Never did Grab co-founder Anthony Tan imagine he would sit in the exact same chair as Jack Ma did years before him, talking to Masayoshi Son about funding in the SoftBank boss’ Tokyo home. But there he was in 2014 having the most unusual of investor meetings.
“We’re at the top floor of his building, with all of Tokyo under us. I look at him, this very distinguished gentleman. There’s a Samurai costume, there’s a golf club, and there’s a baseball bat. Then he goes, ‘I love the business. 14 years ago, Jack Ma sat in that seat,’” Tan narrated in a fireside chat with Catcha Group CEO Patrick Grove at the 2017 Wild Digital conference.
He said the Japanese billionaire went straight to the point, telling him, “If you take my money, good for me, good for you. If you don’t take my money, not so good for you,” drawing laughs from the audience.
What made that first meeting unforgettable was that no term sheet was signed to seal the deal. Tan recalled Son saying, “I don’t need to look at the agreement, let’s just shake hands.”
That handshake was as good as any legal document and more. SoftBank pumped US$250 million into Grab and would come back for a future round as well.
Of all the things Tan’s learned from Japan’s richest man, it’s being honorable that stands out the most.
“The ability to say you’re credible, the ability to say you’re honorable. You want to honor this relationship throughout and that’s paid off because he’s (Son) been in the rounds every time. Yes, you can think about full stops, you can think about every sentence, you can think about covering your ass all the time, but frankly it’s that handshake and him looking you in the eye and saying I’ll hold you to it [that counts].”
It’s all about your relationships
Tan has pitched to a lot of investors and he estimates up to 80 percent of those “have converted into our shareholders today.”
“There will be a lot of times when maybe at series A, they’re not ready but they come in at C; maybe they’re not ready at C, but they come in much later.” What a founder needs to think about is – “how will I make sure that I develop real relationships?”
Tan says the relationships he’s treasured over the years have helped him take his ride-hailing company to where it is today.
Tan also treasures his friendship with Didi Chuxing’s co-founders Jean Liu and Cheng Wei.
Grab has had its share of how-the-hell-do-we-do-this moments, and during those times, what Tan did was look to his Didi comrades.
“There are times when… they were afraid they couldn’t pay the salaries the next day and they had to go over to some of the big entrepreneurs’ homes and ask money on that day so they could pay salaries. These guys are really hard core, very sharp.”
Along with SoftBank, Didi, which invested in Grab’s series E and F rounds, is the company’s top shareholder.
Like SoftBank, there’s a well of knowledge to learn from Didi – the most important of which is how to scale.
“Today they’re doing about 18-20 million rides a day, we do close to 3 million rides a day. To have that kind of scale and share that with us… next time I’m here, we’d have 10 million rides,” Tan forecast.
It’s a perfect match – two of Asia’s homegrown ride-hailing companies battling it out with US giant Uber.
Tan believes Grab’s and Didi’s greatest asset is their local expertise, which Uber has struggled to beat. In Southeast Asia, he said Grab fully understands consumers – their preference for cash as mode of payment and chat as communication – so it pioneered features supporting those.
Local knowledge also helped Didi kick Uber out of the race in China, forcing the US company to sell its country unit in a US$35 billion deal.
“There’s this sense of brotherhood, that we’re in this battle together, let’s show them the power of Asia. It’s so inspirational,” explained Tan.
Taking the conversation to a more personal level, he shared that “the biggest” partnership out of all he forged was with his wife. When he first met Chloe Tong, he had no money nor time. “Remember ladies, don’t find a startup entrepreneur who has no money and no time. It’s a bad deal,” he quipped.
But those things didn’t matter. “All that mattered was we shared the same values, same faith. We wanted to create a change in the world.”
Besides his wife, he has only good words to say about the “next strong woman” in his life – his co-founder Hooi Ling Tan. “She’s not my sister but I love her like my sister. She’s an incredible person – very inquisitive, very smart, and she has a big heart.”
They differ in many things – for instance, Hooi Ling is extremely meticulous and Tan is super big picture – but when it comes to values, they’re a hundred percent aligned. “Every time we didn’t agree on something we’d say, ‘okay let’s go back to the principles, go back to the values’, and that makes things converge.”
The whole business started when the duo bonded over the idea of making taxis safer in their home country Malaysia while at the Harvard Business School. He recounts how Hooi Ling herself used to jump in the back of a taxi in wee hours, pretending to be on the phone with her mom to discourage unscrupulous drivers.
It was a massive pain point Grab wanted to address. So the business was born – initially named MyTeksi, with the tagline “I like it safe and I like it fast.”
Grove poked fun at the slogan. “How do we promise it’s safe and remind ourselves with something that’s catchy enough – that didn’t come out with Durex?” Tan responded, laughing.
Since it’s launch, Grab has grown to an over US$3 billion company, raising over a billion dollars in funding. From taxi-hailing, it’s expanded its services to include cars and motorbikes, catering to 40 million riders and 800,000 drivers in six markets in Southeast Asia.
Reflecting on the trying moments in Grab’s early days, Tan said, “It’s not about starting well. It’s about finishing damn well.”