The Unicorn, Grab, Running Head to Head With Uber. An Interview With Kell Jay Lim

Startup Grind Singapore recently spoke with one of the key people behind the success of ride-hailing app Grab, Kell Jay Lim. As the Country Head of Singapore for Grab, Lim took Grab from being unheard of a few years ago, to having more drivers on the platform than all of Singapore’s taxi companies combined.

Prior to Grab, Lim spent almost a decade in management consulting at Accenture, where he specialized in data analytics and worked for leading brands across Asia.

He shared his insights and experiences on growing a unicorn in Singapore to a crowd of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, government officials, and employees from big firms across finance and consulting.

"It was scrappy as hell. Like really really scrappy.”

Before it was a Singapore household name, #78 on Fortune’s 2016 Unicorn List was extremely “scrappy.” Sharing stories about things he and his team of 10 had to do that don’t scale, Lim talked about how they needed to figure out how to pitch to drivers who are out on the road all the time. They came up with the idea to head to the airport where taxis were queuing, and jump into the back of as many taxis as possible to pitch the app. They typically had 3-5 minutes to convince drivers before their turn came to pick up passengers.  

“It was pretty intense and quite dangerous as well because our guys were running around in the taxi queue,” he shared. And the way they’d convince drivers to give the app a try was to preload their account with $30, giving drivers an opportunity to earn more just by trying out the new platform at zero cost.

Another example of Grab’s early day scrappiness was when Lim emptied his own personal bank account to ensure drivers were paid on time.

“I remember there was a time we hadn’t received funds yet. Basically, we don't have funds to pay the drivers at that time. So I was in a dilemma. Do we delay the payments or do we just find other ways to pay the drivers? I also understood that it was so important for drivers to be paid on time. So what I did was I went to my bank account, withdrew whatever money I had (it was in the tens of thousands), and then I got a few of my teammates to manually put them in the ATM machines.”

40,000 drivers later, Lim has stopped jumping into the back of taxis or transferring personal funds to pay drivers, but he and his team continue their relentless focus on the driver experience.

“It was one of the worst times I can remember.”

Fast forward 1 ½ years later and Grab was serving at least a few hundred thousand people daily and with the increasing demand and higher usage rate, Grab’s server went down. Not only did it happen in Singapore but across all six countries where they operated. While engineers were trying to solve the problem, everyone from the operations team, including Lim, manually booked taxis for passengers.

“It was one of the worst times I can remember. We worked through the night. I could see where the passengers were making calls, and using GPS I would check which driver is nearby, I would call that driver and say ‘Hey, uncle, there’s a passenger here, can you come pick him up?’ It was painful."

The incident triggered the team to revamp their booking system which took a long time, but according to the country head, was all worth it since they’ve become more stable.

“Continuing what we are doing today is not going to help us scale.”

One thing Lim realizes is the need to constantly figure out new ways to grow. “The need to scale up is always there. Last year we grew 4 times, and this year we feel like we need to grow another 4 or more. What’s important is knowing that continuing what we are doing today is not going to help us scale,” he shared.

Aside from investing in automation, Grab has also hired rapidly and begun to outsource key areas like customer service.

“Because you can’t be running all these promos forever.”

Lim briefly addressed the elephant in the room - the heated battle they are waging with Uber, #1 on Fortune’s Unicorn List.

“The thing is, in an environment where we operate right now where there is another player who’s willing to spend as much if not more, we will need to respond. It’s not a first option for us but sometimes you got to do what you got to do. Having said that, there is a pattern to the chaos. Basically the line of thinking is you’ve gone out there and acquired all these users, how do you then keep them on your platform. Determine what to do that would differentiate yourself from the other guy. Because you can’t be running all these promos forever. That’s how we think about it.”

“They can also learn from us.”

With rapid growth has also come the need to bring on more and more senior business leadership.

Lim talked about the need for original team members to stay humble to ensure Grab’s success: “As pioneer members of a company, we have something to offer but we also need to acknowledge that we need to learn more. Similarly for the senior people from MNCs [multinational corporations], they have to understand that if they join us [startups], they can also learn from us.”

Catch the full interview with Kell Jay Lim from Grab here.