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Business  10, Feb 2014

My first venture was at 11, says Anthony Tan, who traded comics then

A journey from a perceived “dumb” childhood to Harvard, and now being GrabTaxi’s CEO, Tan unfolds his life in a free-wheeling chat with e27

At the age of six, when kids said that they wanted to be doctors or firemen, Anthony Tan, now Founder and Group CEO, GrabTaxi, said he wanted to be a businessman. While, there is still a long way to go to conclude whether he has been a successful businessman or not, the journey has begun. With legacy of Tan Chong Motors in Malaysia, Tan could have simply joined the family business. Yet, the stories – how his grandfather started from a humble beginning to be the tycoon of the auto industry in Malaysia – egged Tan to start something of his own; not just for the heck of it, but something that can make a social impact.

The germination of an idea
The idea of a taxi-booking mobile app, GrabTaxi, came up when a friend visited Malaysia and had a horrid experience with the local taxis. The friend wasn’t sure if the driver was taking the right route and what should have been the right fare. “Why do the taxis suck?” The jibe from the friend forced Tan to think about a solution and take it up as a project, at Harvard.

Read Also: Positioned on speed, cab booking app GrabTaxi comes to Singapore

The idea that it has to have a “social implication” was discouraged by some professors. “Anthony! Life is tough enough. You just have to focus on one bottom line… the idea is too hard, isn’t proven yet in the real world. It’s nice on paper. In cases, this is nice to hear, but too difficult to implement.” These were some of the comments that he got to hear.

The silent beginning and the never say ‘No’ spirit
But Tan never learnt to say “no”. In fact he didn’t say anything at all as a kid. “Holy sh**! The kid’s dumb.” That’s what everyone around him thought so. But was he deaf? “No, I wasn’t deaf or dumb. I understood the language, I just got confused. There were so many languages… Mandarin, Hokkien, Melayu, English, being spoken around me. We had an Indian driver, who had a different accent altogether. So everything was just jumbled up,” says Tan.

He was six, when he “woke up” and that’s when “they” started asking him, “What do you want to do?” And he said, “I want to be a businessman.”

He was hearing stories of the struggle of his grandparents everyday at the dining table. Stories about how his grandmother went against the social norm of not helping out the lepers, because “it was perceived contagious” and how Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh, a taxi-driver, and Tan’s grandfather defied 14 hours of rain, waiting for the Chairman of Japanese car Datsun outside the Japanese Embassy to convince him to give him a chance to sell two cars. “But you don’t have any experience,” was the Chairman’s answer. But Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh wasn’t going to hear “no” for an answer. The rest, as they say, is history.

“These are humbling stories and they stuck in my head for a very long time. The key thing I learned in entrepreneurship is, never say ‘no’, you must always say ‘yes’,” says the scion heir who decided to chart his own course.

Early signs of a businessman: Trading X-Men
He says that his first venture was when he was 11 years old. His parents had taken him to a Comics Convention in Singapore from where he had got a good number of comic books. “Like every little kid, I was addicted to comics, loved X-Men. I saw other kids wanting what I had. So we said, ‘Hey! Let’s trade.’ Soon after we started trading, I realised that they didn’t have much to trade with. So, I accepted cash, and I made some decent money, I must add.”

Read Also: Came, coded, conquered: Meet Clarence Chan, the man behind Bandwagon

On a verge of confession, he laughs, “I’m not sure if I was on the borderline of manipulating the prices, but I mean that I was a businessman at that age, learning to convert cash into more stock, and stock into more cash.”

His second big milestone was at the age of 14, when he volunteered to raise money for AIDS Foundation. “I think, that was a very critical lesson in understanding socio-organisations. You spend half the money and not more, impacting those you care about. Then you stop as you don’t have enough cash. That taught me how to self-sustain in the long-run.”

The Herculean challenges
With a rich legacy behind him, it’s easy to dismiss his idea of Grabtaxi to be a concept of a “Harvard returned, inexperienced guy with lots of money to throw away for an experiment”. Grabtaxi was born in a Harvard lab but it was groomed travelling in the sun in cramped taxis, educating the uneducated drivers, and overcoming their reluctance to adopt technology. But the challenges weren’t limited to that. The drivers were poor to upgrade to a smartphone. They were never exposed to the internet or GPS. The gadgets scared them. If a team was talking to taxi drivers to understand their inhibitions and working to find a solution to their challenges, another team was talking to mobile manufacturers and service providers to subsidise smartphones and internet for the drivers.

