think the work in PSA gave me exposure to big project management, and I also had the opportunity to work with different levels of people as an engineering manager. I worked there for six years.

In 2010, I came across the founding members of Garena, which has since been renamed to Sea Group. I was thinking about what my career journey should be like, and what else I should do, and where else my aspirations lay?

And after talking to the founding members, I felt what they were doing was really exciting. So I made the decision to make a rather big career switch.

It sounds like a leap of faith?

To move from a very established company to a startup company, yes, I think it was. So after I joined Sea Group, I did a few things as well. First I worked on cyber café and payment distribution channels. After that, I worked as a leader for our Indonesia office which I had to set up over a couple of years.

So when did you assume the role as a country head of Singapore for Shopee?

It was in 2015, while I was still in Indonesia. Back then I was still primarily working in the Garena side, which is more of the game business and I came back to manage our Singapore and Malaysia game business.

Shopee quickly grew to be one of the key focus areas of our group, so I decided it was a good opportunity and the company also needed me to contribute to this part of the business. I made a switch to come to Shopee.

Shopee has grown from a team of 10 in Singapore to more than 200 employees in under two years. Could you talk us through the scaling-up process? What were some of the key challenges?

For our business alone, and for the group itself, we always experienced very rapid growth. So the challenge was how do we keep it up? How do we continue to support the growth? We always say people are the most important assets and so on, and we have really placed a lot of emphasis on getting the right people.

For Shopee itself we first tried to find a few senior level members by going to the industry and seeking out like-minded people with proven experiences and a track record. They could have been from a Tokyo consulting background as well as people who had worked in the eCommerce industry for a while.

Being part of the Sea Group, we’re definitely also able to tap onto some of the existing resources we have. So from there we formed a core group but at the same time we needed a lot of aspiring young talent, so we have been very aggressively in hiring fresh graduates or people who have worked for just one to two years.

One on one with Junjie Zhou

I love: Eating really good food!

I dislike: People who make empty promises

My inspiration is: Joining this company and having so many great minds working together

Best career decision? 

Joining Sea Group was a very big switch but I had been urging myself to do something different and try to be part of the team; to create something different

Top tip for other leaders?  

I think you should always lead by example. And of course be very sharp and clear on your instructions, so that the team always has a clear sense of direction

Biggest regret?  

I spent two years managing our Indonesia office but I didn’t really force myself to learn and pick up Bahasa Indonesia

In five years’ time, I’d like to be: Leading Shopee to even greater heights

That has led to around 90% of Shopee’s employees being millennials. How do you lead such a young workforce?

First, we need to understand what the millennials want. If I’m talking to them, I think they care about a few things, such as whether they are joining a company which will give them enough opportunities to learn. They want to feel growth in a company.

Second, they want to feel that they’re doing something meaningful and they’re making an impact. So I think we really take care of some of these aspects. For example, we make our structure very fair, and we make the environment very open, so as to always encourage collaborations.

The young people all have their chance to voice out their opinions, and even the senior members will have direct interactions with all of the lower level recruits.

The third thing is we place a lot of emphasis on growth and learning and development. We have the Shopee Academy. We design a very structural programme for various levels of employees.

Is the Shopee Academy open to any employee?

Yes. It is part of the full employee journey. When they first come in, we have a very structural onboarding programme. They are introduced to Shopee itself and they get to know about the various functions and some of the key people there. So they have a very good understanding first.

Then, we have various training sessions. They could be either internal or external courses, of which we also have different levels. We actually pay external trainers to bring people the knowledge they need, and even fly them from outside of Singapore.

The trainer usually delivers the programme in Singapore but the people could be from different parts of Shopee around the region.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I think most people would find me approachable. Even though sometimes I’m sitting in my room, I always welcome everybody. Staff know if they have any concerns about anything they can always come to me and not worry about disturbing me.

I will also listen to what people have to offer, including their opinions and ideas. I will give clear instructions and guidance, but I’ll still leave enough room for people to execute strategies themselves.

Shopee’s new office in Singapore was named one of Asia’s most effective workspaces last year. Can you speak about the design planning that went into it?

We looked at three things: connectivity, collaboration, and community.

Connectivity is about, as you can see, our office being open and interconnected. For Shopee, we are connecting sellers and buyers as a single platform. That’s the idea behind the office as well.

For collaboration, we make the office the same, very open. There are collaboration areas. There are discussion areas. People can just talk to each other. We want to foster this kind of open communication. We want ideas to flow around.

The last thing is community. If you go to our pantry you can see we have some activity areas where people can actually rest or recharge themselves, and it’s also an area for them to talk to each other and build that community spirit.

We hear the word ‘disruption’ so much. How would you define disruption from Shopee’s perspective?

Disruption is something that’s different; something that changes people’s lives and habits. So if you’re talking about e-commerce, it’s about how people shop. From going to a brick and mortar shop, to now going online to buy.

It’s not something that you can avoid. It happens because people feel there is a value to changing the way that they do certain things.

At Shopee, we need to make sure that we ride on the trend. And we need to definitely embrace the disruption. 

For more Asia-Pacific CEOs and business leaders discussing their HR challenges, head to HRM Asia's dedicated Leaders Talk HR forum.


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