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How two homegrown Hong Kong unicorns are battling for dominance in the logistics industry
Today, getting what we want, when we want it, has become easier than ever before. At the tap of a button, we can go on an Amazon spending spree and get dinner delivered to our front doorstep. This speaks volumes to the rapid growth of ecommerce, which has penetrated deeply into our lives thanks to the growth of innovative tech startups.
However, the meteoric rise of ecommerce would have been impossible without logistics. Here’s how: logistics companies transport products from the manufacturer, to distributors, and ultimately to the consumer, playing a critical, yet often unnoticed role in a company. In an age of instant gratification, it is indisputable that faster shipping has given startups a unique edge against their rivals.
Time and time again, we’ve witnessed countless ecommerce startups become the most coveted brand names of the day. So let’s turn to logistics–the backbone of the ecommerce empire–and take a closer look at how two thriving on-demand logistics companies in Asia have grown from seed-stage startups to tech unicorns.
The stories behind the startups
In 2013, the founders of GOGOX–Steven Lam Hoi-yuen, Nick Tang Kuen-wai and Reeve Kwan Chun-man–created the first startup in Hong Kong specializing in delivery and moving services. In doing so, the GOGOX app revolutionized the logistics industry.
“The more we spoke to the drivers, the more we realized they were dissatisfied,” says Steven Lam, Co-founder and CEO of GOGOX.
With this revelation, GOGOX changed the game. Customers can use the app to order vans directly in a mere 15 to 20 seconds, where it previously took service centers 20 to 30 minutes alone to connect customers with an available driver. In 2014, GOGOX had 18,000 van drivers on its app, in stark contrast to van-calling centers, which had 50 to 1,000 vans in their databases.
GOGOX’s innovative use of technology minimized the time and effort required for last-mile delivery, which kept services at an affordable rate, propelling the startup’s growth.
Before long, the company had established itself as Hong Kong’s first billion-dollar startup via a merger with Chinese logistics company 58 Suyun.
“We have Southeast Asia and China with a B2[B] focus, and that’s completely different from 58 [Suyun], which is in the consumer market. We have a leadership position in China and in some countries in Southeast Asia — we can do much more in Southeast Asia and beyond,” Lam told TechCrunch, with regard to the advantages of GOGOX merging with 58 Suyun.
Following the 2018 announcement of China’s future legal requirement to use electric trucks, the startup partnered with ecommerce giant Alibaba’s logistics subsidiary Cainiao to implement the use of electric trucks in major Chinese cities. This allowed GOGOX to further venture into China.
In 2015, Gabriel Fong–GOGOX-then executive chairman–told TechCrunch that in most metropolitan cities, some last-mile fleets are company-owned, which are “captive and used exclusively for [the company’s own]requirements.” However, a significant proportion are owner-operated, which are “individually owned or owned by a small business owner with three to five vehicles.”
“For example, in Hong Kong, 35,000 vans of the 70,000 registered vans fall into this category. Our business model is to . . . link the latter group of vehicles to the ultimate end user in a far more efficient way through an app,” Fong explained.
Entering 2018, GOGOX raised a whopping US$276.5 million over six rounds of funding. Its latest round of investment was in 2018 from a Series D round, with investors including InnoVision Capital and Alibaba’s Cainiao.
The company put the majority of the funding toward expanding GOGOX in new markets, and later claimed to have 8 million users in 300 cities with 58 Suyun.
Like GOGOX, Lalamove offers on-demand logistics services and enables users to hail vans via its app. The company was founded by Chow Shing-yuk, a Stanford University graduate, in 2013. Despite being a latecomer to the logistics industry, the startup was soon touted as the “Uber for logistics” by the media.
Part of Lalamove’s success can be attributed to its fee-based business model for drivers. For instance, in China, the company charges membership fees from CNY$99 to CNY$699 per month to drivers, along with a nonrefundable deposit of CNY1000. According to EqualOcean, Lalamove also charges a 15% commission fee to drivers who pick up five orders per day.
Yet, drivers are willing to pay membership fees due to Lalamove’s unique order allocation system. Contrasting with typical logistics services that rely on algorithms to assign orders, Lalamove gives more high-quality orders to drivers who offer high-standard services. This purportedly encourages drivers to actively improve their services and be rewarded by Lalamove’s system.
The more drivers that join Lalamove, the more customers Lalamove can accommodate; thus, the cycle continues.
By 2017, Lalamove was on the brink of attaining unicorn status. It had raised US$100 million in a Series C round, which lifted the company’s valuation to nearly US$1 billion. Lalamove eventually crossed the billion-dollar milestone in early 2019 after closing a US$300 million Series D round.
