Why Grab’s CEO Isn’t Focusing on the Super-App Label

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When Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling co-founded Grab in 2012, they aimed to offer a safer alternative to taxis in Malaysia with what started as a ride-hailing app. Just over a decade later, across much of Southeast Asia, Grab users can check their bank balances, apply for a loan, book a ride home, and order dinner to arrive as they do, all on the app. Often compared with Uber, Grab acquired Uber’s Southeast Asian operations in 2018.

Tan, Grab’s CEO, says that the company’s path wasn’t part of a grand plan and that its mission was simply to meet the needs of users, offering more and more services to its riders, vendors, and customers—often with a broader aim to solve social problems.

Tan, whose father Tan Heng Chew is president of the company that holds the franchise for Nissan vehicles in Malaysia, has degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard Business School and admits he was born “with a silver spoon.” But his background hasn’t stopped him from adopting a “street fighter” mentality when it comes to outcompeting its rivals, he says. And he’s not afraid to roll his sleeves up. In order to understand the companies that sell food on Grab better, Tan recently worked in the kitchen of one of the app’s food vendors, which ended with him “cleaning live crabs and absolutely covered in bits of shell and crab juice.”

Read More: Grab Was Already the Uber of Southeast Asia. Now the ‘Super-App’ Wants to Deliver Financial Equality, Too

TIME spoke with Tan in late April about the growth of Grab—one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential Companies of 2023—as well as its social impact mission, the importance of Tan’s faith and whether super-apps could take off in the U.S.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Is Grab a business or a social enterprise?

So, we started as a double bottom line company [meaning success is measured by social outcomes, as well as profit]. Today, we are aiming to be a triple bottom line company [adding environmental outcomes too]. You can create a lot of social impact, lift all the people up, the drivers.

Even a 20,000 [Indonesian rupiah] motorbike ride—we still make money on that. The traffic problem, in Asia, is a big problem. People want speed. [With motorbike rides,] customer problem solved. Driver problem: make sure he earns enough income. You feed him a lot of jobs, a lot of jobs, right? What we call like the perpetual rider. Always on jobs. They make enough money, even if the pay is low. So that solves your social problem. Third, we drive our costs down. For example, we said okay so a car, we can’t serve a car for 20,000 [rupiahs]. We can serve a bike for 20,000 [rupiahs]. We were the first app taxi motorbikes in the world. We invented that. That was one way of opening the market by making it an average ride from 60,000 to 20,000, 15,000 [rupiahs], and still be able to make money.

There are many ways where we believe that you can actually build social impact and create. They’re not mutually exclusive.

It does seem like a lot of what Grab does, which separates it from Uber and other competitors, is the hyper local kind of aspect?

I remember when we were competing against Uber—and Dara [Khosrowshahi, Uber CEO] is my boy, I have mad respect—he said, “What differentiates you from us?” at an Uber town hall in San Francisco. You know, we fought for many years, we bought them. I said, “when you guys launched, Uber Ice Cream—so cool. But imagine here [in the heat] with ice cream in a car. You put ice cream in a car, it arrives within seven minutes. You are going to have many flavors in the trunk of the car.”

What we did was we launched GrabDurian. The king of fruit—we are very proud of our durian. We sell 30 to 40 tonnes. Before we even started food, we started it as a marketing campaign. The best part is—no smell. [It’s in a] sealed bag. Your car is clean. It comes super fast. And everyone in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, you name it, everybody loves durian. That’s the local understanding. Ice cream is a global thing, durian is a Southeast Asian thing. How do I know durian? My father had a durian estate. I used to go and pick durians for him.

Your Christian faith is very important to you. Does it drive you in terms of business or in terms of your social values?

I think both. In social values, and in this component of being a servant leader. One of our “four Hs” is “heart”—a big part is serving communities.

