A RIDE TO THE VERY TOP
Cofounder of Southeast Asia’s most popular car-hailing app reveals she was inspired by her own transport dilemma
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.