Transcript #09 Chang Wen Lai CEO Ninja Van

Time stamp Speaker Answer
RADU Hello and welcome to The Leaders in Supply Chain Podcast. I am your host, Radu Palamariu, Global Logistics and Supply Chain Practice Head for Morgan Phillips Executive Search. We are in the business of recruiting top leaders to take your business forward but also my job is to connect you with global experts, board leaders and executives in all things supply chain to share the latest developments in the industry.


This is episode nine, and it is my pleasure to have as a guest Chang Wen Lai. At 27 and with no logistics experience, Chang Wen started the company, Ninja Van, that has 45 million dollars in investment so far with a very steep learning curve, 22-hour work days, sleeping in the office and then, and all sorts of other very interesting activities. He managed to build a very successful company so far. Also Ninja Van went on to redefine the industry by enabling next day door-to-door deliveries for e-commerce firms and the customers, and right now, it’s probably one of the most successful startup stories in the logistics space. Having grown in the short span to regional player, it has a presence in Southeast Asia. Apart from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, they are present in Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam too and currently delivering close to 100,000 parcels per day, so it’s my pleasure to welcome Chang Wen here today with us to share more on the Ninja Van story and what lies ahead for them as well as to tell us more in terms of his views on what type of people, skills and culture they are trying to build to move things forward. Chang Wen, welcome and it’s a pleasure to have you with us today.

01:32 CHANG WEN Well, I’m glad to be here, Radu. Happy to help and share whatever I can.
01:36 RADU Super, so let me ask you. I mean, you guys are a very good success story, a very good growth story. Tell us a little bit about the journey so far but also what is next for Ninja Van.
01:48 CHANG WEN All the journey, so far, I mean, we first started when you close to nothing at all. I think we kept a very open mind but let it all kind of mindset so it wasn’t about thinking that we could change everything but letting what the current players are doing and trying to innovate if it makes sense and many times, we will – I said it doesn’t make sense to innovate because they’re doing things the right way.
02:08 CHANG WEN And I think that takes a lot of – you cannot have too much pride when you do this in thinking you do everything you have to. I mean, sometimes, over the last hundred years people have perfected certain things. Some things are just not meant to be changed but understanding what has sort of – I think what has really changed is technology, and technology has definitely changed a few things and the way I look at this is technology is a very good transaction-cost level. You know, it makes certain things a lot easier, more intelligent, and I think when we take that mindset and we look at how technology isn’t just a cost optimizing this business, but technology is an enabler for services to allow businesses to shift, evolve in the light of technology to serve them better that it believes kind of the base in which we kind of believe we can make in effect change in this industry.


02:56 RADU Absolutely. No, I mean, it makes a lot of sense. And also, I mean if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it, right?


03:05 CHANG WEN Exactly.
03:05 RADU It’s a commonality, and there was actually a question from Alberto and we talked about technology and probably one of the most hyped to a certain extent but also, you know a buzzword that you hear. Everybody talking or a lot of people are talking is AI, right? Artificial intelligence. So what I want to ask you, you know, as a technology side, artificial intelligence, how do you see that and its implication the last mile distributions? Do you it has the potential to disrupt industry, to help the industry?


03:39 CHANG WEN I definitely think so but perhaps not in the way most people think it will be. I think if you think of AI, if you think of the problem it has brought: autonomous drones, autonomous vehicles moving.


Don’t think that that’s too close. I think it’s still quite fire across the horizon. I don’t expect to see a drone delivering a parcel in my apartment building anytime in the next few years but I think what AI is great strikes when you look at Siri, you look at Cortana and all this.


