Chang Wen on How Ninja Van Plans to Redefine the Delivery Industry
While studying at Singapore Management University, Lai Chang Wen started Marcella, a made-to-measure menswear brand. Wen, a finance graduate then, had zero interest in fashion. He started Marcella because he couldn’t find a men’s shirt that fit him well. The business quickly ran into problems with unreliable courier services. Deliveries were either delayed or lost. So, once again, the Singaporean set his mind to fixing the nub of his frustration - by setting up logistics company Ninja Van in 2014 at the age of 27 with two co-founders.
Today, Ninja Van partners with all the major players, including Lazada and Shopee. It also has heavy-hitting investors, including B Capital Group, a venture capital firm whose founding partner is Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. It also recently announced a strategic partnership with Grab. The terms of the Grab deal weren’t disclosed, but in previous rounds, it raised a total of US$ 117.5 million from investors including international parcel delivery group DPD.
In an interview, Chang Wen talks about his journey, hacks and the Grab deal. Edited excerpts:
You didn’t have much experience in logistics before starting Ninja Van. What prompted you to start?
It was through a previous venture Marcella (an online men’s clothing line) that we found out first-hand traditional logistics companies were not catering well to online sellers. We didn’t want to just lament about it, so Boxian (Tan), Shaun (Chong) and I started Ninja Van to tackle this problem. We rode the digital revolution and the rest, as they say, is history.
How were the initial months of setting up the business? Did you hire logistics industry veterans?
We had people mostly from a non-logistics industry background and some with an e-commerce background. It was an old problem that required new solutions and fresh perspectives. We also wanted to focus on e-commerce, so incumbent hires might have less foresight about where e-commerce is going. It can be harder to change something than to build it up from scratch.
What do you think has given Ninja Van a competitive edge?
Our people are driven and have the grit to try again and again; when we fail, they are willing to get their hands dirty and are great problem-solvers. Our very strong and systematic operational know-how and processes along with our tech are some of our USPs.
“Our people are driven and have the grit to try again and again; when we fail, they are willing to get their hands dirty and are great problem solvers.” - Chang Wen, Co-founder, Ninja Van
How do you employ technology?
Technology is firstly built to ensure that we can evolve and innovate together with e-commerce. The needs today of e-commerce are different from those five years ago, and we expect the needs tomorrow to be different from those today. Technology is also built to ensure quality at scale. As we are a people-centric business, we focus on ‘automated intuition’, which means we invest in tech that allows consistent, intelligent decision making for our operational personnel to enable them to make informed decisions on the ground aided by our systems and tools.
Ninja Van also harnesses crowdsourcing during crunch times. How easy is it to ensure smooth functioning with them?
It’s definitely not the same quality as our core fleet that goes through the necessary training and are more experienced with their areas, customers, etc. However, our tech enables us to make it as easy and intuitive as possible to keep things smooth, mainly seen through an expedited on-boarding process, high visibility and monitoring capability to ensure we can support the guys on the go.
You recently joined hands with Grab. What’s cooking?
By bringing together two leading logistics solutions providers in Southeast Asia through the Grab app, the partnership can better serve the needs of small and medium businesses, social commerce sellers and consumers.
With our extensive coverage of more than 450 cities across six countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam) in the region, this partnership will allow Ninja Van to make its services available to Grab’s large user base in these countries. Users will be able to ship parcels easily from within a single app and enjoy an unparalleled delivery experience with the benefits of both convenience and greater reach across the Ninja Van network.
Your success recipe?
Our people, our ability to pivot really quickly when we make mistakes, and a great group of investors.
Three tips for surviving with no experience?
Work with people you can trust or team up a mix of inexperienced but hungry for success chaps with experienced and open-minded ones. Put in place a regular cadence to review performance, and don’t forget to have fun.