The office of Ninja Van has all the feel of a startup – IKEA furniture, disposable coffee cups, staff in jeans and T-shirts (the average age is below 30), marker pen scrawlings on glass wall partitions, rows of laptops.
The man-in-charge is Lai Chang Wen, a CEO who is all of 30. But spend five minutes with him and you know not to judge him by his boyish smirk and penchant for cussing. He talks fast, addresses the micro and macro simultaneously, and calls a spade a spade. The occasional urgent text message doesn’t disrupt his train of thought – he replies to your questions and the text message at the same time.
Started in 2014, Ninja Van has quickly become one of the leading logistics companies in the region, with operations in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. It has sped up traditional delivery processes with the use of up-to-date technology, such as mobile scanners and advanced route planning, to offer faster delivery.
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In the beginning, Mr Lai and his co-founders Shaun Chong and Boxian Tan slept overnight on mattresses in the office. They were so shorthanded, they had to sort out the parcels themselves. But today they have a 1,000-strong office staff supervising 10,000 drivers in approximately 500 cities, delivering 200,000 parcels a day – so they do go home to sleep.
Having graduated from Singapore Management University, you worked at Barclays as a derivatives trader before deciding to start Ninja Van. You could have picked any industry to excel in. Why logistics?
I don’t think it’s a matter of me picking the industry, it’s more like the industry picked me. After I left the bank, my partners were running Marcella (a made-to-measure menswear brand) for a while and we realised logistics was a big pain point for us. Deliveries were not reaching our clients on time – and sometimes not at all. And because we knew where the pain points were, we foolishly thought we could solve these problems. Four years on, we’ve found solutions that work well, but we’re still far from perfecting them.
Yet you’ve stayed away from hiring industry veterans whom you say would just bring “old tricks” to the table.
It’s not rocket science. You can actually learn a lot by speaking to industry veterans and experienced entrepreneurs such as Monk’s Hill Ventures’ Peng T. Ong. These guys are great, they give us advice but they’re never prescriptive about it. They just tell us to watch out for this, see how that develops. We want people who are hungry, self-aware and want to be challenged. We work crazy hours and we don’t particularly care for people who throw fancy terms around – like “blockchain” and what not – but can’t deliver. That said, we’ve learnt to temper our expectations and not expect every talented, driven person to work the same crazy hours.
At the same time, you’re also looking into employee training and development because you want your staff to grow their skills.
In the first two or three years of Ninja Van, we did not have the resources to do it. But now we do. And we do it because it prolongs the longevity of the company. You take care of your people, they take care of the company. If you drive people super hard, the company may grow a little. But then people will start leaving you – and then what are you left with? So we’ve created a learning and development team to see to that.
When you went into logistics, were you surprised at how many logistics companies have been slow to incorporate the kinds of existing technology you’ve chosen to employ to track parcels and simplify delivery routes?
At first, yes, and then very quickly, no. I don’t think these other companies were blind to these technologies. But logistics is a very people-heavy industry. Trying to push for change is difficult. When you’re dealing with 10,000 guys who have to change their ways overnight, it’s that much harder. And when you’re a big logistics company that delivers parcels all over the world, any change you push through has be done on a global level.
Tackling the Singapore market might have been easier because it is small and has a good infrastructure. But when you expanded Ninja Van to places like Indonesia and Vietnam, what were some of the challenges?
Each country has its own set of challenges, logistically and culturally. Some cultures are more direct, others more passive-aggressive. Sometimes a no doesn’t mean a no, and a yes doesn’t mean a yes. People are also incentivised differently from country to country. It’s not always about the money – sometimes it’s whether the company provides a sense of community, of being taken care of; sometimes it’s a simple “pay me more and I’ll do more” situation. We try and pick out these patterns by going down to the ground and talking to people, and then actively finding out if our hypotheses are true or not. That’s the cultural side. For the logistical side, we look to technology to solve. For instance, we spend a lot of effort on NLP or natural language processing to help us identify addresses correctly so parcels don’t get delayed because of a so-called wrong address.
You’ve often been singled out as young person with the right entrepreneurial spirit. Do you agree with the accusation that young Singaporeans lack hunger and drive?
I’m seeing more and more young Singaporeans see their jobs as a way of getting money to finance their after-hours lifestyles. Not many are interested in making a larger impact or building something – they just want some money to shop and eat in a nice restaurant sometimes. Nothing wrong with that – but if you were to live in Indonesia or Vietnam, you’d really see how hard people hustle just to survive. I took six months off from university to build a factory for Marcella in China. And that really gave me a different perspective on life and taught me to be adaptable. I’ve learnt not to chase money or job hop. Instead I chase experience, even if that means getting less money at first. Experience serves you better in the long run. When you’re in your late 30s or 40s, you’d be valuable to any company.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.