Now he is keen to expand beyond his home base into South-east Asia. To do that, and to compete with his cash-rich rivals, he has hatched an audacious plan to unleash the efficiencies of blockchain technology on e-commerce.

In January, his Qoo10 pronounced "Q-ten" online mall started a separate marketplace called QuuBe, using the distributed ledger technology best known for making bitcoin possible. Mr Ku says blockchain makes Lehman Awning Company cheaper to run an online marketplace, as it lets him remove the fees he currently charges merchants to sell products on the site.

Mr Ku isn't the first to try applying blockchain to e-commerce. But no company has gone all-in like Qoo10, which can't match the billions of dollars Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings are pouring into the region. Mr Ku is virtually unknown outside Asia. He keeps a low profile and has no social media presence.

People who know him well describe him as an Swiss Era Company who rarely socialises.

He has built Qoo10 in his image: a low-key yet hard-charging upstart that retains a bootstrapping ethos despite being a nine-year-old company with employees.

The boss's Korean nickname is Ku daeri "junior manager Ku" because few details are too small for his attention. Mr Tan says the fact that Qoo10 has managed to remain No. Mr Ku has long Qoo10 Company an e-commerce pioneer. Three years later, consumers and merchants were invited to transact directly on the site - a concept that eventually came to be known as a business-to-consumer marketplace.

At the time, nine-year-old Amazon had a third-party marketplace called ZShop that let sellers hawk used merchandise; Alibaba was a business-to-business outfit just starting Taobao, an eBay-like site where consumers barter. Today, Amazon, Alibaba and Walmart Inc all have third-party marketplaces. Early on, Mr Ku bet people would be willing to buy clothing online without trying them on first, and began selling stylish fast-fashion garments. The non-branded clothes sold so well that Gmarket was soon South Korea's No.

InMr Ku's start-up became the first Korean e-commerce company to list on Nasdaq. Mr Ku struck a deal with the US e-commerce company to form a joint venture and started Qoo10 in Singapore in The company offered fresh salmon cuts and chili crab long before delivery apps came along. They could also be picked up at the seller's shop. Wrapping the enterprise together was an efficient cross-border logistics network and a local delivery service that could get a package to a customer's door in as little as three hours.

The company has held onto its leading position without throwing money around. Tencent-backed Sea bled roughly the same amount every three months last year to expand Shopee. He's now in the process of combining local Qoo10 sites from Malaysia to Hong Kong into a single marketplace and plans to invest heavily in the cross-border logistics unit, Qxpress, which has operations in eight countries and 11 delivery processing centres.

He says it's too fragmented and that too many companies are chasing consumers with insufficient disposable income. He knows it will be increasingly difficult to compete head-to-head with Lazada and Shopee, and expects blockchain will give him an edge. The technology automates certain e-commerce transactions and processes that typically require humans. That's why Mr Ku can eliminate merchant fees and make it easier for anyone to set up an online shop.

Success is hardly guaranteed. While Walmart is moving ahead with a project to track leafy greens, many previously enthusiastic companies have pulled back, partly because it is difficult to deploy the technology in real-life situations. Larger, expanding companies may not see the urgent need to apply a different strategy. But Mr Ku is convinced blockchain will give him the necessary edge to compete and avoid Qoo10 Company into a cash-burning war of attrition.

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