Lessons from SEA Founders: TJ Tan, Founder of GoCar

I interviewed TJ Tan, Entrepreneur in Residence at kipleX and former Founder of GoCar. As a designer-turned-entrepreneur, I was curious to learn more about what inspired him to venture into entrepreneurship, some early stories when he first started GoCar, and the lessons he learned along the way.

Q1: TJ, thanks for taking the time. Before I start asking questions, can you give your quick background for our readers?

Yeah. I’m TJ — I’m the Entrepreneur in Residence for kipleX and before that I founded a mobility startup called GoCar, which was acquired back in 2016. My roots are actually in digital design — I started out as a designer in a boutique studio in Australia, subsequently to ad agencies, and then onto a few startups before I started building my own companies. I grew up here in Malaysia but moved over to Australia for university and career before coming back to start GoCar.

Q2: It’s interesting that you come from a design background. During your design career, did you ever think you’ll start a company one day?

Nope, starting a company never crossed my mind. Honestly, the opportunity just presented itself. When you work in advertising, you’re always looking at campaigns in 3-to-6-month lifespan. After a while, I got a craving to do something more significant that would impact people on their daily lives. My career has just been a progressive path to satisfy that appetite — product companies, a brief stint with Yahoo, and then starting my first company.

Q3: Where do you feel your sense of entrepreneurship comes from? Was there a moment you can remember that made you think, “hmm I want to pave my own path?”

Back in 2011, there was a lot of activity in building apps — a wave that I wanted to jump on. I launched my first startup and entered an accelerator with a few friends. Don’t laugh at this, but this was back in 2010–2011 and we realized, at the time, there were no group chats or any solutions around coordinating group activity. This was before you can create a group chat on Whatsapp or on Facebook, so we wanted to simplify coordinating group discussions for events or get-togethers.

On the back of my mind, I was also hoping this could be an acquisition play. Because this was the phase in startups back then where you didn’t really need a business model. You just built something, acquired users, and figured it out as you go. As you can imagine, my idea didn’t go that far, but thankfully we were absorbed by another more successful startup. And since then, I thought to myself “hey I think I know what to do.”

TJ’s accelerator group visiting the Google office in Silicon Valley

Q4: So nothing you can remember from your childhood or growing up that might have related to you wanting to be an entrepreneur?

Never really thought of having traits from early childhood or anything like that. I think my sense of entrepreneurship came more from being hungry and then building something more and more ambitious. I was also at a stage when I was progressing in my career and knew that advertising wasn’t what I was ooking for. Then it became a “one-step” away path, where going from advertising design to product design to entrepreneurship — slowly satisfying my hunger one step at a time.

Q5: How did the idea of GoCar come about?

After the group chat startup failed, I bounced around Silicon Valley and Sydney for another few years with frequent visits back home to Malaysia. The idea of GoCar started when I observed the market back in 2012–2013 and saw an opportunity to build something that I could see myself using. I was already a car-share user in Australia, which is an idea that’s been around for a long time in that market. Though the market was mature and growing in Australia and the US, for some reason, it was just non-existent in Malaysia.

When I first started conceptualizing the idea of GoCar, Uber had been in Malaysia for 1 year and MyTaxi (now Grab) was just starting. Investments in Malaysian infrastructure (MRT) was about 70% finished, so I knew there was a slice of the market I could capture. Like I mentioned, back in Sydney I was far more of a car-share user than a ride-share user, so I didn’t see myself competing with the ride-share players but instead wanted to explore the blue market of car-sharing.

Q6: Tell me how you built your MVP and validated whether the market was there

Starting it off was quite hard. There is a big friction point in making car-sharing come alive because it’s not just creating software — GoCar back then was so much different than what it is now. In the beginning, I had to make lots of educated guesses. In condos, there are many shared facilities like gyms, pools, badminton courts, etc. but I wondered why couldn’t there weren’t shared cars? As a part of my MVP, I found a condo in CyberJaya with 700 units to volunteer as a test pilot and put a few cars in the lobby.

Funny story, back then you couldn’t unlock the car from the app (of course not) — so I had to pay my friend to code up a website and next to the cars, I had a small wooden kiosk with a lock that users can unlock through a code generated on the website. I was so happy with the prototype, even though the kiosk was made out of wood, thankfully it looked legit.

