Co-founder and CEO of Ninja Van
YEARS IN OPERATION: 3
THE TECH: Next-day door-to-door delivery for e-commerce firms and its customers.
The screen lights up periodically, and you catch his eyes darting to his phone to read its display. Every now and then, Lai Chang Wen caves in to temptation, reaches out for the gadget and starts typing with his thumbs.
“I’m still listening,” the 30-year-old co-founder and CEO of Ninja Van assures us during this interview. “Don’t worry, I can multi-task. I always reply e-mail within five minutes. If I expect people to be responsive, I have to be responsive too.” Innate or not, the nature of his fast-growing logistics business requires such promptness. Barely three years ago, Lai and his two co-founders were personally delivering parcels in a van that broke down every second day.
Today, Ninja Van has roused an industry once thought to be archaic by addressing e-commerce’s needs for next-day (with some exceptions for international purchases) door-to-door delivery. It now operates in six countries across South-east Asia, with more than 800 staff (excluding drivers) and thousands of vehicles handling close to 100,000 deliveries a day for clients such as Watsons, Shopee and Zalora.
Reuters reported that the home-grown e-commerce logistics provider and last mile delivery service is allegedly raising US$60 million (S$80 million), after receiving US$30 million last year. Lai says it’s “not true” and declined to comment further.
The former derivatives trader has his first start-up to thank for his current success. Marcella, a made-to-measure menswear line, often faced complaints from customers whose deliveries were either delayed or lost. “I recounted the issue to a few friends and told them it couldn’t be hard to solve. They said, ‘Why don’t you try? We’ll invest.’’’ Lai took the plunge.
The first six months were the toughest. Besides talking to couriers to figure out the logistics business, they had a hard time figuring out how to scale. “At one point, we spent the entire night sorting three parcels. We had 150 to process by the next morning. We almost gave up,” Lai recalls. “This idea of scaling linearly and exponentially also applies to a lot of things. You cannot let effort become exponential when work grows linearly. In management, you need to train three people and empower them so that they in turn would train three more.”
While Ninja Van’s in-house algorithmic-driven system has often been cited as its competitive edge, Lai says that other factors such as localisation, staff motivation and luck are far more important.
He explains: “If we had done this two years later, we would’ve missed the e-commerce boom. Two years before, and we would’ve been too early. Logistics is not something you think you’d join when you’re in school. It’s about understanding and acceding to the needs of e-commerce; it’s logistics in the backdrop of e-commerce, rather than logistics per se. Take Marcella. I’m the least fashionable person so I probably shouldn’t have started it. It was to address market needs.”
As he dishes hiring tips (“we like people who are self-aware”), it’s easy to forget that the worldly Lai is all of 30 years old and Ninja Van is only three. Asked if he feels he’s had to grow up faster than his peers, he pauses and his quick-fire responses take a more contemplative tone. He recalls hiring friends to staff the team in the beginning, and straddling the contentious fine line between friend and colleague. His emotions have “flatlined” and he’s taken to playing golf, which calms his mind. His social life has taken a hit because he’s consumed by work and “after a while, you stop being included”.
Still, a life fulfilled is the only life worth living. “It’s nice to earn a decent salary in the bank and drive a nice car. There may be times that I am envious of the lives my banker friends have, but I don’t regret moving away from that. A very good mindset is to minimise regret. I can truly say I’ve maxed out my life.”
IN 60 SECONDS
The best advice I’ve received is not to get muddled with everyday problems, such that you forget to take a step back to look at the bigger picture.
What keeps me going is the responsibility of sustaining and growing the business.
Age is a double-edged sword. I can stay up for 20 hours to serve you better, but if we look too young, we may not seem credible.
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