by Ulisari Eslita
Inspired by his entrepreneurial grandfather, Tan Yuet Foh, a Kuala Lumpur taxi driver who started the auto empire Tan Chong Motor, Anthony Tan launched GrabTaxi, now known as Grab, together with his partner Hooi Ling Tan, in 2011. “My friend, Aldi Haryopratomo, once told me, Southeast Asia has a major safety issue with transportation. He asked me to start thinking about the people’s needs in the region,” says Anthony, 34.
Grab, first called MyTeksi in Malaysia, was born as a mobile taxi app in a school business-plan contest. The idea was inspired by the poor taxi service in Kuala Lumpur. At first, the app was designed to hail a cab from any taxi company. Today, Grab has evolved into a regional tech firm looking to revolutionize Southeast Asia taxi industry. Launched in June 2012, Grab now partners with 185,000 drivers, with up to 1.5 million daily bookings across 28 cities in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.
As the leading ridesharing platform in Southeast Asia with a 95% market share, Grab offers the region’s widest range of options in one mobile app including taxis (GrabTaxi), motorcycle taxis (GrabBike), private cars (GrabCar), carpooling (GrabHitch) and deliveries (GrabExpress). “We’ve grown over the years and we’re now much more than a taxi app. Our goal is to make transportation accessible to everyone in Southeast Asia. We have the most number of transport services—including GrabTaxi, GrabCar and GrabBike, that cater to all price points, all available in one app,” says Anthony.
To build the firm, Anthony and Ling used their own money at first. “I borrowed some as well,” he remembers. (Anthony’s father is Tan Heng Chew, Malaysia’s No. 16 richest man worth $1 billion, whose Tan Chong Motor Holdings runs dealerships, assembles cars and makes auto parts).
A year after its launch, Grab expanded to Manila and the company faced financial difficulties, and weren’t able to pay salaries. However, some global investors were willing to invest in Grab. In April 2014, the company announced its series A funding led by Vertex Ventures for as much as $10 million, while a month after that, it raised $15 million series B funding from U.S. venture capital firm GGV Capital.
In the same year, in October 2014, Grab raised $65 million series C funding from U.S. hedge fund Tiger Global, Chinese travel giant Qunar, Vertex Ventures and GGV Capital. At the end of 2014, it got series D funding worth $250 million from Japan tech giant SoftBank.
Then in August 2015, Didi Kuaidi, a Chinese ridesharing firm, invested $350 million in a series E funding. With its total funding, Grab has become one of Southeast Asia’s “unicorn” companies, with an estimated market value of $1.5 billion. “We raised over $700 million now,” says Anthony.
Southeast Asia is experiencing a ridesharing boom. Uber and Rocket Internet’s Easy Taxi are fighting to gain share in the region. In Indonesia, Grab started in June 2014 with Grab, GrabCar, GrabBike and GrabExpress, and partners with local operators such as Putra and Express.
“Yesterday, I was in Jakarta, I used Grab, and an Express driver showed up. I asked him how many jobs he got. He said he got 15 jobs through the Grab app and 10 jobs off the street. We were able to provide more work for him through our technology,” says Anthony.
Meanwhile, for motorcycle taxis, known as ojek in Indonesia, GrabBike is head to head with Indonesia’s homegrown startup Go-Jek, launched in 2011 and now having hundreds of thousands of drivers. To promote itself, GrabBike provides rides at only Rp 15,000 (during off peak hours with a promotion code), while offering GrabCar at Rp 25,000 per ride with the same terms.
INVESTING IN R&D
When Anthony and Ling started Grab, they had one goal: to win the Southeast Asian market. “We are aware that one of our success factors is that we focus our business in Southeast Asia. We know the market; my family has a very strong roots here from many years ago, it has a huge market with 170 million smartphone users and we will continue to invest here,” he says.
To rule the region, Anthony has to ensure the app is stable. “We want to make sure, each time you book, you get a bike or a taxi,” he says. Thus a good part of the money he has raised has been put into research and development.
Last year, Grab allocated $100 million on a huge engineering center based in Singapore, followed by ones in Beijing and Seattle, which was launched last month. The Seattle center is especially important to attract top U.S. talent.
“As we continue to build an on-demand ecosystem in Southeast Asia, it is important to look all over the world for innovative ideas and people that will help us continue to succeed,” says Anthony. “We have the best engineers in Southeast Asia and the most advanced technology in the region.”
So far, Grab has invested $6 million into safety measures to develop new features and provide more training and education to its drivers and bikers. It also provides safety features on its apps. Grab is the first app in Southeast Asia to launch number masking, allowing completely anonymous calls between drivers and passengers to ensure security and privacy for both parties.
At the end of January, in Singapore, Anthony Tan officially announced that GrabTaxi is rebranding to “Grab” only. All mentions of GrabTaxi as a company or an app will now be Grab, while individual services will use clear extensions, such as GrabCar and GrabBike. “The new Grab brand identity represents freedom. The freedom to get to your destination safely and conveniently; the freedom to choose the best transport option for you, and the freedom to pursue a rewarding livelihood,” says Anthony.