3 steps that helped a Harvard Business School start-up conquer Southeast Asia

A GrabCar driver uses the Grab app on a smartphone in Singapore, on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.
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Building a successful business is not easy. Building one that thrives across multiple geographical locations, languages and cultures is even harder.

Yet it's a feat that Southeast Asian ride-hailing platform Grab has achieved in spades. In the six years since its launch, the technology company has grown rapidly across the region, expanding to 235 cities and acquiring Uber's local business.

Not bad for a start-up born out of a competition at Harvard Business School.

So, what's the secret to succeeding in a region of 11 countries and more than 650 million people? According to the company's chief technology officer, Theo Vassilakis, it comes down to this: "Always think hyperlocal."

"Every country is different," he said, speaking in Singapore at FUTR — a retail, marketing and commerce summit. "But if you approach each market with that in mind, you can do much better."

For Grab, that meant breaking the process down into three steps, Vassilakis said.

1. Meet local requirements

It may sound obvious, but the first step to winning customers in new markets is to understand what they're looking for and respond to that, said Vassilakis.

Grab had already established its basic business model — ride-hailing — when it began to expand. But the company then set about tailoring that service to individual markets, he continued.

In Singapore, where Grab is headquartered, car taxis are the norm. However, in India, tuk-tuks are commonplace, while in Indonesia mopeds are standard fare.

As a result, Vassilakis said, Grab molded its service to the local markets and rolled out traditional transport services, rather than a single, universal model.

"Our president, Ming Maa, always says: 'If it's got wheels, I want it on the platform,'" said Vassilakis, referring to Grab's goals to continue expanding its transport fleet, which now includes coaches, bikes and shuttle buses.

2. Solve local problems

While adapting to local practices is important, it's vital to improve those practices in order to stand out from the competition, Vassilakis said.

For Grab, that involved creating new services such as GrabNow, which allows users to flag down rides in the street — a useful service for moped riders in Indonesia, for example, who may not get a chance to check their phone while on the go.

It also meant providing cash payment options for Southeast Asia's many customers who lack bank accounts and ensuring its app interface works for all users, regardless of the quality or condition of their smartphone, Vassilakis continued.

To manage that, he said, Grab built six research and development centers and has 2,000 engineers and developers across its different markets today.

3. Have a hyperlocal outreach

The final aspect to Grab's three-pronged "hyperlocal" approach, explained Vassilakis, is to make sure its team is continuously in touch with users to find ways to improve the product.

He noted that CEO Anthony Tan meets regularly with riders and personally makes food deliveries to get feedback on how the app functions on the ground.

"'Go to the ground' is our motto," said Vassilakis.

He added that the company now runs a series of classroom sessions in its various markets to help improve financial literacy and gain feedback from its network of riders and small business owners.

Inside Grab, Southeast Asia's massive tech company
Inside Grab, Southeast Asia's massive tech company