GrabTaxi’s ‘hidden’ Tan, and why she came back
By Benjamin Cher January 29, 2016
- That Harvard Business School plan, and why it was about taxis
- ‘It’s always been about … local champions and understanding local needs’
IT is not uncommon for one founder to become the public face of a company while the other stays behind the scenes, ensuring things run smoothly. From Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Parker Harris, quiet cofounders are chugging away.
The yin-and-yang of the public and the quiet cofounder relationship is pretty evident in South-East Asia’s first unicorn, ride-hailing startup Grab, previously GrabTaxi … and MyTeksi before that.
While chief executive officer Anthony Tan has been the public face of Grab, few even know about his cofounder Tan Hooi Ling (pic above), who has been happy enough to leave the limelight to Anthony.
But it was both of them who came up with the idea for MyTeksi during their Harvard Business School days.
“We really wanted to solve an issue that was completely broken in Malaysia, and I say it because I used to have to use taxis,” says Hooi Ling, speaking to Digital News Asia (DNA) in Singapore.
“I felt constrained and I could never really go where I wanted to because I was afraid of taxi drivers – I really was, and even when I wasn’t, my parents were [for me],” she exclaims.
Working at the time in management consultancy firm McKinsey & Co, Hooi Ling often found herself alone in client offices till late at night, and that’s when she would have needed to call a cab home.
“I would have to call for a taxi to make my way back home alone, late at night, because all my clients would have left the office already – and my parents hated it,” she recalls.
She had been driving her own car before that, but even that was not a solution – often, by the end of her long working day (and night!), she was too tired to drive safely, which meant that taking a taxi should have made perfect sense.
But “when I first started taking taxis home, my mom would stay up for me – she would sit in front of the TV and ping me every hour after a certain hour, ‘Are you coming back home yet?’
“I felt really bad,” she says.
Realising how much her mother worried about her safety, the two of them came up with a ‘system.’
“I would text her the taxi’s licence plate number and how far away I was when I got into a cab,” says Hooi Ling.
“Back then, we only had feature-phones with no GPS (global positioning system), so we had a fixed set of locations for me to text her, ‘Ma, I’m here now, should be about 10 minutes away,’ because she wanted to be at the gate to usher me in quickly!”
From personal issue to startup idea
Those experiences are in fact the idea behind the tracking system in Grab today, and why such safety features are so important to the startup, Hooi Ling declares.
“That is why we also came up with the rating system – and it was not just me, but Anthony and his mom and our friends all had the same issue,” she stresses.
“We were just designing something to solve our personal needs, that we thought everyone was facing as well,” she adds.
Hooi Ling and Anthony are both Malaysians, which means they were quite aware of the bad reputation taxi drivers there have.
The sad thing, of course, is that not all taxi drivers are bad eggs – which explains the other problem MyTeksi set out to address.
“There’s a wide range of drivers in the market – yes, some of them are really bad, the ones that give the entire industry a bad name, the ones who get into the newspapers for robberies and rapes,” says Hooi Ling.
“At the other end of the spectrum, I have had really great experiences with taxi drivers who are just awesome – they are amazing people that, for whatever reason, decided to drive a taxi.
“I just realised how unfair it was for them – because of the bad drivers, they were all getting a bad reputation and they couldn’t take pride in their work,” she adds.
Helping these good drivers regain their pride became part of the focus of what MyTeksi would set out to do, according to Hooi Ling.
“That’s was what we were trying to solve – from the passenger front, that consumers can get a safe ride and you can book it quickly and efficiently.
“And on the drivers’ side, we wanted to help them get some pride back in their jobs,” she says.
A survey by Grab showed that seven out of 10 Grab drivers now feel pride and dignity in their profession, according to Hooi Ling.
The comeback cofounder
MyTeksi, now Grab, was spawned in a business plan competition at the Harvard Business School which Hooi Ling and Anthony were attending.
While the sky’s the limit when you’re in school, the harsh realities of working life and adult responsibilities can temper that expectation quickly.
Bonded to McKinsey & Co for her scholarship to Harvard, Hooi Ling had to fulfil those obligations at one of its West Coast offices in the United States, while Anthony went back to his family business, leaving MyTeksi in the hands of Chew Wei Chuan and Aaron Gill.
Yet this was not goodbye, as Hooi Ling re-joined Grab in the first quarter of 2015, after her stint in McKinsey, as well as a two-year one at Salesforce.com.
“There are two sides of this, all related to different aspects of my personal life,” says Hooi Ling.
“Once you move to a different country, roots start to grow. I was able to leave for financial reasons because I had paid off my bond, but two, personally as well, I was in a good spot to uproot,” she adds.
Having kept close touch with Anthony and the rest of the original team, Hooi Ling realised that the level of issues Grab was facing and the number of solutions it was developing required her to roll up her sleeves and get in there.
“What we initially thought was just about taxi safety in Malaysia had grown to so much more, and there were a lot more things that I could take back from my experiences in San Francisco and Silicon Valley that could help.
“Knowing that the team could benefit from my help was also important, because I was extremely proud of everything they had done while I was away.
