File photo of Tan Hooi Ling, Co-founder of GrabTaxi

File photo of Hooi Ling Tan, Co-founder of GrabTaxi

With the same last names, the Co-founders of GrabTaxi, Anthony Tan and Hooi Ling Tan, led classmates and professors at the Harvard Business School (HBS) — where they studied for their Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree — to mistake them for a brother-and-sister or husband-and-wife pair.

While they are unrelated, they did share two classes in business school from which Hooi Ling Tan said the idea for GrabTaxi — or MyTeksi, as it is known in Malaysia where it started in 2011 as a taxi-booking app, and which has since expanded into a ride-sharing platform across 28 cities in six Southeast Asian nations — germinated.

Anthony’s story — as the grandson of a taxi-driver who later started Tan Chong Motor, a multinational auto sales-and-assembly empire, and the youngest of three sons who left the family business currently headed by his father, the 16th richest man in Malaysia — is well documented.

That story intertwines with that of HBS classmate and GrabTaxi Co-founder Hooi Ling Tan’s.

Also Read: Echelon Malaysia: GrabTaxi Founder did not create the app to impress a girl

Working on GrabTaxi part-time

By admission, Hooi Ling says that she does not come from as affluent a background as Anthony’s and, as the recipient of a sponsorship to study for her MBA at Harvard, could not afford (literally) to break her contract with her then-employer McKinsey & Company (a management consulting firm) to work full-time on GrabTaxi after graduation.

The timing was also not right for Anthony.

“We had no intention of launching our own business when we were in school. Both of us had commitments: Him to his family business, myself to McKinsey,” says Hooi Ling.

Both of them, however, could not pry themselves from an idea that had earned them the runners-up position at HBS’ 2011 Business Plan Contest and made them finalists in HBS’ Minimum Viable Product Funding award.

“[B]ecause we realised the power of the idea and the ability to potentially make it happen, we decided to re-craft our lives post-school around it,” says Hooi Ling, who goes on to explain her delay in returning to McKinsey upon completing her MBA in 2011.

“Right after graduation, I flew back [to Malaysia] and went straight to a storeroom in Segambut (a sub-district in the capital, Kuala Lumpur). It’s in the middle of nowhere [but] there was a storeroom that we could use for free [to work on GrabTaxi],” says Hooi Ling from the 4,500-square-foot R&D centre that GrabTaxi opened in Singapore’s Central Business District earlier this year.

“I did that for six months, and the reason why it was only [so long] was that McKinsey had paid for my [studies at] business school.”

While Hooi Ling was slogging it out in a storeroom, Anthony was simultaneously spending all the spare time he could find away from the family business for GrabTaxi work.

“Whiteboarding, brainstorming, going to see drivers and training them – those were the very early days,” says Hooi Ling, describing what Anthony would do.

Also Read: GrabTaxi’s recent US$350M deal: Cash is king, China likes SEA

The six months Hooi Ling had negotiated for with McKinsey were very soon over and the sponsorship she took meant that she had an obligation to return and serve at least two more years with McKinsey, with whom she had previously already worked three years in the Malaysian office prior to undertaking studies for her MBA degree.

After a year, however, she decided she had had enough. But financial and personal reasons, the latter of which she chooses not to elaborate on, made Hooi Ling stay on in the San Francisco Bay Area.

She took up a job with Salesforce in 2013, where she later had roles in corporate strategy and corporate operations before her last role as Senior Director of Pricing Intelligence and Monetisation.

Like she did before returning to McKinsey for her second stint with them, she found ways to contribute to GrabTaxi when she could, such as when on vacation.

“There was actually a period of time when I was taking vacations from Salesforce to come back [to GrabTaxi] and work harder than I ever was at Salesforce, Take two weeks off, fly back, go on a crazy five- to six-country sprint, then fly back to San Francisco and work again,” Hooi Ling says.

But working on a startup part-time was just not the same.

“Doing GrabTaxi full-time and in that [ad hoc] manner [that Hooi Ling did while juggling full-time jobs at McKinsey or Salesforce] are very different. Even though I was helping, providing thoughts, helping to frame things, I wasn’t able to be on the ground and actually help drive change with the team day-to-day,” says Hooi Ling.

And when she finally felt ready to return to GrabTaxi full-time in April this year, she left Salesforce to move to Singapore to assume the full-time role of GrabTaxi’s Chief Operating Officer (COO).

Also Read: Video: GrabTaxi Co-founder Hooi Ling Tan’s 3 tips for entrepreneurs

‘I like to fix plumbing’

The COO title is one that Hooi Ling rarely uses, though she is predisposed to likening herself to a plumber.

