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Grab wants to go way beyond ride-hailing in Asia, co-founder Hooi Ling Tan says

It wants one app to take care of all of its customers’ worries, including food and payments.

Grab co-founder Hooi Ling Tan
Grab co-founder Hooi Ling Tan
RISE via Getty Images

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, Hooi Ling Tan, the co-founder of southeast Asian ride-hailing company Grab, talks with Recode’s Kara Swisher. Tan says Grab is opening up a platform for more services beyond ride-hailing because it wants to address not just transportation needs but every worry its customers may have, including groceries and payments. She also talks about how the company is working with 27 percent-shareholder Uber and its newest board member, Toyota, which in June invested $1 billion into Grab. Plus: Tan explains why the company doesn’t have to worry about diversity.

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited transcript of Kara’s full conversation with Tan, recorded live at the 2018 Rise Conference in Hong Kong.

Kara Swisher: I am very excited. I always like when I interview entrepreneurs and I especially love to interview entrepreneurial women and incredibly smart ones like yourself. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s begin talking about the recent announcements you’ve made and let’s get into some more deeper issues around where transport is going and all the various trends.

Hooi Ling Tan: Perfect, so Kara is actually referring to a big announcement that we’re making regionally today, where we’re announcing a couple of things. One, we’re transitioning from our transport to an open platform strategy and we’re also launching Grab Platform today. I’ll share a bit of context of what that means because it’s a huge move for us and it’s reflective of our growth over the last six years. So, over the last six years we’ve become the go-to transport service provider in Southeast Asia. But, at the same time, because of the strong user base, the distribution network that we have, we’ve been able to heavily invest in future services like food, payments, logistics, and today we’re bringing it all together into what we call Grab Platform, which does a couple of things. We’re going to be focusing more on becoming Southeast Asia’s everyday super app.

“Super app.” Right. You need to explain that because it sounds ...

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I’ll describe it all. So firstly, what “super app” means is from one app for one set of services, which used to be transport, we’re now going to become one app for multiple different services, focused on what we call the everyday most important needs to southeast Asia: Food, payments, logistics and today we’re also announcing that we’re going into grocery deliveries with a partnership with HappyFresh. So that goes into the second part of what this new strategy means. The reason why we say it’s an open platform strategy is because we’re trying to encourage as many partners to come on board together to solve these amazing challenges that Southeast Asia has, using the assets we have already built, using the knowledge and the know-how we’ve painfully learned over the past six years, because Southeast Asia is complex.

When you say it’s a super app ... One of the problems ... so you’re not a transport company, you would not call yourself a transport company anymore?

We used to, but going forward, definitely no.

This is an American reference, but there’s an old “Saturday Night Live” skit that “it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping.” Like it’s a lot of things when it’s too many things. Talk about that concept, when you were known as getting a taxi and then moved on to other areas, and we’ll talk about that in a minute, but what gives you the permission to be everything in that regard? Because there’s a lot of companies trying to do that and it can get really complex. I know Uber in the United States is trying for, doing delivery and a bunch of other things, but not quite in this amount.

It’s many different things. Firstly we actually asked our consumers and our users, what would they see and like to see the future of Grab to be? And they actually told us they want us to be the one-stop shop for them to wake up and use us without having to carry their wallets around. In terms of the assets that we’ve accumulated, we’ve had more than 100 million downloads since we started our company. We also have the largest offline distribution — what do I mean by this, right? We have drivers, we have merchants, we have agents and we’ve actually bought onboard more than 7.1 million of them in Southeast Asia now. That’s actually larger than the population of Singapore. And of course, as a home-grown technology startup, we’ve also got a suite of technology services that we’ve been opening up to APIs to our partners that enabled them to leverage the same asset base that we have, as well.

So when you’re thinking about everything, does that make you like an Alibaba? Or when you look around, what do you consider? Because all these apps, whether it’s WeChat or the others all throughout Asia, do a lot of other things. So when you do that, is that confusing to users, or do you think that’s what users want over time? Because at least in the U.S., we have the Uber app, then we’ve got the Amazon app and we’ve got the Google app and the Facebook app — they’re all separate.

Firstly, I don’t think it’s confusing because when you’re in Southeast Asia there’s none of these alternatives that we’re talking about. And secondly, I don’t think we’re actually like any of the other players because Southeast Asia’s needs are very nuanced. We’re leading the way for technology and innovation, so when it comes from starting from an offline perspective first, the O to O transition is super easy for us.

A couple of other things, right? One, we are now in like eight countries, 225 cities. That means that every single person that opens our new app that we’re also revamping and starting to launch ours, as of today, will look tailored and personalized. And that service is going to be extremely different from what I think the alternative Chinese players provide. Last but not least, I do ask for this, we used to be known as the “Uber of Southeast Asia.” I think everybody realized that that wasn’t the case. I hope we don’t try to create similar parallels there because it won’t be the case, as well.

