It's All Systems Go
Hong-Kong logistics company GoGoVan made headlines in August 2017 after a merger with 58 Suyun - a freight unit under China’s online classifieds giant 58.com - propelled the start-up to a valuation over one billion dollars; becoming the city’s first ever ‘unicorn’.
A deal beyond CEO Steven Lam’s imagination, seeing that just over four years prior, he and four co-founders started the business with only HKD20,000 - and for months on end, they roamed the streets of Hong Kong to get commercial vehicle drivers who would not be bothered to give them even the time of day.
We spent a lot of time telling the drivers how we can help them - not to use the app - but how to solve their problem
Think of GogoVan as the Uber or Grab of logistics - an app that connects individuals and businesses directly to thousands of drivers for on-demand delivery services.
“When we launched in 2013, the smartphone was not that common,” says Steven when met at a GS Shop’s GwG venture capital conference, co-hosted by Gobi Partners and MAVCAP in Kuala Lumpur.
“We spent a lot of time telling the drivers how we can help them - not to use the app - but how to solve their problem.”
The problem, which GoGoVan aimed at solving, was to reduce drivers’ idle time in between deliveries. And for Hong Kong-ers, to make finding delivery vans easier.
But for the drivers to see the benefit of the app, it begins with education. “When they understand that technology can help them make more money and that they no longer have to wait on the streets for hours, just sitting around reading newspaper, they started to listen to us.”
I was on the streets from six in the morning, every day, talking to drivers
“I was on the streets from six in the morning, every day, talking to drivers,” says Steven. It was a race against time, often faced by start-ups pioneering a solution - can you educate the market fast enough before running out of money?
“We almost went bankrupt a few times,” says the 31-year-old.
Time was on GoGoVan’ side. It was fortuitous timing that the emergence of GoGoVan coincided with the expansion of ride-sharing services in Asia, which helped ‘educate’ the market of the potential of on-demand online platforms and eased drivers into using GoGoVan's app. The uptick of affordable smartphones which accelerated ownership helped too.
GoGoVan also secured more funding; among them, from Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund as one of its early backers, helping raise much needed capital.
Steven Lam - Ask What Problems You Can Solve Not How Much Support You Can Get
Rapid expansion in Asia followed post-merger with 58 Suyun; GoGoVan now operates in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, India (Chennai) and over 170 cities in China with a 2500-strong workforce.
Steven says further expansion in Southeast Asia is on the cards. Malaysia had been on the radar since two years ago but GoGoVan held off from making a play here, as its focus and resources were diverted into China at that time.
Even though we are still expanding very fast in China, we are eyeing Southeast Asia and Malaysia is definitely on top of the list
“Even though we are still expanding very fast in China, we are eyeing Southeast Asia and Malaysia is definitely on top of the list,” says Steven.
“The Malaysian market looks like the Hong Kong or China market, some three to five years ago. We see that internet can do so much more for the logistics industry but the players here, more so the traditional companies, are not adapting technology as fast as the companies that we see in China,” he adds.
“So, I think that we can bring a lot of value here; push the logistics industry to move much faster,” adding that increased smartphone usage among commercial vehicle drivers in Malaysia allows for the app to take-off easier.
When asked about Indonesia, Steven says that its sheer market size is enticing but they are not leaping in just yet - having learnt valuable lessons, and challenges, operating in a huge market like China.
“The logistics industry is not like the consumer market - it doesn’t change overnight.” says Steven. “Adapting technology in this industry took much longer time than we expected.”
“We are taking smaller bets on other countries before leaping into Indonesia.”
Steven Lam - Localisation Was The Biggest Challenge
“You have to be certain kind of crazy to stick with what you believe in for a long period of time,” says Steven, who faced detractors aplenty - friends and family included - during the early years of GoGoVan.
Most of my friends tried to stop me. But if I think that my dream is possible, why do I need someone else to agree with me? I proved it to them
Raised in Kowloon, from a humble background, Steven met two other co-founders while studying n California. “We went to the same community college in the morning and worked for the same Chinese restaurant in the afternoon.”
He also admits it was difficult to go against the wishes of his parents to ‘get a good paying job’, having graduated as a business major from the prestigious University of California, Berkeley.
“I didn’t want to, it’s not meaningful, it’s not fun,” says Steven. “Most of my friends tried to stop me. But if I think that my dream is possible, why do I need someone else to agree with me? I proved it to them.”
Steven looks up to Richard Branson as inspiration. “Most people think he’s eccentric.” Branson dropped out of school at age 16 to start his own business. “He started with the intention to solve problems,” says Steven.
“My goal is to make sure GoGoVan becomes a hundred-year-old company,” he says with a smile. “That would be meaningful."
“If someone looks at GoGoVan and says - ‘This is the company from Hong Kong’ I think that would be very exciting for me already.
Steven Lam - The Future in Logistics is Self-Driving