Ninja Van CEO reveals struggles when company started out

At 29, entrepreneur Lai Chang Wen has started at least three business ventures, including one of the fastest growing logistics companies in the region, Ninja Van.

The company, which was launched in 2014, handles 20,000 deliveries a day in Singapore alone, with a 1,000 strong local workforce.

When it was starting out, Ninja Van's three co-founders - Mr Lai, Mr Shaun Chong and Mr Tan Bo Xian - were running 10 deliveries a day.

The start-up deals exclusively with e-commerce firms to provide next-day delivery for consumers.

Its clients include e-commerce giants like Zalora, Watsons and Toys 'R' Us.

On Tuesday, chief executive officer Lai was on a panel discussing technology trends at the Made In Singapore programme series.

The series is organised by General Assembly, a training school for in-demand skills.

But it has not been an easy ride for the company's current success.

Mr Lai told The New Paper: "In the early days at Ninja (Van), we worked 22-hour days. There was no rest.

"That meant no dinners, no time to go out with friends... Eventually you start to feel left out."

With no staff initially, Mr Lai found himself doing everything and anything that was required.

"From sorting to helping develop the website, to meeting clients, to making deliveries. Right down to cleaning the (office) toilet," he said.

In creating Ninja Van, Mr Lai learnt from failures in his first two start-ups.

While still studying business and finance at Singapore Management University, he had founded customisable fast fashion brand Marcella with three others.

The brand aimed to deliver affordable custom-made, custom-fit clothing to customers with the help of technology, computerising the pattern-cutting process to bring down production costs and time.

After graduation, Mr Lai did a short stint trading derivatives for Barclays Investment Bank, but soon quit to focus on Marcella.

He said: "Even though the pay was rewarding, it wasn't about the salary any more... Doing what's more enriching is more important."

Marcella never quite took off, but running the business pointed him to another market opportunity.

While running the fashion brand, he felt the delivery services were not up to his standards, leading him to ask: "Can we do it (the handling and delivery of logistics) ourselves?"


That sparked off the idea for Ninja Van, which focuses on two key aspects - technology and people.

It uses technology to keep drivers and operations ahead of the game.

The drivers use an app which cuts time and costs by calculating the most efficient routes. There are also plans to launch an app for customers.

It was called Ninja Van as an ode to the pop-up food stores on wheels familiar to those doing national service.

Mr Lai particularly liked the name because it gave the company a more approachable front.

He also felt that the word "ninja" suggested efficiency.

The company strives to not be a "cold, faceless organisation" by introducing innovations, like collection at a wine bar.

Then there is also Ninja Van's bright red vans.

Said Mr Lai: "Our vehicles are quite loud, so that's free marketing."

From making cold calls in the struggle to find someone to give the company a chance, Mr Lai has now taken it to other countries in the region.

It broke into the Malaysian market last year, and has a presence in Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand.

Ninja Van was inadvertently primed to go regional because of the streamlining it could offer its clients.

"It was scary... But it was about asking the fundamental question: How different can countries be?" he said.

Mr Lai said Ninja Van has no plans for further regional expansion in the near future, but will do its best to raise itself up as the best next-day courier in each market.

He said: "Focus is very important."

Ninja Van has conducted two rounds of securing investors, raising US$32.5 million (S$44.2 million), which went into the expansion.

The first round was completed in February last year and raised US$2.5 million.

Mr Lai still remembers the moment he realised Ninja Van was truly something to be proud of.

"It was (raising money in the first round) a lot faster than expected.

"We thought maybe it would be a one million dollar funded company, and try to make ends meet, and try to make a decent job.

"But it became a lot more than that."

Start-ups can save costs by working from home

  • Amid rising office rents buoyed by the active office leasing market and steady economic sentiments, it has become increasingly costly for small businesses or startups to operate in Singapore.
  • Small businesses or startups are often left with limited options as the newer office buildings with state-of-the-art facilities in the Central Business District (CBD) often come with hefty rental costs.
  • A residential home might just present a viable alternative for office space, especially if the startup company is small, and its business operations can be managed and facilitated through the application of technology.
  • Be it a private home or a Housing Development Board (HDB) flat, such residences can serve as a place of operation for some small businesses under the Home Office Scheme.
  • Under the Home Office scheme, registration for home office authorisation is easily done online, and entrepreneurs are able to commence their businesses immediately upon successful registration.
  • In addition, business owners need not worry about the expiry of their home office authorisation as the permit is valid for as long as the business remains in operation.
  • Prior to Dec 2010, business owners were required to renew the permit every five years.
  • While the Home Office Scheme provides an alternative for small businesses, one should not confuse the scheme with the term "small office home office" - or SOHO - that is commonly used in the market.
  • Business owners who are looking to conduct small-scale business from their homes are still required to make an application under the Home Office Scheme, even if their premises are marketed as SOHO.
  • Operating a business from home under the Home Office Scheme can be a more viable option for startups and small businesses, as it eliminates the huge financial outlays of setting up a business in a conventional office space.

About the series

The Made In Singapore series is organised by General Assembly (GA), a training school for in-demand skills like coding, marketing and user experience design. For the series, GA invited local movers and shakers of the technology, fashion, business, food and beverage and the arts world for open, interactive sessions that are free to the public.

It started with an invite-only event on Sept 23, and ends this Saturday.

Here are the remaining free programmes and their notable speakers.


Today, 7pm to 9pm

Woo Wai Leong, cook and bartender

Last year, Mr Woo gained recognition when he took home the title of MasterChef Asia. After his victory, he left his office job as a lawyer and has not turned back since.

He tried his hand as a restaurateur with several pop-up restaurants, and is continuing to work on various projects within the food and beverage industry.


Saturday, 2pm to 4pm

Mark Yong, CEO and co-founder, Garuda Robotics

Looking to the skies, Mr Yong's two-year-old company is a Singapore-based start-up dealing in cloud drone technology. Contracted by firms, Garuda Robotics makes drones a viable option for companies to perform any monitoring and mapping needs.

Prior to running Garuda, Mr Yong was a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University, teaching robotics.

Anne Marie Droste, director, Entrepreneur First

As part of Entrepreneur First, Ms Droste works with potential tech start-ups by providing financial aid, as well as taking them through an 18-month programme to equip them with the necessary skills.

She also co-founded Beyond West Travels, which organises interaction between North Korea and Western countries.

This article was first published on September 29, 2016.
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