Right, so you don’t want to be known as that, so what would you give your motto as then? The Grab of Southeast Asia.

We are just Grab. We’ve become the noun for a lot of investor pitch stacks for other companies in Southeast Asia so hopefully that can be the norm going forward.

So let’s talk a little about your transportation business, because it’s sort of the date that brung you, essentially. When you think about where transportation is going, does that still put this at the heart of it? Because a lot of companies do get distracted over here and some things are adjacent — like in the U.S., Uber doing delivery, Uber Eats, makes sense because they’ve got drivers everywhere and there’s other thing they can do with their distribution network that make sense. I just interviewed Dara Khosrowshahi, who’s the new CEO, and he was talking about all kinds of transportation-type related things where they would make an app that was everything for transportation, but wasn’t really talking about more. I’ve never heard them talk about content, I’ve never heard them talk about payments, except for payments for rides. So talk about the transportation business because it’s still at the heart of what you’re doing.

Yes. So I’ll just show a little bit why we’re evolving in this way because I think it’s very contextual to Southeast Asia. There are no alternative players beyond us who has built the Southeast Asian reach that we now have. The operational know-how, the team, the talent, the technology infrastructure. And because it’s a relatively green field for us, that opportunity exists in ways that no alternative players have in different countries or locations.

In terms of how we think about transportation and how it feeds into our future strategy and growth ... Transportation has a lot more potential and a lot more impact to unlock because if you think about our founding story and what we were trying to achieve … So, a bit of context. My co-founder Anthony and I, we started the company after discussions on trying to develop safe and accessible transportation solutions for all of Southeast Asia. And Southeast Asia has a mishmash of very developed markets like Singapore, to super-undeveloped markets, let’s say like the Cambodia and Myanmar, that we recently launched.

In order to serve them well, we need to have a multitude of services that can fit different customer segments. So of course we have taxis, or course we have private-hire vehicles, we’ve also got two-wheelers in Vietnam and in Asia. We’ve also got three-wheelers in like Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand. And we’ve also got services like shuttles, where we’re starting to put more and more people into the same vehicle with routing mechanisms and logic so that we can actually solve congestion.

Now, these are some of what we have today. Going forward, what we want to do is help fully integrate into public transportation and really work hand-in-hand with that, so that we can provide multimodal services for all customers. What I mean by this is that if you think on an average Southeast Asian customer, a large majority of them don’t live in the CBD [Central Business District] area. They live an hour’s travel away, sometimes up to three hours when there’s bad traffic jams and rains. For them, what they usually have to do each day is have multiple phases of their trip. They either walk or take a bike to a train station or a bus station and then they fight like this for space, sometimes get pickpocketed, sometimes get harassed, on public services that are not sometimes built for scale.

They take the bus or train in and then they do another bike or walk or minibus transition again. Think about Grab going forward where, for them, all they have to do is book with one click and enter a journey that has bike, bus or bike shuttle and bike transition fully planned for them — where seats are reserved, you don’t have to do this. The bikes are there, you know exactly who your biker is going to be, what number plate it is, they’re waiting for you so you don’t have to do three bookings, you just do one, and the end and seamless transition is what we’re looking for.

Does that replace public transportation? That’s a big debate in the U.S. whether it should be replaced.

No, I think public transportation definitely has a place to play and we want to support it. What we feel is happening is that public transportation may not be fully utilized just because people can’t get full access to it. It’s not be used in the most efficient way because there is no way to pre-book it, so that people don’t have to figure out what are the most jammed periods and they get crashed like tin cans and tunas.

Right, well, it’s what the government is supposed to do but doesn’t.

And that’s where technology comes in, right? Because to be honest, we’re the first ever to develop the kind of data at scale that we have. So we actually have ongoing partnerships with players like the World Bank Open Traffic, where we’re helping to provide, of course, sanitized data to them to help them figure out, what is the future of public infrastructure and in certain cities like Manila and other developing markets like Southeast Asia?

What do you think of some of the more further-out technologies coming? When you look at Uber’s vertical lift- and takeoff things, which seems insane, I’m not sure I would get in one, but they’re essentially helicopters of a sort. There’s all kinds of different ways, right now we have suddenly a scooter phase in the United States where everyone’s on these hellish scooters and they’re everywhere across the cities and it’ll be interesting to see what happens to them. But what do you see as where transport is going? Because a lot of people feel no transport, like people staying where they are and not moving necessarily, is also a possibility.

