Anthony Tan – CEO and Co-Founder of Grab

Anthony Tan is well famed for being the CEO and Co-Founder of Grab Group, which is Southeast Asia’s leader in mobile technology. Grab company is well focused on providing transport and inclusion of groundbreaking financial projects to Southeast Asia. It has developed its business operations across the region into 8 countries under his corporate leadership.

Grab’s core strength lies in its product platform which is very specialised in providing safe, convenient and reliable commuting solutions for passengers and drivers. Another strength is its proprietary mobile payments platform, GrabPay. With its focus on a business strategy and strategic partnership building, Anthony and his team has successfully made Grab transform from a taxi booking app to a O2O consumer app which is a market leader in well diversified transport services and mobile payments platform in Southeast Asia. 

Anthony has deep roots in the automotive industry that goes back to 3 generations before. His great grandfather started the roots lineage by being a taxi driver. Even before the founding of Grab, Anthony himself held the position of Head of Supply Chain and Marketing at Tan Chong Group. During this time, he helped to drive logistics and create brand affinity for various automotive brands that are in the group.

Anthony’s qualifications include the Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Economics and Public Policy and a MBA with Honors from University of Chicago and Harvard Business School, respectively. Besides such qualifications,

But to most business leaders, Anthony Tan is the envy for career prospects. As the scion of one of Malaysia’s richest families, Anthony is the son of the CEO of one of Malaysia’s largest automobile distributors, Tan Chong Motor Holdings Bhd. Anthony had a bright future ahead as head of marketing for Tan Chong, which is Nissan’s Malaysian sole distributor.

An entrepreneurial idea sparked Anthony while he was in his midst of MBA at HBS in 2011. He could foresee the rewards of setting up an enterprise that could do some goodness to society while doing business well. His idea originated from a HBS classmate, who is an Indonesian friend who lamented to him about the hateful state of the Malaysian taxi business.

Anthony was once teased about doing something about the taxi industry in Malaysia as he knew the female community often had concerns over safety issues in taking taxis. This tease would catalyse an establishment of GrabTaxi, which was Malaysia’s answer to Uber. This idea was born out of his paired partnership with his HBS classmate, Tan Hooi Ling. They wrote a business plan to come out with a mobile app that can connect taxi finders with nearest taxi drivers who are closest to the location. Drivers would get smartphones to communicate directly with the prospects and this would save valuable money and time squandered in seeking taxi fares endlessly. Operating like Uber, this app has an aim of benefitting taxi drivers and providing better safety and service to customers. GrabTaxi distinguishes itself from Uber by not having a competitive force to the cab drivers. It works with other taxi drivers to assist them for better businesses.

With the knowledge of the first mover advantage, Anthony made the first move part of a business plan that became a runner-up in the HBS New Venture Competition in 2011. With $25,000 won from the competition, coupled with his personal funds, Anthony and Hooi Ling launched the mobile app in June 2012. It was first called MyTeksi. Despite his family’s displeasement with his decision to neglect Tan Chong Motor, Anthony pressed on with aggression. He was able to secure an early round of financing from many investors in the USA and Asia.

In an FT article, it was mentioned that Anthony was under the heavy influence of HBS entrepreneurship and meetings with various well known people like Steve Chen, who is co-founder of YouTube. He also met up with Eric Ries who is the guru of lean startup. This widened his perspectives to new opportunities which would cause much displeasure from his family. As Anthony told the FT that his family had a difficult time to understand what he was trying to do but did not blame them.

GrabTaxi had numerous local issues that hampered his efforts. They are mainly logistical and political issues. This was unlike many startups that time. It was a test of his resolve with many unions, government bureaucracies and criminal threats to deal with. Despite difficulties, Anthony persevered. By December 2014, GrabTaxi saw an impressive $340 million cash flow from funding. This would include $250 million investment by Softbank Corp, a Japanese telecom firm. Softbank would be the top investor in GrabTaxi by far.

To date, GrabTaxi has been launched in 17 cities in 5 countries. They are Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. The app has been downloaded at least 3.3 million times. More than 640,000 people use the app to get taxis once a month. This translates to 6 bookings in 1 second.

Invading a legacy marketplace using a technology based product is a task that is difficult especially in Asian markets which tend to be chaotic. A technical glitch in the app last year has left many drivers in GrabTaxi network, about 60,00 of them, angry and frustrated. This was a lesson which Anthony had learnt which has made him wiser. He told FT that with this experience, though it sounds glamorous, amidst the glam, he has to be hyper paranoid in order to survive in the race. But it has to be done ethically and morally to maintain the leadership. 

Anthony has said he wanted to be a businessman even at an early age of 6. He is not afraid of risk taking. Crediting HBS as the place of his newborn idea, Anthony actually nurtured this idea in Kuala Lumpur streets by riding in taxis and communicating with the drivers. He was not scared of introducing this technology into an environment which is more unwilling to adopt initially. This technology would turn his concept into a business for real.

Anthony said he believes in the “see yourself, do yourself, cure yourself” philosophy that originated in Japan. He always emphasised on the values, mutual trust and reputation of his company whenever he hires people at GrabTaxi. He even tells his employees to try to be a taxi driver for a day to understand his pain and build a product based on his perspectives.