Besides, there were “legacy issues” not uncommon in a mass transport business – logistics, political agenda, fleet unions…. Other entrepreneurial hiccups included running for licences, permits, government approvals and call-centre slowdowns.

Cure yourself
Besides not learning to say ‘No’, Tan strongly believes in the Japanese philosophy of ‘See yourself, do yourself, cure yourself’. “Every time we hire someone at GrabTaxi, we spend a lot of time talking about what our values are, about mutual trust, about reputation. I tell employees, you must be a taxi driver for one day. You must talk to the driver, feel his pain. We all know how it is to be a passenger, but always look at the driver when you build a product. You must always build from their point of view,” says Tan.

He learnt that quite early when he was signed by his father to work as his Personal Assistant and was in process forced to fire his senior. “That taught me the value of finding trustworthy people. The process of firing someone is extremely painful. It sucks resources from the company. There were key lessons for me from the exercise. It taught me management and about relationships,” says the entrepreneur. Sitting at his father’s office as his PA, also meant that he had to be on top of all files and cases; because of which he knew more than what the Chairman or the CEOs would know. He shares, “I read the cases, and they didn’t. They had other things to do. I could answer a few questions, and they looked at me like, ‘Who’s this crazy kid?’”

Creating value with a socio-economic formula
These answers made his professors see a spark in a kid to be at Harvard. The first case study that he learnt at Harvard further ingrained in him the value of creating businesses with a social impact. In a nutshell, the case study was about a school in Africa, where kids sat in the open, on grass, had no tables, and nothing to write on. Cereal brand Kellogg’s came up with a solution – gifting the kids a wooden sheet with a handle that could be used as an instrument to write on. “It was a mobile billboard, which had innocent kids carry lab desks with ads on them – the Kellogg’s tiger,” states Tan.

Read Also: Lessons & life hacks that built successful entrepreneurial empires

Isn’t it ironical for kids to carry a brand’s ad that they cannot afford to buy and eat? “But it’s not an ad for the kid. It’s a tool. They don’t have a school bag. It did change the lives of the kids. It can be nothing social here, but completely social there. It took somebody who has business needs, to meet it with a social need and create value… huge value.”

Andy Mills: The spiritual guide
Tan while wanted to build wealth from building an app to book taxis and ease the commuters’ travelling woes, he wanted to help drivers scale up their income from assured passengers and maybe tips. That was his social impact plan. But besides the logistic problems, he was facing problems from a family feud going on at that time. “I have nothing to hide. It’s all public and written about in the media,” says Tan.

So there were “obvious” hurdles thrown by competition who “would do evil things” to stop his startup venture. It was during this period that Andy Mills emerged as another (the first was his grandfather) role model in his life. The former CEO of Thomson Financial, himself is a Harvard alumni; Tan met him at Christian Fellowship where the former talked. “I listened to him and I approached him with many questions… life, business, ego… We spent a lot of time together, went out for lunches and talked for hours on Skype. He is to some extent not only responsible for my spiritual growth but for the growth of GrabTaxi too,” he says.

So when Tan was facing “blue collar criminals” and making “police reports” against them, Mills was the one who restrained him from taking any extreme step. “Andy! If I don’t do something, they’re gonna keep attacking us,” was Tan’s plea. And thus spake Mills, “If Jesus was to run Grabtaxi, how will he deal with this?” The question struck Tan like a thunderbolt. The other things that Mills told him was, “Five to six years down, when you return to Harvard to give a lecture in front of 90 eager students, and when they ask, ‘How did you build Grabtaxi?’ you got to be sure how you build it up. If you are doing something that you cannot tell those students, don’t do it.”

Read Also: Scott Anthony, MD of consulting firm Innosight, shares lessons from the trenches of disruptive incubation

Mills is one of the members of the advisory board for GrabTaxi. For the uninitiated, GrabTaxi started as a MyTeksi, an award-winning idea at the Harvard Business School’s 2011 Business Plan Contest. The team was also successfully selected as finalist in Harvard’s Minimum Viable Product Funding award, a new programme developed by the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship.
With difficult times from its foundation in Malaysia, where it started as MyTeksi, in June 2012, the app is now present in three countries – Thailand, Singapore and Philippines.