“I give them so much kudos because I was not here for a long time and they were the ones who brought it to success,” she says.
But there was also the growing realisation that she could not contribute on a remote and part-time basis.
“I was having discussions late at night and I realised that if I really wanted to help, I needed to do this full-time.
“I remember having multiple conference calls where I was on my hands-free set, and I would be pacing underground in San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system when I didn’t want to lose connectivity.
“I’d be talking, and some of the homeless people in the train station would be staring at me while I was having deep, intellectual conversations with Anthony and the team members,” she chuckles.
Identity and safety
Grab’s branding has morphed several times. It has moved from Malaysia to Singapore, it is now a South-East Asian player, and some regional and Western media outlets are describing it as a Singapore startup success story.
Is this a sign of a lack of identity? Has it lost its raison d’être?
Au contraire, Hooi Ling shoots back: “I still go home [to Malaysia] a lot, thinking about how things have changed because we have been able to help make things better, then bringing it throughout the rest of the region.
“Grab reflects that, whether it has been MyTeksi, GrabTaxi or Grab, it’s always been about local solutions, local champions, and understanding local needs.
“We started in Malaysia, and our homes will always be in Malaysia,” she says.
A key pillar for Grab has always been the safety of its passengers, but with news reports last year that taxi drivers in Malaysia were physically attacking GrabCar drivers and passengers, that concern took on a new dimension.
“We are trying to make life better for our drivers and passengers, and when we make life better for any side of this platform, it is a cycle that perpetuates itself,” argues Hooi Ling.
“In any change that you bring, whether it is to our particular industry or any other, there is always a slight resistance.
“Why? Because change is uncomfortable – but as long as we know what the ultimate end goal of that change is, we can all believe in it,” she says, adding that public support continues to be positive reinforcement for the Grab team.
Hooi Ling says that Grab will continue to push on with its vision, but admits there are points to be learned from those violent disruptions in its home market.
“It is part of something we need to manage and listen to – they [taxi drivers] brought up certain very good points, and we will continue to learn and provide support around that,” she adds.
Trust in the team
For any startup, getting your team to believe in the vision may be relatively easy at the start, but it gets increasingly harder to maintain this level of belief as you expand markets and headcount.
Hooi Ling believes that Grab has fared very well there too. Case in point: During the recent terrorist attacks in Jakarta, Grab offered free rides for people in the area to help them get to safety.
That was entirely the Indonesian team’s doing. “If we had to decide and approve every single thing, what happened in Indonesia would not have happened until five hours later, because Anthony and I are very busy.
“But it is a reflection of how much trust we have in our teams,” says Hooi Ling.
“I found out about the bombings an hour later after someone pulled me out of a meeting, and by then, the Indonesian team had already done such amazing things,” she adds.
And, pardon the cliché, it’s a two-way street, she argues.
“We know that whatever we do is a representation of the people we hire and bring along on this journey,” says Hooi Ling.
“We have amazing people who are very aligned with our mission, our vision, and how we run our company, and because of that, they make big decisions around the values [we uphold].
“Was I proud of how our Indonesia team handled the event? Extremely!” she declares.
Lessons and the future
The entrepreneurial journey is tough, and often fraught with failures and challenges. Hooi Ling has three lessons to share from her own journey.
“One, it is possible to do the impossible, but before you decide to do the impossible, be very, very sure that you care a ton about it,” she stresses.
The best example was when MyTeksi first started. Hooi Ling recalls how people thought it was a crazy idea.
“A lot of people thought we were crazy, insane and stupid, and that includes friends and family … but now they all see that what we were trying to do was for a good reason, they are extremely proud and supportive,” she says.
“But it took some time … and that’s why we are grateful for everyone who believed in us from the beginning,” she adds.
And that includes the original team, especially. “When we first came back from Boston with the initial product, they took massive pay-cuts because we didn’t have money, but they wanted to do it … because they thought it was important,” she says.
Yet nothing in life is guaranteed, even with the best talent and all the money in the world, which brings Hooi Ling to her second important lesson: Doing the work.
“If you have a real issue and solution, don’t bet that it will work, because even if you put in a ton of money, time and talent, it still doesn’t mean it will work.
“But because of that, be ready to make sure you need to put in all that hard work – you need to continually learn,” she says.
Finally, Lesson No 3 is about celebrating success, which Hooi Ling believes is important for the journey.
“You need to also know how to celebrate the successes when they happen, because you will have so many failures along the way – if you don’t know how to look at the silver lining in the clouds, you won’t last,” she says.
“As you have seen with Grab, we have grown at an intense pace, and the only way we can maintain and sustain that continuous sprint is by … realising all the great things we can celebrate and have learnt, which gives us the energy to go on and do more things,” she adds.
What does the future hold for Grab, post-rebranding? Simple. It’s going to be more of the same: Understanding issues and solving them.
“What we want to do in the future is to continue doing what we are doing: Understanding the biggest issues that hurt our local customers and helping them solve them – and even beyond that, giving them solutions that they never thought about,” says Hooi Ling.
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