The forces fuelling Lalamove’s epic game of catch-up
For most small startups, finding footing in the logistics industry is no easy feat, especially with a big-name rival thrown into the mix. Lalamove managed to survive, and thrive as a logistics titan in its own right, without being eclipsed by GOGOX’s share of the market.
First, Lalamove used a sizable amount of its funding–US$461.5 million across seven rounds–to consolidate its position in existing markets including Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, for example through driver services such as financing packages to aid drivers in purchasing vehicles.
The startup also pursued further expansion in India, Southeast Asia (SEA), Latin America and China, which, according to Lalamove founder and CEO Chow, has a logistics market worth roughly US$1.7 trillion per year. This implies that the timing of Lalamove’s inception was just right, leading to the startup’s unprecedented growth.
In 2019, TechCrunch reported that Lalamove had two million drivers in 130 cities across Mainland China.
“We add most value in large cities where [logistics] supplies are very fragmented such as in Bangkok … and cities that have similar dynamics to that,” Lalamove Head of International division Blake Larson told the Nikkei Asian Review in 2016. “We are looking at Jakarta, Manila, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Yangon and many more,” he added.
Working in these areas, Lalamove stood out as a trustworthy brand in an unstable market.
Crucially, the company’s reliable service ensured that Lalamove’s B2B business model remained strong and transformed Lalamove’s services into a full-fledged business. According to Larson, many businesses value service quality over price, unlike consumers, who tend to embrace short-term incentives such as discounts.
“When you go after a consumer market there’s a very low switching cost. Customer loyalty is harder to maintain,” Larson said in an interview with TechCrunch. “When [like Lalamove] most of your customers are businesses, they don’t want to change even if there is a short-term cash bonus in doing so. That doesn’t mean they aren’t sensitive to promotions, but that isn’t the driving force.”
Lalamove continued to foster brand loyalty among its drivers through value-added services, such as discounting fuel prices at selected gas stations. Such additional benefits served to maintain membership renewals rates and encourage new drivers to devote themselves to the startup–and be rewarded for it.
Perhaps what set Lalamove apart from competitors was its focus on forming close connections with drivers and clients.
“A business owner does not want to make that jump all the time, so what will decide the winner is that relationship, whether it is in person or if it is the technology that makes their lives as easy as possible,” Larson says.
And it seems that Lalamove’s approach to clients as a friendly, reliable service has worked, paving the way for collaborations with IKEA and Burger King, which created avenues for new opportunities. Working with the Asian messaging app LINE in Bangkok, for one, provided Lalamove with instant access to LINE’s 33 million users in Thailand.
These partnerships are a testament to Lalamove’s shared strategic vision, which, according to Harvard Business Review, is a recipe for startup team success that goes hand in hand with “shared entrepreneurial passion.”
Drawing on Chow’s diverse career experiences, from working with Bain & Company to tackling startup ventures, we can see how Lalamove’s founder was likely armed with entrepreneurial knowledge and a keen awareness of technology’s role in a low-tech industry.
Moreover, the Lalamove team shares clear-cut goals. “We don’t spend maybe even five minutes a year talking about it,” Larson says of Lalamove’s unicorn status. “The discussion is really ‘Let’s make sure we’re IPO ready’ because sometimes there are macroeconomic conditions you can’t control.”
In 2017, Larson previously noted, regarding Lalamove’s billion-dollar valuation, “We didn’t want it to become a distraction.”
Therefore, instead of growing complacent after early accomplishments, the Lalamove team continued to combine their passion, expertise and sharp laser-focus toward a collective vision, allowing the startup to seize new opportunities and foray deeper into SEA markets.
Global pandemic: a threat?
Despite the destructive impact of COVID-19 on countless businesses, GOGOX has optimized its position in the logistics industry by collecting saliva specimens to be tested for COVID-19 in Hong Kong’s Department of Health (DoH) centers.
The saliva specimens are kept in several layers of plastic to ensure the safety of delivery workers, who are provided with masks, gloves and hand sanitizers as precautionary measures.
The company also rebranded as GOGOX, and is now promoting its new products, GOGODELIVERY and GOGOBUSINESS.
Lalamove, on the other hand, has made the most of COVID-19 by helping other businesses cope with the effects of the pandemic. In Hong Kong, the company launched a mobile and web food delivery service with Klook, titled “A Guide to the Best Meal,” to support local restaurants.
Whereas traditional businesses have come to a standstill, we can see how both companies employed immediate, flexible measures to keep business running smoothly, even in a precarious time.
While GOGOX has made considerable leaps in redefining the logistics industry thus far, Lalamove’s enormous rise to the forefront of the delivery services industry cannot be overlooked. In the meantime, one thing is for sure: we can definitely continue to look forward to a future of convenience.
Header image by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.