Co­founder of South­east Asia’s most pop­u­lar car-hail­ing app re­veals she was in­spired by her own trans­port dilemma

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By ANTHONY WAR­REN anthony@chi­nadai­lya­pac.com

When Tan Hooi Ling and her business part­ner were found­ing the taxi-hail­ing app Grab, the goal was to solve a prob­lem: To help peo­ple find a cab ride in South­east Asia’s some­times un­re­li­able taxi mar­ket.

“We cre­ated a plat­form we didn’t re­al­ize was go­ing to be so suc­cess­ful,” 33-year-old Tan told China Daily. “Sud­denly peo­ple were us­ing it. It sky­rock­eted. It’s still con­tin­u­ing to sky­rocket.”

Now in its fourth year, Grab is South­east Asia’s most pop­u­lar trans­port tool. As of Septem­ber, the app was down­loaded onto more than 21 mil­lion mo­bile de­vices across six coun­tries in the re­gion; and more than 1.5 mil­lion book­ings were made daily for cabs, car­pools and even mo­tor­cy­cle taxis.

It is also one of Asia’s lead­ing uni­corns, a term for tech star­tups that reach a $1 bil­lion mar­ket value. Grab was re­cently val­ued at more than $1.6 bil­lion, rak­ing in $750 mil­lion in fi­nanc­ing in Septem­ber in a fund­ing round led by Ja­panese telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions gi­ant SoftBank.

Based to­day in Sin­ga­pore’s cen­tral business district, with hubs in Bei­jing and San Francisco, the com­pany was founded in 2012 in a store­room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That was the year the co­founders and friends Tan Hooi Ling and Anthony Tan — both Malaysian, both Tans, but not re­lated — re­turned to Asia from Har­vard Business School in the United States.

Anthony, the son of Tan Heng Chew — the fam­ily is No 21 on Forbes’ 2016 list of the wealth­i­est Malaysians — serves as the com­pany’s pub­lic face. Hooi Ling is more low­pro­file, more in­ter­ested in pro­cesses. While it is true she is not yet a house­hold name, over the last year her pro­file has steadily grown.

This year, Forbes Asia listed her among its dozen Asian Women to Watch, and Fortune mag­a­zine pegged her and Anthony at joint 17th on the 40 Un­der 40 rank­ing, its an­nual list of in­flu­en­tial young en­trepreneurs.

Com­pared to Anthony, who re­put­edly had a body­guard un­til he was 13, Hooi Ling’s back­ground is less priv­i­leged. Her fa­ther was a civil en­gi­neer, her mother a stock­bro­ker’s agent, and Hooi Ling was a “gad­get freak” in her teenage years, in­ter­ested in see­ing how things worked.

It was in 2006, af­ter a fouryear bach­e­lor’s de­gree in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Bath in the United King­dom, that Tan re­turned to Malaysia to work with McKin­sey & Com­pany, one of the world’s lead­ing con­sul­tancy firms.

The job would lay the seeds for Grab’s ge­n­e­sis. Work­ing into the early hours as a man­age­ment con­sul­tant, it was of­ten the case that get­ting home be­came a “per­sonal dilemma”: To taxi or not to taxi?

Malaysia’s taxis do not have the most sa­vory of rep­u­ta­tions. “It was a per­sonal dis­as­ter for me,” she said. “It had an im­pact on my life be­cause I could never travel wher­ever I wanted to or when­ever I wanted to.”

She had three op­tions: Her par­ents or brother could take her, she could drive her­self — “not a good idea, I’m a bad driver” — or her friends could pick her up.

“And only af­ter all three op­tions had been con­sid­ered would my mom even con­sider me tak­ing a taxi.”

Dur­ing her trips home, her mother would stay awake into the early hours, wait­ing for her to ar­rive. Tan de­vel­oped coded cell-phone text mes­sages so that her fam­ily knew where she was and that she was safe. In many ways, this was a pre­cur­sor to Grab’s cur­rent abil­ity to track and share ride de­tails with friends and fam­ily.

“That was life,” Tan said. “I took it for granted.”

She worked — and put up with Malaysia’s taxis — for three more years, un­til 2009 when the com­pany of­fered her a bonded schol­ar­ship to Har­vard Business School. She ac­cepted, and there in the US she met Grab’s other co­founder, Anthony Tan.