I think AI has the ability to improve the customer experience, not to lower costs. So again, back to technology is more of an enabler for services other than cost optimizer. People think that AI will allow us to replace human labor in the living pulse, hence, living costs. I would actually beg to differ. I think the first usage of AI in this business at least is how we use AI to provide a fantastic customer service. Is it a call in a call center, AI takes over. We apply on checkboxes very fast, answers all your questions and of course, all these on the basis that the information is there to be found. If the entire business doesn’t ride on technology, if you have no idea what a puzzle is, it is a lot harder for you to answer these questions but with AI, I think you can answer on where’s my parcel or can I change the delivery timing and then, this gets effected and pushed in our logistics system which then changes the time windows, for example.


I think the AI, in terms of helping both consumers if they have lived the experience, in helping our shippers, in scheduling the pick-up slot, changing the details of a certain puzzle, all these can be a lot more seamless AI. I think this is the immediate path for us where we try to improve both shipper and consumer experience with AI.

05:16 RADU Got it. Good idea, so before we talk about science fiction, you know, the next step ahead, right? So I think chat bots are relatively are or becoming relativity or more and more, I wouldn’t  say mainstream but more and more come. Also, I know the government of Singapore is using some of them for some of the services that they do.
05:34 CHANG WEN Yup.
05:36 RADU And just out of this question, another question that just popped up in my mind, also for the optimizations of routes, do you see any implication? ‘Cause I was talking and I remember I was talking with Charles Brewer, he is the C.E.O. of DHL e-Commerce, and he was telling me that they’re trying to do things when it comes to the delivery with route optimizations and because a lot of times, it takes that type of data, it should take half an hour or one hour to do a delivery matters, but do you see any implications of AI also being used in that type of work or -?
06:14 CHANG WEN So I mean, I would say is less AI. It’s more N.L.P. I mean, it’s all kind of under the same realm. When I look at group optimization, I think the first thing most people forget or to take for granted is that the address is accurate.
06:17 RADU
06:17 CHANG WEN Without accurate address, there’s no route optimization. The question then is how do you get accurate address?
06:24 RADU
06:24 CHANG WEN And on the back of accurate addresses, how do you build a strong automation engine –


06:27 CHANG WEN which learns from previous faults, from historical which is able to do that despite inaccurate work networks.


So again, so a few assumptions like – the first assumption is we know exactly where the location is. The second assumption is we know the exact road networks in Southeast Asia. I think both assumptions are not valid so before we even move into work optimization, I think we kind of have to solve two problems: how do we use a variety of sources in our own internal basis and our feedback mechanisms from our drivers through the driver applications to provide a very accurate address database so we know when an address comes in.

The second would then be given that we know the exact lat-long of an address, how do we know which will lead to it. I mean, look at Southeast Asia. Look at it in Asia for example. This thing’s not surprising to see a one-way road with two-way traffic.

07:26 CHANG WEN Very common.  A two-way road or a one-way traffic or even more surprising, with no road but people are still traveling to it.
07:34 RADU So how accurate are these road networks, not the most accurate?
07:38 CHANG WEN It is most accurate when you look at the data which is moving, how your actual drivers are sorting in terms of the ground and then building your own virtual network on existing all networks because you know that this building, that there’s no road going through it but somehow the driver always manages and go to that building, deliver something and go to the next building which is seemingly one km detour.


Something’s happening in the ground. We don’t exactly know what but we are collecting all that data, better understand that building b to building a but a 50-meter walk. And well, who knows what? The fence has a hole in the fence, jumping about what we don’t know but he does it so by solving the address and that’s where N.L.P. comes in very strong by solving the road network where there’s a bit of AI in there. They’re then better able to understand where exactly the location is and which will lead to it then the optimized algorithms come in.

