Global entrepreneurship in the on-demand economy

How global experience shaped me as the CEO I am today

TOPICS: Entrepreneurship , Operations , Product Development , ASEAN , North America , Logistics & Transport Services , Technology , on-demand

by William Ban

Moving is one of the top 5 most stressful life events, along with a divorce, death of a loved one, major illness or injury, and job loss. This notion seemed ridiculous to me, so at Muves, where I hang my hat as CEO, we came together to do something about it. My most recent entrepreneurial endeavors with GoGoVan and DUDE led me to my current role. All three startups share a common theme: they meet the needs of consumers in the transportation and moving industry.

As the former Business Development Coordinator with the U.S. Peace Corps in Malawi, Co-Founder and Director of Business Development for W & J Consulting in Vietnam and more specifically GoGoVan, global experience has shaped my work considerably. Success can be found amongst startups anywhere in the world.  Within the moving and tech industry, logistics can get messy and complicated. This niche industry has remained virtually untouched by technology for decades. Despite an array of multi-million dollar moving companies, Microsoft Excel is the most sophisticated software in use. In addition, the decision makers are often traditional and inherently adverse to adopting new technology. The culmination of all these factors makes it extremely challenging to disrupt this space. Yet, conversely, the dire need for an overhaul presented an immense opportunity for me to figure out.

Logistics startups differ from traditional high tech startups when it comes to management and organization. Traditional startups tend to have a group of geeky computer science engineers. With managing logistics, you need a good balance of “blue collar” team members. Team members who possess “street smarts” or the education and business skills that someone acquires through personal experience outside of a public education system. Street smarts along with a willingness to literally get their hands dirty by delivering packages or filling in on a 10-hour move if a mover injures himself.

Differences in management between tech startups and logistic startups do exist. One of the major differences between Asia and the US startup scene is that Asia is typically lagging behind the US or western counterparts when it comes to coming up with innovative ideas. The typical trend for Asian startups is to assess what business models are working in the US and then create a similar model in their local market. This observation is not meant to take a jab at Asian entrepreneurs. Localizing any model is extremely tough and only a few startups get it right. For example, when I was with GoGoVan, Uber decided to launch Uber Cargo,a direct competitor to our on-demand logistics service. Obviously, we were all anxious and gearing up for a feisty battle. However, all in all, Uber Cargo shut down less than a year from launch.

Listen intently to your consumers from day 1 and continually listen to them as you scale.

We out-maneuvered Uber because we understood our customers on a more intimate level and created a product that solved their needs instead of forcing a product or solution on consumers that did not directly solve their problem. The most valuable lesson I have learned while competing against international and local competitors in Asia is; listen intently to your consumers from day 1 and continually listen to them as you scale.

Like all CEOs, the buck stops with you. No matter what industry youre in, you will be praised when times are good and criticized when things arent going well. I have experienced my fair share of both extremes. In all of my startups, I have led each company at the very early stage, pre “Series A” which made my responsibility as a CEO very clear- to make sure we don’t run out of cash.  Whether that means driving profitable revenue or continually fundraising from outside investors, my main goal is to make sure we have enough working capital to keep the lights on.

Receiving rejection after rejection from investors is not the sexiest thing in the world, but it is definitely one of the most humbling experiences especially when you have to put on your game face when returning to the office to lift your teams spirits and morale. Being an ongoing cheerleader for your team is crucial. Most of my colleagues would agree that timing has a lot to do with the success of some ideas and the demise of other ideas. You could have the best ideas in the world, but if the market isnt ready for whatever reason, you will fail. The way to increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time is by having enough cash reserve in the bank.

You will always have the opportunity to buildup and hone an array for skill sets from wherever your work experience takes you as CEO. Launching Airbnb in a new market taught me to be extremely resourceful and scrappy with extremely limited resources. It was also my first taste of how difficult it truly is to localize a foreign companys value proposition and culture. My time with GoGoVan gave me a front row seat on a rocket ship and an understanding of what it takes to achieve and maintain hyper growth from all angles within a company; sales, marketing, operations, customer service, legal, and finance. Having worked at every level within a startup from boots on the ground handing out flyers and dancing around in a full body mascot to managing teams between different countries has prepared me and influenced my role as CEO.

The first thing I would question anyone that wants to creates an “on-demand” product is if your target customer really values that particular solution being on-demand. Theres no doubt that services are increasingly becoming more and more on-demand. But the truth of the matter is, customers are not always willing to pay a premium for the increased level of service. I believe it comes down to one main question:

Is your product or solution a discretionary or compulsory buying decision. If discretionary, then consumers are more willing to pay a premium for faster service (think on demand media e.g. Netflix). However, if its a compulsory buying decision, trying to get consumers to pay a premium for a delivering an on-demand solution will be extremely challenging. Most consumers are looking for the cheapest prices for products/services that are compulsoryso they will not see inherent value in a product being on-demand if they have to pay a premium for it.

The main difference that I observe between Asian and US startups is that Asian startups have the luxury to be more open and vague in the value they offer consumers .

I would never say that my strength lies in design by any means. I am first and foremost an operator. Having said that, the main difference that I observe between Asian and US startups is that Asian startups have the luxury to be more open and vague in the value they offer consumers compared to their US counterparts. For instance, during my time at GoGoVan, we offered logistics services for a wide range of industries; food, floral, newspaper publishers and e-commerce, etc. Each one of those industry verticals would be its own startup in the US. However, the US has the most developed startup ecosystem. The competition is extremely difficult with many extremely talented teams fighting it out to win in niche markets. It would be considered a grave mistake if a US startup was not laser-focused on winning in one niche vertical first before moving onto its next vertical. But, in Asia, you have the luxuryof experimenting in multiple verticals to see where you will find the best product or market fit before scaling your operations.

If you are an entrepreneur in the idea stage of your startup looking to acquire funding, it really just comes down to the core reason as to why youre the right person to lead this company to the promised land. Investors can tell right away if your story isn’t genuine.  My other piece of advice would be to find a partner or two. The founder journey is very lonely and difficult so it helps to have co-founders that have complimentary skills. Lastly, be relentlessly persistent. Most people will think you are crazy and that your idea sucks. But, it just takes one “yes” to turn your dream into a reality. As every great dream begins with a dreamer, a shared reality is even better.


About the Author

A seasoned business leader with a shared passion for leverage technology to move people to a better place, he had spent his career in Asia working with Airbnb and GoGoVan before he became CEO of Dude I need a truck and Muves in Los Angeles.  Leading the charge of logistics innovation, Wiliam spent almost 3 years in Singapore building GoGoVan as their General Manager before jumping into his own entrepreneurial journey in Los Angeles.