Entrepreneurs need “a lot of good luck, a lot of great people and a shared vision” in order to succeed, according to the founder of one of South-east Asia’s fastest growing companies.
Hooi Ling Tan, co-founder of transportation app Grab, was sharing the story of how a Malaysian start-up has conquered the ASEAN region in a few short years and become one of the gold standards for Asian entrepreneurs.
Speaking at the RISE Conference in Hong Kong, she said: “It started with one issue, the safety of taxis in Malaysia. It was something that needed real change. It meant things like, as a female passenger, I would fear for my personal safety.
“Drivers would also try to take you for a ride. I had no intention of launching a start-up but over conversations, there was this issue we were all passionate about.”
When asked what the secret to her success was, she was frank about the role that luck played in the story.
“A lot of good luck, a lot of great people and a shared vision,” said Ms Tan, “to be frank and honest, we never expected to be where we are. That wasn’t why we started the company. But at the same time, it was a good solution to the challenges, we grew out of demand.
“A lot of what I can share isn’t because of what we’ve done. There is a lot of luck in any business. Sometimes I feel like I have no right to be giving advice.
“I’d say, be very clear of why you want to do it. It is not an easy journey. Those four years were extremely painful. It comes at a cost. That cost is only worth it if you are passionate about what you want to do. You will not get a quick buck. Know you will always be proven wrong, you will always learn.”
Grab is now in six countries and 30 cities across South-east Asia, and the fact they understand the shared problems of a diverse region is one of the reasons they have been able to become the dominant force.
She added: “South-east Asia (SEA) is very fragmented. We have very different cultures, heritage, languages and governments. What you need to succeed is to understand it, respect it and leverage those differences.
“For example, SEA is a cash based economy. Only 5 per cent of people use credit cards, and even if they use it they don’t want to put it on an app. We started monetising on a cash based economy.
“We also have local teams in each country. They are all staffed by the best and the brightest local talent. They all share this vision that SEA is home and knowing there is more we can do as a region in the ways we care about.”
Ms Tan added that localizing was very important to the continued success of Grab. She pointed out that 24/7 customer service staffed by multi-lingual staff was one of their biggest strengths.
“We are the largest player in south-east Asia because we are South-east Asian. We create non-cookie cutter solutions.
“Think about a multi-national corporation, what any company benefits on is a platform you can leverage with minimal tweaks and nuances. What we’re doing is different. We have so many other things, be it offline operations, how we think about payments or mapping product solutions.”
Being local is something that Hooi Ling Tan feels very passionate about, and because of this, there are no plans for global domination.
She added: “There are 11 countries. We are extremely focused in SEA. There are no medium term plans to grow beyond SEA. The opportunity is huge.
“SEA has a population of 620m people, we have a tonne of megacities and we have a burgeoning middle class who are all jumping straight to smartphones for internet. There is a humongous opportunity open to us.”
Something else very alien to most in South-east Asia is the hype around self-driving cars and the investment by Google and Uber into the technology. It seems it won’t be something that comes to Grab anytime soon.
“The whole convo in self driving vehicles is something we should keep an eye on. But being in South-east Asian where say, in Vietnam, you have bikes weaving in and out, it’s going to be significantly more challenging – especially when it’s full of potholes. They won’t be coming anytime soon,” she joked.