Hooi Ling Tan

How Grab grew from the night taxis of Kuala Lumper to the "super-app" of South-East Asia

Hooi Ling Tan was at Harvard when she co-created Grab, the $20 billion South East Asian "everything everyday" super-app, where she is better known as “the plumber” for her pragmatic approach.

Tan grew up in Kuala Lumper before travelling to Europe to study engineering at the University of Bath. She took a year out from her studies, to work for Eli Lilly in Basingstoke, where she realised that even in a world of fast-changing technologies, “the real decisions and future strategies in business are made by management not engineers” as she puts it.

She returned to Malaysia to join McKinsey. Often working late, she would rely upon the city’s notorious unlicensed taxis to get home after dark. Her worried mother sat at home, waiting for her daughter’s safe arrival home. Little did she realise that her late-night journey would have greater impact on her future career, than her consulting work by day.

At Harvard she most profoundly affected by a class on how to build a sustainable business, and realised the opportunity to serve the many more under-served consumers at the “bottom of the pyramid”, back in her home country. Coincidently, at Harvard, she met another Malaysian, Anthony Tan, no relation, who would become her business partner.

The two Tans worked together on a business idea to make taxis safer back home, their plan winning $35,000 in HBS’s New Venture Competition 2011. Using their winnings, they set about launching a mobile app, initially called MyTeksi, and then renamed Grab. It helped that Anthony Tan’s family are the largest distributor of Nissan cars in the country, and they soon had a fleet of taxis and motor bikes on the streets of Kuala Lumper. However, Hooi-Ling had to return to McKinsey in return for funding her education, but spent every vacation day flying back to support the fledgling start-up.

In 2015 she returned full-time to Grab, and took on the role of COO, focused on product development, customer experience, and HR. In reality though, she became known as “the plumber” because of her pragmatic operational focus on problem solving, unlocking bottle necks and reshaping the business model. Progress depended on building many partnerships, where there were rarely any rules to follow. Partners trusted them, she says, because of their passion to help make life better.

Grab became known as “the Uber of south-east Asia”, locked in a battle with GoJek to be the leading provider of ride-hailing service. The business grew rapidly to become a platform-based business that now operates in over 225 cities across Asia, with over 100 million users. In 2018, Grab acquired Uber’s $6bn regional business, including UberEats, which sparked the move into food delivery, and many other sectors.

Today, thousands of Grab’s green-jacketed motorbikes, cars and helicopters now wait to deliver anything anywhere, faster than anybody else in south-east Asia. During the pandemic, Grab doubled its merchant base, and saw rapid growth in GrabFood, Grab Car and GrabBike. In December Grab was awarded a digital banking license in Singapore, and also reportedly explored a merger with Asian rival Gojek, although this was not progressed.

Tan is particularly excited by the growth potential of South East Asia, describing it as the world’s fourth largest economic region (after China, USA and EU). “It is a patchwork of nations and cultures, islands and languages, but with many shared challenges of infrastructure. It is 600 million people, including a huge emerging middle class, and great desire to leap-frog other nations in its progress through technology.”

She says success for a start-up is when the company no longer depends on its co-founders.  However, she is a constant innovator, fusing ideas from other places, typically through partners, including an e-wallet, a peer-to-peer paying system and insurance. Indeed, she sees payments as the fuel that powers her “super app”, enabling it to become the most convenient, integrated and trusted source of anything.

In an interview with Marie Claire magazine Tan says, “As a woman leading an organisation, you are typically in a minority, so it is never an easy path, but I take pride in leaving a legacy that makes it easier for future women to follow”.

“I was fortunate to find a true co-conspirator in my co-founder Anthony Tan. As an introvert, I’ll typically pause, reflect on why I am feeling doubt, and reset so that I can focus on what to do next. I also discuss these doubts with my trusted confidantes to stress-test my assumptions and source ideas on how to approach a situation better. And I intentionally stretch myself beyond my comfort zone. That helps me develop the muscle I’ll need for those inevitable moments of self-doubt.”

© Peter Fisk 2021.

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