The role of the “Guy”
While, Tan is reluctant to reveal his future plans with GrabTaxi, he is quick to quell the doubts if we thought he has none. “I really do have a plan for the future. When I could talk at six, I knew I was going to do business and I consistently even at this stage of life know that I’d still be a businessman. But what matters is what type of businessman? I know for a fact that when I lay six feet under, people should say that this guy made a difference in the world. There will be enough distractions, so the challenge is to keep your focus and my pursuit is to prove the detractors wrong.”

Tan is fond of referring to the spark of light, the moment of truth, spiritual enlightening or God as simply the “Guy”. So how much credit does he give to his hard work and perseverance, and to the “Guy”? “99.99 per cent to the Guy. That’s it, I’m just point 0.01. My contribution is merely being a part of the right family, right schools, right partners, right PR agency, the right media, and above all, being at the right place at the right time,” the startup Founder ends on a philosophical note.

Dhaleta Surender Kumar

Dhaleta Surender Kumar

Surender, or Suren as he's better known in the industry, is the current Editor of e27. Prior to e27, Suren was Deputy Editor at Pitch, India's leading monthly magazine on marketing. Hailing from Shimla, India -- the backdrop of much of Rudyard Kipling's 'Plain Tales from the Hills', this 'poet at heart' journalist brings over 15 years of writing; and 12 years of journalism experience to Asia's tech industry. Mysticism intrigues him. He enjoys reading folklore and mythologies -- a passion that reflects in his poems and lyrical short-stories.

  • Joon

    this is the biggest steaming pile of bull shit i’ve heard in a long time.

    “Besides not learning to say ‘No’, Tan strongly believes in the Japanese philosophy of ‘See yourself, do yourself, cure yourself’. “Every time we hire someone at GrabTaxi, we spend a lot of time talking about what our values are, about mutual trust, about reputation. I tell employees, you must be a taxi driver for one day. You must talk to the driver, feel his pain. We all know how it is to be a passenger, but always look at the driver when you build a product. You must always build from their point of view,” says Tan.”

    @author – it’s useful to get some insights from the other players too on what really happens in the industry.

  • http://e27.co/ e27

    Hi Joon,
    You are welcome to leave your comments. However, your comments leads to no constructive discussion. It would have helped if you had shared your experience if you thought the text above was not aligned to your experience.

  • Mohan Belani

    Joon, we’d love to get insights from you too. Feel free to get in touch with Suren ([email protected]) and he’ll work with you on this.

    This article is a feature of GrabTaxi and Anthony, so it doesn’t make sense to get insights from other industry players. But it’ll be interesting to get your insights, via comments here or in a separate piece.

    As the main competitor to Grab Taxi and as the MD of Easy Taxi, try giving constructive feedback/criticism to your competitor’s views.

  • Guest

    ?????????….

  • Khoo Chen Shiang

    @Joon, isn’t EasyTaxi is the greatest bullshit in the industry?

  • Joon

    Mohan & Suren,

    Apologies for the harsh feedback.

    Please let me share why I insisted on insights from other players & it’s relevancy.

    Let’s put it this way – 9-6 years down the road, in that grand Harvard classroom. Will Anthony say…

    “I poached 2 sales teams over 3 months from my competition, and dumped them after they burnt out. While at it, my sales manager even tried to poach the CEO of my largest competitor. More over, we had the competitive strategy of forcing our app to only work on a Taxi driver’s phone if he did not have competitions app installed. Looking back – this is how Jesus would compete. We even made the news! http://imgur.com/w2Tgwoc,RkScHXg

    I admire and respect the hard work and perseverance needed to build a company that is Grab today, but at the same time despise the picture that is painted in this article. Thou is holier than thou and did no wrong.

    Nonsense. Own up.

  • Dado

    Referring to Jesus to lay out the background for the start of the company, and then running a company that corrupts the drivers of the competitors (as per my understanding from the newspaper article below), is just below any level. Uber did that in the US – look at their reputation now. To the author, I suggest you first read the press before promoting startups run in an unlawful way. Judging- or telling the story, yes. Promoting, no, especially as a well-known medium such as e27.

