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Investor John Tan shares Ninja Van’s early struggles and personal learnings as a VC

ninja van john tan

Last month (September 26), homegrown logistics tech company Ninja Van announced that it has successfully raised US$578 million (S$781.5 million) funding in a Series E round.

Existing investors in this round include Alibaba Group, GeoPost/DPDgroup, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital Group, Monk’s Hill Ventures, and Zamrud, an entity linked to a Southeast Asian sovereign wealth fund.

Following this news, John Tan — one of Ninja Van’s angel investors who wrote them their first cheque of US$50,000 — posted a series of tweets about his learnings as its current board of director.

Besides Ninja Van, the tech investor’s portfolio includes Chope, Redmart, Glints, TribeCar, and over a dozen Y Combinator startups. He is also a seasoned entrepreneur — he is the founder of coding school Saturday Kids, Doyobi (spin-off of Saturday Kids), and Japanese-inspired fashion label Controlled Commodity.

He is also currently a partner at venture capitalist group 8capita, which dabbles in early and growth-stage angel funding.

He has made significant investments in numerous profitable companies, and Ninja Van might be its next one.

From a three-person startup, Ninja Van has witnessed a huge growth and currently has 61,000 employees spread across six countries. So what exactly did he learn from helping to grow the company?

ninja van john tan
Image Credit: @therealjohntan via Twitter
ninja van john tan
Image Credit: @therealjohntan via Twitter

From Marcella to Ninja Van

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Interior of a Marcella store / Image Credit: Marcella

Before Ninja Van, founder Lai Chang Wen ran a fashion startup called Marcella, which specialises in made-to-measure menswear.

He had started it up because he couldn’t find a men’s shirt that fit him well. This led to the birth of Marcella, which automated the process of translating clients’ body measurements into paper patterns. It was the perfect solution to tailoring clothes that fit like a glove.

He gave up his five-figure salary, and took a 90 per cent pay cut to jump into the business full-time.

He slowly built up the brand over four years, and set up five retail stores islandwide together with his three other business partners.

During his six-month stint in China setting up a factory for Marcella, he decided to elevate his business by stepping into e-commerce. But (no) thanks to unreliable courier services, many of his customers’ deliveries were either delayed or lost.

When he realised that Singapore’s logistics services wasn’t optimised for e-commerce, he wanted to change the game. He noted that when delivery problems came up, customers couldn’t contact the couriers and they could only afford to play the waiting game till their parcel arrives.

“That’s not what e-commerce was meant to be,” he said.

“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,” he told e27.

He soon gave up Marcella to the other co-founders, but emphasised that he did not regret the journey for it helped point him to another market opportunity.

Although Marcella never took off, the founding team never gave up and stuck together to help build and grow Ninja Van.

Two of Marcella’s five founders left early to start Ninja Van and it was only when Marcella shut down, that the remaining three joined Ninja Van. Today, all five are still at Ninja Van and are serving key roles within the company.

Pushing through tough times to enjoy success today

ninja van founders
From left to right: Tan Bo Xian, Lai Chang Wen, Shaun Chong / Image Credit: Ninja Van

In his tweets, John described Chang Wen as a “charismatic” individual that has the ability to convince his talented and smart friends to leave their high-paying jobs to work for his early-stage logistics startup.

Like many other startups, the early days weren’t easy at all. All three co-founders did not have any prior experience in the logistics sector and they had to work doubly hard.

The learning curve was steep and with no employees at the start, they had to do everything themselves. This included developing the website, meeting clients, sorting parcels, and conducting deliveries.

Each of them would make 10 deliveries a day in a van that would constantly break down. During the first two Christmases, the founders even enlisted John’s help to sort and deliver parcels to cope with the demand.

Chang Wen previously shared that the volume of parcels that they handle in a day typically multiply threefold during peak periods.

The founding team used to work 20 hours a day, six days a week.

They spent their nights sleeping on a mattress on the office floor, and all their waking hours learning the ins and outs of the delivery process.

They examined the entire life cycle of a parcel – from pick-up to drop-off – and worked on improving every delivery stage using technology and algorithms.

Instead of manually sorting their parcels, they use their smartphones to scan packages, which allowed them to instantly find out parcel information such as where the parcel is heading and what should be done with it.

They also tapped on mapping technology to plot the best delivery route so drivers could deliver more faster, while saving on fuel costs.

These highlighted the founders’ resourcefulness, which is “the #1 quality to look for in a co-founder”, shared John.

He added that Ninja Van has also experienced “multiple near-death experiences” when it comes to fundraising.

At the end of the day, although growing Ninja Van is hard, the founders always manage to find the fun in it and enjoy the hustle.

They were bold, and took the path less-travelled to build a unicorn.

Sources close to the company claimed that Ninja Van had passed a US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) valuation following its US$279 million funding round last year. Earlier in July, Chang Wen shared Ninja Van might be exploring an initial public offering in the United States next year.

Most recently, Ninja Van was featured in LinkedIn’s 2021 list of top Singapore companies that are on the rise for showing strong growth this year. Its growth in revenue and orders surged thanks to an e-commerce boom fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The seven-year-old startup is at an almost break-even rate and is targeting profitability in 2022. According to VentureCap data, it posted a US$84.1 million loss in 2019, on the back of US$149.3 million in revenue.


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Featured Image Credit: TechCrunch / Ninja Van

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