For any Singaporean who has been conscripted for National Service in the Singapore Armed Forces, the phrase ‘ninja van’ should immediately conjure up images of a pop-up food stall on wheels, stealthily appearing out in the field when tired bodies are in need of sustenance.
While it was not for chow that a bunch of entrepreneurs looked to the humble service, they did seek inspiration from it to name their new logistics business specialising in next-day delivery for e-commerce clients.
“I think my CTO (Shaun Chong) thought of it. He said, ‘Why don’t [we] call it Ninja Van?’ Immediately, in unison, we all said, ‘Okay, done. Let’s go [with it],’” said Lai Chang Wen, CEO of Ninja Logistics, the parent company of Ninja Van. “We had really stupid names before that, like Bobo the Postman.”
While admitting the allusion to its military counterpart, Lai also explained why the name resonated with his Co-founders, who include Chong and COO Tan Boxian.
“It gives a softer face to a logistics company, which has traditionally been very distant and corporate. Ninja Van [which uses the ninja as an emblem for the company] gives you the feeling that something will be done somehow, [with the sense of] efficiency and cutting edge,” he said.
Ninja Van as the Amazon Web Services of transportation in the region
Ninja Van’s current fleet of about 100 vehicles is double the number it had just six months ago when it announced a US$2.5 million Series A round of funding.
Criss-crossing the island on their deliveries, chances are you would have seen one of their iconic red vans.
But Lai was keen to emphasise that the company is more than just the vans that people see on the roads on the way to what he said is approximately 5,000 deliveries each day.
According to him, the engine driving the business is technology – both cloud computing and virtualisation technology.
“We believe that technology will set us apart. The whole system — the way we sort parcels [for delivery], route [vehicles], control our fleets, and run the whole operations basically — is configured by our technology,” he said.
Similar to the way Amazon Web Services (AWS) is able to offer elastic capacity to the user in terms of server space, as opposed to the user buying a server with fixed capacity, Lai says this is the primary strength of Ninja Van’s technology: its ability to identify and leverage available capacity within vehicle fleets — whether its own or others — to cater to the varying demands of merchants (or clients).
For Ninja Van to tap into available capacity in vehicle fleets not belonging to them, it leases software that allows partners access to Ninja Van’s cloud computing and virtualisation technology, which also help these partners to manage their own vehicle fleets more efficiently.
“We can feed requests [for use of the vehicles in other companies’ fleets] to them more easily to utilise their capacity. There’s a lot of idle capacity everywhere and it’s very hard to utilise that if there’s no virtualised layer [of technology] above it – to identify where the idleness lies,” he said.
Through their technology, Lai envisions Ninja Van — who counts the likes of Zalora, Lazada, Guardian, and Watsons, among its clients — as a market leader in transport and delivery services.
He said, “The vision really is to do for transport what Amazon Web Services does for computing power, where we virtualise [vehicle] fleets and reduce wasted capacity [where there are idle vehicles].”
While technology forms a core component of Ninja Van’s business, Lai divulged that there are other basic initiatives that would enhance its courier service.
“We’re also launching distribution points and automated lockers [like Singapore Post’s POPStations]. A lot of people may not be home to receive their parcels. They want a more convenient place to pick up their parcels so we are launching that service soon, either by allowing these people to go to a locker or to a nearby convenience store to pick their parcels up,” said Lai.
At the Bukit Merah warehouse where Ninja Van’s operations are based, a three-storey building is connected to it. The 60–70 strong corporate team works from here.
One employee brought two freshly-brewed cups of latte complete with coffee art to our table as we sat down for the interview.
Lai told me about his entrepreneurial origins, which include being Co-founder of men’s fashion business, Marcella. The startup specialises in custom-made shirts and suits. It allows consumers to shop whether from the comfort of home or in one of their five physical stores island-wide.
“Marcella came from the need [seeded from the thought], ‘I’m too lazy to buy clothes. Can I have my size measured somewhere and buy clothes which fit me well in a very seamless manner?’ Then that led to understanding and fixing the supply chain, and fixing the distribution methods,” said Lai, who added that the business is now run solely by his former Co-founder.