08:35 RADU No, excellent points and I mean, I think a lot of times we take for granted in the especially in some countries in Southeast Asia that are very basic things like indeed, I mean, are you sure this is the right house? And you know, are you sure that is the right road? Sorry, it’s much more basic. And moving on to the people, say the segment, and also talking about people and what it takes to build a successful startup story. When you guys started, I think you had two co-founders. I mean you still have them. All three of you with no logistics experience and the courting is critical of course. Tell us a little bit how did you get together? Any secrets for you working together very good as a team?
09:17 CHANG WEN My CTO, we were friends for more than five years so he’s helping me fix any tech problems ahead but any business I had before this, he figured it was an important – no, challenging enough thing that they want to get involved, and we’ve realized that the last call could be very complex. We got very excited although we sort of underestimated the complexity of the bill. We thought that we could finish everything in two years, three years on. I think we’re playing 10% of the way.
09:43 RADU
09:43 CHANG WEN My COO, he was my technician doubles partner when I was 10 years old. We’ve been in the same school ever since so I think we have a very strong friendship, all three of us.


We kind of share the same vision if we want to make an impact in what we’re doing in. We’re not happy just going to work every day and what was the purpose of us, not just for anybody, and what keeps us going, what makes us work really well, I think it’s quite interesting.


I think that mutual trust and respect we have, clear segmentation of responsibility which allows us to align high level objectives. We see them out. We see the peak. We don’t let it get that. But we don’t bug each other a bit how we should take on parts. But we trust that we will always be doing our best, finding the best path and then, we always win the same point.

10:33 CHANG WEN So a lot less conflict. We don’t try to come to a consensus on everything.
10:40 CHANG WEN Decisions, generally falling into someone’s camp and we try not to get involved, unless help is asked.
10:48 CHANG WEN I think it allows us to run very fast, and also be very light.
10:52 RADU Yeah. No, super. Super good sharing. And since, you’re now growing a lot. I mean, you had to recruit fresh blood in the team. Tell us a little bit about skill sets, and what mindset are you looking for when you are recruiting talent to move the company forward?
11:11 CHANG WEN So we look at this, we kind of ask ourselves: how do you go and get here yourself in the first place? What was the most important attribute we have? And I think, it’s quite similar to what I said before, it’s a lot of it is self- awareness which means I don’t know where you think but on a good learning and self-awareness is fantastic for people who want to learn because they know that they did not know.


The worst people are those who think they know everything. The second worst people are those who do not know that they don’t know everything and the people who like the high are the people who know that they have big gaps in the information and these are people who keep poking, keep learning, keep trying to improve themselves.


Whether is their technical expertise. Whether is it in management, you know, leadership? So these are the kind of people we look for, people who are hungry, people who know that there’s a lot to learn and act if you want to learn and of course what really helps at this is a very strong logical mindset so as smart as in the logical mind was  how we learn and no ego. Keeps improving himself every day, okay [and] eventually become great leaders in Ninja. And this is exactly the kind of people we look for.

12:17 RADU I think it brings a very good portret but if I am to probe a bit further, is there a way in which we identify because that’s also very it’s not so easy to tell. How can you tell if somebody has the desire, that hunger to learn but at the same time, less ego.


