Rise of the Southeast Asian entrepreneur: an interview with Lai Chang Wen

By: David Hutt - Posted on: July 28, 2016 | Business

Lai Chang Wen is the co-founder and CEO of Ninja Van, an e-commerce shipping startup. Previously, he was CEO and founder of online custom apparel retailer, Marcella

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What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur?

Being fearless in the face of uncertainty. No matter how daunting the task seems at hand, you just need to trust your instincts and go for it.  Also not being afraid to fail – some of the best business decisions I’ve ever made have come off the back of falling flat on my face.

What makes Southeast Asia a good region to be an entrepreneur?

Economic growth in Southeast Asia has been rapid and relatively stable over the last decade, and is expected to keep growing. This has given rise to improved tech, financial and structural infrastructure as well as enriched human capital. With all this in mind, consumer demand has risen dramatically. Internet and mobile penetration has increased across the region (especially in less-developed markets), I would say all this makes it a booming hub for startups.

What made you want to be an entrepreneur?

I’m very attracted to the idea of building and nurturing something that is undeniably real and mine. I believed that being an entrepreneur would give me the independence to chase my dreams, with endless opportunities for growth and learning. In the corporate world, I felt that there were too many limitations, I was always working within someone else’s framework.

Lai Chang Wen
Lai Chang Wen

What has been the biggest difficulty?

When we started Ninja Van, none of the co-founders had any prior experience in the logistics industry. Our biggest challenge was quite simply the lack of knowledge. But thankfully, the Singapore startup ecosystem granted us access to invaluable advice and wisdom from other industry experts, mentors and fellow co-founders. We also put a lot of effort into hiring  the most talented people in the region – I’d say this definitely helped us grow the company to what is it today.

Do you think your country’s government does too much or too little for entrepreneurs, and why?

Singapore has the strongest technology, financial and structural infrastructure in Southeast Asia. Over the last few years, the government has been doing a fantastic job coming up with initiatives and grants to encourage local entrepreneurs to achieve their business dreams. That, coupled with the booming startup ecosystem, make me think that the prospects for budding entrepreneurs are very bright in Singapore.

What advice would you give to others who want to be entrepreneurs?

First, overall infrastructure improvements in less-developed markets. Second, increased proactive government initiatives and grants. Third, shifting the mindset of young Southeast Asians. The young, smart and driven Southeast Asians tend to venture into traditional careers like finance, law, medicine and engineering. If we can challenge cultural norms, be it through our education systems, media or government initiatives, I believe we will see more of the younger generation of Southeast Asians becoming successful entrepreneurs.

What advice would you give to others who want to be entrepreneurs?

Do not be afraid to fail. Trust your instincts and work hard; the results will soon follow.

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Quek Siu Rui is a co-founder of Carousell, which launched in May 2012, and now oversees product and marketing. Carousell is one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing community marketplaces, with over 26 million listings and a presence in 12 major cities around the world.

Sze Ming Woo is the founder of Gamurai, a young Singaporean technology development company that works with research institutes, industry partners and governmental bodies.