The Hustle

The creative hack that kick-started this 32-year-old's multimillion-dollar business

This 32-year-old quit banking and built a multimillion-dollar business
This 32-year-old quit banking and built a multimillion-dollar business

Chang Wen Lai has done well for himself.

At just 32 years old, the Singaporean entrepreneur has built a multimillion-dollar, multinational business as co-founder and CEO of express delivery service, Ninja Van.

But in order to kick-start his business five years ago, he had to get inventive — that includes getting a little imaginative with the truth.

"To convince our first client, I had to convince her that we were a proper logistics company," Lai recalled in a recent interview with CNBC Make it.

That was easier said than done. At the time, in 2015, Lai and his team of five had just one, second-hand van between them to deliver all orders. What's more, it broke down "every few days."

Ninja Van's co-founders deliver their early orders with a second-hand van.
Ninja Van

"Obviously if I went to a client and said I have one van, and half the time it's out of commission, she would probably tell me to get lost," said Lai.

But, he reasoned that his team could fulfill the client's deliveries using the team's five cars. So, he got creative; taking pictures of another fleet and airbrushing them to look like his own.

"I said: 'No, we have multiple vans, don't worry about it,'" Lai, a former bank trader, recalled.

"I think that was maybe not the most honest thing to do," he continued. "But what we told ourselves was that we all have cars at home and there were enough of us that when I showed her a picture of six vans, we technically had six vehicles — one van and five cars — and we had six of us."

Lai said he considered it helping the customer take a "leap of faith" to see what the founders were capable of.

Ninja Van's fleet of delivery vans.
Ninja Van

"Yes, on the superficial level you might have said yeah we didn't have six vans, we said we had six vans. But the reality was we had the capacity and the capability of six vans."

"Sometimes you need a bit of a leap of faith. So why don't I help her with the leap of faith first, but make sure she would never regret it."

And yes, said Lai, she "absolutely" remains a customer today. Ninja Van now has a fleet of 20,000 drivers — and plenty of vans — who deliver around 1 million parcels a day across six countries in Southeast Asia.

"The reality of it was she never left us because we always deliver on our promises," said Lai.

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