With a net worth of $7.1B, China-born Forrest Li is the seventh richest man (update: ranked the richest as of September 2021) in Singapore, he is the Chairman & CEO of Sea Limited. Co-founded by…
Launched in 2012 by Anthony Tan, Grab has become the largest ride-hailing company in Southeast Asia in just a few years.
Grab is now a household name in the fast-growing region of 670 million people, fueled by a young and mobile population. Backed by SoftBank as the key investor, Grab provides not only transport but also food delivery and financial services.
Born into the family behind Tan Chong Motor, Anthony is the scion of one of Malaysia’s biggest automobile distributors. He attended Harvard Business School to prepare for entry into the family business.
However, entrepreneurship classes and encounters with tech entrepreneurs like YouTube co-founder Steve Chen proved a powerful lure. With his great grandfather who was a taxi driver, Anthony was aware of the paint points of the taxi industry in Malaysia.
Anthony wrote the taxi-booking app business plan with his classmate that won runner-up in the HBS New Venture Competition in 2011.
I remember them saying, “Anthony, great deck, really interesting business plan, completely make sense, but you are #2 (runner-up). The reason is, Malaysia is just too small (market size), and you need to get out there!”
I am grateful that the panel made us #2, not the winner. That was a key reminder why right after KL, the next city was Manila.
His classmate Tan Hooi Ling, who is also a Malaysian but unrelated to Anthony, is the co-founder and currently the COO of Grab. Using the $25,000 prize money and Anthony’s own personal funds, they launched what was then called MyTeksi in June 2012.
Unlike many startups, MyTeksi or GrabTaxi as it was known regionally, faced a raft of local issues, both logistical and political. Anthony’s resolve had been tested and his perseverance had earned Grab an impressive $340 million funding in 2014, led by SoftBank.
The company has also moved its headquarters from Malaysia to Singapore in 2014, and rebranded to Grab in 2016.
Uber has found Anthony a tough competitor during a five-year street battle with Grab. Southeast Asia has often been viewed as a big opportunity with 670 million people, but the markets’ diversity has tripped up some global tech companies.
Unlike Uber which has upset local taxi markets, Grab is working with taxi drivers to help them do better business. Grab accepted cash when Uber only allowed card payments, Grab had also moved early to offer motorcycle taxi rides in traffic-clogged countries.
What do Southeast Asians love doing besides Instagram and Facebook? They love chatting, they just chat all the time, they don’t like talking, just chatting!
Okay, why not we build GrabChat? A lot of people in Southeast Asia love chatting. They are much more comfortable chatting with their drivers than calling the drivers.
That’s why we build GrabChat. First, nobody else has it. Our GrabChat has translation. If you type in Vietnamese it will translate to English, or English to Vietnamese, English to Thai, so that the drivers and passengers can understand each other.
These are the local stuff that Southeast Asians really care about, others just don’t. Uber exited the region in 2018 by selling its business to Grab and in return took a 27.5% stake in the company.
With Uber out of the picture, Grab’s main competitor is Indonesia’s Gojek, founded by Nadiem Makarim who was Anthony’s classmate in Harvard. Like Gojek, Grab has evolved from ride-hailing to “super app”, which also offers payment, delivery and other services.
During the pandemic, Grab’s transport business suffered but earnings from its food delivery service soared and now account for more than half of revenues. Grab could potentially expand its fintech business in Southeast Asia due to a larger base of population being underserved by the traditional banking system.
Benchmarking WeChat in China, both super apps have burnt cash as they are competing for Southeast Asian dominance. SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son reportedly tried to broker a merger between Grab and Gojek but discussion stalled over how much control Anthony would have.
With rivals like Gojek and Sea Group bulking up, Grab plans to list on Nasdaq through a US$39.6 billion merger deal with Altimeter Growth Corp. The transaction will be the world’s largest merger involving a SPAC, offering investors the access to one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Anthony always had in mind a significant business offering services beyond ride-hailing, it is his street fighter attributes that made it a reality.