Recently, [Singapore’s] Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, when he opened our office said [that] during lockdowns, [Grab] helped feed the nation. This sense of serving the communities is a very big honor. Our mission is literally empowering everyday entrepreneurs. Everything we do, whether it’s food delivery, whether it’s when we introduced GrabPay. We want to take the cash out of the system so that drivers don’t get robbed, because in Malaysia they get robbed all the time. So that’s why I created GrabPay. For everything we did, we said, “what’s the real social problem we’re solving in real society?” That’s the social values.

The second point I think it really helped in my leadership principles. When I first had to sign up drivers, [there was] this idea of: we are no different. If I believe that God would go down to the ground and wash the feet of his disciples, wow—I mean, who am I?

A lot of people have been critical of your presence in Myanmar. How do you decide when to stay in a market?

When you think through constructive disruption, you want to always do what’s right, morally and ethically. In [Thailand’s] case, ride-hailing was illegal. It only got legalized last year. Why? [We pushed through] because we knew it was the right thing to do. We continued [operating there], because we knew it was providing affordable, safe transport, ethically, and morally. Serving the masses.

You had your IPO in December 2021. The biggest by a Southeast Asian company in the U.S. Share prices went up to $16, I think, at one point. Then fell below $3. Did you learn any lessons from the IPO?

Timing is very important. On both the positive and the negative. The thing is, the time was very different. I was just with Jamie Dimon recently, the CEO of JP Morgan. And if you read his public letter, a very good letter—at one point, we would look back and say there were trillions of dollars lent out at negative interest rates. Negative—I pay you money to take my money. And today, cost of capital is five-, six-, seven-, eight- 9%, depending on credit rating and all that. All happening within 12 to 24 months. The world changed.

We were effectively pro-growth. It wasn’t profitable. This year, we’ll break even. Very different. In a world of cheap money, you can just grow, grow, grow, and terminal value can be pushed out, because that’s in the discounted cash flow [a measure of value that takes into account future earnings]. Today, discount rates have changed, the cost of capital has changed—the whole model has changed. So now you need to bring forward profitability. That’s exactly what we did. So we are building—still growing—but in a profitable way.

You’re doubling down on the super-app concept, which is a very Asian concept. Is the U.S. missing a trick here?

We saw it this way. Say for a driver, he’s a motorbike taxi. The same guy does food delivery. Same guy does Mart delivery. Same guy, if you want to top up your [virtual] wallet, you can use him to top up. Same guy helps our map improvements. So, it was very pragmatic. It wasn’t like, “let’s reimagine the future.” It was just like, “okay, focus on the customer.”

Our customer in this case is the driver. How do we help him earn more money during his downtime? Something that was easy for them to just pick up.

The second thing is leverage. In the [case of] insurance, [we made] everything in the app. It’s part of your journey. It’s embedded in your journey. The driver wants to buy insurance? It’s in the driver app, he just buys it. So people are like, “Oh, it’s so smart to think about financial services in the super app.” No, it was just that we thought about the driver. We didn’t want him to download another app. In this journey, that he’s going to pick up something, he can buy insurance or protection for him and his family. He can’t afford to buy insurance on a monthly basis. But you might just for that trip—or a day.

On the customer side, same thing. When we saw a customer wanted insurance products, it’s part of the journey. We’re looking at banking, it’s embedded in the Grab app. Now, if you sign up for Grab GXS [Bank], GXS pays for your ride, you get double the rewards. Again, part of your journey.

There’s more of a jobbing culture in Southeast Asia. Do you think that doesn’t really apply in the U.S. and we’re not going to have that same seamless kind of integration?

I think you will see more. Don’t ask how I know, but you’ll see more. People are engrossed in [the idea of] the super-app. It’s not [about] the super-app—it’s [about] being focused on the customer or the partner. We develop products around them, because it was already there, as opposed to them downloading a new solution and learning [how to use] a new app.

—With reporting by Will Henshall

Correction, Aug. 22

The original version of this story misstated the currency Tan was referencing for the cost of motorbike rides. It was Indonesian rupiahs, not Malaysian ringgits.

Why Grab's CEO Isn’t Focusing on the Super-App Label

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