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Call a van radio operator. Do so again 20 minutes later and a van arrives in another hour. Or maybe it doesn’t.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 9:26am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 11:05am

[Sponsored Article]

For more than three decades, this was how millions of Hongkongers called vans. Starting GoGoVan with four other young men, Steven Lam changed that in 2013. “Back then, I didn’t have the intention to create a logistics business; this platform was meant to help me deliver lunchboxes more efficiently!” Steven recalls.

GoGoVan was not Steven’s first entrepreneurial foray. As a university student in the United States, he sold first-generation iPhones on eBay and – prefiguring things to come – he provided lunch delivery services for an Asian restaurant. Reeve Kwan and Nick Tang, his previous business partners and two of his cofounders at GoGoVan. “We’ve battled in the trenches together, through the good and bad times, and that was how I know I can trust them,” Steven says. Together with James O and Chris Yuen, these five form GoGoVan’s ‘core’ leadership. Being the outgoing, confident type, Steven pitches the van-calling app company to investors and the media. Reeve, who can seemingly befriend anyone from 30-year-old office workers to 70-year-old van drivers, presents GoGoVan’s ‘human’ side. The details and analytical matters are left to Nick. 

Steven’s relationship with James goes back even further – they were secondary school friends, and have known each other for over a decade. Steven asserts, “James is still the best artist I have met, and he’s got a discerning eye for both creativity and branding.” Chris is a more recent acquaintance; they were introduced by a mutual friend, and based on their shared values, quickly forged a bond. Chris’ programming skills were evident from the beginning: All he needed was three months to write and implement the software that’s now at the heart of Hong Kong’s great start-up story.

Steven’s relationship with his cofounders makes us curious to ask him how entrepreneurs should choose their business partners. He says integrity comes first - “It doesn’t matter how smart or how much money they bring in; if you don’t trust them, there’s no point, no enduring foundation to build your working relationship on.” Steven says this trust grows by sharing triumphs and defeats – which explains the synergy between Reeve, Nick and himself.

“Hong Kong isn’t known for either technology or entrepreneurism; we hope GoGoVan is changing that,” Steven says. For decades, trade, finance and real estate formed the mainstay of the economy, and when tourists leave Hong Kong, they buy Chinese biscuits and teabags as souvenirs. In 2016 however, some things have changed: visitors now depart Hong Kong with blue vans as keepsakes – the model toy vans of Steven’s company. “It’s easily one of the most gratifying scenes I’ve ever witnessed in my life.”

The 30-year old is the last person who will tell you it’s not been an easy journey. Graduating from university in 2010, Steven never held a traditional full-time job; “My business management experience prior to GoGoVan? Zero.” Despite his youth, Steven’s mature perspective on the challenges ahead sets him apart from his peers. He asserts, “Nobody is born with the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to successfully run a business; if I waited until I knew ‘everything,’ there’d be no GoGoVan.”

Learn on the job. It’s Steven’s business mantra. It permeates the entire company - after all, it’s only existed for three years. Being open-minded is essential; “We wouldn’t survive if we got complacent. We needed HK$20,000 to kick start GoGoVan, and now, perhaps there’s a teenager who can achieve what we’ve done with HK$5,000.”

When asked about innovation, the industry leader tells us, “It doesn’t have to be something brand new. Any idea, service, or product that improves on what came before is innovation. That’s the misconception the public has about innovation and creativity.” Steven expands on the relationship between the two, noting the first is the cumulative result of the second.

Less than three years after its founding, GoGoVan’s rapid ascent has taken it to 6 markets and 13 cities. It’s a massive challenge. “I had no plans to take it international when we started the company. There’s no doubt managing our expansion is our toughest challenge thus far.” The logistics company has grown from less than 10 employees in Hong Kong, to more than 100 at home, plus another 250 abroad.

Grasping the cultural nuances of its overseas markets takes time. As a former British trading colony with a large Chinese population, one might expect Singapore to be similar to Hong Kong – Not at all. Steven pointed out that challenges such as food packaging and shipment have forced him to rethink how GoGoVan should modify their app.

Other seemingly mundane details matter too, as Steven explains. “The same types of vans used in Hong Kong and Singapore have different configurations; in Hong Kong, our vans have the middle row. In Singapore, they don’t.” This greatly influences user preferences.

Fortunately for GoGoVan, its Singapore office got a boost from its first employee, a tale Steven is fond of relaying. Personally overseeing the company’s preliminary scouting down south, a local contact introduced a taxi driver to take Steven around Singapore, and as luck would have it, the driver had worked in the logistics industry. He told Steven all about the main warehouses, how local firms used vans, and the main regulations governing the industry.

The GoGoVan founder offered this driver a job, and a few weeks later, he was GoGoVan’s first overseas employee. “Within days, he registered our company as a Singaporean corporation, found us an office, and arranged all the necessary logistics,” says Steven. These are the people who work at GoGoVan – resourceful, thorough, and most of all, doers.

GoGoVan’s metamorphosis from a humble lunchbox-delivery platform into a multinational corporation is itself an amazing feat, but its founder isn’t about to get complacent anytime soon – Steven wants GoGoVan to become Hong Kong’s global icon. Italy has Ferrari; Denmark, Lego; Singapore, its eponymous national airline; Japan, Uniqlo. “What does Hong Kong have?” he asks. “Nothing innovative-wise that represents Hong Kong [at the moment], and we intend to change that.”

Building on the city’s famed ‘Lion’s Rock’ spirit, GoGoVan represents a new Hong Kong – that exudes energy, embraces creativity and innovation, and masters technology. It’s not an easy road, but one thing is clear: the van-calling app company is in capable hands. Anyone who’s spent time with Steven Lam knows this: He’s brave, ambitious, innovative, open-minded and yes, born after 1980. With leaders like him, Asia’s world city will scale heights never seen before.