Jason is an Investment Analyst at Monk’s Hill Ventures. He had prior experience in GO-JEK and Brake Parts Inc. He studied Mechanical Engineering at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, with a minor in Business and was President of Illini EcoConcept, an organization that designs and builds a hydrogen-fueled concept car.

Ninja Van was born from co-founder and CEO Lai Chang Wen’s frustration: he couldn’t find a bespoke but affordable shirt, so he created automated custom retail brand Marcella. Later when he couldn’t guarantee timely, seamless delivery for his products, he began to explore last-mile logistics. After Lai resigned from a derivatives trader post at Barclays to pursue his new project, his friends Shaun Chong and Boxian Tan joined as co-founders.

Tan doesn’t believe founding a startup with friends is usually a smart strategy, but the close core team yielded extraordinary results for Ninja Van. The three co-founders shared the same vision and drive, which famously propelled them to work 22-hour days and sleep on mattresses in their office.  

The company has quickly established itself as a disruptor. Ninja Van netted $87 million in its last round of fundraising, one of the largest sums accrued by a Southeast Asian startup. The startup’s founding team attributes their sprint to success to their staff, and as they move into the next stage of their company, they aim to improve the networks they’ve forged so quickly.

Refining Raw Determination

Reality set in after Ninja Van’s initial round of fundraising. With a US$2.5 million investment from Monk’s Hill Ventures in 2015, partners Peng T. Ong and Kuo-Yi Lim helped the assiduous co-founders step outside their day-to-day grind and consider their company’s trajectory.

“They convinced me to take more money than I originally did and to set my sights higher,” Lai said. “I saw the industry was a lot bigger than I thought.”

With sharpened vision and a broader scope, the co-founding team dug into its regional expansion. Investors cleared the way, Lai said, advising the company around other countries’ regulations and forging connections. A year after that initial funding, Ninja Van grew its number of deliveries by eight times its initial reach.

Building The Brand Abroad

Before entering a market, the co-founders tried to assess the difficulty each new country would present - from market size and ease of access to existing competitors. Consequently, Ninja Van dove into its new target countries, navigating red tape and cultural differences along the way.  

The growing staff, however, became the company’s make-or-break asset.

“In the need for haste, sometimes you hire the wrong people, and that even slows you down more than anything else,” Lai said. The key to a business’s success lies in “choosing the right people,” he said.

The team found they had to employ different working styles as they began operating in Vietnam, the Philippines and other markets. Indonesia was the most noticeably different, Tan described: that regional team valued collaborative work, so they learned to take a consensus vote before moving forward, though the founders had been used to moving directly into a plan.

“In Indonesia, we had to take more time in order to get everyone inspired, rather than just push things down their throats,” Tan said, saying they became better leaders as a result. It took some time to adapt to the new management style, but once they understood the culture, their employees rewarded them with their motivation and loyalty.  

Taking Care Of Staff

The team hasn’t been overwhelmed by the growth, but Lai said the company will slow its regional expansion and focus on building the networks they have.

“The right way to think about it is what’s the ease of expanding regionally combined with what will lock into your market in the long run,” Lai said.

With its most recent funding round of $87 million from international parcel delivery service DPDGroup, Ninja Van is turning inward, analyzing how the company can consolidate within its six markets and strengthen services to its clients. Ninja Van faces competition from established shipping services like Indonesia’s JNE, Malaysia’s Pos Laju, and even regional giants like Kerry Logistics but the company’s technology and consumer-friendly brand will help Ninja Van thrive in the market, Lai said.

Ninja Van stretched its delivery routes as far as the co-founders want to for now, Lai explained, so they’re revisiting needs for their 2,200 employees and 10,000 drivers across the six countries. Maintaining a healthy workplace culture has always been critical for the company, but the co-founders said they’re now taking time to consider the ways they can improve the work experience and increase employee efficiency as a result.

The goal is to ensure employees feel fulfilled in their jobs and have room to grow into new skills and advanced roles. The staff shouldn’t have to work the same 22-hour days the founding team still takes, but Tan and Lai said they want all the employees to feel invested in Ninja Van’s progression.

“In last couple years, we couldn’t afford as much time as we needed to engage with the staff, but now the key is really engaging the core of the company.”

The Secret Sauce

Ninja Van has come a long way, no doubt thanks to its strong staff. By focusing on the different working styles and embracing local cultures, Ninja Van was able to see success in expanding its brand abroad. Amid new regulations and red tape, startups risk a greater chance of faltering when they decide to expand regionally. But Ninja Van was able to smoothly surpass those barriers by building up strong teams and embracing local distinctions in their five new markets and responding to each team’s unique energies.

Whether developers or drivers, Ninja Van’s employees performed better when they were aware of their abilities and progress, and they showed investment in the company as well. The co-founders have seen rapid results because they empowered their employees, and they are confident this philosophy will propel the company to become the dominant logistics company in Southeast Asia.

With contribution from Danielle Keeton-Olsen.

Comment