Packages are piled higher than people at Ninja Van’s biggest sorting center at a freight facility near Singapore’s Jurong port. Southeast Asia’s big e-commerce operator, Shopee, has just finished its “9/9” online shopping sale and says it got a record 17 million orders in one day. Ninja Van now has the task of delivering most of those orders. “We spend months preparing for how much capacity they require, making sure that we change our processes and have enough drivers,” says Ninja Van’s 32-year-old founder Lai Chang Wen.
Today, Ninja Van delivers on average one million parcels a day around the region, deploying some 20,000 full-time delivery staff, who are dubbed ninjas. Ninja Van’s sales in 2017 rose 9% from a year ago to $13 million and Singaporean Lai was inducted into Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia in 2016.
Ninja Van has so far raised $140 million from a group of investors that includes B Capital and super app Grab. “They’ve really been a leader in last-mile delivery. They are today, we believe, the best service in terms of delivery rates. Everything they’ve achieved using technology is driven to increase customer satisfaction,” says B Capital cofounder Eduardo Saverin, who is a director on the company’s board (and cofounder of Facebook).
Lai cofounded Ninja Van in 2014 after a stint as a derivatives trader at Barclays and then setting up Marcella, a custom menswear shop based in Singapore. Monk’s Hill Ventures Managing Partner Lim Kuo-Yi remembers passing on Lai’s pitch to invest in Marcella, but was intrigued by Lai’s proposed solution to the firm’s delivery hurdles.
That proposal is now Ninja Van. Its value proposition is providing a more effective way for Southeast Asia’s small and midsized enterprises to deliver their products as e-commerce in the region explodes. Over 150 million Southeast Asians are now buying and selling online, triple the number from 2015, according a recent report by Bain, Google and Temasek. “What Ninja Van has shown in the last four or five years is the ability to grow the business threefold year-on-year,” says Lim.
Ninja Van is one of a slew of companies offering logistics services for e-commerce deliveries such as Lalamove, GoGoVan and UrbanFox. Competing on cost, speed and reliability isn’t enough, Lai says. Ninja Van also works with SMEs to cut costs and expand their markets. Ninja Van in September introduced a program in Indonesia called Ninja Academy that teaches SME owners about social marketing, inventory management, procurement and sales strategy. “A big part of the question around Ninja Van is how do I evolve my customer base to enable the long tail of commerce,” says Saverin.
Ninja Van also mines its data to find hidden efficiencies. For example, when multiple merchants are buying the same raw material or product, Ninja Van can then broker a deal to buy in bulk for a lower price on behalf of several customers. The same goes for freight space. “We are the biggest purchaser of air cargo across Indonesia,” says Lai.
With as much as 70% of its transactions still cash on delivery, Ninja Van processes more than a billion dollars in payments a year. While processing those payments, it’s sitting on a massive pool of liquid capital. “There’s opportunity there to extend some level of working capital financing to bridge that gap,” says Lim.
Grab’s investment in Ninja Van is the culmination of an ongoing discussion about collaboration. “We kept finding ways to work together,” says Lai, who first started talking with Grab’s cofounder Anthony Tan four years ago about merging their fleets to improve efficiency.
The two eventually decided that having separate, specialized fleets was more efficient than a combined one, but they have developed a special partnership. Grab customers can access Ninja Van on Grab’s app depending on the kind of delivery. Grab deploys its drivers for on-demand pickups and deliveries, but offers Ninja Van as a discount option for less urgent, next-day courier service to SMEs. Grab has already integrated Ninja Van into its service offering in Indonesia and the Philippines, and plans to do so in Vietnam later this year.
Lai, meanwhile, spends much of his time now in Malaysia and Indonesia, where Ninja Van launched in 2015. “The landscape is very exciting right now, comprised of a lot of small merchants selling on marketable channels,” Lai says. But the real prize, he says, lies beyond Southeast Asia. “There’s a lot more global flow,” he says. Lai won’t name any potential partners, but says the U.S. is “definitely a target.”