Anthony Tan was a student at Harvard Business School when a classmate pulled him aside to gripe about how hard it was to hail a cab in Malaysia.
“What’s wrong with your taxi system?” said Tan, recalling the complaint about his country three years ago. “Your great-grandfather was a taxi driver, your grandfather started the Japanese auto industry in Malaysia, so do something about it.”
Tan drew up a business plan for an Uber-like service that won backing from angel investors, leading the youngest of three brothers to quit the family business in 2012 to start GrabTaxi, a mobile application that assigns available cabs nearby to commuters using mapping and location-sharing technology.
The business has grown to become Southeast Asia’s largest taxi-booking mobile application, attracting Singapore’s $171 billion Temasek Holdings Pte among its investors. That wouldn’t have happened had he stayed on at his job as head of marketing at Kuala Lumpur-based Tan Chong Motor Holdings Bhd., Nissan Motor Co.’s sole distributor in Malaysia run by his father Tan Heng Chew.
“He didn’t disown me last time I checked,” Tan, 33, said of his father in an interview in Singapore in late May. “Building something from scratch from just a PowerPoint and seeing the lives we affect is a lot more rewarding.”
GrabTaxi is capitalizing on the popularity of ride-sharing services that are sprouting up worldwide to meet growing demand for better ways to catch a cab in major cities. They follow the success of San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc., which said last week it had raised $1.2 billion in new financing, giving it a valuation of about $17 billion. That compares with the $15 million GrabTaxi raised in a second round of financing.
Instead of flailing unsuccessfully during rush hour or in bad weather, commuters can use GrabTaxi to track the assigned taxi on the smartphone as it arrives by curbside. Cabbies gain by not leaving the next fare to chance.
“There’s a wealth of opportunities for new apps if the developers can find a way to stand out,” said Mark Tanner, Shanghai-based founder of China Skinny, a digital marketing research firm. “You’ve got some formidable competition from Uber, which has deep pockets.”