Grab – A Tale of Little Time but Great Effort

By relentlessly building up her business, despite limited time and other obstacles, an entrepreneur turns a startup dream into reality. Now, she’s giving the world’s leading companies a run for their money.

Asia has become a hotspot for cab-booking apps in recent years, with Uber and Brazil’s Easy Taxi gunning to dominate the world’s most populated continent. Few expected a dark horse from Southeast Asia to match them at their game.

In less than four years, Malaysia-based Grab (formerly GrabTaxi) has become a household name, promising “a safe and reliable ride” – a slogan particularly appealing in Asia, where taxi scams can often be a problem. Investors have also been piling into the startup, sending its valuation soaring to more than US$1 billion. Easy Taxi, on the other hand, has failed in Asia and left.

The rise to the top

The idea of Grab came about when Malaysians Tan Hooi Ling and Anthony Tan (no relation) participated in a business plan contest in Harvard Business School, where they were studying. It was an idea that remained in the abstract – until the pair came close to winning, finishing as runners-up.

“We realised the power of the idea and the ability to potentially make it happen, we decided to re-craft our lives post-school around it,” Grab’s co-founder Tan Hooi Ling, 33, recalled.

But she was bonded to work for McKinsey & Company for two years. The management consulting firm had granted her a scholarship to pursue her MBA at Harvard, and she could not afford to break the contract. Still, she managed to obtain permission to resume work at McKinsey at a later date.

With the six months she had in between, Tan flew home to Malaysia and started work on the startup. Her partner focused on marketing and investor relations, while she saw to the running of the nitty gritty of the business. They worked out of a storeroom, the only space they found for free.

In 2012, when Uber and Easy Taxi were already ruling the on-demand taxi-hailing market, the Tans launched their business in Kuala Lumpur, calling it MyTeksi. Outside of Malaysia, the company would later be named GrabTaxi and subsequently, Grab.

Today, Grab’s taxi app has nearly 4 million users; the company is valued at $1.5 billion, based on funding of US$680 million. In comparison, Uber is a behemoth, valued at US$50 billion with $8.21 billion in funding. Yet Grab is running neck and neck with Uber in Asia, both registering almost the same number of bookings per second.

In 2013, Tan joined US cloud computing leader Salesforce. For personal reasons, she could not go full time into GrabTaxi and needed to stay on in San Francisco. But as she did at McKinsey, she committed her vacation time to her startup. At times, she would also take short breaks from work to make business trips to five or six countries for GrabTaxi, and then fly back to the US to resume work.

Into the heat of the action

Despite the demands of growing GrabTaxi, Tan did not neglect her duties to her employer. In fact, she excelled at Salesforce and was promoted to Senior Director.

What truly bothered her was not being able to give her full attention to GrabTaxi. She said: “Even though I was helping, providing thoughts, helping to frame things, I wasn’t able to be on the ground and actually help drive change with the team day-to-day.”

Still, she made sure she was intimately involved in the key operations of the business – developing the app, managing staff, and improving customer experience and other business processes.

“All of these things are very critical components of our service but they’re also generally the things that happen within the walls, less marketing-related and front-facing.”

Her dedicated approach helped GrabTaxi identify the concerns of its stakeholders and address them. For instance, in 2015, the firm set up a GrabTaxi Provident Fund of US$2.5 million to help drivers cover medical fees, accidents and crisis costs.

Finally in April 2015, Tan left Salesforce and joined GrabTaxi full time as its Chief Operating Officer. These days, she describes herself as a “plumber” who fixes things and processes.

From a fleet of 30 cabs, GrabTaxi has come a long way, now with more than 110,000 registered taxis servicing 22 cities in six countries.

In her journey so far, Tan has shown perseverance, hard work and patience in the face of obstacles, so she was able to finally focus on doing what she loves – and driving it to great heights. Despite her many commitments, she was always grabbing whatever free time she could to pursue her goal. Is that what you are doing too?


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