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Believing that his strengths lay outside of fashion and retail, Lai elaborated on his departure from Marcella.
“I think the secret sauce in fashion…boils down to your good taste. And, unfortunately, I don’t have loads of that so I think it’s really hard to get to the next phase of growth. Retail has also not always been my strong point, [which] has always been more about looking at making things run more efficiently, looking at the nuts and bolts of things more than marketing and the layering of consumer perception,” he explained.
But Marcella had seeded in him an idea for what is now Ninja Van.
“What sparked me [to set up Ninja Van] really was that we needed to deliver the e-commerce parcels for Marcella well and no one could really do it in Singapore,” shared Lai.
It was this ability to identify needs from the consumer’s point of view that had also led him to start a food delivery service when he was still a derivatives trader at Barclays, his first job after graduation.
He described the enterprise that he named Dapaola (which roughly translates from Mandarin to mean takeaway).
“The orders must come in by a certain time and we’ll have a van which will go down there (to the selected hawker centre), then we’ll buy (according to the orders received) at one shot. We’ll return to the CBD to distribute. It was not meant to be a permanent thing. It’s just something that made our lives better,” he said.
Lack of a social life
Without the security of a salaried employee he had during his time as a derivatives trader, Lai has had to work doubly hard, to the extent that the office — on the third storey where there are six mattresses — is where he sleeps.
“[I]t’s a very operational company so you work close to 24 hours a day, six days a week, [and are] always on call. Social life takes a back seat. You can plan a dinner, and something [at work] happens, and dinner is off. So after awhile, you stop planning because people are angrier with you when you don’t turn up when you scheduled something, so you don’t schedule anything anymore,” said the bachelor.
What Lai has, though, is a circle of close friends, now also colleagues. “Many of the guys here used to be working in banks as well. Everyone took huge pay cuts [to join Ninja Van]. They found it quite interesting – the challenge. Most of them were my secondary school classmates in Raffles Institution,” he shared.
Part of the challenge for Ninja Van now is to expand into the region, where, in Malaysia, it already has a presence with a fleet of 80 vehicles (half of which it owns).
“I think experience with startups come with many different phases; there is the ideation phase, execution phase, the first phase of scaling, and then a next phase of scaling which I’m only seeing with Ninja Van,” said Lai.
Lai also expressed caution at expanding too quickly, especially for a logistics business like Ninja Van. Making a comparison with e-hailing companies, he said, “When you run taxi apps like GrabTaxi or Uber, you can fail to sometimes get a vehicle and that’s fine. You can’t do that for enterprises. When you say I’ll deliver it, 99.9 per cent of the time you better do it…you really need the assets on the ground, which is not easy to build up – your fleets and sorting centres. So most of the money [from the funding] went to sorting centres, fleets, engineering, our tech department.”
Beyond Malaysia, Ninja Van is also expanding into Indonesia within the next month. All these in the span of a condensed 15 months, which means that those six mattresses on the third storey have not been very well-used.
“Four hours of sleep is enough; there is never nothing to do,” said Lai.
Advice for startups and entrepreneurs
While Lai spends much of his waking hours occupied with the ceaseless endeavour of building a startup, he is cautious not to let work consume him.
“In December (of last year), we were dying…working 22-hour days. The business was thriving but we were really suffering to make sure that we could live up to our promise (to clients). What I realised is that if I didn’t take half an hour everyday despite how tired we were to think through how to make sure tomorrow is not the same as yesterday, we wouldn’t have been able to get past that plateau,” he reminisced.
For all the potential and ease that technology offers to entrepreneurs and businesses, which Ninja Van prides itself upon, it is herein that the company’s real value lies: the individual’s ingenuity and ability to think.
“If your idea is new and innovative but it’s not the best, you must be humble and say, ‘Okay, I’ll take the best (from out there).’ Then, you slowly piece all these different pieces together and that’s how you become the best,” said Lai.
And as this author sipped on the last dregs of his coffee, Lai left a parting lesson – one that his red vans emblazoned on the sides with a ninja could also use.
“We insist on finding the right way, not on our way.”