Jeshua Soh, founder of J Rental Centre tells us about peer-to-peer rental services.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jeshua Soh: I’m doing well, currently traveling around Africa and Asia owing to the unrest in Myanmar, where half our team is based in. Covid-19 has made returning to Singapore challenging due to a mandatory two-week quarantine, but we have been working remotely since 2018 since I founded Crossworks in Myanmar as a remote office. In that sense, not much has changed operationally, though our platform usage has suffered owing to the pandemic hitting the media and events industries that we serve very hard.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded J Rental Centre?
Jeshua Soh: I am a school dropout, filmmaker by training, an entrepreneur by accident. I started J Rental Centre 6 years ago in my final semester of film school as I came to realize that the existing services available were too expensive and inconvenient. Having a physical brick-and-mortar store meant higher fees due to overheads like staffing and rental, fixed opening and closing times, and limited inventory. At the same time, I had amassed some personal equipment for freelance jobs and school projects that I’d been doing since the age of 15 and realized they would be collecting dust most of the time when I wasn’t using them. These factors led me to create a simple Facebook page with a list of gears I had, and people started. Contacting me for rentals. 2 friends joined shortly after, and more associates and even customers started coming on board, realizing that this was a great way to connect to new people and unlock the value of otherwise under-utilized equipment.
How does J Rental Centre innovate?
Jeshua Soh: We are a peer-to-peer marketplace for camera gear, creative spaces, and event logistics. Some call us Airbnb for the events and media industry or an aggregator platform for events and media professionals in Singapore. Compared to the traditional brick and mortar outfits, we offer over 200 locations islandwide, flexible timings, and more affordable costs thanks to our professional owner partner network. Renting directly from an equipment or space owner means that customers benefit from the wealth of knowledge that these owners possess, and a simple tip on lighting or composition could be far more effective than studying an equipment manual for hours. Beyond renting affordably and conveniently, we believe the rental transaction is simply a starting point, and there is much more potential value that can be created through the human connections we foster. On the owner side, we take care of user verifications, listing, bookings, and payment/invoicing so that owners do not need to go through the hassle of setting up their own page and a full set of terms and conditions, SOP, and branding to promote their rental services. Renter’s would also find it immensely difficult and confusing to be browsing through 100+ sites with different addresses, contact details, and terms of service to find what they need. Lastly, by handling user verification, we are able to weed out any bad actors once they strike once, something that individual owners operating independently will likely fall prey to much more easily without a market aggregator.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jeshua Soh: The pandemic has dealt a huge blow to us owing to the fact that events were largely canceled or moved online, and companies started scaling back or changing their marketing due to budget cuts or an uncertain outlook. As the industries we serve were badly hit, the effects were quickly felt by us, and during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker lockdown last year, we had fewer monthly transactions than even our first year of operations. Our platform is asset-light, with only a single collection point and no ownership of the equipment, and hence the impact hasn’t been totally devastating. Things have been picking up slightly but would still be nowhere near 2019 levels, and we are taking this time to evaluate our product and try to implement new processes and features and be ready to serve more customers as the economy recovers. We believe that our decentralized structure bodes well for safety in this pandemic as the transactions take place in the heartlands instead of at a central location. As companies or individuals may want to cut costs or have lower shoot frequency, they might also start viewing our service offering as a more viable option.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jeshua Soh: Prior to Covid-19, we were already experiencing a general market slowdown and decided to close down 2 of our three collection points. This was an extremely fortunate decision for us, as the venues would have become white elephants during the lockdown and a huge liability owing to restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Singapore. We also had to scale back and delay initiatives that were in the pipeline for 2020 and pivot toward supporting the increasing trend of live-streaming to capture a new market. Unfortunately, we’d also observed a handful of our creative spaces owner partners winding down owing to the businesses no longer being viable in the light of the pandemic. We’ve learned to adapt quickly and keep to our asset-light approach, and always seek new ways to add value for our platform users- both renters and owners.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
We continued to use collaborative tools like teleconferencing and the G-suite to collaborate as a team. We launched new packages catered for beginners and professionals alike to do live streaming as events were canceled or moved online. We also did a massive customized mask giveaway during the initial months to keep our platform users safe.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jeshua Soh: We do not have any competitors addressing a similar target audience, though there are general ‘rent everything’ platforms that do not cater specifically to the needs of media and events professionals and traditional brick and mortar outfits renting camera equipment and studios individually. We hope to be able to partner with more companies and individuals as owners and renters to list and rent their equipment/space through our platform and enhance the network effect. Our product enhancements should roll out this year as well to provide a better rental experience through the platform. This is all part of our mission to connect people, something that has become more important now than ever before.
Your final thoughts?
Jeshua Soh: Covid-19 is a black swan event that served to accelerate the inevitable trends such as digitalization and remote working but has also affected some people and industries more than others. We were fortunate to survive the first year of the crisis but less fortunate due to the industry verticals we serve being hit very severely. As we are observing the coup in Myanmar presently, it has also been a lesson to us that Covid-19 isn’t the largest or only problem out there. We must continue to stay laser focussed on our mission to connect people and add value to them, despite the distractions now or in the future.