12:37 CHANG WEN Well, I think the hunger to learn and less ego. So Ninja could appear to be very traditional hub and spoke network so on. Yeah, it’s kind of a schoolbook of sorts. It’s when you put them with what ifs, asking them could you do things the other way, when you see a sense of stubbornness and unwillingness to shift his thoughts from the wrong into something becoming more open minded and as we detect a lot on ego. We detect a lot of people – think they do it all and they refuse to keep an open mind so there’s no single cause and effect. You can never ask them “What, are you open minded?” or are you self –
13:19 RADU You cannot. They’re not going to say yes. To
13:19 CHANG WEN answer that kind of question, you never ask but you can tell from conversation very strongly someone who’s very stubborn. You immediately can tell someone who’s super confident. Yeah, but no one knows everything, and not everything is black and white. There are many shades of gray. People who are willing to accept that   this is a shade of gray which I have an opinion on. You have a different opinion which I’m not sure if you’ll agree with but we’re both not wrong but are we both right, but let’s explore and then that ability to explore and distil the fundamentals of the core concepts is something we look for on the second stage.
13:55 RADU Moving on, I mean that you obviously are an entrepreneur, I think you had a successful and interesting bunch of foreign job as well. I wanted to ask you, what do you think – what does the word ‘entrepreneurship’ mean to you?
14:14 CHANG WEN Well, I think what it means is you are ready to fail if you try your best. So entrepreneurship isn’t about saying “I always want to be successful” or entrepreneurship is saying “I want to embark upon on a journey where I constantly learn, be it because I’m successful or I failed” so I didn’t feel successful itself before I failed. The answer there is because I learned. It’s always what’s next and remembering what’s behind which makes you an entrepreneur.
14:42 RADU Yeah, I mean we typically learn more so from when we fail and win the challenge rather than when we are comfortable. I guess there’s a commonality in that and if you cannot put a big play there, I mean, I guess you shouldn’t start a business because there’s a lot of that.
14:57 CHANG WEN Yes. Even in a successful company, you fail in any type. You fail in any aspect.
15:00 RADU Correct. Correct. so I think that that’s a part of life but sometimes and I’ve also been in Asia for about 10 years and in Asia, you have the concept of losing face, right? It’s something that, you know, for an entrepreneur is almost impossible. You can’t even forget it because there’s no need to worry about it
CHANG WEN Which is why maybe the best way to look at, you know, if you are an entrepreneur, you should throw away your face first assuming you have nothing to start with, then you will have everything to gain, right?
15:27 RADU Yeah, beautiful. Throw your face. It’s a good expression of amusement for the future. And with that, let me ask you what’s a piece of advice, I mean, that you received through your journey as an entrepreneur that you think was really valuable or it really stuck with you, really helped you?


15:44 CHANG WEN Well, the best advice I’ve gotten was keep your eye on the prize. Don’t worry about a lot of small things. That’s one. Actually, no, I think the best advice I’ve ever had was that in life, there’s never a right action but it’s always right thing to do it at a right time.

And I think this is the place a lot of management philosophy but it really is a culture or strategy. There’s no right culture. There’s a right culture at the right time. So be very cognizant of two extreme ends of the   spectrum, and figure out which shade of the creation at any point in time and how it’s always evolving. So when people are super prescriptive and say “Look, the way to be a manager, the way to be, you know, a leader is to do this.” Generally, that’s bullshit. Nothing’s ever on the extreme end.


RADU Yeah, and there’s no such thing as a – and that’s what I mean. A lot of people pretend to know it all and they pretend to be gurus of this and that, but ultimately is there really a formula for success? Maybe. I mean, if you keep yourself open and then form to the different circumstances and different contexts and be very clear that it adapts and it changes along the way like you said that’s the formula.
16:57 CHANG WEN The companies you can manage, the company’s a thousand men. I think you run things very differently, right? So no one can say this is the right thing to do, yet, you know, you should know how treatment company looks like in a ten thousand person company looks like and trying to figure out alone and how you should evolve along the way.


17:23 RADU Yeah. Is there any personal habit that you think contributes to your success?


17:30 CHANG WEN Well, you see, I’m a bit O.C.D. So I like to respond to things very quickly and I believe in being  very responsive and I think that’s one of the key attributes which won us sort of  initial confidence from our customers.

Look, essentially, if you text me or you send me an email maybe from like 3 AM to 6:30, chances are it’ll be three hours before you get a reply but any other time, if it’s important, you’ll probably get an reply in two minutes. And I think that kind of responsiveness is the play button of the business because in logistics, you’re never 100%. You always have failures. But it is in handling these failures which you really make a mark. I don’t profess to handle 100% of cases either. There are things that slip  through the cracks but this culture of we know that we can never be perfect but we try to be perfect at fixing all the imperfections,


18:22 RADU
18:23 CHANG WEN We try to catch everything which falls through the crack but we know there will always be cracks and I think it’s culture – I think it’s true, the entire organization and it allows us to be a lot more responsive, a lot more caring, a lot of the mindful about clients care and I think that these helped us really grow like from one customer to thousands and thousands of them.
18:44 RADU Yeah. I know. I mean, also people typically appreciate, right? The customer, recovery experience.
18:53 CHANG WEN Yes. Yes.


