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The Grab effect

A fascinating look at the people driving South-east Asia's most exciting and valuable startup

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Stand and deliver: Singapore-based unicorn grab is no longer just rethinking the way people travel from A to B - it is speeding towards becoming South-East Asia's everyday app

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A scrum or stand-up meeting at Grab. Such meetings are common at the company. Team members will stand shoulder to shoulder in a room (like players in a rugby scrum) to review the work done in the last few days and pore over the agenda for the days ahead.

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Mr David is happy he gets to use his training in mathematics and statistics in his job as data science lead for architecture at Grab.

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Above: ''Job rotation is commonplace at Grab, and is usually always initiated by the employee. Compared to my previous workplace, the culture at Grab is fast-paced, vibrant and diverse,'' says Mr Zittel.

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Above: ''Grab is one of many apps we use every day, and a crucial one especially for visually-impaired people. I want to make the app more accessible for these users,'' says Mr Nguyen.

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Above: ''The key is experimentation - we explore every space, big or small,'' says Mr Foo.

AT about 11am on a Wednesday, I watched a group of 15 Grabbers (Grab employees) file into a meeting room in the company's Marina One office for what appeared to be a team huddle. Only not one single person got to sitting down. The team members - who were mostly dressed in jeans, T-shirts and hoodies - simply stood around a table and talked; there were no notes or powerpoint slides. "That's a scrum," Wenceslao David, Grab's data science lead for architecture, said to me. He was one of many Grabbers who had hosted my day-long visit to the Grab office in May, and had been standing next to me as I watched the scrum happen.

Such stand-up meetings, it turned out, are common at Grab. Team members will stand shoulder to shoulder in a room (like players in a rugby scrum) to review the work done in the last few days and pore over the agenda for the days ahead. Mr David said: "We stand up to keep the meeting short. That's it."

The scrum speaks strongly of Grab's culture: nimble, go-getting, fast-moving, and yet organised. Even as Grab fervently makes land "grabs" in every direction - transport, fintech, marketplace - launching new products and services for seemingly every aspect of our lives with the aim of becoming indispensable, it is doing so with a bigger goal in mind: to be the everyday app for South-east Asian users.

Your problem is my problem

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That mix of passion and practicality is evident among Grabbers. Mr David, a Filipino, is happy he gets to use his training in mathematics and statistics - subjects some may think a bit dry and niche, and pandering to the pedantic - in his job. As architecture lead for the data science team, he builds tools and platforms to help the team work more quickly and efficiently. Mr David said: "It's exciting - we see it as giving data scientists the freedom (to work better)."

Jascha Zittel - a product manager at GrabFood and previously Drivers' Experience, another Grab product unit - said his role is to "continually improve the product". This includes sussing out pain points faced by users and building products - often in teams - to resolve these issues. "At Grab, we practise 'ypimp' (your problem is my problem). It means that if you have a problem and you can't get it done, you call for a 'ypimp' and people will come and support you."

Mr Zittel, like many Grabbers, swear by Slack, a team collaboration app popular with small and medium-size companies to communicate internally and work on projects. The man is a self-professed Slack addict; at lunch, even a GrabFood-delivered burger couldn't stop him from peeking at and responding to the many Slack notifications that popped up on his phone.

The 28-year-old German moved to Singapore and applied for a job at Grab just over a year ago. He was first drawn to the "dynamism and diversity" of South-east Asia during a backpacking trip across the region. Soon after, he sought a career change, having worked for a number of years at German insurance company Allianz, which he said offered a "safe and secure environment" but "not a lot of growth".

Mr Zittel said: "I wanted to grow and learn - to 'do product' in a company where technology is the core business and not just used to support insurance agents. When I applied to Grab, I thought at first that working on a consumer-facing product (such as the Grab app for riders) would be more exciting. But working with drivers was most interesting, because drivers use Grab to make their daily living."

In his job at Drivers' Experience, there was a lot of "going out and talking to drivers", and solving their problems to help them do their work better, he noted. "What is always humbling to a product manager is that you have drivers who have been with the platform since the early days when Grab was an unknown little startup and there were a lot of tech issues. They have stayed with the company, put their trust in the platform, and thanked us product managers for improving the product."

Mr Zittel requested a transfer to GrabFood after a year at Drivers' Experience, mainly to try out a new product. He added: "Job rotation is commonplace at Grab, and is usually always initiated by the employee. Compared to my previous workplace, the culture at Grab is fast-paced, vibrant and diverse."

Staying a startup

Foo Wui Ngiap, Grab's regional head for growth and user trust, runs a team that tests and creates new features to enhance the Grab app. He said: "As Grab got bigger, we got slower. So we asked ourselves how we could still maintain a startup culture and fulfil our contracts with drivers and riders. The key is experimentation - we explore every space, big or small."

The growth team, formed a year ago, is one of the youngest outfits at Grab. It conducts about 115 experiments every quarter, of which some 52 per cent fail. Mr Foo explained: "Some ideas sound intuitive but don't perform in real life. One example is the use of local dialects in the Grab Singapore app. When ideas fail, we put some of them on the back-burner. We could revisit them, for example, when new blood comes in and someone among them is convinced that the idea just wasn't executed well then.

