Grab CEO on Super-Apps, Social Impact, and US Expansion Plans

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When Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling launched Grab in 2012, they had a simple yet ambitious goal: to provide a safer alternative to traditional taxis in Malaysia. Fast forward a decade, and Grab is not just a ride-hailing app anymore. It has transformed into a ‘super-app’ that serves as a one-stop solution for a range of services in Southeast Asia. Whether you need to check your bank balance, apply for a loan, book a ride home, or order dinner, you can do it all within the Grab app. This evolution wasn’t part of a grand plan, but a response to the changing needs of its users, according to Tan, Grab’s CEO.

Tan’s entrepreneurial journey is an intriguing blend of privileged upbringing and street-smart tenacity. Born into a family that holds the franchise for Nissan vehicles in Malaysia, Tan acknowledges he was born "with a silver spoon." However, this hasn’t deterred him from adopting a "street fighter" approach to outcompete rivals. To better understand his business, Tan isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, even if it means working in the kitchen of a food vendor that sells through the Grab app. His hands-on approach and relentless focus on solving social problems have played a crucial role in Grab’s success, making it one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential Companies of 2023.

Grab’s Evolution: From Ride-Hailing to Super-App

When Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling founded Grab in 2012, their initial goal was simple: provide a safer alternative to taxis in Malaysia. Fast forward to today, and Grab has transformed into a multi-service platform that enables users across Southeast Asia to do everything from checking bank balances and applying for loans to booking rides and ordering dinner, all within a single app.

Aiming to Solve Social Problems

Tan, the CEO of Grab, maintains that the company’s evolution wasn’t part of some grand plan. Instead, it was about meeting the needs of its users and solving social problems. Despite coming from a privileged background, Tan has adopted what he calls a "street fighter" mentality for outcompeting rivals. This mentality extends to understanding his partners better; Tan recently worked in the kitchen of a food vendor on Grab, getting hands-on experience with the operations.

Balancing Profit and Social Impact

The company started as a double bottom line company, measuring its success by social outcomes as well as profit. Today, Grab aims to be a triple bottom line company, adding environmental outcomes to its metrics. Tan believes that social impact and profitability can coexist; various strategies such as introducing taxi motorbikes and driving costs down have allowed the company to serve its customers effectively while also making a profit.

Embracing Local Sensibilities

Grab’s understanding and embrace of local culture and preferences sets it apart from competitors like Uber. For instance, instead of launching Uber’s global "Uber Ice Cream" campaign in Southeast Asia, Grab launched GrabDurian, selling the beloved local fruit in a way that is practical and appealing for the local market. This focus on local understanding has been a key factor in Grab’s success.

Faith and Leadership

Tan’s Christian faith plays a crucial role in both his social values and his approach to leadership. He believes in the concept of being a servant leader and sees Grab’s mission as serving the communities in which it operates. This sense of service has led to initiatives like GrabPay, created to eliminate cash transactions and reduce the risk of drivers being robbed.

Lessons from the IPO

Grab’s IPO in December 2021 was the biggest by a Southeast Asian company in the U.S. Although share prices experienced significant fluctuations, Tan sees this as a learning experience about the importance of timing. The changing global financial landscape has led Grab to adjust its strategies, shifting from a pro-growth approach to a focus on profitability.

The Super-App Concept

The concept of a super-app, where multiple services are provided within a single app, is quite prevalent in Asia. According to Tan, this approach was driven by a focus on the customer and the desire to simplify their experience. From allowing drivers to earn more during downtime to integrating financial services into the app, these decisions were all about making things easier for the user.

In Conclusion

The success story of Grab is a testament to the power of local understanding, customer-centric decision making, and a balanced approach to profit and social impact. As the company continues to evolve and adapt to a changing world, it will be interesting to see what Grab does next.

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