Be­fore long, the pair had laid their own ground­work to im­prove Malaysia’s taxi sys­tem.

“When Anthony and I started dis­cussing a com­bi­na­tion of how we could po­ten­tially help Malaysia and help South­east Asia, we also thought about how we could use the lat­est tech­nol­ogy for it,” she said.

Draw­ing on their own ex­pe­ri­ences and the business classes they were tak­ing, they drafted a pro­posal for what they named MyTeksi, a lo­cal­ized app that would in­tro­duce low-cost tech to Malaysia’s taxis and im­prove both ef­fi­ciency and qual­ity of ser­vice for driv­ers and rid­ers.

Com­mon prob­lems that taxi pas­sen­gers faced were of­fered so­lu­tions by the app. Pas­sen­gers could track where they were go­ing, then pass that data to friends or fam­ily. Taxis could even be rated.

In 2011, the idea was pre­sented at Har­vard’s 15th An­nual Business Plan Con­test and placed as a run­nerup among 63 com­pet­ing pro­pos­als. It was also among the fi­nal­ists for Har­vard’s Min­i­mum Vi­able Prod­uct Fund­ing award.

Per­haps more im­por­tantly, the plan was caus­ing a buzz among ad­vis­ers, in­vestors and other en­trepreneurs. “They were in­vest­ing so much time in their con­ver­sa­tions with us,” said Tan. “They re­al­ized how dif­fer­ent our idea was rel­a­tive to all the other startup ideas.”

With the foun­da­tions laid, fol­low­ing grad­u­a­tion the pair re­turned to Malaysia. “That’s when Anthony and I kick­started ev­ery­thing, ran things to ground, hired the first team — the found­ing team,” she ex­plained. “The rest is his­tory.”

Or at least, that was the the­ory. In re­al­ity, be­ing bonded to McKin­sey for her MBA schol­ar­ship at Har­vard, there was no way Tan could break her con­tract and work full time on the project.

She did end up tak­ing six months’ leave to help launch the com­pany in Kuala Lumpur, but it was not un­til 2015 that she re­turned to Malaysia full time. In the in­terim, she had left McKin­sey to work with cloud­com­put­ing com­pany Sales­force. com in San Francisco.

Back at Grab there were teething trou­bles. “Our in­fras­truc­ture wasn’t ready for (the users), we built it for a smaller scale,” said Tan. “It was crash­ing dur­ing cer­tain days, par­tic­u­larly week­ends.”

Equally press­ing was adding driv­ers and taxi com­pa­nies to the Grab net­work. It could have been a ma­jes­tic fail­ure, par­tic­u­larly if no one both­ered to use the app. In­stead, it was met with a groundswell of sup­port.

“The mo­ment we of­fered that plat­form (to taxi driv­ers), helped train them to how to use it, they started jump­ing on it. And why? Be­cause there was a dire mar­ket need.”

Tan said that while mar­ket forces — and a paucity of pub­lic in­fras­truc­ture in most South­east Asian cities — have helped boost in­ter­est, an­other as­pect has been safety.

For in­stance, GrabHitch, the com­pany’s car­pool­ing op­tion, al­lows rid­ers to de­cide which gen­der driver should pick them up.

So where does Tan see the fu­ture?

“Grab is in it for the long run. We’re not in it to be one of those flash-in-the-pan, tem­po­rary, one hit won­ders. We want to make an im­pact in South­east Asia. We want to re­shape South­east Asia,” she said.

“If you think about analo­gies with dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries — we want to be the Alibaba, the Ten­cent, the Face­book of South­east Asia.”

Ear­lier this year, the com­pany rolled out a cash­less pay­ment sys­tem, GrabPay, which al­lows con­sumers to top-up in a va­ri­ety of ways and store cred­its in a dig­i­tal wal­let. In In­done­sia, Grab’s largest mar­ket, the com­pany has part­nered with the real es­tate and ser­vices con­glom­er­ate Lippo. This will al­low users to pur­chase goods us­ing just their app.

While other car- hail­ing apps like Uber and Didi Chux­ing have looked to go global, for Tan the ap­peal of South­east Asia is not only about be­ing close to home.

“It’s such a large mar­ket,” she noted. “And there’s so much more to do, there’s re­ally no need to go any­where else.”


Tan Hooi Ling says she aims to make Grab the Alibaba, the Ten­cent, the Face­book of South­east Asia.

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