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How to Do Product Development in Southeast Asia Like a Pro: Lessons from Grab

Jerald Singh, head of product at Grab, talks about the importance of listening to your customers, being hyperlocal, testing, and ruthless prioritization

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BY Tanya Mariano - 24 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Ride-hailing app Grab is one of the more well-known start-up success stories in Southeast Asia. Founded in Malaysia in 2012, originally as MyTeksi, the company has remained innovative amidst tremendous growth.

Over the past few years, Grab has been rolling out new products and features—GrabPay, GrabChat, and the use of telematics, for instance—as it got to know its markets and customers better. But don't expect a one-size-fits-all solution: “[O]ne of the things that we say is that there’s not one Grab app but sixty-five different Grab apps, sixty-five being the number of cities that we operate in,” says Jerald Singh, the company's head of product.

This hyperlocal approach is one of the reasons Grab has been as successful as it is in this highly diverse and fragmented region.

Singh, who had been with Expedia and Mobiata before moving from Silicon Valley to Singapore to join Grab, talks to Inc. Southeast Asia about the principles that guide Grab’s product development and which have helped the company build a winning product in Southeast Asia.

1. Listen to your customers

“Anything you build, make sure that it’s solving a real problem. And the only way to understand that is to listen to your customers,” says Singh.

By spending time on the ground in Jakarta, for instance, the company recognized several pain points. One was that Grab bikers, clad in their official Green uniforms, tend to congregate in camps. This meant passengers had to go through a sizable assembly of GrabBikes, checking license plates and looking for the driver. The other pain point was that, when bikers get a job, they'd look at their phone, stash it in their pocket, then start driving to the pick-up point. With their phone out of reach, oftentimes, drivers find out too late that the passenger had cancelled the booking.

The solution? Digitized street-hailing through GrabNow, which is currently launching in Jakarta. This lets passengers walk up to any GrabBike driver to book a ride.

It's a win-win: for passengers, no more waiting time and struggling to look for their ride; for drivers, they’re guaranteed a job, they no longer have to drive to the passenger, and it removes the cancellation pain point.

This on-the-ground presence, too, is instrumental in Grab’s success. Singh believes the company’s country teams are vital. He says, “It’s a presence on the ground. It is because of this strong offline presence complementing the product and the technology that we build that’s really led us to see the successes that we’ve had.”

2. Be "unapologetically hyperlocal"

It’s been said again and again by the most successful companies: In Southeast Asia, hyperlocal is the way to go.

Across the region, there's great variation in social demographics, government regulation, smartphone penetration, traffic congestion, and infrastructure, says Singh.

He points out that Grab is hyperlocal not just in product philosophy but in terms of business model as well. “[W]e work closely with governments and other partners to make sure that we’re introducing effective ways of doing things in each market that we operate in,” he says.

In Singapore, for example, the company launched JustGrab. In other territories, users can choose to book a cab or a private car. Singh explains: “Over time, we realized that, as a customer, it doesn’t really matter to me whether I get a GrabCar or a GrabTaxi. What I really need to do is get to my destination in a timely, effective, and reasonably priced way... So we brought together our taxi fleet and made it fixed fare and combined it with our GrabCar fleet, which is our car-for-hire vehicle fleet, and that became JustGrab.”

3. Testing is key

Singh believes no start-up should neglect testing and gathering customer feedback.

At Grab, he says they make sure customers are engaged with the product in a meaningful way by doing testing before and after launch. “We do user testing and get qualitative feedback before we build it, and, once we roll it out, get quantitative data. We take that and we continue tweaking our products,” he says.

After the company came up with the initial concept for GrabNow, a prototype was built and given to drivers and passengers to use. They then collected data as part of user research and used insights from this to build out the product, which they then started testing in Jakarta as part of a beta program. Throughout the testing period, they gathered more data and made necessary tweaks.

Says Singh, “We’re always improving each one of the products that we’ve built. And we use data to make sure that, on the data science side, our algorithms are performing as effectively as we need it to, and that, on the user experience side, it’s a seamless, frictionless experience.”

Of course, this requires a mindset that's not averse to failing. He says, “One of the things that we really believe in is experimentation… Sometimes we fail, and we learn as much from our successes as from our failures.”

4. Ruthless prioritization

“We are very much a start-up,” says Singh. “And in the industry that we’re in, we need to be able to move quickly. As a result, our last principle is around ruthlessly prioritizing the work that we do. As decisions get made day-to-day, it means, if we need to change product course day-to-day, [we have to be] able to do so.”

This is something young start-ups should embrace, too, says Singh. And in order to make the most of limited resources, you need to “cut through the noise,” and focus on building the most critical products.