SINGAPORE: Irked at not being able to find a nice-fitting men’s shirt, Lai Chang Wen ditched his five-figure-salary job as a derivatives trader for the risky retail scene - to build his own menswear brand.
It was a decision his parents thought quite mad at the time. Said Mr Lai’s mother Madam Tan Poh Siang: “It was a real shock. I said: ‘You’re a guy (working) in banking. Why would you want to go into something that is about fashion and tailoring?’”
The answer boiled down to simply this: Mr Lai’s fixation with solving problems. Even if it was in a field he knew next to nothing about.
“Do you think Chang Wen was interested in fashion?” laughed current business partner Shaun Chong, referring to the blue rubber slippers Mr Lai wore for the interview. “Look at what he’s wearing to the office. At least I wear shoes.”
Marcella, a made-to-measure menswear brand, was started in Mr Lai’s own words “when I couldn’t fit into a shirt well. And I couldn’t afford a nicely tailored shirt”.
Unfortunately, the business - which automated the process of translating clients’ body measurements into paper patterns - quickly ran into problems with unreliable courier services. Deliveries were either delayed or lost.
“When anything went wrong, the customers had no way of reaching out to the couriers. They were stuck at home waiting the whole day just for our parcels. That’s not what e-commerce was meant to be,” he said.
And so, once again, he 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 co-founders Mr Chong and Boxian Tan, despite “zero experience” in logistics (“all I knew how to do was to receive parcels,” said Mr Lai).
Ninja Van went on to redefine the industry by enabling next-day door-to-door deliveries for e-commerce firms and their customers, at a time when such services were not yet ubiquitous in Singapore and most had to depend on the postal service.
WATCH: How they did it (2:58)
It has been so successful that it has raised S$45 million from investors so far, including B Capital Group, a venture capital firm whose founding partner is Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.
Mr Lai’s journey, and that of Ninja Van, is profiled in Monday’s (March 27) episode of Game Changers, a series about entrepreneurs who reinvent themselves and their industry.
A DO-IT-YOURSELF REVOLUTION
The learning curve was steep and it meant 22-hour work days, sleeping in the office, and even sorting parcels and doing deliveries himself.
“The first few months was hell. Everything was inefficient. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do,” said Mr Lai, now 30.
Still, they didn't look to hire logistics industry veterans, who would just bring with them "old tricks".
Instead, the trio was confident they could leverage on their mathematical and technology skills to improve the delivery process. They examined the entire life cycle of a parcel, from the point when it is picked up to when it’s delivered.
Technology and algorithms were used to improve every process – for example, to calculate the best route a driver should take, or which van should be used to deliver a parcel. This means drivers are able to deliver more parcels in an hour while saving on fuel costs.
Existing logistics providers were then still relying on outdated mail-sorting technology, where delivery documents were usually handwritten and tracking of parcels was difficult. But at Ninja Van, staff used their handphones to scan parcels and find out in an instant where the parcel is heading and what should be done with it.
“The only reason we got to where we were is because our technology was much better than the incumbents at that point in time,” said Mr Lai, acknowledging: “But a lot of them have caught up or are close (now).”
Ninja Van also harnesses crowdsourcing during crunch times, where they activate part-time drivers to help them deliver more parcels and in a shorter period of time, easing the load on their existing drivers.
Mr Lai said: “We make our engineers drive to understand how difficult it is operationally. And we make our operations people think of product specifications, and we try to educate them more about technology.
“We tell them that this is a technology company and here, you get your hands dirty.”
FACEBOOK CO-FOUNDER GIVES THUMBS UP
It is this ethos of Mr Lai that helped sway Mr Saverin’s firm to invest in the start-up. Ninja Van received US$30 million in a second round of funding in 2016 from investors including B Capital Group, which will help them expand regionally.
Mr Saverin said: “As soon as I met him, he struck me as a smart and ruthlessly aggressive entrepreneur who would do whatever it takes to get it done.
“The example was just clearly laid in front of me. A mattress on the floor of his office where he would sleep most of the nights, because that’s how hard he worked.”
The billionaire said that Mr Lai was focused on developing the right culture where everyone in the company understood what each other was doing, and weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty while doing so.
He credits Mr Lai for creating real-time tracking in logistics where control is handed back to the consumer, just like what Uber and Grab did for the taxi industry.
Mr Saverin said: “Innovations like Facebook, even in the early days, were not these out-of-the-box brilliant thinking. It was replicating something that existed in the real world.
“So these are the types of businesses that create new markets and drive through real positive change. They’re not destructing, they’re enabling.”
More about Lai Chang Wen’s story on Game Changers on Monday, March 27, at 8pm SG/HK.