TitleFounder & CEO

To most aspiring business leaders, Anthony Tan had enviable career prospects. The scion of one of Malaysia’s wealthiest families, Tan is the son of the CEO of Tan Chong Motor Holdings Bhd, one of Malaysia’s biggest automobile distributors. As head of marketing for the company, Nissan’s sole distributor in Malaysia, Tan had a bright and well assured future.

But while earning his MBA at HBS in 2011, Tan was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and began to envision the rewards of starting an enterprise from scratch, especially one that could do social good while doing good business. His breakthrough idea came from an HBS classmate, an Indonesian friend who needled Tan about the dreadful state of the taxi business in Malaysia.

“He said: `Your great grandfather was a taxi driver, your grandfather started the Japanese automotive industry in Malaysia, but your female friends suffer a lot of safety issues when taking a taxi. Why don’t you do something about it?’” Tan said in a 2014 interview with the Financial Times.

The tease turned into a catalyst for Tan and another HBS classmate Tan Hooi Ling, and GrabTaxi, Malaysia’s answer to Uber, was born. The pair wrote a business plan for a mobile app that connects taxi seekers directly with taxi drivers closest to their location in the chaotic Malaysian urban environment. The drivers would be supplied with smartphones so they could communicate directly with prospective customers, thus saving valuable time and money wasted in driving endlessly seeking fares. It was an Uber-like app aimed at benefitting beleaguered taxi drivers and making customers feel safer and better served. Unlike Uber, which has upset local taxi markets by launching a competitive force to cab drivers, GrabTaxi is working with taxi drivers to help them do better business.

Tan knew the benefit of first mover advantage in a market and he made that a part of the business plan, which was a runner-up in the HBS New Venture Competition in 2011. Using the $25,000 from the NVC and his own personal funds, Tan and his co-founder launched the mobile app, first called MyTeksi, in June, 2012. He managed to find early round financing from several investors in the U.S. and Asia and despite his family’s unhappiness with his decision to forego his role at Tan Chong Motor, Tan pressed ahead aggressively.

According to the FT article, Tan was heavily influenced by HBS “entrepreneurship classes and meetings with people such as Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube, and Eric Ries, the `lean startup’ guru, which opened his eyes to new opportunities, much to the displeasure of his family.”

“My family had a tough time understanding what I was trying to do and I don’t blame them,” Tan told the FT.

Unlike many startups, Grab Taxi faced a raft of local issues, both logistical and political, that made his effort even more difficult. Dealing with unions, government bureaucracies and even criminal attacks, Tan’s resolve has been tested. But he has persevered and by December, 2014 Grab Taxi had reached an impressive $340 million in funding. A whopping $250 million investment by Japanese telecom firm Softbank Corp. in December was a huge stamp of approval and made Softbank the top investor by far in Grab Taxi.

GrabTaxi has already been launched in 17 cities in five countries, including Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, and has been downloaded more than 3.3 million times. At least 650,000 people are using it to get taxis at least once a month which translates into six bookings per second. .

The task of invading a legacy marketplace with a technology-based product, especially in chaotic Asian markets, has taken a toll. A technology glitch last year left many of the 60,000 drivers in Grab Taxi’s network, angry and frustrated. Tan told the FT that the experience left him chastened but wiser. “What we’ve built sounds glamorous but if you really want to be hardcore and survive in this race, you need to be hyper paranoid and constantly thinking that the guy on your right is trying to murder you,” Tan said.

That guy on the right might be Uber, which is already operating in more than 40 countries and has its own sights on the Asian marketplace.

“We will do whatever it takes to ensure that we maintain our leadership in an ethical and moral way,” Tan said when the Softbank investment was announced. “It’s a fight for market share. We’re many times bigger than our closest competitors and we intend to grow that fast.”

For a man who says he knew he wanted to be a businessman as early as age six, Tan is unafraid of taking risks. He credits HBS as the place where his idea was born but it was being out in the streets in Kuala Lumpur, riding in taxis, talking to taxi drivers and being unafraid to introduce technology into a reluctant new environment that turned his concept into a real business.

Speaking to e27, a blog about Asian startups, Tan said he believes in the Japanese philosophy of “see yourself, do yourself, cure yourself.” “Every time we hire someone at GrabTaxi, we spend a lot of time talking about what our values are, about mutual trust, about reputation,” Tan said. “I tell employees `You must be a taxi driver for one day. You must talk to the driver, feel his pain. We all know how it is to be a passenger, but always look at the driver when you build a product. You must always build from their point of view.”

For Tan, the early success has made believers out of many early skeptics, including his father. “He didn’t disown me the last time I checked,” Tan said. “Building something from scratch from just a PowerPoint and seeing the lives we affect is a lot more rewarding.”