  • Wong Joon Ian

    Hello to the other Joon. I think were quite a few grammar issues in the piece as well.

  • Mohan Belani

    Just to be clear. This isn’t a promotion piece of GrabTaxi or Anthony. This is a feature interview and we’re tell his story, not promoting it. We don’t endorse Anthony or Grab Taxi, we merely showcase. I’d be really interested to read about Easy Taxi’s story as well.

    e27, as a medium, will continue to interview and showcase startups and people in the industry. Every startup has it’s own story and how it got to where it is. Other people might have different, and often times conflicting, versions of the story. This is the same for Asia or US based startups.

    Airbnb has always been the darling of the startup industry, even though it was reported that they did some questionable practices on Craigslist. Uber, as well, has been partaking in anti-competitive practices. Every startup has it’s good side and bad side. Tech media outlets still report about them regularly.

    Our job is to provide the platform and be as objective as possible. We’ll let the audience decide on how highly they think of the founder/startup and how much they’d like to believe the story behind it.

  • Mohan Belani

    Joon, no worries. And thanks for highlighting these facts. We’ll let the audience decide, from here, on how they’d like to view Grab Taxi and Anthony. My offer still stands to do a feature on Easy Taxi, so drop me a note if you’re keen.

  • jay

    for a man of ur caliber, is there a need to be like this?

  • james

    his linkedin page could equal in magnitude.

  • Philip

    Its up to the interviewee to decide how to answer the questions and its up to the interviewer to decide how to write. e27 needs to be more careful on how they write about anyone or any company

  • Farid Nor

    Seriously man? Kinda kelakar to read this comment though. But nevermind, cant see where easytaxi is going anyway. I’m proud user of MyTeksi app.

  • Parool K

    Grammar? “I think were…” Shouldn’t it have been “I think there were…”

  • Mohan Belani

    There wouldn’t have been any difference in the article. This is a feature of the founder and the company, not a critic of his startup or his business practice

  • Wong Joon Ian

    lol, you’re right. sorry, i’m bad at typing comments on my phone.

  • Thaiwatchdog

    If there’s a bigger pile of steaming BS, then it is Joon’s vehement replies. Disclosure: I do not work for Grab Taxi. I do know executive team of both Grab Taxi and Easy Taxi (Thailand branch).

    Fact 1. Easy Taxi approached Grab Taxi in Manilla to steal driver database.

    Fact 2. Easy Taxi just recently used to same tactic in Thailand. The same guy that stole the database is now working at Easy Taxi.

    Fact 3. Easy Taxi country manager visited Grab Taxi office in Bangkok unannounced and uninvited…and proceeded to snoop er look around until asked to leave.

    Fact 4. Easy Taxi copied Grab Taxi press material (minus logo and colour).

    Fact 5. Easy Taxi told Thai taxi drivers that they will get certain amount of money per driver if they switched over from Grab Taxi…only to tell very taxi drivers “sorry that promotion expired.”

    Fact 6. Easy Taxi use intimidation tactic including “ride around the city” in Manilla.

    Fact 7. Easy Taxi told all the drivers to uninstall Grab Taxi application…but have the audacity to tell people that Grab Taxi does this.

    I can happily provide testimonials including those of Thai taxi drivers as proof along with every single point listed.

    There should be a big piece on Rocket Internet and their practice in SEA region. Somehow, the ruthlessness that the Samwer bros instilled into its work culture evolved into something very ugly in this region.

    You consistently hear from various Rocket competitors of unsavoury tactic that ranges from comedic to outright nasty and non-ethical. I guess many Rocket execs in this part of the world felt such great pressure to survive the dreaded KPI that they will do everything even if it means lie, cheat, and steal to survive.

    Do a piece on them about this. I can happily provide you interview subjects from around the region. I’m sure you can find a bunch.

    Rocket has huge war chest and resource. It’s disgraceful that they still find it acceptable to cheat to succeed as well.

  • Thaiwatchdog

    As always, I love how Joon mislead with half truth.

