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Grab: Powered by purpose, enabled by technology

Grab is positioning to be south-east Asia's everyday, everything superapp

Tan Hooi Ling exudes a restless yet intensely focused energy.

One would not guess that the charismatic 38 year old co-founder of south-east Asian superapp Grab is a self-professed camera-shy introvert. In her 10 years building Grab, Tan, who goes by “Ling”, has worked in many roles in the company. She has described herself as the company “plumber”.

Grab began life as “MyTeksi” in 2012 when Tan started the venture with her Harvard Business School classmate Anthony Tan (no relation) – now Grab’s chief executive – with $25,000 they won at a business idea pitch contest. Their aim was to enable safe and reliable taxi rides for commuters in Malaysia.

A decade later, Grab’s services have expanded from ride hailing to deliveries to financial services and enterprise services. The company is making forays into retail with the acquisition of Malaysian supermarket chain Jaya Grocer. Bringing together initially disparate but ultimately complementary business lines onto its platform, Grab is positioning to be south-east Asia’s superapp for everyday needs.

In December, 2021, Grab listed on the NASDAQ Stock Market via a $40bn merger with special-purpose acquisition company Altimeter Growth Corp. Today, Grab is present in over 480 cities and towns across the region, and the company’s key backers and board members read like the “Who’s Who” of investors. They include Softbank, Uber and Toyota.

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Tech for solving core problems

Formed at the intersection of technology and the delivery of physical services – what Tan calls “online-to-offline” – Grab leverages data science, AI and machine learning to craft products and solutions.

“There are two revolutionary forces in the market,” notes Gianfranco Casati, chief executive of Accenture Growth Markets. “One is computing power which is growing exponentially – cloud, edge, 5G. And the other is the hyper growth of data. Add artificial intelligence on top and you can transform industries, create new industries.”

Gianfranco Casati

Gianfranco Casati

Chief Executive, Accenture Growth Markets

There are two revolutionary forces in the market: computing power… and the hyper growth of data. Add artificial intelligence on top and you can transform industries, create new industries.

While Tan acknowledges the importance of innovations, “We don't develop technology for the sake of technology. We use technology to first solve core problems that we have identified.”

Case in point: GrabMaps, a proprietary map service built from crowdsourced data by Grab's mappers, driver partners, merchant partners and consumers. Years of investment in developing “hyperlocal” GrabMaps to eschew dependency on third-party navigation tools is delivering a better user experience to Grab app users, as well as saving money and creating a strategic moat for the company. With the phased launch of GrabMaps, which is part of Grab’s enterprise business, the service is poised to be a revenue generator.

Going on the ground

Successfully solving people’s needs from “online-to-offline” carries inherent challenges. 

“Technologists love sitting behind a computer, looking at code, looking at designs, but the best way to actually experience that is to actually go on the ground,” shares Tan.

Tan Hooi Ling

Tan Hooi Ling

Co-Founder, Grab

By serving our communities well, by doing good for them, it will ultimately be good for the business as well.

And go on the ground she does. Tan visits merchants in Indonesian wet markets, and joins – incognito – her sales teams in the Philippines when they pitch to merchants not yet on Grab’s platform. “Then I can truly understand what our merchants care about, what their key questions are, and how we can better solve their needs,” Tan explains.

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Grab’s evolution and expansion over a decade has been remarkable. Tan remains confident and steadfast on the company’s purpose.

“The concept of developing hyperlocal technologies at scale is really important. The only way you get large scale in efficient ways in this day and age is to develop smarter services and solutions, which, of course technology and data enable us to do. By serving our communities well, by doing good for them, it will ultimately be good for the business as well.”

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