Singapore-headquartered ride-hailing and payments major Grab on Tuesday announced the launch of a new accelerator and investment unit.
Grab Ventures, as the new unit is called, will seek minority as well as controlling stakes in tech startups and will be funded entirely by Grab’s balance sheet.
CNBC correspondent Dan Murphy spoke exclusively to Grab co-founder and CEO Anthony Tan about Grab Ventures, anti-trust concerns following the Uber deal, and the impending expansion of archrival Go-Jek.
You’ve made a significant announcement today called Grab Ventures. Tell me what it’s all about.
Grab Ventures is our super innovation arm. It’s really about investing into the next generation of tech leaders. So one is – Why would they think about choosing us? A few reasons. One, we have over a hundred million installed base across Southeast Asia. We are in 217 cities in eight countries, tremendous reach that we can offer other startups. We have the largest land fleet, over three million drivers, close to three million agents on the ground. So just that kind of supply network that we can support startups that work with us.
Third, is we have payment licenses and the e-payments wallet in many countries across the region. Again working with us, you already have a mobile payments wallet platform that you can leverage upon. Now, we’ve been very blessed to have many startups approach us. So how are we going to choose which startup that we’re going to pick? We can only pick say eight to 10 over the next year.
A few key criteria – One, are they at a growth stage startup? Or are they too early or too late? We feel a startup that is, whether based in Singapore or Thailand or Indonesia or wherever it may be, but they want to go regional. That, we can add a lot of value.
That’s not necessarily a fund though, is it? So tell me how much money you want to deploy to Grab Ventures, how much is this going to cost?
Actually, our balance sheet is behind it. And as you know, we’ve been very blessed with a sizable balance sheet, so that balance sheet is behind our venture portfolio companies. Some could be wholly owned, some we take a minority position but we help them grow up to serve our customers. So our balance sheet is behind it.
It seems like at the moment Grab is trying to be all things to all people. Because on the one hand, you’ve just acquired Uber in Southeast Asia, you’re expanding into food, you’re expanding into payments and now this. So are you biting off more than you can chew? And is this taking your eyes off the prize at a time when competition is going to be increasing in this market and other markets you operate in?
We don’t focus ourselves on internally. We focus on what is right for the customer. And what is right for the customer is hey, think about your life – You need to go in the morning to work, we are there for you. At lunch, you don’t want to go through the traffic? Hey, I’m going to book my meal through GrabFood. In the evening, I’m in no rush to get back, I’m going to jump in GrabShuttle. During the day, you want to buy your coffee, you can use GrabPay.
So we want to be that everyday app that serves you. So in fact, we are very focused and that focus is on the customer and how do we serve that customer extremely well.
I want to ask about competition concerns as well because it does seem like since the Uber acquisition, things haven’t necessarily gone to plan as it relates to bringing that business on board. Grab is being probed by antitrust regulators on competition concerns not just in Singapore, but in other markets that you are in as well. Can you give me an update on how soon we expect those issues to be resolved and where are you at with that?
We work with every country’s governments, whether it is Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines. It’s about working hand in hand and how to solve – all they care about is a few things. One, do we share the same agenda? A lot of governments, what do they care about? They care about creating lots of jobs or lots of income opportunities. That’s something that Grab is very good at. Today, we’ve created over 6 million income opportunities. Now, we are going to grow from 6 million to 20 million, 20 million to 50 million.
Our goal with Grab Ventures portfolio companies is how do you together, as one ecosystem, reach a hundred million micro-entrepreneurs and enable them to bring them to a new economic reality. That’s what governments care about.
But when it comes to competition, are you confident that those issues can be resolved without penalty and without great expense to the business?
How I see it is, one, focus on the customer, work with the government. Two, on competition, I think today it is a very competitive environment. We see many competitors entering the markets or many say they will enter, many have entered and the competition will continue to intensify. So for us, we don’t focus on the competition, we focus on the customer.
Let’s talk about Go-Jek, which is also coming into the market, speaking of competition. In Uber in Southeast Asia, we had a foreign business that didn’t necessarily understand the market. In many ways, it was an easy target for you. But Go-Jek is going to be harder brick to crack, so to speak. They are a very innovative model, they’ve also run a successful business in Indonesia. So are you concerned about Go-Jek coming into the Singaporean market and what are you doing to prepare the business for that new competition?
Grab is very clear. We are battle tested. We have fought much bigger competitors versus Easy Taxi, Rocket Internet when they were bigger than us. We fought Uber, tooth and nail. They were much bigger and are still bigger than us globally. We have shown every time we can rise above the challenge. Now, we believe competition makes us stronger and a great verse that I’ve learned, iron sharpens iron, how do we get stronger? Number two is we think about, in Indonesia for example, yes, we came in later, we admit it. But even though we came in later, if you look at the data, when you look at the number of transactions, you look at revenue, you look at bookings, you look at drivers, we are the number one ride hailing company in Indonesia, even by coming in later.
Let’s talk about the wider region. Southeast Asia is tremendously complex. Operating one country is one thing. People can say they want to be regional, they want to go out. But you have to work with many governments, different ministries within each government, you have to work with multiple partners in each country, which are very different, different languages, different dialects. So the complexity goes exponential. We have proven that we can execute successfully in every one of these markets.
And Anthony just quickly, before we let you go, as I mentioned you are looking to solve multiple problems at the moment, what is the problem that Grab will be solving in five to ten years’ time? What does this business look like over a ten-year time frame?
Very simple. In ten years, five years, three years, hopefully even shorter, you would say Grab has enabled a hundred million micro-businesses across Southeast Asia. Grab, with its portfolio of companies and its ecosystem, has alleviated poverty, has brought a new economic reality to Southeast Asia.
Based in Singapore, Dan Murphy is a correspondent for CNBC International. This interview has been reproduced with CNBC’s permission.