You know, a pipe dream of mine is teleportation because I hate the concept of getting stuck in traffic and I also get motion sick, so whatever we could do to not have a moving vehicle in the very very far future is my ideal.

Are you working on teleportation?

I wish.

They’re all Trekkies, why is that? Why are all geeks Trekkies?

I don’t know. Maybe that’s why we end up in the industry.

All right, so teleportation ...

There are many different interesting technologies out there. I won’t try to guess which ones are actually going to make it because it’s like the Betamax-VHS wars — nobody really knew. A couple that we’re definitely working together with partners to further develop, of course EVs, we actually already have the largest fleet of EVs in Singapore. We think super-critical in reducing greenhouse gasses going forward.

So electric vehicles.

Secondly, AVs. I think you know a lot about that, as well. Third, same concept, but on two wheels, right? Electronic bikes.

Electric bikes, yes. That’s a big thing.

E-scooters. I think that serves another segment for the shorter-distance rides that is completely underserved right now. Now there are others like vertical takeoffs, Boring Company, going down, under, going up ... I think those are more nascent. There will probably be a place for them if we can make it safe and efficient, but for now, when I think about solutions that we want, we always think about what’s most relevant to Aoutheast Asia. EV is already here today, AV will likely happen in Singapore, but for other countries, for those of you who have been to Vietnam, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon —

Autonomous vehicles.

— because when you cross the road, you don’t see traffic moving in one directions or two directions or three directions, it’s like 360. Intersections have bikes crossing endlessly and they don’t care about you, by the way.

Talk about this Toyota investment that was just made. Obviously every one of these companies are getting massive investments by car companies. Why?

So, let me just frame it for those who don’t know, we recently got an investment for $1 billion from Toyota and I think that this was just a few weeks ago. It’s a reflection of a couple of things. One, they are believing in the future of ride-hailing companies and how it’s going to work together with OEMs in shaping the future of transportation. Secondly, for us, if you look at our existing partners, we already have Dara on our board, we already have Uber, Didi on our board, SoftBank on our board, so the last part of the value chain, we wanted to get a really strong partner on us as well, was the OEMs. And of course we’re going to be building more and more partnerships, as we have done before, that enter in view of being able to shape the future, not just from a technology and consumer behavior standpoint, but also from the hardware. We think it’s going to be super critical in the longer game.

And do you have to make the cars yourself, or is this sort of a way to be part of that without ... because Uber tried it and obviously, even though it says it isn’t removing itself from them, it’s a very difficult challenge for that company.

I think I’ll phrase how we think about it. Ever since we started the company and, again, going back to the fact that Southeast Asia is mostly untapped opportunity right now. There’s so much to do and we don’t want to do it all alone. So we’re constantly looking for the best partners, partnership-first approach, right? Whether it’s hardware development, whether it’s software development, whether it’s groceries, whether it’s payments, we’re constantly figuring out if there’s a better, faster, smarter partner out there. We want to work together with them and then we bring the best of both sides together to make 1+1 equals 2 or 3 or 4 or 10.

Right. And this is the same thing around the Uber relationship. You all were competing head on and then suddenly, there is no competition. It seems that the world is being carved up by all under the SoftBank umbrella for some reason. Uber is invested in Didi, is invested in you, is ... How does that look from your perspective? It makes sense, the competition is bruising and ultimately money-sucking, so ...

I think ... Let me step back. Let’s forget about ride-hailing, per se. You look at any industry that has gone through sufficient time, sufficient competition, it will always be going through a couple of cycles. One, there will be a lot of competition, there will be some consolidation, but there will still be competition. And I think we’re going through those cycles, but at an accelerated speed.

From our perspective, the Uber partnership made a ton of sense to us because we saw them as really true potential partners — for example, some of the things they’ve been helping us a lot on. They had Uber Eats in Southeast Asia, which we didn’t have, and since we’ve helped take over their operations, we’ve helped them expand it from two countries to six countries right now with much more growth expansion plans. They’ve also had some of the best technology know-how, whether it’s mapping or whether it’s just basic scaling infrastructure, those were some of the other things we’ve continued to learn from them and grow with them.

Actually, I think just about two to three weeks ago, my co-founder Anthony was in SF in the Uber office in the town hall with Dara. Dara was kind enough to host them. It was really good conversations, talking about how both teams were mutually learning from each other and making this partnership truly collaborative and we don’t find these often, these opportunities to have this kind of outsized impact. And we’ve managed to do this with Uber and we’re looking forward to the future working relationship.

You know, some people think a little competition is good thing. That we have these overwhelming companies that make all the decisions for us, especially in this area that’s super important to have that ability, to have competition. When that doesn’t happen, it’s worrisome to some people. It’s worrisome to some, that you do improve each other by competing and as we have these mega-companies, these companies that carve up the world, it creates a problematic situation. You don’t see it that way?

