National Day supplement

Celebrating Singapore's entrepreneurial spirit: The Ninja way to efficient delivery

Mr Lai Chang Wen said Ninja Van used technology to optimise its sorting, packing and delivery processes.
Mr Lai Chang Wen said Ninja Van used technology to optimise its sorting, packing and delivery processes. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

The sight of a red-shirted, parcel- carrying ninja appearing on their doorstep just two days after placing an order online has become the norm for many cyber-shoppers here.

But when Ninja Van founder Lai Chang Wen, 29, started his delivery service in 2014 with two co-founders, such speed and efficiency at non-premium prices was unheard of.

While Mr Lai and co-founder Tan Bo Xian, 29, had start-up experience with their own online custom apparel shop, Marcella, before Ninja Van, they had no experience with logistics, which meant throwing themselves in at the deep end of things, said Mr Lai.

They roped in Mr Shaun Chong, 33, who had seven years of start-up and technical experience in tech firms Nubefy and Alpst Corporation.

But Mr Lai was confident that focusing on finding a solution to the core problem of delivery efficiency would pay off in the long run. "Being an entrepreneur means investing in the long term. It's not a short-term thing," said the bachelor.

They started Ninja Van with "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in early capital from their own savings and early investors, but had to take pay cuts of up to 90 per cent in the company's early days.

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He recounted how, at the start, there were suggestions that they should look at other business models in logistics instead, like going into the on-demand field when Uber was becoming popular.

"But we were very careful about what we wanted to do. It should be fundamentally something that makes sense. So we pushed back really hard so we could focus on an industry that made sense," he said.

Ninja Van's growth over the past three years highlights Mr Lai and his co-founders' entrepreneurial grit in sticking to their original vision.

They often worked 22-hour days during the early days, getting their hands dirty with parcel sorting and sleeping on mattresses on the floor of their office.

From a three-man outfit, they now have more than 800 office staff across South-east Asia, with 3,000 full-time drivers. They have also expanded to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, garnering over $45 million in investments over the past three years.

Mr Lai said Ninja Van was able to compete with incumbents in the door-to-door delivery area by using technology to optimise the sorting, packing and delivery processes.

The value of entrepreneurship, he said, lies in the lessons gained through the short-term sacrifice of starting something new.

"Starting a company is like investing in yourself, through your own experience," said Mr Lai. "It's not about calling yourself an entrepreneur just because it's a hot topic now, but taking control of the direction of what you want to do in life."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline Celebrating Singapore's entrepreneurial spirit: The Ninja way to efficient delivery. Subscribe