If you’ve ever needed needed to move furniture or send packages in Hong Kong, you’ve probably heard of GoGoX, or at the very least recognise its former name of GoGoVan and its big blue-and-yellow logo. We sat down with co-founder and CEO Steven Lam to find out how this billion-dollar business came about and why you don’t always need money and experience to start.
Hong Kong’s first unicorn start-up, with a valuation of more than US$1billion, GoGoX seems like the ultimate entrepreneur’s dream. The on-demand delivery platform revolutionised the traditional logistics industry in Asia back in 2013 with a mobile app that connects individuals and businesses to van drivers for the transportation of goods.
Fast forward to today and GoGoX – the “x” represents boundless possibilities – encompasses GoGoVan, GoGoDelivery and GoGoBusiness for an expanded portfolio of services that range from door-to-door delivery and more customised logistics solutions. It currently operates in 340 cities with an impressive 4.5 million registered drivers across Hong Kong, mainland China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and India. To think all this came together because the three founders, Steven Lam, Nick Tang and Reeve Kwan, stumbled on an idea at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, where they delivered food, is really quite astonishing.
For Lam, his entrepreneur story starts a little earlier. “I’m from a low-income family,” recalls the self-dubbed “cheap everything officer”. “I was raised in a Kowloon public-housing estate and I enjoyed growing up here. Looking back, I’m really thankful I have a good family. Money and material things were just not part of my life, because we simply didn’t have it. But I think this is what makes me who am I today.”
The son of a housewife and construction worker, it’s clear that Lam’s humble demeanour stems from his working-class background and it wasn’t until his academic struggles were apparent that opportunity arose. “I was kind of forced to go to California,” says Lam. “I had to take the HKCEE (now DSE) three times and my exam results were so bad … I was [ranked] in the bottom 10 in a school of 300-something people. That’s when my dad asked me, ‘Why don’t you quit school and start working with me?’”
That summer, fate made a long-distance call from California when his uncle, who’d lived there for 20 years, invited him on his first trip to America. Not long after his return to Hong Kong, Lam’s uncle asked his father the question that would change his life. “Why don’t we send Steven to California to study and live with me?” Unable to afford this prospect, Lam’s father was adamant this wouldn’t work. To which his uncle replied, “When I came to California, nobody in my generation came with money, we came here for the money.”
Over the next few months, Lam dropped out of high school in Hong Kong and moved to the US, but instead of moving to Los Angeles to live with his uncle, he set out to pave his own way in the San Francisco Bay Area. He enrolled in a community college and started working at a Chinese restaurant, where he met two fellow Hongkongers, Nick and Reeve, who became not only his good friends but also his business partners and the co-founders of GoGoX.
“They’re like brothers to me. If I didn’t have enough money for gas, they’d fill up my tank. Or if I had an exam and couldn’t work because I needed to study, they’d share the money they made working that day. We’re like brothers.” It was during this time that the three would get together to hatch up crazy ideas and devise business plans for fun. Little did they realise that these would come back to help them in the future.
Aside from working at the Chinese restaurant, Lam found other ways to make ends meet at community college. “I sold hot dogs in the parking lot, fixed computers and refurbished used bicycles,” he recalls. Meeting many students on his way, he eventually joined the student government as a regular member and even ran for president. “I thought, why not? I’ll just try.” Then, Lam made friends with an African-American football player in his English class. “I still remember him, his name was JT. When he found out I was running for president he introduced me to his friends in the courtyard. That’s how I got the biggest group of African-Americans voting for me. It was a record-breaking moment, as this particular group of students never used to vote at all!”
Lam went on to university during the 2008 financial crisis, attending Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where he continued with his side hustles to fund his way through school. “We’d buy automobile parts in bulk from Alibaba and sell them on eBay. We also resold unlocked first-generation iPhones and it was very good money – enough money to go to university.”
Suffice to say, his tenacious character and fierce entrepreneurial spirit are what got him to where he is now – and he acknowledges this probably comes from his grassroots upbringing. “There’ll be times when the situation isn’t in your favour. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can’t control what’s out of your control. But you can control yourself, so you have to work hard.”
Unable to find a job in California, Lam returned to Hong Kong but struggled to find employment. Soon after, Nick and Reeve joined him in unemployment, before they decided to start something together. Using an idea they’d come up with when working at the Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, in 2011 the trio launched BoxAd, a company that sold and printed advertisements on the side of Chinese takeaway boxes. The venture did well and in a matter of months, they were delivering to more than 600 restaurants across Hong Kong, which at its peak, amounted to more than 100,000 boxes daily.
Success, however, is never simple and soon enough they ran into issues with the call centres that arranged van drivers. The inefficiencies of this old radio-frequency system led to late deliveries and client complaints, so they attempted to contact the drivers directly and added them into WhatsApp groups – at the time, it could only hold up to 10 users – to send out delivery routes. This presented another set of problems, with more than one driver showing up for pick up and demanding payment for their time. “That’s when we decided to solve this problem once and for all by communicating with all the drivers at the same time with our own app, and that’s how GoGoVan came to be.”
Asked whether he considers himself successful, Lam lets out an immediate and resounding, “No! [GoGoX is] like a nine-year-old kid still trying to learn … The road is always evolving. What you think is successful today won’t be successful tomorrow. Why be satisfied with today’s success? Keep on fighting, keep on building and keep providing value to our customers.”
On what’s next for GoGoX, Lam reveals his plans for the future. “We want to expand our footprint in Asia. We’ll keep focusing on East Asia and developing ourselves in terms of technology and logistics. We need to get ready for the next wave of technology – for example, the autonomous vehicle. Not necessarily in Hong Kong, but I think the technology is ready. I also want to explore new services for SMEs and e-commerce, digitalising their workflows and processes while handling all of their logistic needs. That’s our vision.”
As we end our meeting, I can’t help but feel inspired by Lam’s journey and the way in which he started from scratch in a new country and found ways to make things work, even without all the money or experience the world tells you is needed. “Just start building what you believe in. Don’t wait,” says Lam. “You don’t need money or experience to start. Build your experience along the way, and then just keep adjusting. Stay agile.”
“Imagine someone gave you US$1 million to build your company. Do you know how to use this money? If not, then it’s not about money. You’re not ready. There’s a way to do business with money, and there’s a way to do business without money. So, why wait? Start your business today.”