No, I agree.

You’d rather not be in a price war with Uber, I suppose.

I think there are a couple of things to think about with this. One, we have been the beneficiaries of competition. In just six years, I don’t even know how many competitors we faced and continue to face. It’s still a very competitive market right now. One of the things my co-founder loves to talk about in our management meetings, and this happened a lot some time ago, let’s not talk about Uber, right? From day one, our primary competitor has never been other ride-hailing apps. It’s actually been what he calls “the hand,” the hand that waves down the taxi on the side of the road. And that market is huge, it’s thriving, and that’s the market that we’re trying to provide an alternative service to, because it isn’t exactly efficient as it is. So from that standpoint, whenever we look at it that way, we always anchor back on what do our consumers need the most? And that has enabled us to continue to innovate.

Beyond that, there’s still a lot of existing competition. We don’t foresee it ending, ever, and to be honest, we don’t want it to because we continue to learn from them. Just like how we continue to learn from sales, we continue to learn from alternative players who take alternative strategies, operational tactics, and oftentimes we have much to learn and want to continue doing so.

So when you say your competition is “the hand,” it’s people that want things, like that’s how you look at it. So how would you describe the company? It’s funny because a lot of these companies are running away from the idea that they are what they have been, essentially, and lots of companies want to evolve into different things. So how would you describe the company, then? And then I want to end in the short time we have talking about what it’s like to run a company, especially given how few women are in such prominent positions.

So, in terms of the evolution, I’ll just talk about the experience that you’ll be having with Grab once we roll out our revamped user experience that’s starting today, right? Before this you just think about Grab as the thing, the service you would go to whenever you needed transportation. Going forward, we want Grab to be the thing you think of that eases all of your concerns when you leave the house. You don’t have to worry about your wallet, you don’t have to worry about if you left your charger behind, you don’t have to worry about if you need to go out and get lunch, you don’t have to worry about who’s going to do your groceries. There will be deliveries for you every single week, every month, however you schedule them. We just basically want to help our customers have no worries and get closer to the things that matter most to them which — from a consumer standpoint — it’s time, family, no hassle, convenience, in a safe and trusted way.

From a micro-entrepreneur’s perspective, just access to more customers, access to more income opportunities, access to just more money that they can take home to spend on their friends and families. That’s how we like to think about it.

For the partners with our Grab platform launch, we want them to know that at Grab, we have learned many, many lessons over the last six years. We have worked super hard to develop the user base that we have, the distribution network that we have, the technology that we have, because there were no alternatives. We didn’t do it because we thought we were the only ones who could. We did it because when we looked out there, for others who could help us in it, there were no great alternatives, so we had to build it on our own. What we want to do is help others not have to go through that journey. And we want to help, together with them, have more and faster impact in Southeast Asia because there’s so much to do.

All right, so essentially you want to be God. Okay, good. Sounds good. A nice one, apparently, who gets my peanut butter for me, but fine. So last question, running things as a woman executive, any advice you can give, or do you pretend you’re not a woman? I don’t know.

I hope that’s not the case. But Anthony and I talk about this because we do care a lot about building a diverse team. Little-known fact, at Grab I think we have 45 nationalities at the company right now. We are a Southeast Asian company, we operate in eight countries, we have R&D centers in three others, including the States, India and China, but we don’t care about where you’re from because we know Southeast Asia is a mishmash of cultures, of people, of languages, so anybody that cares enough to understand a customer, that lives and breathes there, will be someone who can help us on this journey. So that’s where I’m going to bridge into what that means to me as a female leader or entrepreneur, right?

I’ve had the good fortune of starting a company with a co-founder where this has never been an issue. Anthony and I have never had any issues talking about diversity, whether you’re male of female, whether you’re young or old, whether you come from Mars or Pluto, right, we don’t really care about ethnicity and all of that because ultimately what we look for is a couple of things: If you have a passion to solve for the vision and mission that we have ahead of us; if you have the know-how and capability to do so; and you have the cultural fit to do so in the collaborative work style, like how we want Grab to be, that’s all that matters. And hence, when you look at our teams, that’s why it’s naturally diverse. We don’t prefilter, we actively make sure that we’re looking for the best people for the job and that’s how we end up with such diversity.

That happens not the same way in Silicon Valley, oddly enough. You end up with the same people.

And that is something I hope by example by what we’re doing at Grab we can help change, right? Because we want to show that it is the best thing to do just because the results speak for itself. We’re not doing it because it’s a fad. No, it’s in fact the thing that we’ve been doing for the past six years that has gone undiscussed and unnoticed. This is just part of our DNA.

All right, terrific, thank you so much.

Kara, thank you so much.

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