#Logistics#Big Data#Technology

Ninja Van: preserving the startup spirit

William Smith
|May 18|magazine12 min read

Logistics technology company Ninja Van is one of a number of high tech startups in Southeast Asia, a region ripe for disruption. That’s precisely what attracted COO, Philippines, Vin Perez back to the region after studying for an MBA at Harvard Business School. “There's explosive growth happening here in Southeast Asia, following what happened in the West maybe 15 years ago and China 10 years ago. Because of that, I was really quite keen on going back. I happened upon this opportunity at Ninja Van, where the company was really looking to establish the regional ecommerce logistics industry.” 

While the region brings enormous opportunities, it also has its own challenges. “Ecommerce markets in the West develop straightforwardly. There’s existing infrastructure, there are regulations, technology is quite advanced. Customer adoption of ecommerce is therefore really direct. In Southeast Asia, the infrastructure is not as good. There are a lot of logistical challenges to make sure that the parcels arrive on time. Some of the challenges are to do with events like typhoons and the disruption they cause.” Overcoming such issues requires a certain flexibility. “We really have to be creative,” says Perez. “The percentage of the population that uses credit cards is very low, so a large chunk of our deliveries go through as what we call cash on delivery or COD. That’s not so common in the West, but it makes up more than 90% of our deliveries here.” 

Ninja Van’s success has also required the intelligent application of technology. “Trying to address the complicated last mile problem here in Southeast Asia starts with technology. We have a talented development team that constantly thinks about these problems and how we can address them. We use a lot of different proprietary technologies in our internal platform, which allows us to provide the quality of service we do.” It is thanks to technology that Ninja Van can take an evidence-based approach to the decisions it makes. “I'm a firm believer in data. It's essential to understand how you’re performing, how the market is reacting and how we can be more proactive in addressing the market’s needs. But working with data is easier said than done. A lot of it's about making sure you have the right database tools and understanding who has the ability to deal with such an infrastructure. You have to adapt your organisation to be able to address, handle and then really trust the data.” 

Technology means little without the proper culture in place, however. “We discovered along the way that it takes a certain culture and demographic to be able to adapt to this kind of technology,” says Perez. “In order to have the objective in mind and to be able to reach it, it's key that everyone is going for the same goal and has that common purpose. More often than not, we find the younger demographic to have the ability to operate in this environment.” That emphasis on youth led to new and unexpected solutions to logistics issues. “Especially early on in our tenure, we really looked into the young problem solvers who may not have had the most experience in logistics, but were willing to explore different problems in order to solve logistics problems in a very different way.” 

That startup spirit is not just present in the younger members of the team, however, having instead suffused the entire organisation from the very start, as Perez explains: “Over the past several years we've been growing more than 10-fold over the span of a year, and in certain 

periods even quicker. If we hadn't kept the team lean and agile and willing to explore new ways of serving our clients and operating, we'd be stuck with an organisation unable to adapt. A startup has to always be aware of where it is investing its resources, making sure that it doesn’t grow wasteful. I think that’s essential, and it feeds back into how we use technology. We believe that, because of technology and how we deploy it, we are able to scale while remaining lean. We believe in a virtuous cycle of technology helping us to be lean, which allows us to adapt new technologies that in turn allows us to become leaner, and so on.” 

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We really looked into the young problem solvers who may not have had the most experience in logistics, but were willing to explore different problems in order to solve logistics problems in a very different way

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Ninja Van partners with some of the biggest ecommerce operators in the region in the form of Shopee and Lazada. “We have a mutually beneficial relationship with them, where we essentially serve their logistics needs. So we integrate with their platforms, we speak the same language in terms of technology and customer experience, and that allows both parties to provide a solid experience.” The super app Grab is another key synergistic partner. “Grab offers many different services in many different areas, including delivery, and that's where Ninja Van comes in, providing delivery outside of the main metro areas,” Perez explains. “At the same time, we're cognizant that a big chunk of business in the market is still happening in the physical retail space. Smaller SMEs haven't been well served - that’s a very underserved part of the market that we really want to serve a lot better.” 

Going forwards, Perez still sees room for improvement, particularly when it comes to automation. “Right now we're looking at fully automated facilities that can process parcels for us. That's one of the big ticket items. Operationally, I see it just getting more and more optimised.” Such improvements are all in the service of improving the customer experience. “At the end of the day, being able to provide a solid, reliable experience to the people who ship with us and the people we deliver to is key.”

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