    1. Grab Taxi only ask taxi drivers with VIP designation to uninstall Easy Taxi. In return, these VIP drivers get a lot of extra benefits. They are in effect Grab Taxi ambassador. None VIP drivers can always run both system at the same time but…

    2. Easy Taxi ask ALL drivers to uninstall Grab Taxi apps. Moreover, they will lure many drivers over from Grab Taxi…only to pull the class switaroo and say things like “Oh, that promotion expired.” Classical bait-and-switch.

    3. The 3 Months and Fire. Isn’t that the classical Rocket Internet Playbook? Rocket is so (in)famous for its practice. Using and discarding employees like they’re just piece of disposable garbage. The toughest job in the industry is that of HR Mgr for any of Rocket’s company. They have to fire/hire en masse every 3 months. Interview any ex-Rocket employees and they’ll all concur. Many of them working for several friend’s companies and they all say the same thing.

    4. Vicious Tactic. Joon, you should give full disclosure of your current professional affiliation. I’m curious why your LinkedIn does not reveal this? While you keep shady profile, you resort to Rocket’s other classical tactic, attack your opponent with half truth (on best day) and 10% truth and 90% lies on normal day.

    5. Red Herring. Another typical Rocket playbook. If you do something wrong, publicly accuse your opponent so all attention shifted away from your wrongdoings. Since your action speak rather loud, I don’t have to even point this out.

    I do like having Rocket here in that they help to bring attention for many Internet and tech verticals. Especially from the West as SEA tend to be under the radar.

    But at the same time, I despise the boorish behaviour as Joon kindly illustrates throughout his baseless accusation in response to this article. Why don’t you clean up your own act before you starting accusing others?

    You’re nonsense. Own up, buddy.

  • Thaiwatchdog

    What’s your point? How is e27 not doing proper their job properly? Do you have any concrete evidence that would put into question this article legitimacy? Don’t tell me that you’re taking comments from Dado and Joon at face value? Are you another Rocket minions tasked with littering comment board with garbage?

  • Surender Dhaleta

    I think there should be peace. As Mohan has already clarified that it’s not a piece on business practices of GrabTaxi. It’s an article on Anthony. Personally, as an interviewer I find nothing wrong with what he said. It’s relative for each – the takeaway they want from the article. One could look at it as glass half full or glass half empty.

    There are no judgements passed on Anthony in the article. It’s for the readers to judge.

    I am not making judgements if Anthony practices what Andy Mills told him. For me, the takeaway still would remain what Andy Mills told him. It’s relevant not just to Anthony but to each one of us and to every entrepreneur. Can we follow that?

    I will let history judge Anthony.

    It’s on each one of us — Can we take the good part with us and filter out the bad. It’s on each one of us to take what we want – the good or the bad? The choice is ours.

    At e27, we will continue doing stories that talk about emotions, that talk about inspirations of entrepreneurs. There successes and failures. How genuine, or fake those emotions are, we will leave that to the readers to decide that. But, can we learn from a “good point” anyone makes, even if they themselves don’t practice? The onus is on us.

  • JonZ

    Why don’t you share YOUR story? Not your side of the story, just your story. People are trying to explain to you that the article is about one person’s journey in an industry….it’s not about the industry. So what stupid insight are you talking about? You’re just too idiotic to differentiate the trees from the forest.

    It’s easy to criticise other people’s efforts without having to show any on your side other than some drunk rant about how bad your competition is. Take the high road, man. You really sound like a sore loser. Besides, your comment piece is bad branding for Easytaxi. You just lost yourself a customer.

  • Felipe Kasinsky

    Hi Thaiwatchdog, obviously you have a grudge with Rocket companies, however, generalization of people’s behavior due to the place of employment is definitely something that people should not do.
    Regarding the facts that you mentioned above about Easy Taxi Thailand, I would challenge you to base your judgement on more than one side of the story, as apparently, you don’t know the Executives of Easy Taxi Thailand that well.
    If you are interested in doing so, please call our customer service number and ask to talk to me or send us an e-mail at [email protected].
    Otherwise, your arguments seem extremely biased

  • Jelly

    Sorry but you spelled Anthony’s grandfather’s name wrongly. Suppose to be Tan Sri Tan Yuet Foh and not “Tuet”….thank you

  • Surender Dhaleta

    Hi Jelly,
    Thanks for pointing it out. Everyone missed this error. :) Correcting it.

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