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Kell Jay Lim
IN 2013, engineer-trained Kell Jay Lim left his stable job as a CRM/analytics consultant at Accenture. He took a pay cut to become the general manager of Grab (then called GrabTaxi) and found himself working thrice as hard as he did at Accenture.
The change, he says, was worth it. The numbers for the ride-hailing mobile platform offering private car, taxi, bike and shuttle rides are sizzling. In June this year, the Malaysia-established app celebrated its fifth anniversary. Its services were available in 55 cities in seven South-east Asian countries. Its ride volume had more than doubled to 2.5 million rides daily from six months before, while app downloads had tripled to 45 million devices from June 2016.
Fast forward five months to the present: Grab is in 142 cities in seven South-east Asian countries - and an eighth country, Cambodia, might be added soon. Its ride volume is steadily moving towards 4 million a day. And app downloads have crossed 68 million.
"I have to update these figures in my head every month because they keep changing," says Mr Lim, with a laugh.
In Oct 2015, the Malacca-born 35-year-old was made Singapore country head. Grab continues to expand quickly, introducing one new service after another to its 4million Singapore users alone. And though it's running at a loss for now, investors are queueing up to pump money into the company. In July, Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and Japanese telco and Internet conglomerate SoftBank poured US$2 billion into Grab, the largest single financing in the history of the region.
You accepted a lower pay to join Grab when it was just one-year-old. Did you have a hunch it'd be so successful?
Actually, I wasn't sure. But I am a risk-taker - I love extreme sports: bungee-jumping, scuba-diving, mountain-climbing, and so on. But Grab had just gotten funding from various investors, including Vertex, a subsidiary of Temasek Holdings. So that gave me some assurance. Apart from that, I was interested in the subject of transport. It's something that everyone has issues with. My last three years at Accenture was spent in Jakarta. And I knew how bad traffic and transport woes affect everyone.
Tell us about the early days of Grab.
I think at that time, they were looking for someone who was crazy enough to take up the challenge. They wanted someone who could roll up his sleeves and get things done. I remember I was camping out at the airport, at a little coffee-shop where taxi drivers hung out. And I would pitch the Grab app to them and begged them to try it out. I would jump into taxis when they were queueing at the airport and try to get them to sign up. I spoke to hundreds of drivers. I gave them my mobile number and they'd call me at 3am if they couldn't get the app to work. We had only 10 people then. Now, in Singapore alone, we have more than 1,000 working in various capacities. And we have a call centre to handle the calls.
Grab has been quick to leap over various regulation hurdles. When the government ruled that private hire cars are not exempted from child seat requirements, you responded within a month with the introduction of GrabFamily, vehicles specifically for families with young children. When you were given three months to get all your drivers licensed, you got that done too.
We're doing things that no one has done before. There's a lot of uncharted territory. So we've learnt to respond quickly to challenges. When I was in Accenture and working on a project in Jakarta, that took us a year. Now I have to turn around a campaign in a matter of days or weeks. In fact, we're rolling new things every two or three months. We're now the only one to offer taxi, private car, minivan and bus services.
Are you redesigning the app too?
We're going to have to redesign the app because there's just so many services on it. We've also realised that even though we started out as taxi app, there's so much we can do with our platform. We had introduced GrabPay to make transactions for passengers seamless. But now GrabPay has become a widely-used cashless platform. So the next logical step is to see how we can expand GrabPay for all kinds of transactions outside of the Grab platform, such as shopping and dining. And we're not just partnering the big malls like those of CapitaLand. We're also getting the small merchants who traditionally don't deal with cashless transactions to try GrabPay.
You going back to the ground to teach the uncles and aunties one by one.
That's right. We're teaching them that just because they don't see the actual cash, it doesn't mean it isn't there. We're beginning with the small shop owners in Telok Ayer, and we'll spread to the rest of the island. We started out by wanting to make Grab the first app you go to for all your transport needs. Now we want to become all your payment needs.
Are you gunning for global domination?
Not global. Just regional. There are 750 million people in South-east Asia. And we've hit 68 million downloads. There's still a big gap there.
But your ambitions look similar to that of huge tech companies in China and the US.
We take a lot of inspiration from China. In fact, there's a similar company in China called Didi Chuxing, which is the largest ride-hailing firm in the world - they're also one of our investors. I met the CEO recently and he felt that Grab has a bigger challenge because in South-east Asia, there hasn't been any big tech companies that have come up. In China, you have Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (or BAT), the three giants that have paved the way for other Chinese tech companies. And we are kind of doing that for South-east Asia in terms of attracting talents, building a platform that can scale regionally, and serving a huge population. Hopefully we can be the BAT of South-east Asia and pave the way for other tech companies here.