Disruption may be an empty buzzword these days, but when these Singapore businesses began, they were the first of their kind in the region to take advantage of the growing e-commerce industry. Here’s how Shopee, ShopBack and Ninja Van went from scrappy start-ups to entrepreneurial titans.
5 November 2019 / By SGN
The e-commerce industry is such an integral part of our lives today that it’s hard to imagine that as late as 2015, e-commerce was estimated at one per cent of total retail sales in Asia Pacific. Shopee, ShopBack and Ninja Van are excellent examples of visionary businesses that saw an opportunity and worked hard to succeed both in Singapore and the region.
The success of a hyper-localised approach: Shopee
Despite a competitive e-commerce industry that included Qoo10 and Tokopedia, Shopee was able to carve out a niche for themselves when they launched in 2015 in Singapore. They took advantage of the untapped opportunity to create a mobile-first, highly social e-commerce marketplace, quickly capturing a leading share of the industry. They attributed this to an early decision to focus on the user experience.
“We place our users at the forefront of everything, providing a fresh and innovative online retail experience,” said Zhou Junjie, Shopee’s Chief Commercial Officer and Head of Shopee Singapore.
Shopee’s commitment to the best user experience starts with “placing our users at the forefront of everything”
Shopee also started with the ambitious vision of being multi-market by design. That goal has paid off, and Shopee has since expanded its reach to seven markets– Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In order to create the best experience for their customers and sellers, Shopee took a hyper-localised approach. This required the company to develop a deeper understanding of the region, in order to better cater to the needs of their users.
“Each country has a different app, alongside marketing campaigns that directly target local cultural nuances,” revealed Zhou. The company launched Shopee Celebrity Club in markets like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to give local celebrities in these countries the chance to sell products conveniently to their fanbase.
Today, shoppers are looking for more than just a transactional shopping experience—they want to discover new products, be entertained, and engage with the online community. Shopee recently introduced a suite of interactive features including Shopee Live, the first-ever in-app seller livestreaming feature, and engaging games like Shopee Shake, Shopee Quiz and Spin & Win.
“Shopee Live has been extremely well-received by Shopee users since its introduction this year. Since launching in March, we’ve recorded over 200 million views across the region. These features are designed to integrate a personalised, social element to deliver an all-rounded shopping experience,” said Zhou.
There is also the need to cater to the different demands of the customer in each market.
“Some countries prefer the use of credit cards, while others, like the Philippines, opt for cash-on-delivery. We provide a different blend of options in each market to deliver a convenient and secure experience catered to local needs.”
The newly opened Shopee headquarters in the heart of Singapore’s tech hub
In less than four years, Shopee has become the leading e-commerce platform in Southeast Asia and Taiwan. According to the latest report by App Annie, Shopee is the number one shopping app in Southeast Asia by average monthly active users (MAU) and total downloads in Q2 2019. Shopee also ranked first for ‘Total Time in App’ in Southeast Asia as a whole, and each of its five biggest markets on Android. Not bad for such a young e-commerce platform!
Building a strong team that enables customers: ShopBack
Earlier this year, ShopBack announced that they had raised a $45 million investment round. This means they have raised a total of $85 million so far, an extremely promising affirmation of the company’s continued growth.
However, their success belies some extremely humble beginnings in 2014. Many of its founders chose to leave their careers in the more established ecommerce players for a small refurbished space in Blk71. This set the stage for a company built on a culture of values like “Can’t is not an option”.
“This value reflects the grit and sacrifice that is needed to operate in this part of the world,” said the ShopBack spokesperson. “Having a common set of values has also enabled us to better identify and hire individuals who can fit well and grow with the company.”
Celebrating wins as a team with common values
This was crucial for a business that was pretty unknown in Singapore and the region. ShopBack’s proposition was to give cashback rebates to online shoppers, simultaneously enabling their customers to get better value for their purchases as well as giving e-commerce businesses a cost-effective marketing solution.
Months after launching in Singapore in 2014, they expanded into Malaysia. In just five years, they have a presence in Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia and has just started efforts in Vietnam. This has led them to reach millions of ‘ShopBackers’ and over 2,000 e-commerce partners across the region.
“Our focus is going where the customer is,” said the spokesperson. “From the onset, we believed that because the digital world is less constrained by geographical boundaries, it was crucial for us to succeed as a regional business.”
It was this foresight that led ShopBack to invest in a mobile app in 2016. This paid dividends, winning them global awards and helping their business explode throughout the region, where mobile penetration is increasing.
Being the trend setter takes hard work: Ninja Van
Ninja Van was founded in 2014 to solve a problem the founder had – unreliable courier services.
“When we first started, ecommerce was on the brink of a boom,” said Lai Chang Wen, CEO of Ninja Van. “There were many ecommerce businesses, but reliable delivery services were few and far between.”
Thus, Ninja Van was born with the goal of becoming a tech-enabled logistics company. It was challenging work figuring out the basic formula. Trying to harness technology across all aspects of the delivery process was something the founders had to learn from scratch.
Building a tech-enabled express logistics company didn’t happen overnight
However, their hard work quickly paid off. After optimising the technology behind their delivery process, they quickly brought their expertise to the region, entering Malaysia in their first year. This was followed quickly by expansion into Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand over the next two years.
“Regardless of where you are in the world, everyone is concerned about delivering and receiving their parcels on time and in good condition.”
A simple insight that led to a successful company: Everyone wants their parcels to be delivered on time and in good condition
Nonetheless, Ninja Van is focused on localising the experience for each regional market.
“It’s important to remember that you’re solving problems for their market,” Lai pointed out.
“Connecting and working with the local teams is integral to success in their markets.”
The future is collaboration
Ninja Van recognises that the industry it’s chosen is built on collaboration – they have 3 pillars of enablers: technology innovation, operational excellence and people. In that latter category, they recognise how indispensable their teams are, from drivers and sorters to customer success agents to investors in driving success.
ShopBack’s entire business model requires them to partner with and empower e-commerce businesses in order to mutually benefit both parties.
In a happy coincidence, all three brands featured above work with one another to complement one another to create a seamless retail experience for customers.
Shopee is among the top-requested merchants by ShopBack’s users, and Shopee also partners with Ninja Van in Singapore to ensure reliable deliveries.
Singapore’s role as a central hub for Southeast Asia provided each of these companies with a firm foundation to launch quickly into regional markets.
“We looked beyond our shores and realised that there were many e-commerce businesses, but reliable delivery services were few and far between,” revealed Ninja Van’s Lai. “Singapore’s diversity has also helped in our localisation efforts to suit the market needs of the region.”
“The presence of many international brands and headquarters in Singapore allowed us to reach out to merchant partners easily,” said the ShopBack spokesperson. “We were also fortunate to have support from Enterprise Singapore, Digital Industry Singapore and other government agencies as we forged connections overseas.”
Despite overseas success for these companies, Singapore is still home, truly.
“As a homegrown company, Shopee brings the best online shopping experience to Singaporeans,” said Zhou. “We look to continue contributing to the Singapore economy by creating new jobs and upskilling capabilities within the tech industry.”