"We get learnings from failures too and channel them into successful experiments."

These experiments, added Mr Foo, are not "heavy-investment types" that seek to build new, revenue-generating business models for Grab but "hacks" that serve to add features on the Grab app to engage users on a "deeper and more emotional level".

Take Grab Daily. Launched on May 10 for Android mobile users, it is a lifestyle feature on the Grab app that comprises a mix of "utility and content widgets", such as games, daily polls, event listings, trending places and stories by Grab. It will launch on iOS in early June.

Mr Foo said Grab Daily takes advantage of users' idle screen time (like when they are waiting to be paired with a driver or get picked up) by giving them something "fun" to do and introducing to them different ways of using the various features of Grab's platform, including GrabPay and GrabFood. "It's helping customers discover more use cases on Grab."

For example, Trending Places is a content widget that shows users a Grab-curated list of interesting places to visit or cafes to check out, and allows users to directly book a ride to these places through JustGrab, Grab's taxi or private car ride-hailing service, or order food from the cafes through GrabFood, Grab's food-delivery service.

Grab Daily is a means for Grab to collect more user data, added Mr Foo. Today's Poll, a polling widget, lets users vote on things like their favourite holidays. On Thursday, the poll asked users if they would rather be the most popular or the smartest kid. As at 12.30pm, nearly 2,000 people had participated in that poll.

The ultimate goal is for Grab Daily to be an "app store", a platform where each widget is an app and where different teams from Grab or even third-party brands can test and create their own widgets, Mr Foo said. "For example, if users want to consume news, The Straits Times can create a news widget. We have spoken to a few news outlets - talks are at a very introductory stage."

In the near future, Grab Daily could be personalised to each user. An individualised landing page is in the pipeline, said Mr Foo. "Today, Grab Daily is differentiated by country. Soon, it will be differentiated by city and then the individual. Everyone's feed will look slightly different."

Not your usual engineer

Giang Nguyen, a 24-year-old Vietnamese, is a software engineer for accessibility. He is one of two engineers at Grab whose job is to make the Grab app friendlier for visually-impaired and elderly users. Mr Nguyen, who is visually impaired and uses a screen reader to code, has built accessibility features for Grab that include easy swiping actions and a text-to-speech function that reads out text displayed on the app.

The engineer moved to Singapore after graduating from university in Vietnam, and applied for his first full-time job at Grab. "I wanted a change in lifestyle and environment. Grab is one of many apps we use every day, and a crucial one especially for visually-impaired people. I want to make the app more accessible for these users."

Pink for surge pricing

Danis Lou, passenger experience design lead, believes that design is key to problem-solving. He leads a team that is responsible for the look and feel, and user experience, of the Grab rider app. Recently redesigned, the app now boasts a softer colour palette that retains Grab's iconic shade of green and almost induces a calming effect. Noticeably, the revamped app no longer uses the colour pink to signify surge pricing. Grab is now studying and testing new colour palettes to mark surge pricing with other colours, including orange and different shades of pink.

Mr Lou said: "We chose pink because we wanted users to pay attention to it, know that this is something different and be aware of it. But (we have discovered that) other colours can achieve that. We created a new colour palette and orange is now used to signify surge pricing."

He added that the key guiding principle for design is user experience, with criteria such as simplicity, ease of use, the ability to allow users to finish a task quickly, and accessibility. To ensure that the Grab app's user experience is up to the mark, Mr Lou's team works with the user experience research team, led by Avinash Papatla, to incorporate user feedback into their design.

What Mr Papatla's team does, essentially, is "bring back intelligence to the product team". First, his team of researchers get user insights either from speaking with users on Google Meet (a real-time meeting tool) or observing how they use a new product or service through a one-way mirror, during which they keep an eye out for any difficulties faced by users in handling the new product. Then they will take this intelligence to a design workshop to jointly conceptualise the new product with other stakeholders, including the product manager, designers, engineers and business analysts.

The Grab app gets a redesign every two years. Mr Lou said: "Times are a-changing - so are people and their behaviour. This means some things in the app will definitely have to be updated, and it makes sense to refresh the app as a whole (every so often)."

The Grab effect

Founded in 2012, Grab today offers a range of ride-hailing, fintech and marketplace services. It operates in 209 cities across eight countries in South-east Asia, and its mobile app has recorded more than 95 million downloads. Grab is a purpose-driven company with the ambitious goal of improving the lives of the region's 620-million population, said Ong Chin Yin, Grab's head of people. "Our Grabbers are at the forefront of solving some of the most significant challenges in this incredibly diverse region, from traffic congestion to income equality and financial inclusion."

She added: "As we build out a suite of everyday services in transport, food delivery and payments, we are also growing a generation of leaders in South-east Asia who exude Grab's culture of honour, humility, hunger and heart, and are driven to serve one and all."

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