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From Harvard business class to multibillion-dollar startup: Q&A with Grab’s co-founder Tan Hooi Ling

Written by Zhixin Tan Published on   5 mins read

An IPO is neither an immediate goal nor an end for Grab.

Grab was founded seven years ago by two classmates, Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling, who met in a class called “Business at the Base of the Pyramid” at Harvard Business School. The class taught students how companies can help improve the lives of low-income individuals in developing countries.

The two classmates started Grab because they believe it is possible to build a sustainable, high-growth company that also gives back to society.

Today, Grab is a multibillion-dollar tech startup that offers a wide range of services from ride-hailing (No.1 in Southeast Asia per an ABI research) to food delivery (the largest food-delivery platform by gross merchandise value in Asia outside of China), as well as financial and health services.

Anthony Tan has always been the “face” of Grab, taking the lead to pitch to investors and speak to the media. Hooi Ling on the other hand, appears less frequently in public.

At the Nikkei Global Management Forum last week, 36Kr Japan, KrASIA’s sister company, managed to get hold of Hooi Ling and spoke with her to understand more about her background and Grab’s plans in the near future.

Tan Hooi Ling, co-founder of Grab.

36Kr: Let’s start with your background. Why did you jump from the engineering field into business? 

Hooi Ling Tan (HL): When I was doing my undergraduate study, I spent a year doing an industry placement. I wanted to do that because the thought of studying for the sake of studying was not practical. Hence, I wanted to see what I was interested in and how I could change the future course of my study.

While I was doing that to become a better engineer, I realized that the biggest and most important decisions were made by management. It was very difficult for the engineers to understand management and vice versa because neither party speaks the other’s language. I realized that all voices are important to make the best decision for the company and the customer so at that point in time, I knew I needed to learn to speak the language of business. I needed to understand how people in management think and what is it like to be a business manager. I was very fortunate to stumble upon an opportunity to be paid and learn at McKinsey, and that was how it all began.

36Kr: When you left McKinsey, instead of returning to the company you started, you went to Salesforce. Can you share with us the reason behind that decision? 

HL: I was sponsored by McKinsey and there was a two-year bond, which I broke by leaving the company. When I left, I had only worked at McKinsey for a year so the fact was I owed them money—all in US dollars. So I had to find a job that would pay me enough to quickly repay McKinsey.

Another reason I did not return to Grab immediately was I felt Anthony and the team were doing a very good job at leading the company. Therefore, as much as I wanted to go back, I wasn’t critically needed at that point of time.

36Kr: But you never left Grab even while you were working full-time at Salesforce. How did you manage your time and what were your responsibilities at Grab? 

HL: I did not have any official responsibilities. Whatever I did, it was purely out of personal passion because Grab meant a lot to me on a personal level. What I used to do was to keep in contact with Anthony and the leadership team via evening and weekend calls. I would also take holidays at Salesforce to go work at Grab. One time I took a two-week vacation from Salesforce so I could return to Grab. The moment I landed in Malaysia, I went on a five-country work trip in Southeast Asia. It was the hardest two weeks I worked in that year.

36Kr: That sounds tough. What was the greatest motivation that kept you going during that period? 

HL: It was fun. Personally, I think it is fun to contribute in issues or challenges you believe in solving. I don’t think there’s a need for any external motivation for entrepreneurs because when you start something you truly care about and believe in, you motivate yourself.

36kr: What were some of the challenges in Grab’s early days? 

HL: It was very difficult when Anthony and I first started the company seven years ago. Back then, most taxi drivers had never touched or owned a smartphone before so we had to hold specific sessions, which I used to do very often, to train the drivers on how to use a smartphone. They didn’t believe Grab would work so we spent a lot of time with them trying to understand their pain points. That sincerity bought us good faith and opportunities. Many of these drivers ended up getting more customers and recommended us to their friends. Eventually we didn’t have to reach out to drivers anymore because they would come to us.

36Kr: What challenges does Grab face at the regional level? 

HL: Southeast Asia is extremely diverse, fragmented, and complex. Therefore, it is impossible to build one solution to fit all the markers. The approach is hyperlocalization but finding that balance between hyperlocalization and using global technologies is very difficult. Our solution is to build a “super app” that offers very different services for each country.

The second challenge is talent. Unlike Beijing or Shanghai, Southeast Asia does not have an existing tech ecosystem with thousands and thousands of technologists. Grab is probably the first homegrown Southeast Asian tech company, so we have helped create the first generation of tech leaders for the region. However, we are very fortunate to have been able to attract tech talents back to the region. These people, who are well-accomplished in their fields and capable, often moved to places such as Silicon Valley in search of job opportunities because back then, there was simply a lack of challenging jobs for them here. We offered them an opportunity to move back home and a job that matched their backgrounds and skillsets. These technologists are culturally aligned and have the same vision as Grab.

We also have R&D centers around the world. For instance, we built one in Beijing because we believe there are talents there who understand a different type of innovation that would benefit Grab.

36Kr: As part of the acquisition of Uber in Southeast Asia, Grab has to go public by March 2023. What is Grab’s plan regarding this? 

HL: For us, an initial public offering (IPO) is not an end that we are strategically aiming for. It is one of the paths that we could take but we did not build the company for an IPO. From that perspective, thankfully we have healthy cash flow so an IPO is not an immediate goal that we are aiming for.

36KR: Then what is Grab’s next step in Southeast Asia? 

HL: Southeast Asia is a land of opportunity. There is so much more potential and opportunities to leapfrog with technology to a world that currently does not exist. There are so many problems unsolved here in Southeast Asia. We did that with ride-hailing and we’re doing it in food, financial services, and health. We believe there are many more problems that Grab can continue to solve with technology here in the region.


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