Digerati50: The first unicorn

 
Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its weekly series that profiles the top 50 influencers, movers and shakers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 Vol 2, a special print publication released in February 2016. To download a special e-reader version, see the top of this page. For information on customised reprints of Digerati50, email [email protected].
 

  • Industry observers put Grab’s valuation north of US$1.5bil
  • ‘Find the bigger purpose and hold true to it’
Digerati50: The first unicorn

 
IF one were to list the most successful entrepreneurs in South-East Asia, Grab cofounder Anthony Tan will definitely feature prominently.
 
In just about three years, he has managed to grow Grab – via its flagship GrabTaxi taxi-hailing service of the same name, as well as complementary services like GrabCar, GrabBike and GrabExpress – into one of the leading transport brands in the region.
 
He also successfully secured round after round of funding, totalling about US$700 million to date. While Grab has not publicly disclosed its valuation, industry observers believe it would be north of US$1.5 billion – definitely a ‘unicorn’ in startup parlance.
 
In contrast, Tan Chong Motors, the assembler and sole distributor of Nissan cars in Malaysia founded by Anthony’s grandfather, has a market capitalisation of US$390 million (RM1.7 billion).
 
Throughout its meteoric growth and the seemingly never-ending series of new services, Grab has never strayed from its vision, Anthony stresses.
 
“Our objective has never wavered from generating both business and social value, in line with the company’s principles of driving positive change and making people’s lives better,” he declares.
 
The success Anthony has achieved with Grab has not only inspired other entrepreneurs, it has made him a role model to young people.
 
“I am heartened and encouraged, of course, to be viewed as a role model,” he says.
 
“I think beyond that, I want to share with youth who may be looking at me and my company as sources of inspiration, that success will come if you focus on meeting a real community need and creating social value,” he says.
 
“I measure my personal success by how much I am able to help serve and meet the needs of people around me.”
 
The journey to the top has been fraught with challenges, however. Anthony recalls the early days in 2012 when Grab – then known as MyTeksi – had just been founded.
 
“One of my greatest personal challenges was trying to get taxi drivers to change their habits and use a smartphone to find customers.
 
“From the start, I was out there on the ground with the team, approaching individual taxi drivers to conduct demos to teach them how to use the app.
 
“I needed to create ‘buy-in’ for taxi drivers to use the GrabTaxi app and educate them on how to use the technology to enhance their livelihoods,” he says.
 
As the company expanded regionally, also relocating its headquarters to Singapore, new challenges beckoned.
 
“Learning about the local business environment and each market’s local issues were areas my team and I needed to pick up quickly,” he says.
 
“Going hyperlocal meant we needed to embrace the diversity of the South-East Asian region, such as language, cultural differences and infrastructure challenges,” he adds.
 
While Anthony admits that this hyperlocal strategy continues to be the greatest challenge in operating in South-East Asia on a regional basis, it is also Grab’s biggest advantage over its global competitors.
 
“It’s as simple as us living in the cities where we operate. I grew up here, understand the nuances of local communities, and our engineering and operational resources are focused on solving them.
 
“This helps shape the way we approach our plans, and it is no coincidence that the leading ride-hailing companies in South-East Asia, China and India are all local companies,” he explains.
 
When asked about the people who contributed to his and his startup’s success, Anthony says there are three groups of people who have played important roles.
 
“First are the local drivers. They are the heroes of the transportation industry, working hard to provide safe rides to commuters.
 
“They have been our partners from the start, and we thank them for their belief in Grab as we grew. Today [as of December 2015], we have 185,000 drivers in our network across the region.

“Second are the local consumers. We have been blessed to have won the trust of local consumers in every market we have ventured into. Today, we are in 28 cities across six countries, and have over 10 million downloads.
 
“Third is the Grab team. We have grown strength to strength since our humble beginnings in 2012 when we first officially launched to the public as MyTeksi.
 
“Our company is powered by the daily efforts of talented and driven individuals and teams who are committed to driving South-East Asia forward,” he says.
 
Anthony’s last bit of advice to aspiring young entrepreneurs?
 
“Find the bigger purpose and hold true to it. Having a long-term vision brings a clarity to your business decisions and pushes you to achieve more,” he says.

 

 
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