Among the sprawl of glass and grey metal that is Midview City, a giant business centre in the Bishan district of Singapore, spotting the GrabTaxi offices is not much of a challenge. They are bright green. They also have the words “I like it fast” and “I like it now” plastered on the walls in metre-high letters.
Inside, Cheryl Goh, the company’s group VP of marketing, who joined when its staff numbered just 16 people – it now employs more than 600, as well as approximately 83,000 drivers – is almost as ebullient as the slogans outside. “I have absolutely no work-life balance,” she says with a giant laugh. “I dream about work a lot. I flew in today mainly to see you, and even when I fell asleep on the plane I dreamt about work. I know it’s a bit obsessive but, honestly, most entrepreneurs have to be.”
Going above and beyond the call of duty seems to come as standard at GrabTaxi, which operates in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Southeast Asia Globe first met Goh when she was a guest speaker at the Asia-Pacific Festival of Media in Singapore, where she showed a GrabTaxi print advert that she starred in, joking that: “You know you’re working for a startup when you’re in your own adverts.”
Aside from that turn as a model, what other ways have you gone the extra mile for the company?
There are lots. I take taxis every day and we have these little bags with stickers and water sprays in them for branding. When I get into taxis I check if the sales staff put on the sticker and if they didn’t I’ll do it myself. You have to put on the sticker, spray it with water and then use a small plastic card to squeeze out air bubbles. When you have no money, every dollar counts.
When I get into taxis I check if the sales staff put on the sticker and if they didn’t I’ll do it myself.Sheryl Goh, Grab
There must be a bit of cash sloshing around nowadays, but let’s go back to the start. How did GrabTaxi come about?
GrabTaxi started in Malaysia because if you look at the Malaysian taxi landscape three years ago, it was in pretty bad shape. Kuala Lumpur was voted as having the worst taxis in the world. The drivers were known to rip you off and there were a lot of safety concerns… I’ve taken taxis since I was in high school [in Malaysia] and it was very scary. I was always told to make it very obvious to the driver that you had taken his details down – there was that level of worry in Malaysia.
The GrabTaxi idea came runner-up in the Harvard Business School business contest, so that validated the concept. It also set us up for regional expansion – they said it didn’t come first because Malaysia is such a small market.
That really helped us think through the idea. We understood it was a very clear problem in Malaysia but, at the same time, if we wanted to have scale then we needed to be a regional company.
As an unknown startup, getting drivers on board must have been interesting…
It was really hard because you’re telling people a couple of things. First is to please use the meter, which in itself is a challenge. Then you’re also telling them that they need to have a smartphone. A lot of the drivers were moving over from a basic Nokia to a smartphone, so there are a lot of differences just between those two interfaces. When the smartphone screen went blank when it was resting, the drivers were holding them up, going: “Look, it’s not working. It’s gone flat.” So teaching them to turn it on, how to swipe, how to answer the phone, why the screen is black, what is GPS – it was all very challenging.
In certain cities there are rumours that taxi rings are run by tycoons with military links, retired generals and even gangsters. How has GrabTaxi managed to penetrate this notoriously closed-off industry?
I think the biggest reason is that we’re constructive disrupters, meaning that we’re helping everyone make more money. The way fleet owners make money is by renting out the cars to drivers, so they want drivers to make a certain amount so they can afford the rental. What we did was bring more jobs to the drivers, which prevented them from defaulting easily.
I did the GrabTaxi launch in Pattaya and the industry there is apparently run by the Russian mafia. My translator’s father actually called his son and said: “Tell your boss to be a bit careful.” I told him not to worry because the value that we bring is positive for everybody.
So even the bad guys don’t mind you…
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s true. I think people come to realise that we’re just trying to help everyone and make the transport landscape a bit more reliable and modern.
How do you tailor operations to suit different countries?
GrabTaxi’s core pillars are safety, speed and certainty, and in all of the countries that we operate, at least one of those needs exists. For example, in Malaysia and the Philippines it was very much safety, while in Singapore we focused on speed because we realised that [taxi] waiting times could be extremely long and people hated waiting. In Thailand they had safety issues and, in some cases, especially for tourists, the drivers just don’t turn on the meter.
We’re also in Vietnam and Indonesia, and in those countries a lot of people are on motorbikes, so we launched GrabBike [to complement GrabTaxi]. I think we solved two things in Indonesia especially. The first is the horrendous traffic jams, and there’s also: Is this safe? Is there insurance? We found out that people worry about those things, so our passengers are insured as soon as they get onto one of our bikes. They have a helmet and a raincoat provided, and it is the same in Vietnam.
What do you regard as the company’s biggest success?
What really makes it all worthwhile is when you talk to drivers or passengers, which I do a lot. Passengers say how it has improved the way they commute; drivers say it has improved their lives by making work more efficient – they now spend less time and fuel cruising for fares.
We actually discovered that a lot of drivers in Malaysia have kidney stones. They don’t even want to go to the bathroom as that might mean losing a fare over the radio. With a smartphone, they can go grab a drink or use the bathroom without missing a job opportunity.
What was your worst-ever taxi ride?
When I was in high school I got into a taxi and I’m pretty sure his intention was to kidnap me. I was quite traumatised. We preach about safety but it’s a very real problem. He was talking in a way that I felt was a bit inappropriate, so I made a fuss and insisted that he let me out.
It’s interesting because, as a guy, it’s not something we really consider. We just get in a taxi and go.
I tell people I have the easiest job in the world, because we have a product I truly believe in and truly love. I think it’s making a great, positive change in the region. I did sales when I was younger, selling credit cards, and that’s nasty. But my job, no, it’s a good one. I have the greatest job.