GoCar’s MVP was a rented car, a wooden box, and a landing page

Q7: Did you start with any funding?

No, I put all the money I had into my prototype. Back in the day, my mindset was being perfectly fine starting again from 0. I had no reluctance to put in all my money, even though I was about 30 at that time. If anything, once you see that opportunity and that gap, the idea kept growing in the back of my head and it became a calling

Q8: Did you raise any funding from VCs?

Funny enough, no VCs wanted to touch me. If you look at it, ridesharing was the darling of the industry and VCs typically wanted to find a local entrepreneur with a record of success. I was a total outsider and car-sharing was a capital-intensive company, which meant GoCar was a counter-intuitive bet for all the institutional VCs. I spoke with more than 20 VCs and after the 5th rejection I kind of knew I was radioactive. But I tried anyway.

Thankfully, an angel investor came in and I was able to just focus on my growth. I met this angel investor through a mutual entrepreneur, whose investor was on the board of UEM Sunrise — and this is how I entered Mont Kiara, our biggest market. My angel investor was eager to get into the startup world and he had the proper connections to push a lot of initiatives forward — especially having a car in a showroom in Mont Kiara, which helped GoCar really take off.

GoCar’s showroom in Mont Kiara, a highly-populated suburb in Malaysia

Q9: Any memorable stories or lessons you learned through your time at GoCar?

During the early days, when users booked a car, I would try to time my cleaning so that I could catch the new customer while they were coming to claim the car. This way, I was able to have a quick interview with them. And back then I didn’t know this was called a user test, I just wanted to understand why these people were using carsharing instead of ridesharing. I remember talking to a mother of two kids and she told me she had to go to Point C, D, and E and Uber wouldn’t do that for her.

After I spoke with a few users, I discovered a pattern. When people used ridesharing, it was single-player mode. When there is more than one person in the car, I found that they typically preferred carsharing. It provided families, parents, and friends far more flexibility and freedom than the ridesharing models — and these were stories I could share with investors and future acquirers. When they were wondering “why GoCar,” the story I told was not my own, but countless stories from those who relied on GoCar for their daily lives.

Q10: Any memorable stories or lessons you learned through your time at GoCar?

Yeah, there’s a lot — too many. One memorable mistake that comes to mind was back in the early days. My developer was doing routine housekeeping of our servers. During those days, we stored all our receipts in case people needed to access it later on. But somehow during a routine checkup, all our stored receipts were emailed to our entire user base. Imagine if a user used GoCar 10 times last month, they would suddenly and randomly receive 10 receipts all at once — our users were freaking out thinking their account was hacked or someone was using their credit card. We were immediately flooded with calls and after answering 2 or 3, we decided to send out an email to all our users to explain what had happened. We got a lot of flak for this and honestly, I still have some anxiety about it.

My advice? When a problem occurs, tell your users fast. Instead of continuing to respond to calls, I made the call to put all my focus on communicating with our users proactively — through emails, social media, etc. Even though, in the short-term, we received a lot of negative criticism, I think it really helped to maintain that good relationship with our customers.

Q11: What led you to sell GoCar?

My belief is that you don’t “sell” companies, other companies “buy” you. The quick answer to this question was that GoCar had two-sided problems like any marketplace (supply-side and demand-side). There was so much pain when we were trying to expand into different neighborhoods because it took so long just to secure one car.

There were two interested parties and since they were both car rental companies, we felt we had a partner who could address a key problem, which was securing our supply. Their help would help me focus purely on expanding our reach and driving further company growth without the painful process of securing new cars. I picked Tan Chong Group to acquire GoCar because they really wooed me, and they were super easy to work with. I stayed with GoCar for a few more years to advance our mission and left completely in 2020.

Q12: What’s next for you?

I am the Founder of Nanobar, which is a mini vending machine concept that can turn any table into a shop through IoT. I joined kipleX as an Entrepreneur in Residence, while conducting multiple pilot projects on the side.

Q13: Any last final advice for Founders?

One key advice is to make friends with other founders and foster a community mindset that helps out one another. My investor and acquirer was recommended by other founders. But keep in mind, the nail that sticks out gets hammered, you will receive lots of unsolicited advice that your idea will fail, even from prominent entrepreneurs. So grow a thick skin and move forward!

nanabar transforms any table into a mini storefront