“I like to fix plumbing. I think a couple of things I spend most of my time on these days is, firstly, on product. Secondly, is our people and, thirdly, is customer experience or customer support,” says Hooi Ling who confesses a preference for staying out of the limelight.

“All of these things are very critical components of our service but they’re also generally the things that happen within the walls, less marketing-related and front-facing. And, therefore, why I call them plumbing because [they are things that are not highly visible but] once you get them working really well, it’s amazing what kind of output comes from them.”

The latest project she is working on these days is GrabHitch, GrabTaxi’s new carpooling service being tested in Singapore. It is currently recruiting drivers and a mass-market launch is imminent in the final weeks of the year, according to Hooi Ling.

On the products portfolio, she also helps build GrabTaxi’s other relatively newer services, such as GrabBike and GrabExpress. Through these new products, the company has maintained an emphasis on the creation of social value, especially in increasing the safety of female riders in places known to be crime-ridden. With GrabHitch, the company is offering women the option to ride only with a driver of the same gender.

The concerns that spark such initiatives are all too familiar to Hooi Ling.

Also Read: Infographic: Most Singaporeans think govt should legislate taxi apps

Late-night taxi rides

During the three years Hooi Ling spent at McKinsey’s Malaysian office, she often worked late into the night, necessitating taxi rides which she was not very keen on taking — nor were her family members for her to do so.

“I used to call myself a reluctant user of taxis. I was actually scared taking a taxi at like 1 to 3 AM. You get into these dingy little cars, and these drivers are not the most well-mannered ones, driving extremely unsafely. And, as a female, with news consistently saying that people are robbed, raped, kidnapped and stuff like that, it wasn’t fun,” said Hooi Ling.

A 2015 report on Malaysia crime and safety by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (under the auspices of the US Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security) states that “[t]axi drivers in downtown Kuala Lumpur have been involved in recent incidents of violent crime perpertrated against foreign tourists and local residents.”

As a precautionary measure, Hooi Ling, with her mother, devised an improvised reporting system that would inform the latter of her whereabouts whenever she took a taxi.

“[It] involved lots of SMSes, phone calls and fake phone calls. Once I got into a taxi, I’ll give her the license plate number, the ETA (estimated time of arrival) and we had specific milestones [where] I’ll report to her,” says Hooi Ling. “It’s a real concern.”

So, when Hooi Ling decided to embark on this venture, her mother was apprehensive.

“She was like, ‘What in the world are you doing? Taxis? Why do you want to go deal with [taxi] drivers? It’s the worst industry. Will you be safe?” says Hooi Ling in describing her mother’s reaction when she first told her about starting GrabTaxi.

Which was why e27’s story of a 22-year-old female student who rented a car to work as a GrabCar driver on weekends to supplement the household income of her single-parent family resonated with Hooi Ling.

Because of occasional harassment from drunk male passengers, the GrabCar driver’s mother had expressed disapproval at her daughter’s part-time work.

“It kind of reminds me about my mum (her concern) when I first told her about starting MyTeksi. When I read it, it felt the same,” says Hooi Ling.

Ultimately, this is the sort of story Hooi Ling says indicates that GrabTaxi is on the right track.

“If you think about the kind of decisions and power she (the GrabCar driver) now has to change her own life, it’s exactly what we wanted to do. Additionally, helping drivers improve their own livelihoods. Now, we have the ability of redefining who can be a driver and who can earn money on our platform. It provides more options for individuals like the girl,” says Hooi Ling.

Also Read: Can GrabTaxi trump Uber in Southeast Asia?

Lessons

It all harks back to lessons first learnt in those couple of classes that Hooi Ling and Anthony shared at Harvard and which sparked what has now become GrabTaxi, particularly a class called Business at the Base of the Pyramid.

“A lot of ideas right now from startups focus on the top 10 to 20 per cent of the income pyramid. We thought it sad because technology can change the lives of significantly more individuals if you were to focus on the bottom of the pyramid. Can you improve accessibility to education, transportation, that ability to actually make an income and therefore move from the bottom of the pyramid to the next level and so on?” says Hooi Ling.

And if anyone was wondering, the other class Hooi Ling and Anthony shared was called Launching Tech Ventures, co-taught by a certain Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup — a New York Times bestseller on business and entrepreneurship — and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard University since 2010.

When asked what she has learnt in this journey straddling the corporate and startup domains, she says, “When you are in a startup, every person has significant ability to shape that entity. When you’re in a big corporation like McKinsey, you’re a cog in the wheel, albeit a very big one because you only get brought in for very big decisions. But, in GrabTaxi, we make decisions at four to five times the speed and scale of what I was used to, which was already relatively high.”

Ending the interview, Hooi Ling scurries off to another one — albeit with her as the interviewer of a potential new hire — as the GrabTaxi wheels churned on.