Staff Reporters
Feb 11, 2022

Founder encounter: JJ Chai's journey from Airbnb, Carousell to starting up an ecommerce aggregator

In the first in a new series exploring Asia-Pacific's startups that could disrupt the advertising and marketing industries, we meet the cofounder of Rainforest, a new type of brand owner that has been born from the global ecommerce boom.

JJ Chai (centre) alongside Rainforest cofounders Per-Ola Röst (left) and Jason Tan (right)
JJ Chai (centre) alongside Rainforest cofounders Per-Ola Röst (left) and Jason Tan (right)

Welcome to Founder Encounter, our new interview series that will give a glimpse into the Asia-Pacific startups that are forging new business models and disrupting the advertising, marketing, technology and communications industry. Founders will reveal how they identified a gap in the market, what they believe they can do better than big businesses, and the challenges they foresee as they grow.

Today we meet JJ Chai, cofounder and CEO, Rainforest.

Startup profile

Name of company: Rainforest
Name of founders: JJ Chai, Jason Tan, Per-Ola Röst
Company headquarters: Singapore
When was the company founded: January 2021
Current number of employees: 50
Website: www.rainforest.life
Type of product/service: Products for mums, baby and home

Describe what your business does.

Rainforest acquires ecommerce businesses in the mums, babies and home categories, and grows them.

What does it do exclusively or better than others?

We’re the only ecommerce aggregator that operates brands internationally, with a focus on the modern mum as the target market.

Why did you start this company? 

I saw the secular trend of many more micro/solo-entrepreneurs running micro brands, and also recognised their challenges with scaling up their business.

What did you do previously?

My last three roles were about scaling up companies in Asia. First with Airbnb as MD for SEA, then SVP business/growth at Carousell, and then as an advisor to SEA growth startups at xto10x.

How did the founders meet, and what unique skills/experience does each founder contribute?

I invested significant amounts of time to form a co-founding team that would complement my own capabilities in strategy = overall organisation design. I found Jason via an investor's recommendation, to bring onboard capabilities to manage capital formation and deal structuring. I was also searching for a co-founder with cross-border ecommerce experience and tech, and happened to meet Per-Ola in that search, as part of interviewing various Amazon sellers in Singapore! 

Describe the lowest point you hit in the process of starting this company.

Losing a candidate to another founder, who I previously hired when I was at Airbnb.

The highest?

Getting a sincere thank you email from a brand owner, praising the team for their professionalism and gratitude for providing them an exit. 

What would your company need to do for you to feel you’ve achieved success?

Grow a couple of our brands to become global category challengers alongside brands like Pigeon, Tommy Tippee etc. 

Provide details of how the business has gained traction since it was founded. 

Within the first year of operations, we've acquired 12 brands in the mum, baby care, kids and home categories, crossing US$30 million annualised revenue. 

How long are you forecasting for your business to become profitable?

We should be profitable by the end of 2022, potentially earlier. It depends on how much investments we put into R&D and launching new products. 

Name up to three things you’d like to change about big business with your small business.

Have big business rethink how product innovation happens. We see that vast amounts of innovation happens bottom-up—individuals and small groups can ideate, design, and create innovative products that challenge large incumbents. There'll continue to be a place for large-scale, multi-year R&D, but it would be interesting to see how big businesses rethink their R&D efforts to better use small, highly autonomous groups to drive innovation. 

Who might want to buy your company a couple of years from now? Would you sell?

Potentially a multinational house-of-brands or an ecommerce platform looking for an edge into the mums segment. 

In what ways is your business disrupting the advertising, marketing or communications industry?

We're professionalising SME ecommerce brands to operate with world-class marketing capabilities. What used to be campaigns run by solo entrepreneurs, or small accounts run by agencies, are now run by our experienced marketing specialists since we have the scale to do this in-house. 

Which specific marketing channels are you using to grow your business?

We're currently more Amazon-focused, so a lot of our marketing investments are on Amazon. We're starting to have more Shopify presence and are now working with Facebook and Google ads as well. 

What’s your company’s Achilles heel?

In the long-term, potentially the dwindling number of mums.

What’s one commitment you’d like to make now to future staff and stick to?

You’ll move on from Rainforest at some point, but if you stay long enough, you’ll leave with your career trajectory altered significantly better.

Offices or no offices?

No offices.

If you needed a company mascot instead of a logo, what would your mascot be? Why?

An orangutan, it would work very well with the Rainforest brand. Orangutans are also known for having one of the strongest mother-baby bonds in nature.

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