Like many women in Kuala Lumpur, Melissa Ho used to avoid hailing taxis because of their woeful reputation for safety and reliability and the drivers' reluctance to use the meter. But now the corporate banker, who visits the Malaysian capital regularly, orders cars using GrabTaxi, known locally as MyTeksi. The mobile app checks drivers' backgrounds, estimates fares in advance and can even share details of the journey with friends or family.
"The only trusted taxi service [before] was via personal contacts [or] word of mouth," says the 37-year-old.
GrabTaxi, focused on southeast Asia, is part of a global wave of mobile apps, such as Uber, Lyft and Hailo, that are setting up alternatives to established – and usually well protected – taxi services.
It came into being by accident, says Anthony Tan, its Malaysian chief executive and co-founder, after an Indonesian friend on his Harvard MBA course needled him about taxis 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?"
Mr Tan and Tan Hooi Ling, a Malaysian classmate at Harvard and former McKinsey consultant, worked on a business plan for a mobile app that would connect customers directly to taxi drivers via a phone, saving time and money and, ultimately, encouraging better customer service.
They were runners-up in Harvard's 2011 competition for start-up business plans. With capital from the business school and Mr Tan's "whole bank account", they launched the MyTeksi app in Malaysia in June 2012. Since then, it has launched in five more countries and 14 more cities, the latest being Jakarta, Indonesia. It has been downloaded more than 1.2 million times, and 250,000-plus people use it at least once a month.
Although GrabTaxi charges a commission for every booking, drivers like it because they no longer have to drive aimlessly through the traffic-clogged streets that are common in southeast Asian cities or sit in a queue at an airport or shopping mall.
As a privileged third-generation scion of one of Malaysia's wealthiest families, the 32-year-old had gone to business school to sharpen his skills for a senior role in Tan Chong Motor, the family business, local Nissan manufacturer and one of Malaysia's biggest distributors. But entrepreneurship classes and meetings with people such as Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube, and Eric Ries, the "lean start-up" guru, 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," says Mr Tan, sipping lemon tea at a Jakarta hotel. "Many people didn't understand. They kept saying that the taxi drivers are too stupid, that you can never collect from them or that passengers will never use it."