18:54 RADU And actually in those moments as we even ore important because there’s the bit the chance of deepening your relationship with the client if you do it right. You’re not going to pretend how to, you know, just lay low and the only thing and of course it depends the problem. A good point that you made there.


19:07 CHANG WEN But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we have a perfect customer recovery but if you look at our priorities, if we had limited resources, I ask to move my sale  prospects from 99 to 99.9. I move my service recovery from 90% to 99%. I always choose recovery.  Yeah, because when people are pissed off, they get really unhappy.
19:25 RADU I know and also you have social media and they get really unhappy and really loud so it’s another reality
19:28 CHANG WEN So if everything goes well, you know, it should be the case just five minutes late because of heavy rain, you know, why care?


19:46 RADU I’m in need.


19:46 CHANG WEN Yeah.
19:48 RADU Can you share – do you have any, I don’t know, resources, online, websites, courses or anything that you keep yourself updated to learn to keep the trends on your desk?
20:00 CHANG WEN Well, to be honest, I think I’m a bit ashamed to say that but not really. I think my best source is Facebook. Make friends with people who are useful, not people who are just taking pictures of themselves, that you get the best knowledge base. I mean, I do unfollow a lot of people who post  pointless because of themselves but you realize that your friends are your network, that is your best source of knowledge.
20:21 RADU
20:22 CHANG WEN They post a lot of relevant articles and you read it. And I mean, I use Flipboard as part of subscribing to a number of their publications but I find it best to, first, my friends,
20:30 RADU
20:31 CHANG WEN The way they post interesting aricles.
20:32 RADU Got it. Final question from us: If you can give some advice to somebody graduating university and I know that you know this, you are very young as well, you had different trajectories so what kind of advice would you give for a young graduate of a university?
20:51 CHANG WEN Well, it is somehow quite out of the ordinary but I would – my first advice is don’t get married. A little bit funny but why?


So I believe that going to a startup isn’t to get you quick bucks, don’t you think? It is really to quicken your learning curve at the expense of your wealth.

21:11 RADU
21:12 CHANG WEN Chances are you’re going to exit the startup poorer than if you work for an MNC. Your expected value is definitely lower. This means that the only reason why you should join a startup is so that you can learn in three years as what you’ve learned in six. However, I think, to really get a good learning of a startup is a good experience corporate life. When you see a lot of bad habits coming in from people who leave the university and join a startup, poor work etiquette. Some of them, they just don’t know how the real world functions.


I mean, you might have an internship but is not the same as in two, three work years. So my advice would be don’t get married. Work for two years, but quit after two years. If you’re married, you cannot quit. You’re scared. You have mortgage to pay. Hopefully, you don’t have a kid but if have a kid,  good luck.

21:59 RADU
22:00 CHANG WEN Then quit
22:02 CHANG WEN So don’t get married. Look at a big company for two years. Understand and keep your eyes open. Why are companies doing what they are doing? They are the reasons – then leave, join a startup, experience how it is to work in a three-man group but always remember how it was to work in a 30,000-men in along the way adapt.
22:22 RADU  
22:17 CHANG WEN I think this way, you get both extremes and you learn along the way.
22:26 RADU Yeah. Got it. No, good points. And maybe the point is not to get married or don’t buy a house. Don’t get extra headaches.
22:43 CHANG WEN In Southeast Asia, it’s really, really hard to get married and not  buy a house. That’s another – The parents-in-law would never allow it.
22:45 RADU
22:49 RADU So I’m assuming you’re married. No, but good point, so Chang Wen, thanks a lot for your time. Thanks for the sharing. Really good insights today, and it was a pleasure to have you with us.
23:01 CHANG WEN Yo’re welcome, Radu. Thanks.

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